Updated Monday, Aug. 19, 2019: In preliminary results, Stapleton property owners have turned down a referendum to change the neighborhood’s name, 65% to 35%, with a turnout of 34%.
It started with a small group of civil rights activists bemoaning the name of northeast Denver’s massive Stapleton community because of its namesake’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
After four years of organizing, those activists and the swells of homeowners in line with their cause have five days left to convince their neighbors to drop the community’s controversial name.
“Denver decided that this piece of dirt was going to be named Stapleton almost half a century ago, and now, community members get to decide if they want to rename it,” says Keven Burnett, executive director of Stapleton’s Master Community Association (MCA), the group in charge of conducting the election, which has come under fire for its handling of the ballots.
Stapleton is the nation’s largest urban infill project. The land both north and south of Interstate 70 in northeast Denver used to be the city’s airport – named after Benjamin Stapleton, a five-term mayor during the 1920s, 30s and 40s and a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan who appointed Klansmen to lead the police department and other city offices.
Urban sprawl in the 1970s and 1980s made airline noise a problem, and Denver’s airport came to require more runways, including longer ones for international flights. Once the city built Denver International Airport on land it annexed farther to the northeast, it entered into an agreement with real estate giant Forest City to redevelop the abandoned expanses of runways, taxiways, hangars and open space at Stapleton into a mix of new urbanist – read “The Truman Show” – residential and commercial spaces meant to serve residents of all colors and income levels. Such diversity was a cornerstone of the city’s plan for the community and directives to Forest City.
The 4,700-acre neighborhood of Stapleton now has a total population of about 30,000. The area is made up of 12 individual neighborhoods, has eight schools, many community pools and parks, and more than 100 retail shops and restaurants. Stapleton’s final neighborhood, North End, is currently being built, and will end the development of the area within the next few years.
Objections first raised back in mid-1990s
Some residents of color and civil rights activists who were aware of Ben Stapleton’s Klan affiliation had started decrying the Stapleton name when redevelopment began in the mid-1990s. Their efforts were revived in 2015 when Black Lives Matter 5280 launched a campaign called #ChangetheNameStapleton. And their ranks ballooned in 2017, inspired by the violence at the white supremacist rally organized by Unite the Right in Charlottesville, N.C. and efforts in several cities to dismantle tributes to the Confederacy.
“We see ourselves as the latest iteration of community members who object to the use of the name ‘Stapleton,’” said Liz Stalnaker, board chair of the group Rename St*pleton for All. “We are continuing the work that was begun by activists in the ‘90s and carried forward in 2015 by BlackLivesMatter 5280. Our group is not made up of the same people who worked on this in the 1990s or in 2015, and there have been starts and stops along the way. But we are united in the same mission. We do not want our community name to honor a Klansman.”
Rename St*pleton for All leaders initially approached individual stakeholder groups in the community, asking them to drop “Stapleton” from their names. In late 2017 and early 2018, several organizations did: the Stapleton Foundation became The Foundation for Sustainable Urban Communities; the former Stapleton Development Corporation now only uses the acronym SDC to identify itself; and the Stapleton Citizens Advisory Board is now just the Citizens Advisory Board. As part of this effort, the group asked Stapleton United Neighbors (SUN), which Denver recognizes as the official Registered Neighborhood Organization (RNO) for Stapleton, to drop “Stapleton” from its name.
In May 2018, the SUN board asked Stapleton residents to vote on whether to change the RNO’s name from “Stapleton United Neighbors” to “Central Park United Neighbors.” Fifty-eight percent of ballots cast favored the name change, but this fell short of the required 66% threshold needed to make the change.
Rename St*pleton for All organizers next approached the Stapleton MCA when they discovered there was a process for changing the legal name of the whole community within the governing documents of the property owners association, Stalnaker said. In response, the MCA decided to mail out a referendum asking property owners to decide whether they wanted a name change.
