We used to have a skid row in Denver. It was in the 1400 block of Larimer. There were always derelict-looking men hanging around doing nothing. I assumed that homeless men used that stretch of Larimer as their neighborhood. It was a time when nobody thought much about homelessness.
Today, we think a lot about homelessness. We’ve “cleaned up” some homeless neighborhoods, but we’ve created many others, and a quick revisit of history sheds some light on how it happened.
In 1967, Denver voters approved the demolition of nearly 30 blocks of downtown Denver to make way for what they thought would be shiny new high-rises. Instead, they got a bunch of ugly parking lots. It was part of the federally subsidized, ill-conceived Skyline Urban Renewal Project. But at least downtown boosters got their dreams funded when the Feds approved the new, rusted steel convention center known as Currigan Exhibition Hall as the local contribution to the project.
The boosters went to Minneapolis to find a model for their fantasies. It included skybridges over the streets so that Denverites could avoid having to go out in anything like a Minneapolis winter, even though such extreme weather did not exactly reproduce itself here. They put up a half a dozen concrete skybridges, then tore them all down, starting in the late ‘90s.
They also created a sea of lavish downtown surface parking to serve the scattered redevelopment that occurred under the guidance of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. From 15th to 18th streets between Champa and Larimer streets, there was enough parking to encourage a generation of workers to drive downtown and park their cars for a pittance. That, in turn, caused the hopeless expansion of our urban traffic.
While the homeless still held the 1500 block of Larimer, it became clear that the remaining old buildings, ramshackle as they might be, were the last gasp of our history. Developer Dana Crawford saw an opportunity to create what might have been if downtown boosters had had any imagination. She restored the 1400 block of Larimer and began the transformation of the area into the trendiest location in downtown Denver.
And the skid row community? I recall a downtown booster giving me a handbill touting the Skyline Urban Renewal Project. When I asked what was going to happen to the homeless people who lived in the neighborhood for years and were being displaced, he waved his hand toward Curtis Park to the northeast and said, “Oh, they’ll probably just move over there.”
And indeed, they did.
The homeless men have followed that hand wave of dismissal to create a new neighborhood near Park Avenue and Broadway. They have been fenced off from the nearby park, but they still find a wall to lean against or sit against waiting for the shelter doors to open.
Thanks to our booming (for some) economy, there are many more homeless people — men, women, families. Cops urged them to move, and they obeyed by moving into our parks. But the city forbids regular use of the parks by the homeless. According to a recent survey, we had 5,700 homeless people living in the metro Denver area in January. We have built “tiny home” villages that now house a couple of dozen formerly homeless people. We have heard that the city is always building subsidized housing for the homeless.
Still, homeless people wander around looking for a shady place to rest. We have enough money to subsidize massive upper-income housing projects — like the twin high-rises in south City Park. That development required the city to designate the former Mercy Hospital campus as “blighted” to allow a multi-million-dollar subsidy for the high-rises via tax increment financing. We also have money to build a highway (I-70 through Elyria-Swansea) below the water level of the South Platte River, which will create yet another massive traffic jam but will save the developers of the stockyards millions of dollars by diverting the natural drainage across their development, with the help of two public golf courses and a big chunk of Denver’s storm drainage budget.
The present wave of development was consciously constructed with no attention to the increased infrastructure such development was bound to require. This stupidity was explained as being unavoidable because we didn’t have the tax base to do the infrastructure work until the newcomers moved in to expand our tax base. And meanwhile, we still have thousands of homeless people looking for a place to rest.
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