Friends and advocates honor a senior pedestrian activist who got Denver moving on sidewalks

“She was unstoppable.” Phyllis Mack pushed for the transformational citywide overhaul of Denver’s sidewalks while becoming friends with other road safety advocates.
7 min. read
Jonathon Stalls pushes Phyllis Mack along West Alameda Avenue on Wednesday, March 9, 2022.
Nathaniel Minor/CPR News

Phyllis Mack’s friends memorialized her the best way they knew how. 

The group of about 10 walked and rolled from the public housing tower in Ruby Hill where Mack lived to a nearby park last week, bumping over narrow sidewalks and across a busy thoroughfare.

The destination was Huston Lake Park, a leafy spot where Mack, who was 76 and used a wheelchair, loved to bring other Walsh Manor residents for lunches and scavenger hunts via foot and wheel. Her friend Jonathan Stalls, a pedestrian advocate and author, said those afternoon trips motivated Mack to blossom into a street safety advocate late in her life.

“It turned on a lot of light bulbs for her,” Stalls said as the group reached the park. “Residents … were like, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever been to this park, and I’ve lived in that building for 15 years.’”

Mack wanted her friends at Walsh Manor, which is home to seniors and people with disabilities, to be able to move safely around their city. And she took that message to public officials, joining them on bone-chilling walks designed to viscerally show them how broken Denver’s transportation systems are for people who do not drive.

Phyllis Mack's friends walk to Huston Lake Park, in a memorial service for the mobility advocate. May 9, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Her most pressing concern was the sorry state of the sidewalks near Walsh Manor, which are so narrow Mack and other residents often have to use the street instead. But she never thought about leaving her neighborhood.

“Why should I have to move? They should fix the sidewalks,” she told CPR News in 2022. 

Mack polled other Walsh Manor residents and learned they too wanted sidewalk improvements near their home. So she nominated it for a city grant, and voters awarded the project $400,000 last year. 

But Mack will never use those sidewalks. She died last month, a loss mourned by fellow Walsh Manor residents, safe street advocates across the city, and public officials who came to pay respect and love at the memorial gathering.

“She really did set the course of my life,” said Kiki Turner, a Denver official who helped lead the city’s grant program. “She really inspired me to commit to community work and to try and do better for communities.”

Kathy Ewing rubs Kiki Turner's back as she shares stories about Phyllis Mack, during a memorial service for the mobility advocate in the Walsh Manor apartment building where she lived. May 9, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Mack’s side of Denver has always had tiny sidewalks. 

Denver’s oldest, most central neighborhoods typically have detached sidewalks at least five feet wide. But in 1939, the city announced a “modernistic, streamlined street curbing” design that did away with those in favor of low-sloping curbs better for vehicles entering driveways. 

The new curbs were first used in Denver’s east-side Hilltop and Hale neighborhoods. All that was left for pedestrians was a concrete strip less than three feet wide.

Justin Bai holds a photo of Phyllis Mack, during a memorial service for the mobility advocate at Huston Lake Park. May 9, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

“All the residents in this district have automobiles,” city engineer A.K. Vickery told the Denver Post that year. “And there is no longer any necessity for elaborate walks. People just don’t use them. They drive up to their homes and then they drive away.”

Vickery said the design would allow for bigger lawns and predicted they’d become “extremely popular” in other growing neighborhoods. Those “Hollywood sidewalks” did indeed become the city’s standard in the post-war neighborhoods including Ruby Hill, and some new streets had no sidewalks at all. 

The shift, however, was not universally popular.

“Even in this automotive age, some people do a lot of getting around on foot,” The Denver Post editorialized in 1951, urging city leaders to change its policies and add sidewalks to its new neighborhoods.

Phyllis Mack's friends walk to Huston Lake Park during a memorial service for the mobility advocate. May 9, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

But the city didn’t do that, even as the Denver Housing Authority was building and acquiring housing for people less likely to drive: seniors.

When it opened in 1965, Walsh Manor in Ruby Hill was the city’s first high-rise affordable housing project for the elderly — a “dire need” at the time. A second tower was built in 1971. 

Residents were thrilled with the new complex.

“I must admit I am enjoying a bit of heaven,” one new tenant wrote then-Mayor William McNichols, Jr. in 1971.

Denver Mayor Tom Currigan opens the new Walsh Manor apartments in Ruby Hill. Nov. 14, 1966.
Howard Brock/Rocky Mountain News/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection

Archives show officials touting Walsh Manor’s proximity to shops, a grocery store, a bowling alley, and other destinations at the Athmar Shopping Center just a few blocks away.

About 40 years later, Phyllis Mack moved into Walsh Manor. But the sidewalks to those shops were still narrow. 

Mack noticed other problems, too. Traffic flew down nearby Mississippi Avenue, making it difficult and dangerous for seniors to reach some of those nearby businesses. Bus stops weren’t cleared after the snow. 

Then, one day about a decade ago, Stalls, the pedestrian advocate, spoke to Denver Housing Authority residents about his work — and how they could get involved. 

“At first I wasn't going to go to his training class, but I'm glad I did,” she told CPR News in 2022. “I met the most amazing person and he showed me so much. He showed me how to start walks and how to make everything happen.”

Walsh Manor, the Ruby Hill apartment building where Phyllis Mack once lived. May 15, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Mack got involved with bigger transportation advocacy issues, including pushing for the transformational citywide overhaul of Denver’s sidewalks passed by voters in 2022. She became friends with other road safety advocates, most of whom were decades younger.

“She was unstoppable,” said James Warren, 30, a Denver resident who hand-makes benches from scrap wood and places them at bus stops around the city. 

Mack would hold public officials accountable with a tenacious flair, Warren said. But she also had an “endless amount of joy,” he added. 

“That is so special, so special to have somebody who cares so deeply about people and is also a mover and a shaker, somebody who can change systems,” Warren said. “That's who she was.”

Mack also kept her focus on her immediate community, leading weekly hour-long walks around the neighborhood. Her fervor for road safety turned her into a “totally different Phyllis,” said her ex-husband Bill Mack, who also lives in Walsh Manor. 

“She kind of opened up,” he said. “Like, ‘There’s other things I can think about, other things I can do.’” 

After Mack won the big city grant and made local TV news, she worried that people in the building were jealous. 

“And I told her, ‘No, Phyllis,’ “ said Mack’s friend and next-door neighbor Annette Martinez. “You did something good for everybody. You didn't do it for yourself. You did it for everybody.”

Annette Martinez was Phyllis Mack's neighbor in Ruby Hill's Walsh Manor apartments. May 9, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

A spokesperson for the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure said the section of sidewalk between the towers and Mississippi Avenue will be designed this year and will be constructed next year if all goes well. It’s also looking at expanding another section of sidewalk nearby. 

The city is also planning to narrow Mississippi and make other safety-focused changes in coming years.

But Martinez said even though Mack won’t ever use that sidewalk, she believes she’s still watching from somewhere — and will know when her friends can finally walk and roll safely.

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