White privilege and gentrification in Denver, 'America’s favourite city'
Long-term residents of Denver attempt to fight gentrification. Photograph: Will Tracey
Immediately after I parked my car in the Swansea neighbourhood of Denver, Colorado this June, a woman in a white SUV drove by, rolled down her window and yelled: “Not for sale!”
Residents of Swansea, Elyria, and Globeville, the neighbourhoods that make up north-east Denver, are receiving stacks of postcards on their porches with offers to buy their homes. Globeville saw an increase of 67% in median home values in the last year. All three neighbourhoods are dotted with yard signs that read “My community is not for sale / Mi comunidad no está en venta.” What else would a white woman carrying a notebook be doing in the neighbourhood, but speculating?
In her novel Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver describes Denver as having “endless neighbourhoods of sweet old brick houses with peaked roofs and lawns shaded by huge maples.” The Denver of my childhood also had wide boulevards lined with 50s-era filling stations, 60s strip malls, 70s dentists’ offices. Downtown, which had some beautiful, historic stone buildings, also had plentiful surface parking – a sign that the city’s economy had not caught up with the space afforded it. The city was calm; there was a sense of community.
That Denver has now gone. Partially thanks to the work of the Colorado Tourism Board, people from all over are flocking here, and jobs are following. This year, US News and World Report voted Denver the best place to live in America. Half of the cars have out-of-state plates, and the rest have bumper stickers that read “Native-ish”.
Downtown Denver has always been expensive, but now the north-eastern parts of the city are being gentrified. Photograph: Alamy
The city is erasing and rebuilding a shinier, clogged version of itself. My 84-year-old grandmother got “terribly lost” coming back from visiting a friend at the University of Colorado hospital. The highways are all new and the familiar older buildings – touchstones for finding one’s way around the city and remembering one’s past in it – have been torn down. There’s a new sense of self-awareness to the city – even my family now talks about Denver as though they are consuming it, not just living in it.
For the first time in its history, Denver is so crowded, so desirable, that the “endless” neighbourhoods of bungalows are proving finite. There’s not enough space for everyone who wants a front porch and backyard a stone’s throw from downtown, in a historic neighbourhood with a high “walk score” (the area’s walkability). The cost of this growth is the displacement of the city’s remaining working class, and the city government, cashing in on the boom, is leading the process.
While the neighbourhoods south and east of downtown have always been expensive and predominately white, until recently those north of downtown remained lower-income and mainly Latino, alongside descendants of other immigrant communities – Italian, Irish, and Eastern European. North-west Denver, or Northside (which includes the neighbourhoods Highland, Sunnyside, and Berkeley), has the iconic grid: brick houses and century-old shade trees, interspersed with former “streetcar downtowns”. It didn’t take much time after being discovered for the neighbourhoods to gentrify.
Denver is the best place to live in the US, according to a 2016 survey. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
“The neighbourhood has a historic feeling – the sense that there are multiple histories that all contributed to the neighbourhood fabric – and that feeling is going away,” says Bobby LeFebre, creator of the website We Are North Denver, a platform for creative responses to gentrification. Since LeFebre graduated from high school in 2000, Northside’s Latino population has declined by half, from 70% to 35%, and house values have risen from an average of $100,000 to $450,000. While LeFebre owns a home in the neighbourhood, he says that many of his classmates from high school can no longer afford to live there. “It’s basically forgone at this point, and all you can do is lament,” he says.
Individuals are one gentrifying force. “There’s white privilege and economic privilege, and a lack of context about the neighbourhood they’re coming into,” says LeFebre. Newcomers hear that north-west Denver is the hip place to live, but they aren’t making an effort to be sensitive to where they’re moving: they consider themselves entitled to be there.
This is true across the country. On one hand, it’s easy to feel like a pawn: it’s difficult to both find affordable housing and “stay in your lane”, even with the knowledge that white renters are often used as tools for landlords to gentrify neighbourhoods.
But despite ample talk about how not to be a gentrifier, people also want to live in a “cool” neighbourhood. Even those drawn to neighbourhoods for an imagined authenticity, and those who profess to love the community for what it is, are a part of the problem, because race and identity politics are so entangled with gentrification. “Five becomes 10, becomes 20,” says LeFebre, describing the snowballing of market forces that took place in the Northside. White renters become homeowners, they renovate, attract opportunistic developers, and the projects get bigger and bigger.
Denver’s success has brought with it a high demand for new housing and office space. Photograph: Brennan Linsley/AP
Long-time residents of Sunnyside say, overwhelmingly, that they love the area – even some of the changes. “I used to tell my grandchildren, watch out for the needles,” resident Michael Muñoz says. “Now I tell them: ‘Don’t step in the dog poop.’” But they share one hangup: “I don’t like the condos. They squish them between the houses, and who can afford them anyway?” says a woman named Dolores. Muñoz concedes: “I’ll probably move, once they offer me enough money,” pointing to the three-storey duplex under construction next to his one-storey house.
