Friday, May 23, 2014

Sonny Lawson Park And Field

I was at The Denver Eye's facebook page this morning and saw this photo from the Digital Collection at the Denver Public Library:

Taken in 1911 it shows a baseball field at the corner of 23rd and Welton Street in Denver, which I remember as looking like this:

Jack Kerouac probably remembers it looking the same way, but without the sign saying Sonny Lawson Field. This is what he wrote about it in On The Road:

Down at 23rd and Welton a softball game was going on under floodlights which also illuminated the gas tank. 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. Just sandlot kids in uniform. Never in my life as an athlete had I ever permitted myself to perform like this in front of families and girl friends and kids of the neighborhood, at night, under lights; always it had been college, big-time, sober-faced; no boyish, human joy like this. Now it was too late. 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! The young pitcher looked just like Dean. A pretty blonde in the seats looked just like Marylou. It was the Denver Night; all I did was die.

Down in Denver, down in Denver

All I did was die

The field's name wasn't change to Sonny Lawson until 1972 and it was named after a prominent Five Points civic leader, Oglesvie L. "Sonny" Lawson.

Mr Lawson was born in Denver on September 12, 1893 and graduated from the old East High School. He went on to Northwestern University and attained a degree in pharmacy. After graduation he came home and worked for the Western Chemical Corporation and then as a clerk for the Denver County Assessor's Office before opening a Pharmacy at 2601 Welton Street with a man named Hulett A. Maxwell. That was in 1924. At first the business was called Maxwell and Lawson but in 1932 it was changed to Radio Pharmacy

In addition to running the Pharmacy, Mr. Lawson was an original member of the Denver Career Services Board, the first African-American to serve on Denver Public Library Commission, the district executive for the Democratic Party in east Denver,  and political mentor to many African-American politicians including Elvin Caldwell Sr. and former Lt. Governor George Brown. He was also a thirty-third degree Mason. Mr. Lawson died on July 17, 1969 and is buried at Riverside Cemetery.

Now the story of Sonny Lawson Field doesn't end with the renaming of the park. There is something else very special about the field.  The park had turned into a hangout for the homeless but one day around 2010 a man named Joe Carabello was stopped at the light at Park Ave. and Welton and spotted homeless people sitting against the fences surrounding the locked field and wondered why it wasn't being used. Then he thought, "What if we could open up the gates and give those people some exercise and recreation for a couple of hours a week?"

So he got a permit to use the field every Saturday morning that summer and got the word out to as many agencies and missions that worked with the homeless as he could. Eleven people showed up to play in the first game. The next game 15 players showed up and the numbers kept increasing as the summer progressed. The Homeless Diamond was a hit.

I'm sure Mr. Lawson and Jack Kerouac would love that.

(Westword article going into more detail about the Homeless Diamond and the almost derailed third season here.)

No comments: