Behind 'The Holly': How violence and corruption changed a neighborhood


DENVER In September of 2013, a peace rally hosted by reformed gang member Terrance Roberts broke into chaos when he opened fire, shooting and paralyzing one of his former mentees, 22-year-old Hasan Jones.

Journalist Julian Rubinstein investigated Roberts’ claims that the shots were fired in self-defense and uncovered the story of The Holly, a Denver neighborhood impacted by gang violence, gentrification and alleged political corruption. 

Rubinstein documented his findings in the book “The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood,” and his recent documentary, “The Holly.”  

Rubinstein and Roberts, who was later acquitted of charges, sat down with Rocky Mountain PBS to discuss the documentary, and the civic issues that it uncovered.

The Holly premieres February 15th at 8p.m. on RMPBS. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rocky Mountain PBS: Can you tell me a bit about how you two met, and how “The Holly” turned from a book into a documentary?

Julian Rubinstein: I grew up in Denver. I was living in New York City at the time, and I was always wanting to do a story in the town I grew up in but hadn't found one. 

One day I read this story that was very intriguing to me, and it was about a shooting involving Terrance that took place in the Holly.  I decided to fly home and start looking into it, and the first thing I did was get a contract for the book.

I knew it going to be a lot of work. I moved home to do it. 

It was not long after that I started to realize that the story was very much alive, and was very much right in front of me. I decided then that I wanted to start filming.

RMPBS: How did the two of you build trust throughout this process?

Terrance Roberts:  I feel like I had nothing to lose. I knew I was attacked. I knew I was doing the work that I told the community I was going to do. 

It wasn't hard for me to trust Julian because I didn't see him working for local outlets that maybe had a tie into local politics.

JR: One of the things that I struggled with and discussed and thought about with some of my team was whether or not Terrence would be like actually part of the producing team. I really felt it was important for the story to be impartial. 

I did end up investigating, not only everyone, but Terrance more than anyone. 

RMPBS: What message did you hope that people received hearing this story?

TR: The message I eventually wanted to get out was, for one, that I was innocent. I really defended myself, and I didn't even want the worst for that young man. 

And also, look at what happens in communities like Denver in Five Points. Denver is the second most gentrified city in the United States, behind San Francisco. 

Who’s gentrified? African-Americans. You don’t see black people in Denver anywhere anymore, [even though] we have some of the most historically African-American communities in all of the nation. 

I don't want to harp on gang violence and negativity, but kids get killed in Denver, just like in L.A. It hurts our families.

This is not just the ski capital of the United States. This is a real city with real poverty. 

JR: I approached it just trying to get to the truth.I knew the story contained so many issues and I wanted to illuminate what I could. 

By the end of it, there were some pretty revealing things.  

It's a story that shows how problematic structural racism is - how you can have a network of powerful interests and forces in a city, not just federally. Here, in a city like this, you have networked forces of  people and entities that can control what's happening including money, development, and law enforcement efforts.

There’s also, of course, some of that echo chamber effect and even entities like, for example, nonprofits or foundations that, of course, want to do good work, want to be maybe supporting some of the issues Terrance is talking about ultimately maybe fall short because they're in line and in groups of people that are not seeing, purposefully or not, what they could or should see.

Something else that was very hard for me to accept, was some real failures in journalism in terms of the coverage both [coverage] of the case, and of the community.

RMPBS: Terrance, can  you explain the ties from gentrification to gang violence?

TR: When you get neighborhoods like the Five Points that really weren't getting some of the the small business loans, grants, that were dealing with redlining… or Northeast Park Hill [where] people grew up in poverty. There's anger. 

Same thing happened in South Central L.A. same thing happened in Chicago. Someone gets killed, there's a retaliatory shooting.

It start with the violence, because poverty breeds violence. 

So people are afraid. People are depressed. 

Now, other people move in.

We have, [for example], a young white couple who comes from generational wealth, who has a college degree, who is mentally stable because they haven’t dealt with homicides, food stamps, and freezing. 

So while other families can move into Five Points or Northeast Park Hill, renovate their homes, open businesses, live safely, there are families who've been here forever who are still poor. And their kids are joining negative peer groups because they have to feel safe.

It starts with redlining. It starts with real estate. That's power.

RMPBS: Julian, what made you continue to pursue this project when your safety was at risk?

JR: Well, at first it was something that was not easy to deal with. I was sort of in a mini crisis. 

But as I had a chance to really think about it, it made me only more determined to continue, because the fact that this was the case suggested to me that, A. I'm on to something important and B. it needs to be public. 

It's stuff that's been swept under the rug, even misreported at times. 

It was time for that to be over. I wasn't going to stop because of intimidation.

RMPBS: Terrance, it seems like the city that you love betrayed you. What makes you still fight for Denver?

TR: I love Denver still, but I'm getting literal messages almost daily - people from all over the world saying, “Yo, I seen the Holly. You're an inspiration.” 

It’s great that it's reaching that far. It gives me a bigger purview over really what's more important.

I'm fighting for all communities, but I'm from Park Hill and I'll never forget my community.

RMPBS: What do you want people to know about Park Hill beyond the violence?  

TR: Park Hill was literally like a block party every day, because we knew each other. 

We’re  people of color. We do barbecues, we have loud music. People dance in the street. 

It's a tribal thing. We use the word ‘community,’ but it's a culture. 

JR: I just want to add that this is a community in which there were tons of activists. Arguably, the center of Denver's civil rights movement was right there in Holly Square.

Why did that place turn into a place that was overpoliced? Let's think about what that that cycle is, and why it continues to happen.

RMPBS: Terrance, what's your greatest hope for the Holly?

TR: I hope whatever happens in the space helps the youth, the women, the community. 

I hope that the Holly becomes a block party again. That it is safe, and everyone's welcome. 

It’s possible. I believe it's going to happen.

The Holly airs on Rocky Mountain PBS and February 15th at 8p.m.

Elle Naef is the multimedia producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at