The parable of gentrification

Marta Gonzales sits in what was the dining room of her former house at 1020 9th Street, Denver. She remembers what life was like when her home, also known as Casa Mayan, a popular Mexican restaurant for more than 30 years, was the cultural heart of the Auraria neighborhood.

The house, the oldest clapboard-frame structure in Denver, is now part of a historic park on the Auraria Higher Education Center campus, although the 13 homes in the park have all been converted to faculty and administrative office space.

Gonzales and other “displaced Aurarians,” as they call themselves, watch with concern at what will happen to the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods as voters approved a request Tuesday from the city of Denver to take on $778 million in debt, to be repaid through extending existing hotel and auto-rental taxes, to revitalize the National Western Stock Show complex, which borders the three neighborhoods.

The displaced Aurarians’ concern is borne out of what happened to them more than 40 years ago.

The town of Auraria, which was founded in 1850, even before Denver, was scattered to the winds when the city of Denver and the Denver Urban Renewal Authority declared the area blighted and wiped out hundreds of homes, displacing generations of people who formed the tight-knit community. Many were relocated to the La Alma-Lincoln Park neighborhood south of Colfax, at a time when that neighborhood also had North Lincoln, one of the city’s largest public housing projects.

Gonzales told The Colorado Independent that homeowners forced out of Auraria received only a fraction of what their homes were worth, since property values plummeted when the Denver Urban Renewal Authority told residents they would take the homes through eminent domain. That meant the homes the displaced Aurarians bought in their new neighborhood, assuming they could afford homes, were substantially more expensive than the ones they lost.

The community rallied and sued to save their homes, in a case that went all the way to the state Supreme Court. But the court ruled in favor of the urban renewal authority in 1974, and the wrecking balls came in, save for those on 9th Street.

Gonzales and her son, Grigorio Alcaro, both shake their heads at the promises of prosperity the city is making to the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea residents. Gonzales and Alcaro are still waiting, after 40 years, for some of the commitments made to them when the Auraria community was gutted.

One broken promise they cited is that the Auraria Higher Education Center, home to Metropolitan State University of Denver, the University of Colorado-Denver and the Community College of Denver, would not cross Colfax south into La Alma-Lincoln Park.

That’s been tried at least three times in the past decade. CU-Denver attempted to build student housing at RTD’s 10th & Osage Street station, a plan that drew heated protests from the La Alma-Lincoln Park residents. CU-Denver eventually gave up and built housing on the campus’s west side. Residents also strongly opposed a more recent effort by CCD to construct an academic building at 12th and Osage. Instead, the Emily Griffith Opportunity School built a new technical education center that has resident support.

There has been one crossing: Metro State built athletic fields on an old industrial site south of Colfax.

But it’s the lack of respect that the city and the Auraria campus has had for the displaced Aurarians that hurts Gonzales and her extended family.

Alcaro said the story of Auraria was a story of urban Mexicans, not agricultural Mexicans. The story also is about the generosity of the Mexicans who lived in Auraria, he added. The Gonzales family and others in Auraria made sure no one ever went without a meal, clothing or even a roof over their heads.

The community was not only a cultural center for Mexicans at a time when the Ku Klux Klan ran Denver but for other ethnic residents of Auraria who faced discrimination: Irish, Germans and Jews.

The 9th Street homes were all constructed between 1872 and 1906, and are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But for Gonzales and Alcaro, their home, and those who lived in it, have never been respected or honored by the city.

Recognition from the Auraria institutions has been minimal: a scholarship for the displaced and their children has allowed some to go to college, but is barely publicized. A boulder intended to commemorate the community, placed at the north end of 9th Street, is made out of plastic, which Gonzales and Alcaro called “a slap in the face.”

Could what happened to Auraria happen again with Globeville and Elyria-Swansea?

Gonzales friend Karen Kalavity, who now lives in Westminster, worries that residents will be gentrified out of the neighborhood and homes will be torn down to make way for some of the projects planned for the area.