This summer, the pro-name-changers have canvassed Stapleton neighborhoods asking for support, handing out fliers with information about the election and Ben Stapleton’s involvement in the KKK. The flier also highlighted voices of community members and others who favor the name change, including Rosemary Lytle, the NAACP state president. “Renaming Stapleton would refresh public memory and support efforts to move forward a reality where all people have equitable access to opportunity,” she is quoted on the flier. “This is not about dismissing the cries of preservationists, but rather about dismissing the specter of white supremacy. In tandem with changing a name, we must also work to change the policies that keep people trapped in a KKK reality.”
In June, Stapleton’s MCA – which is governed by a board of directors and advised by chosen delegates in the community – mailed ballots to property owners on the issue of a name change, also giving them the opportunity to suggest new names. The ballots are due by Wednesday, July 31, and the outcome is expected to be announced in August.
Jeff Fard, better known as Brother Jeff, is a multimedia journalist, historian and community organizer in Denver’s historically black Five Points neighborhood who supports the name change.
“It is time for Stapleton voters to join other neighborhoods and cities all over the country that have taken the courageous step to remove public monuments and markers that are symbols of hate,” he says. “This moment has been decades in the making. I stand firm with Rename St*pleton For All and those who support the name change. They are aligning their values with their vote and are on the right side of history.”
The Colorado Independent was unable to find anyone willing to comment on the record against the name change.
Still, over the past few years, several city historians have noted that, his Klan affiliations aside, Ben Stapleton had a positive impact on Denver by building major public institutions and setting the framework for several of its boulevards and parks.
Brother Jeff, in response, said, “Leadership rooted in the exclusion, exploitation and the demise of others will always overshadow any meaningful accomplishments of a mayor who was a proud leading figure of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Some argue you can’t erase history
Some residents in the past expressed opposition to a name change on grounds that it would erase history.
Jacqueline St. Joan, a former judge who leads Rename St*pleton For All’s legal team, counters that argument by saying, “Do you notice how we’re bringing up history? Have you noticed how people now know this history when they didn’t used to?”
Another argument against renaming the neighborhood is the cost. The MCA of Stapleton – funded by a combination of property assessments, special district taxes and proceeds from the operation of public facilities — estimates that, should the name-change referendum pass, it will have to pay consultants $300,000 to unite members of the community in coming up with new name.
“There is no alternative name, and someone is going to have to come up with that, and we have 12,000 stakeholders in that process,” says MCA’s Burnett.
St. Joan doubts the accuracy of the MCA’s projected cost.
“We aren’t AT&T. We aren’t a corporation. We’re just a neighborhood,” she says.
St. Joan – who formerly volunteered as The Colorado Independent’s news poetry editor – says she got involved in the name-change movement because of her roots growing up in 1960s-era Virginia when segregation was prevalent. “I had a kid’s view of the hypocrisy and how it didn’t fit what I was being taught about Jesus and religion and what love meant.”
She says Benjamin Stapleton does not deserve to have the neighborhood named after him and that the neighborhood should have a name that is not hurtful to anyone.
“The names of places survive. They survive me. They survive you. They will be here for as long as this land is here, probably. So that place in history should not be held by someone who, regardless of what he may have done, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan,” she says. “So, on principle, I think we only want to name places after people who deserve to be honored.”
St. Joan and other members of Rename St*pleton for All have concerns about the way the MCA of Stapleton is conducting the election.
The group says that MCA had agreed to include a space on the ballot return envelopes for voters to sign as a way to prevent election fraud. But the envelopes MCA sent out included no such space for a signature. Burnett has said on social media that no signatures are needed.
But Rename St*pleton disagreed. “We believe that this instruction is wrong and contrary to the MCA Board’s authorization of the secret ballot, two Colorado statutes, the MCA bylaws, our agreement with the MCA — and common sense,” reads a letter Rename St*pleton for All published on its website and social media on June 26.
Burnett said the decision to leave the space for signatures off the ballot return envelope was intentional, based on feedback from residents who didn’t want their vote to be public or traceable to them. However, a sentence was mistakenly left on the ballot instructions telling voters to include their signatures, which Burnett has advised voters to ignore, via social media.
He noted that MCA will accept all ballots regardless of whether they include a signature on the envelope.