Gentrification To Some, Economic Development To Others, But At What Cost? North Denver Symposium

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Article & Photos by Joe Contreras, Latin Life Denver Media

Denver neighborhoods are changing at mind boggling rate. Everyday older or smaller homes & buildings are being scraped making way for new construction. “Minimalistic” homes and new businesses are popping up everywhere.  Once traditional residential areas have become entertainment districts for the new and more affluent populations that are moving back into the core of the city and in areas anywhere near the Downtown Denver area. Besides the parking, traffic, density and home affordability issues this new influx is causing the larger concern is over the diversity and cultural make-up of once predominantly minority majority Denver neighborhoods.
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Recently dozens of Denver residents gathered at the Tap Burger Restaurant and Lounge, formerly Aztec Sol Mexican Restaurant, to talk about the issue of gentrification and the effect it is happening on the diversity and culture of Denver’s neighborhoods. The community symposium titled “Contemporary Manifest Destinies: Gentrification, Cultural Conflict and Negotiation in Denver’s Historically Chicana/o/Mexicana/o Communities” focused on the impact of gentrification and displacement. The panelists included Laura Gomez, UCLA Dean of the Division of Social Sciences, Jaume Guzam, Lisa Calderon, Aruturo Jiminez and Councilman Paul Lopez. The panelists and audience engaged in a lively discussion on a variety of topics on the history and future of Latinos in Denver offering a variety of perceptions, concerns and ideas. Following the symposium the audience stuck around forming many impromptu groups continuing the discussions brought up by the panelists .Gentrification symposium Oct. 11, 2016 (78)

In a 2014 article posted on DenverUrbanism.com gentrification was defined as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” The Whittier neighborhood, located north of 23rd Avenue and east of Downing (east of Five Points), has been closely associated with Denver’s black community since at least 1930. This was solidified by the 1950s as the so-called “color line” located near High Street in Whittier was broken as new housing opportunities were sought due to explosive growth in Denver’s black population following World War II. The white majorities along Race, Vine and Gaylord streets quickly vanished. A neighborhood that had once been nearly 100% white in 1890 had become 75% black by 1990. The process of this mid-century demographic shift has nearly been lost to history as the general perception has been that Five Points and Whittier have always been the heart of black culture in Denver. Whittier School did in fact become Denver’s first majority black school by the early 1930s as the population was increasingly segregated in this part of Denver especially following the Ku KIux Klan’s political grip on Denver and Colorado during the 1920s. But prior to this time, Denver’s black population was never large enough to dominate a majority of slots in any Denver school.

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The Civil Rights Movement and fair housing laws eventually created more opportunities for housing choice, especially after 1970, and evidence of this is very apparent in Whittier. Between 2000 and 2010, there was a 43% drop in the black population of Whittier and an 89% increase in the white population (Whittier is coterminous with census tract 23). The neighborhood’s demographic breakdown now consists of a 29% black/42% white percentage, also indicating that there is a sizable Hispanic population in the area that was not in place in 1990 or 2000. Meanwhile, the black population has spread out into other areas of east Denver and into Aurora, no longer being forced into a few census tracts.

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Whittier is not alone in this demographic shift that also coincides with a great influx of new residential construction (scrapes), home remodels and other major home improvements in most old Denver neighborhoods featuring historic homes with brick construction. We can quickly compare Whittier to Highland. I am referring only to the census tract located around 29th and Zuni, that includes “LoHi,” the area near Little Man Ice Cream. In 1990, this census tract (4.02) contained 5,986 people and was 65% Hispanic. Today (2010 census), the population stands at 5,314 people and is 35% Hispanic. Since 2000, the white population of the census tract has increased 32% and the Hispanic population has decreased 57%.

The booming Highlands neighborhood (west of Federal) is pricing out even more people in the real estate market who are now looking at places such as Edgewater and Wheat Ridge where one can buy the same housing types as found in the 32nd and Lowell or 44th and Tennyson area for $100,000+ cheaper. These areas are being “rediscovered” and, although they have been historically “white” in character, they are no less deserving of the new investment.

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In another article posted in WeAreNorthDenver.com the author stated, “It is very important for me to note that my focus on Chicano permanence does not negate the right for others to live among and share community with us. Cesar Chavez said it best, “preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect of other cultures.” It is irresponsible of us to not contextualize the entire history of the neighborhood when taking a strong stance against neighborhood change.
Before the neighborhood was gentrified, it was Chicano/Mexicano. Before it was Chicano/Mexicano, it was Italian. Before it was Italian, the Irish, German, Scottish, Polish, Welsh, Cornish, and Jewish were also here. Before any person of European decent stepped foot here, the Cheyenne and Arapahoe called parts of this land home. These cultural snapshots of the past have defined the neighborhood psychologically, culturally, architecturally, and geographically.

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It is also important to remember the role ethnic enclaves play in cultural preservation. Often, marginalized groups find it imperative to their survival to stick together. They create community by forming close-knit cultural networks to meet basic needs and promote positive self and collective identity. They rely on one another to exchange resources, information, and knowledge.

As time passes, the local economy grows and ripples outward until the enclave becomes a thriving, prosperous neighborhood. Then, after years of hard work and sacrifice, folks become more stable and slowly begin to move away. As they leave, they create vacancies for the next generation of folks trying to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” The aforementioned historical template of change in the Northside is not happening with the new demographic moving in.

More on this topic coming soon on LatinLifeDenver.com