Denver says Civic Center is “everybody’s park,” but aftermath of art fire raises old questions

Whoever did it was “a shallow-minded, delinquent son of a…”

"Tree of Transformation," the musical public artwork by Nick Geurts and Ryan Elmendorf, was vandalized with fire at Civic Center Park, July 25, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"Tree of Transformation," the musical public artwork by Nick Geurts and Ryan Elmendorf, was vandalized with fire at Civic Center Park, July 25, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

The day after a fire destroyed an interactive, musical art sculpture in Denver’s Civic Center, there was widespread agreement in the park: Somebody had really acted like a jerk.

“I loved the piano,” said Dean, a regular at the park who declined to give his last name. Whoever did it, he said, was “a shallow-minded, delinquent son of a bitch.”

The sculpture, called the Tree of Transformation, had stood in the center of the park for nearly six months. Visitors could press black and white keys to play sounds and lights from the otherworldly steel arms that stretch out of the piano.

For some, the possible arson was a worrying sign. “It bothers me. They have no sense of community,” said Paul, a 64-year-old who described himself as homeless.

Just as quickly, the blame game was afoot. Some of the regulars heard it was a woman with mental health issues. Others said it was college kids. Outside the park, some online commenters blamed the presence of dozens of people —  many homeless — who spend their days and nights in the iconic park, which is surrounded by Denver and Colorado’s government buildings.

And the incident already is impacting the city’s debates over poverty and public spaces, with one influential figure calling for a change to the way that charity services are provided in the central park.

Scott Robson, the executive director of the Civic Center Conservancy, said that the fire could be part of a rising trend of vandalism in the park.  The conservancy is the nonprofit group that raises money for events, planning and more for the park.

“There’s some elements and individuals in that public space that unfortunately are just causing some massive damage both day and night,” Robson said, emphasizing that he wasn’t referring to homelessness in general. “It’s definitely grown this summer.”

Now, Robson says, he wants to start a new conversation about how to manage people in the park.

“We also support the park being open to all. We don’t want to see this park being closed off to any demographic. That being said, clearly, camping in the park has taken its toll this summer,” he said.

Asked whether he wanted to see changes in the management of the park, he pointed to the groups that provide food, laundry services and other offerings at the park.

“Right now, we have people (providing food) in the park that are not necessarily using the cleanest methods, cleaning up after themselves,” he said. He suggested that some services should be provided inside of buildings instead of in the open.

“To do that in the heat and the cold, in the middle of a national historic landmark of a park, just has proven not to be the safest for those needing the services, nor those using the park in other ways. We can’t sit here today and say we have a solution to this, but we are looking to be a thought leader in the conversation about how we provide services in a different manner than what’s happening today in downtown Denver.”

Terese Howard, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness, offered a sharp counterpoint in a separate interview. She compared the idea of regulating food providers to the bans on food sharing that have appeared in cities across the United States over the years.

“Civic Center’s been a hub of existence for poor people and homeless folks as long as I’ve known, and much longer. There’s been a bunch of food providers and other types of providers for many years,” she said.

Paul, the long-time regular, said that he was concerned by changes in the population at the park. His friend, Jerry, said that many people were injecting heroin in plain sight.

“There’s a lot of people out here with mental health issues that aren’t being addressed,” Paul said. But charitable services have been available at Civic Center for so long that it would be harmful and confusing to significantly change them, he said.

So far, it doesn’t appear that the city of Denver has much appetite for new regulations relating to homelessness and services at the park.

“We want to be supportive of all the residents of the city,” said Scott Gilmore, deputy director of parks and recreation.

But he said that some well-meaning groups could stand to change their ways. Some leave boxes of food unsupervised, which can result in trash being strewn across the park.

And the city recently encouraged one group to stop distributing food in the central amphitheater area, instead moving to a less-crowded side of the park.

“We’re just trying to find a suitable location so they don’t impact the rest of the activities in the park,” Gilmore said. After the change, “people were feeling safer.”

The park on Wednesday afternoon seemed to have an informal division: A crowd of lunchtime diners crowded between food trucks on the central lawn, while groups of people  — some of whom said they were homeless — gathered in the shaded areas near Broadway.

“That park is everybody’s park,” Gilmore said.

He’s interested in creating a “good neighbor” program that encourages charities to voluntarily follow certain rules about where and how to operate. There would not be any punishments for violators.

And if the city does create more intense legal restrictions, it would be through a public process.

Howard, who works with Denver Homeless Out Loud, said that the entire basis of the conversation was wrongheaded. People’s tendency to blame “the homeless” as a group is part of a discriminatory pattern, she said.

Instead, she said, the city should improve the resources that it offers in public, including trash cans and bathrooms.

“More trash cans, more trash service, more Denver Day Works, paying more folks to clean, actual regular cleanings of the Port-a-Potties that are there,” she said.

“That means treating our public spaces with the sort of resources that we need to get by when we’re living in public spaces.”

The Denver Fire Department, meanwhile, still has not classified the fire as an arson or an accident. Robson believes it’s likely intentional, since several trash bins also were lit aflame last night, but the investigators are reserving judgment, according to Capt. Greg Pixley.

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Civic Center