Weblog of Leland Rucker
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Five Points: Sonny Lawson Park

Scoreboard at Sonny Lawson Park. The vacant lot across the street is scheduled to be turned into high-end condos.

The offices where I work are in Denver’s Five Points district. Free Speech TV, where I have been happily employed the last year, the jazz radio station KUVO and TV station KBDI are located at 2900 Welton Street, just two blocks north of the conjunction of Welton Street, 26th Avenue, 27th Street and Washington Street, the five-way intersection that gives the area its name.

Architecturally and politically, Five Points is an important part of the history of Denver, one of its oldest neighborhoods and now again, as it has many times in the past, is in transition. I have been walking the maze of streets that give this area its unique feel (more about the maze some other time), both the commercial area in and around the Five Points intersection and the adjacent residential neighborhoods. and I have become both curious about and fascinated with the area.

I take the D-train light rail from 18th and California to the 29th and Welton stop, the last before Welton Street and the light-rail end at 30th and Downing St. Along the way, the train passes Sonny Lawson Park, at the intersection of Welton Street and Park Avenue West. It includes a lighted baseball field, and though I have never seen athletic contests there, I understand that during the summer, it is used every evening for everything from city softball leagues to sloshball. There is a shaded, landscaped area to the east (beyond the left field fence) with a basketball court and children’s play equipment that has been integrated with the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library.

There is a certain serenity in its simplicity. No matter what time I pass, the park is always in use as a popular location for people to hang out and meet. Transients can be seen in the mornings spread out on cardboard and blankets along the outfield fence beneath the trees, but as the day goes on, families and kids move in and pickup games form on the basketball court. No matter the temperature, and it has been hot this summer in the late afternoons, it is always cooler beneath the trees.

I found that the park, named after Denver pharmacist and political activist Sonny Lawson, is a stop along the Beat Experience Tour, mostly because Jack Kerouac wrote about a night he spent at the park while exploring Neil Cassady’s childhood neighborhood.

The park is near downtown Denver at the western edge of the Park Hill residential district.

“Down at 23rd and Welton a softball game was going on under floodlights which also illuminated the gas tank,” Kerouac wrote. “A great eager crowd roared at every play. The strange young heroes of all kinds, white, colored, Mexican, pure Indian, were on the field, performing with heart-breaking seriousness …  Near me sat an old Negro who apparently watched the games every night. Next to him was an old white bum, then a Mexican family, then some girls, some boys — all humanity, the lot. Oh, the sadness of the lights that night!”

That was written almost a half century ago,  and although the gas tank is gone, it describes Sonny Lawson Park even today and opens up another piece of the history of this area. Neal Cassady, upon whom Kerouac based Dean Moriarity, the protagonist of On the Road, grew up in Curtis Park, attended school and church in the neighborhood and played baseball on this very field. White kids like Kerouac were drawn to the underground black jazz scene in the many clubs around Five Points, just a few blocks east of Sonny Lawson Park. More on that relationship as we find out more about this historic area.


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