Denver native and journalist Julian Rubinstein’s high-profile book “The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood,” won the Colorado Book Award for General Nonfiction tonight at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in downtown Denver.
“The Holly” tells the sweeping and unsparing story of the former Holly Square shopping center as a hub of a small part of Northeast Park Hill spanning the eras of the Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter. It is, in its way, Denver’s very own version of “Bonfire of the Vanities,” combining elements of economic oppression and gentrification against institutional power, racism, police and government corruption, and a reformed anti-hero who is now running to be the next major of Denver.
That part of the story is the focus of a just-released companion documentary that centers on a former Bloods gang member named Terrance Roberts, who had opened a youth center atop the arsoned ruins of the Holly Square shopping center but, in 2013, just before he was to lead a peace rally to celebrate the upcoming opening of a new Boys and Girls Club at the site, he shot and paralyzed a gang member he had formerly mentored.
“It’s an honor to have the Colorado Book Awards recognize the important truths in this story,” Rubinstein told The Denver Gazette Saturday night.
“I wrote a book that shows the direct connection between gentrification and violence, the targeting of an activist by gang informants that was reported by the Denver media as another story entirely, and about the corruption of a federal anti-gang program. Perhaps now officials can be held accountable.And I hope the ocean of falsehoods about the book will be called into serious question.
“The battle for truth continues.”
Critical response to the book has been almost entirely positive. Booklist called it “a shattering piece of investigative journalism involving street gangs, race relations and law enforcement.” The book was an Editors’ Choice in the New York Times and made many 2021 top-10 lists.
“In ‘The Holly,’ Rubinstein reveals Denver to be a crucible of so much that’s wrong in America: the chasms of race and class that divide the nation; corrupt policing and systemic discrimination,” wrote Dale Maharidge, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “And Their Children After Them.”
The book has been criticized by some closely connected to the neighborhood who say it paints a Hollywoodized picture of the area as singularly defined by gang violence, and that it reinforces certain stereotypes about Black neighborhoods.
“I hope this award helps call into focus and question the ocean of false claims about the book, who is saying them and why,” Rubinstein said.
The Colorado Book Awards, presented by Colorado Humanities, celebrate Colorado’s best literature published in 2021 in 15 categories. Other winners include Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Philipps’ “Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy Seals,” an epic account of Alpha platoon, the startling accusations against their chief and the courtroom battle that exposed the dark underbelly of America’s special forces.
The winner in General Fiction was Jenny Shank’s “Mixed Company,” which reveals moments of grace and connection between Denver residents spanning the city’s oil-bust era through the gentrification of more recent years.
The next life for “The Holly” could well be as a dramatic film or cable miniseries. The Academy Award-winning team of Adam McKay and Denver’s David Sirota (“Don’t Look Up”) signed on as executive producers of the documentary film May, clearly seeing the potential for a long-form narrative version of the story to be told .
The film won the Audience Choice Award last month at Mountainfilm, a documentary film festival in Telluride. “I was completely blown away after seeing the rough cut of ‘The Holly,’” McKay said. “From income inequality, race, gun violence and corruption, this film is the macro of America in the micro.”
COLORADO BOOK AWARD WINNERS
“Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas.” Edited by Carina Bissett, Hillary Dodge and Joshua Viola. Illustrated by Aaron Lovett. (Hex Publishers)
“Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy Seals.” By David Phillips. (Penguin Random House)
“Read Island.” By Nicole Magistro. Illustrated by Alice Feagan. (Read Island LLC)
“Desert Chrome: Water, a Woman, and Wild Horses in the West.” By Kathryn Wilder. (Torrey House Press)
“Mixed Company.” By Jenny Shank. (Texas Review Press)
“The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood.” By Julian Rubinstein. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
“The Cape Doctor.” By EJ Levy. (Little, Brown and Company)
“Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.” By Adrian Miller. (The University of North Carolina Press)
“Alone.” By Megan E. Freeman. (Simon & Schuster)
“What If We Were Somewhere Else.” By Wendy J. Fox. (Santa Fe Writers Project)
“Red Rabbit on the Run.” By Jodi Bowersox. (JB Artistry)
“We the Jury.” By Wayne Miller. (Milkweed Editions)
“The Reincarnationist Papers.” By D. Eric Maikranz (Blackstone Publishing)
“The Dead Husband: A Novel.” By Carter Wilson (Sourcebooks)
Young Adult Literature
“Rise of the Red Hand.” By Olivia Chadha. (Erewhon Books)