The Stapleton Foundation is dropping the word “Stapleton” from its name in response to residents’ growing frustration that their northeast Denver community honors the memory of a 20th-century KKK member.
“The Foundation has recognized the value and need for this change for some time,” CEO Landri Taylor said in a statement on the group’s website. “The Foundation thanks local community groups and residents who have brought focus to the Stapleton name and its relationship to the old airport’s namesake, Ben Stapleton, and his connection to the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s.”
The Foundation for Sustainable Urban Communities, as the organization will be called starting Jan. 1, was founded in the early 1990s by Denver philanthropist Sam Gary to work up a plan to redevelop the old Stapleton Airport into a new urban project of mixed-use residential, commercial, retail, open space and parks. The plan, which became known as “The Green Book,” set out a vision for a new-urbanist community that would become home to people of all colors and incomes on land that served as Denver’ airport before DIA was built.
The 25,000-person development hasn’t lived up to that vision. Though the community was racially diverse when the first residents moved in around 2002 and 2003, it has grown increasingly white and affluent. Affordable housing units have been developed slower than planned. And schools in the community are far less integrated than imagined.
For years, some residents and civil rights activists have grumbled about the fact that the old airport’s and development’s namesake – Ben Stapleton, who served as mayor of Denver from 1923 to 1931 and then from 1935 to 1947 – was a klansman who won office with klan support and appointed several fellow klansmen to top city positions.
Those grumblings intensified over the summer when the neighborhood group, Stapleton United Neighbors, put out a statement denouncing the racial clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia and saying the community wouldn’t tolerate hate speech or symbols. The letter, written on stationery bearing the Stapleton name, rubbed activists the wrong way. Radio personality Aaron “Ukulele Loki” Johnson came up with the moniker KKKapleton, and the name stuck.
“For a bunch of us, we just totally reacted to that letter about Charlottesville and it reignited a flame to do something about the name,” says Genevieve Swift, a white Stapleton resident who helped advance a movement started by Black Lives Matter 5280 to change the community’s name. That effort most recently calls itself Rename St*pleton for All.
“I think there’s something (about) our political climate right now that makes people open to this discussion,” she says.
Although Taylor’s statement acknowledges the racial tensions around the Stapleton name, it also notes that the new name “better reflects the scope of the foundation’s work today,” which is more broadly focused on the I-70 corridor from downtown Denver to Denver International Airport, including northeast Denver and northwest Aurora.
Members of Rename St*pleton for All hope that dropping the S-word doesn’t stop with the foundation. The group has been leaning heavily on the Stapleton Development Corporation – the organization tasked with ensuring the development of the former airport and its ultimate sale to Forest City Realty Trust Inc., the community’s master developer – to formally nix the word Stapleton from the entire community. SDC’s citizens advisory board is scheduled to meet next week to make a recommendation about the name. SDC’s full board will consider that recommendation at a meeting in January.
Board chairman Patrick Teegarden told The Colorado Independent Friday evening that, although he first opposed the name change, he’s now in favor.
“Originally, I didn’t think it was a compelling issue. I figured it was named after the old airport and that was that. But the more I’ve listened to the people who are younger and newer to the neighborhood, the more I realize that the name evokes fear and intimidation. That’s very, very important to them, and therefore it’s becoming very, very important to me.”
Absent any formal direction from the SDC board, Forest City quietly has started taking down some signs bearing the name Stapleton in furtherance of an apparent change in its marketing plan, a source with the company tells The Independent.
Swift said this evening that news of the foundation’s name change feels “validating” after “having so many people just laugh at us and say this is never going to happen.”
“I don’t know if this will ever happen – actually changing the name of the whole community, not just the foundation. But I would really love for this to turn into some sort of awakening for our community and I would love if we could live up to the ideals of the Green Book by creating a truly inclusive community.”
Fellow activist Gregory Diggs says he was the second homeowner to move into Stapleton in 2002. His block on Spruce Street had three families in a row – including his – that were bi-racial, plus several black neighbors in all directions. For the first year or two, he says, he believed that Forest City was creating the kind of diverse community envisioned by the Green Book.
But then Diggs, who’s black, started noticing changes. When the King Soopers opened on Quebec Street and 29th Avenue, it drew residents of nearby northeast Denver communities that long had been food deserts. The racial diversity, Diggs said, prodded some white folks to shop in whiter markets farther away. Likewise, he said when kids of color from neighboring communities started swimming at Stapleton’s Aviator Pool, the development hiked the pool fees and effectively booted them out. And when Westerly Creek Elementary School opened and accepted kids of color from nearby communities to fill 3rd through 5th grade classes, some white families balked and pulled their kids out, he says.
Diggs says his son, Langston Shupe-Diggs, experienced racism by being followed at the grocery store and has been told on Stapleton streets that he doesn’t belong there.
“He’d say ‘Daddy, what are they talking about? These people are in my neighborhood, but they’re treating me like I don’t belong here.’”
Upon hearing the news of the foundation’s name change earlier this evening, Diggs – a man who prides himself on his huge vocabulary – said “I have no words.”
He paused and took a deep breath before describing his reaction.
“Surprised,” he said, then paused again. “Inspired,” he added, this time with a longer pause, a hard swallow and a nod. “And proud.”