By Ernest Gurulé
Like so many cities, Denver’s neighborhoods are layered with elements that combine the architecture of three different centuries.
The Highland neighborhood — or, to those who call it home, The Highlands — is one such neighborhood. Hilly streets once lined with tidy homes and businesses of brick and mortar now sit comfortably next to the 21st century chic, the glass and metal townhouses, apartments and restaurants sprouting up.
The best reference point for the community is the oversized Olinger funeral sign that has lit up the night in this North Denver location for generations. The funeral home closed its doors years ago but still is used for telling people where they are. It’s a lot easier than telling them, “Go to 3000 Tejon and you’ll be right there.”
But the one thing that ties the community, both old timers and newcomers, together in this eclectic neighborhood is the priceless view of the city’s skyline. At night, it’s like a peek through a kaleidoscope. The view is officially called a “view corridor” and, by city ordinance, must be maintained in perpetuity.
A handful of Denver neighborhoods carry the designation. But the view, however stunning, stands in contrast to the park that should complement the community but doesn’t. The park, Hirshorn Park, has seen better days and does not engender the same reverence.
Long ago, it was lush with a ballfield as a central feature, but the park today seems neglected. The grass is mostly patchy. The outfield, a pock-marked collection of ankle-breaking divots. In this shape, it’s gone to the dogs — literally. Aside from a basketball court and downsized kiddie playground, Hirshorn Park, for all practical purposes, is a dog park.
“Some object to the dogs,” said Mike Tavel, an architect, urban planner and an unofficial park historian. Tavel has watched the park age for the last 30 years. He’s got no objection to the park’s unofficial designation or use.
Still, he’s not pleased that so little is being done by some dog owners and the city to make the place more inviting. To do that, it would mean addressing another very visible issue. There’s a growing litter issue. It’s often left by unhoused people who sometimes sleep in the park.
The residue, discarded clothing, fast food wrappers and cups, and other things left by people is evident in a number of spots on the park’s perimeter. And that’s not all.
“There’s urine and excrement on the grass,” Tavel said, and that makes use of the park for community events problematic.
It also makes the park less than a pleasant experience for families who drop by after a visit to the Little Man Ice Cream shop across the street. The creamery is not just a weekend thing. Because of the walkability time of the day for the urban hiker crowd. Tavel said he would like to see the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation give a little more attention to the park. He’d like it spiffed up, making it more family friendly.
For one thing, he said, “there could be an expansion of play equipment for older children.” The playground is now mostly focused on toddlers.
Dog owner Justin Mangold said he’d like the city to get some equipment in to make the park’s former outfield safer for his dog. There are just too many ruts, he said.
“I’m worried he’ll step into one of the holes and reinjure his leg,” Mangold said of his golden mixed-breed dog, Cooper. For he and Cooper, who live a block away, the park is a godsend.
“We’ve heard from the community,” said AnaCláudia Magalhães, a senior Denver west district park planner, regarding some of the park’s issues. “This park has been on our capital improvement project list, but we cannot fund every project on that list.”
Magalhães also said the city is aware that the park “is being used as a dog park.” For now, the only city activity in the park seems to be animal control’s enforcement of leash laws. Because the density around the park is only intensifying — moving trucks are a regular part of the landscape — expanding the park is not an option. But the city does have plans, Tavel said. Conversations for a new dog park “in between Central Avenue and I-25, north of the 16th Street bridge” are underway.
“That may direct some of the dog activities to the new park,” Tavel said.
At-Large City Councilmember Debbie Ortega lives in the neighborhood and once kept an office there.
“Like any park, it requires ongoing upkeep and maintenance,” she said.
But, she added, Hirshorn hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as it should or needs. But there may be city funds to address some of the shortcomings of the park, said Ortega.
There’s a “dedicated fund for new park land,” and there’s the possibility of using money from “the funding we get from Winter Park or the general fund.”
There do seem to be solutions for solving the challenge of polishing up Hirshorn Park, a longtime gem of the community. But Ortega says there also needs to be resolve.