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Goodstein conjures the spirits of South Broadway

Phil Goodstein's Spirit of South BroadwayHaving just completed an exhaustive multi-volume history of Denver in its entirety, homegrown historian Phil Goodstein is at it again, setting up yet another historical Mt. Everest to climb, this one a projected three-volume opus eloquently titled “Phil Goodstein’s Haunted History of South Denver.”

Goodstein has tackled the south side of town before, in a comparatively slender volume plainly titled South Denver Saga, but even before its publication he knew how much material was still left, hence the current trilogy, of which this book, The Spirits of South Broadway, is the first volume.

As in his earlier works, Goodstein’s ghosts, spirits and assorted other apparitions are mostly metaphorical, although he does occasionally throw in a nice little neighborhood spook story here and there. The spirits of which he speaks are rather more like communal skeletons in the closet than real (or unreal) things that go bump in the night.

Goodstein is a determined hunter of such skeletons.

No historian more likes to find the hidden dust long ago swept beneath the city’s carpets than does Goodstein, and none have ever proven themselves his equal, at least as far as Denver is concerned.

In truth, however, he finds less dirt in this book than in earlier works focusing on Capitol Hill and Denver’s seamy sides. To a large degree, this examination of South Broadway is primarily a history of business, which makes sense since that particular thoroughfare has long been one of Denver’s primary avenues of commerce.

Goodstein tracks South Broadway’s early days as a rather bucolic and rural pike all the way through its ultimate boom years as “The Miracle Mile,” when investment poured into the retail businesses that began appearing along the street like mushrooms, many of them early automobile dealerships.

Interestingly, many of those investors and merchants were Jews, even though South Denver was never a primary neighborhood of choice for Denver’s Jewish residents. Those with any knowledge of the Denver Jewish community will find familiar names aplenty in the annals of South Broadway business — Valas, Shwayder, Shafner and Goldhammer, to name just a few.

Ironically, during the same era when Jews were busily setting up various South Broadway business, the street and its immediate neighbors was also the primary home base for Colorado’s once ultra-powerful Ku Klux Klan. To prove his point, Goodstein even provides the street addresses where many of the klansmen lived.

Other eras ensued — the heady days when South Broadway served as a thriving and useful main street for the large section of town south of the central business district; the long and painful decline of much of the street into the second hand stores, porn palaces and sleazy taverns of the 1970s and 80s; even the debacle of Allan Reiver during the end of the same period, complete with the demolition of the old Montgomery Ward building and the sputtering efforts to redevelop the area where the mammoth store and catalog business once stood.

Along the way, Goodstein fully exercises his skills as a raconteur, not only throwing in shivery little stories about ghosts, witches and ghastly murders, but real gems about such places as the old Merchant’s Park, once home to the Denver Bears and assorted other minor league clubs.

The ballfield’s lighting was so poor, Goodstein relates, that during night games outfielders routinely took spare balls out into the field with them, so that they could later falsely claim that they had caught balls which were actually home runs — nobody could see that far into the outfield to deny the claim.

The Spirits of South Broadway is full of such fascinating tales, which makes it worthwhile to wade through those sections where Goodstein sometimes gets a bit too generous with details — a vindication of the commentator who once quipped that Goodstein never met a detail he didn’t like.

What makes the book more than the sum of its parts, however, is the fact that Goodstein is steadily getting better at articulating what might be called urban evolution. Using Denver, or parts of Denver, as a microcosm, his work reveals a great deal about how American cities were founded, evolved, declined and often rose again in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

That says a great deal about the Americans of the past and their culture — and hence about us today — and is that not the highest calling to which a historian can aspire?

IJN Assistant Editor |

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