Globeville and Elyria-Swansea are almost as old as Auraria. Once three separate, incorporated towns, they were all founded in the 1870s. All three towns were annexed into Denver in the late 1800s and early 1900s. About 10,000 people live in the two neighborhoods today. And as was true with Auraria before its destruction, most are Hispanic, about 83 percent.

Denver 2C is part of the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, a package of six major redevelopment and infrastructure projects. The city’s website includes a statement from Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who said the city is taking “bold steps to re-create a connected and sustainable community that will drive job creation and growth on a globally competitive scale.”

The ballot measure, which passed by a wide margin Tuesday, extends indefinitely the current 1.75 percent sales tax on hotel and car rentals that was due to expire in 2023. The money, about $778 million, would be used to revitalize the National Western Stock Show complex, making it a year-round entertainment center. Funds also would go to modernize the Colorado Convention Center, and construct a new building for Colorado State University, to be focused on agriculture and veterinary science and research.

The plans published by the city state there will be “‘opportunistic’ land purchases and business relocations” to make 2C happen.  That will includes some rezoning and the purchase of vacant land along the South Platte River.

Proponents promise it will be a boon to the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods, with new bridges and roads that will connect the neighborhoods to the National Western complex and to four new light rail stations.

Among the other projects in the Collaborative is reconstruction of I-70. The project would lower part of the elevated interstate into the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood and expand the highway to 10 lanes. The city claims that doing so will reconnect Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, neighborhoods currently divided by I-70. The city also says all the projects have broad community support.

That’s not quite the case, according to comments made in several public meetings in 2013 and 2014.

In a 2014 report from Colorado Public Radio, most of the neighborhood residents who attended public hearings opposed the I-70 plan, due to a rise in traffic and pollution that has already caused health issues in the area.

One Elyria-Swansea neighborhood volunteer who commented at a Sept. 23, 2014 hearing, predicted the project will have “devastating impacts to the community,” and that there is a “disconnect between what people who are doing door-to-door outreach are saying [versus] what CDOT people are saying.”

The Colorado Department of Transportation is in the process of buying at least 60 homes and businesses in Elyria-Swansea to make way for the reconstruction.

But with the widening, and the entire Collaborative, comes promises of jobs and other economic opportunity and neighborhood plans that intend to reconnect and revitalize the area with parks, sidewalks, new housing, and better access to healthcare and to downtown Denver . The north side of Elyria-Swansea is already seeing some of that, with a row of new townhomes on 48th Avenue priced upwards of $500,000, according to the real estate website Zillow. Even apartments are getting pricey: many show rents closing in on $2,000 per month.

Most of the modest homes in the neighborhoods, built beginning in the late 1800s, fall into the $100,000 to $200,000 price range.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, a sponsor of the legislation that set up 2C, acknowledges that gentrification could be an issue in the future. Still, he believes the ballot measure will help an area that has been ignored for too long. “It’s a smart deal for Denver. It will make improvements and investments in a very neglected yet prominent part of town.”

“This is one of the most resilient neighborhoods in the city,” Steadman said. So much has been done to it over the years, he said, citing railroad tracks and highways that separate one neighborhood from the next. “2C will change that by opening [the neighborhoods] with connectivity to parks and transit stations and making those neighborhoods more connected to the rest of Denver,” he said.

Steadman also noted that while the homes are modest, more than 60 percent are owner-occupied. “There probably will be pressures” for gentrification, but those pressures will come slowly, since the Collaborative is a one-to-two decade project, he explained. But in the future, “we should look at property tax relief” for those homeowners who may face gentrification pressures, such as rising property taxes that could force them out.

The Gonzales family and their friends hope that for Globeville and Elyria-Swansea the city has learned from how it treated the residents of Auraria and the upheaval the city caused.

Whether that will happen as Denver moves forward is a story for another day, at least ten years from now.