Where the gentrification of north-west Denver shows that the decisions of individuals can snowball into mass displacement and community upheaval, north-east Denver is poised to demonstrate the opposite: isolated actions pale in comparison to the power wielded by bigger forces.
Globeville and Elyria-Swansea were built in the late 1800s as company towns for smelters. The neighbourhoods have more industrial activity than any other area of Denver, including active slaughterhouses and a Purina pet-food factory. For some residents, their soil is so contaminated that they will forever remain in an industrial zone. The asthma rate in Elyria-Swansea is 1.4 times that in the rest of Denver, and heart disease and cancer rates tell similar stories.
In the mid-20th century, both Interstate 70, which runs east to west across Colorado, and Interstate 25, which runs north to south, were built through north-east Denver. The highways left north-east Denver in barely connected pieces, almost entirely cut off from the rest of the city. Though Globeville is just three miles from downtown, only two through streets, Lincoln and Washington, lead there. Children in the neighbourhood cross active train tracks to get to and from school.
Gentrification is forcing long-term residents out of north-eastern neighbourhoods. Photograph: Will Tracey
For years, the city neglected its north-eastern neighbourhoods. Now mayor Michael Hancock is focusing a string of urban renewal projects there, grouped together under the moniker North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative (NDCC). It is officially composed of six plans: new neighbourhood plans for Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, the redevelopment of Brighton Boulevard, the River North (RiNo) district, and the National Western Stock Show, development of transit, and the I-70 Project: sinking and widening a section of the highway, and building a park on top of it.
Partially thanks to investment from the city, Brighton Boulevard (which was largely industrial through the time I was in college), is already populated by boutique restaurants and open plan tech workspaces. RiNo is Denver’s new art district.
The mayor is seeing dollar signs, provided development continues creeping northward. But he’s being cunning about it; six major plans in one area, at one time, make it difficult to understand the extent of what is going on, and nearly impossible for residents to have their voices heard.
“We’re just waiting for them to pay us,” says Antonio Ramirez, a ninth-grader who learned about the I-70 project at school, and whose family’s home is slated to be demolished by the Colorado Department of Transportation. (The initial construction of I-70 resulted in the loss of 30 homes; the “ditch project” will condemn 56, along with 18 businesses) A neighbour of Ramirez, Maria Flores, had never even heard of the project.
A new condo building in Denver. Photograph: Caroline Tracey
“Eighty percent of the activists are working on I-70,” says Jordan Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver whose Critical Public Humanities course created the website North/East Denver Change, a non-partisan informational resource. But I-70 is only one of the components of the city’s vision: not only does the NDCC website list six plans for north-east Denver, Hill’s website shows that many more plans feed into those six. Tens of thousands of pages of bureaucratic language have been bundled and re-bundled. The multitude of simultaneous plans, and the involvement of the private sector through public/private partnerships, obscures channels of effective appeal: the NDCC is a political Hydra that forestalls activism.
David Barber, who has lived in Elyria-Swansea his whole life and has “seen chunks fall off that viaduct”, says his biggest concern is the drainage. He points out a nearby underpass that floods with every big rainstorm. The city does have a drainage plan for north-east Denver, the $173m Two Basin Drainage Project, but at public meetings this year city officials upheld that there was no connection between the drainage and I-70 plans – despite the projects’ necessity to one another, the fact that CDOT is helping pay the bill, and the concurrent timing.
The neighbourhood understands that the multi-billion dollar infrastructure improvements create favourable conditions for more development, and that they – the current residents – are neither part of the city’s nor the developers’ visions. Hence the anti-speculator catcall yelled at me; hence the “not for sale” signs. People are already leaving. Swansea Elementary School (whose field and outdoor space will also be condemned by the I-70 project) has lost 100 students in the last two years, and staff face layoffs.
Moving to a city where school quality, public health, and citizen enfranchisement are not segregated by race and wealth requires a reorientation of the way that capital and political power are allocated. It also means living in a manner in which community matters.
A few years ago, the city ran a beautification project in north-east Denver. “They took out the dumpsters and we got these cutesy trash bins like they have everywhere else,” Barber says. “For a little while, it felt like we really belonged in the city.” He points to the viaduct, less than a block from his house, and shakes his head. “Now they come back with this!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caroline Tracey grew up in Denver, Colorado and since graduating from Yale University with a degree in Russian Literature has lived in California and Kyrgyzstan, where she is a Fulbright grantee researching landscape and the environment in Kyrgyz literature and culture. Her writing has won the Willets Prize and appeared in [PANK], The High Country News, and Trop Mag. She occupies herself thinking about aridity, the economy, and womanhood.
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