To look at Denver’s collection of historic districts and landmarks is largely to look at a whitewashed version of the city’s history.
Over the past 50 years, city council members have designated 56 historic districts and 352 individual landmarks, totaling some 7,000 properties, Senior City Planner Jenny Buddenborg said. But only 2% to 3% are non-white landmarks.
That’s a substantial shortfall for the city of more than 700,000 people where 29% of the population identifies as Hispanic, 8% identifies as Black and 4% identify as Asian, according to demographic data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s part of the reason Buddenborg’s department launched a new effort this year to bridge the gap — at least with the Latino sites to start.
But much of the push for historic designations comes from either residents or property owners, not city officials. And Adrianna Abarca, founder and chair of the Latino Cultural Arts Center, believes much of Denver’s history has been wiped away by generations of white people who pushed their way into the city at the expense of those who came before them.
“They didn’t want to live in the same houses as us. They built new houses. They didn’t want to patronize our old businesses. They built their own businesses,” she said. “They came to conquer, they didn’t come to cohabitate. They didn’t find us charming, I guess.”
Abarca points to neighborhoods like Sun Valley and Auraria, which no longer bear much of a resemblance to the Latino cultural hubs they once were.
She believes the erasure was deliberate and systemic, while Rick Waters, the executive director of the Denver Indian Center, called it a “termination” — pointing out that Native American history in Denver reaches back centuries, mentioning not only his own tribe, the Kiowa, but also the Cheyenne, Ute and Arapaho.
The practice of omitting or erasing non-white cultures “has probably been in line with government policy since Day One,” Waters said.
Having grown 30% in the last 20 or so years, Denver is having to balance new development and affordable housing in all parts of the city but also the effort to preserve pieces of Denver’s history, said Amanda Weston, spokeswoman for the city’s community planning and development department.
And Buddenborg acknowledged that the vast majority of Denver’s portfolio highlights not just white history but white male history, saying, “all this other diverse culture … has been excluded.”
How historic designations happen
Historic or landmark designations mark a building, plot of land or entire district as significant to the community, a milestone from its past.
Nationally, designations began with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, according to Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver. The city followed suit in 1967 with a similar ordinance for landmarks, many of which have been guided by Levinsky’s nonprofit that started three years later.
By and large, places are nominated for designations by members of the community and property owners rather than city officials themselves, Buddenborg said.
A designation’s largest role is to prevent demolition, she said, and also allows Denver to regulate alterations or additions. She pointed to Woodie Fisher’s Hose House No. 1, one of the first fire stations in Denver that is now a restaurant and bar in Union Station but maintains its historic character.
The designation also qualifies sites for tax credits for rehabilitation and upkeep, Buddenborg said. It is not immediately clear how many of the designated sites have used those tax credits or for how much.
Over the past five decades, Denver city officials awarded more and more of the designations to buildings with strong architectural significance, Levinsky said, who added it translates to an overwhelmingly white historical stock because the preference was clearly for places that were expensive to build, defaulting designations to “those who had the power and money to build them.”
That lack of diversity among historical designations isn’t just a local issue, Buddenborg said.
“Even nationally, (landmarks are) very much the Mount Vernons, the places where our presidents where born,” Buddenborg said. “It’s not just white people, it’s primarily white males.”
The remembered and the forgotten in Denver
Not everything fell by the wayside in Denver: Terry Nelson encourages a look at the Welton Street Cultural District in Five Points.
Nelson, the senior special collections and research manager at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, chuckles often and optimistically as she discusses her love of the area and its history. She’s eager to hand out maps for the district’s walking tour that highlights major historical sites in what was once called the Harlem of the West.
Generations of African Americans for decades were largely allowed to live only in Five Points, Whittier and Park Hill, Nelson said. Jazz icons like Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington played Five Points’ then-premier nightclub, the Rossonian, and the casino ballroom across the street. People packed into the Roxy Theater. And Fire Station No. 3 housed Denver’s first all-Black firefighting company.
The list goes on.
“It is so energizing, it is so hopeful and positive to be able to tell kids these things when they come here,” Nelson said, recalling her conversation with a “cute little boy” from Barney Ford Elementary School.
“He said ‘Barney Ford, really? I go to Barney Ford and they never told me he was a Black man,” Nelson said. “So they have some belonging and they see their culture.”
The library and surrounding district are a proud achievement, “child No. 5 for me,” Nelson said, gesturing at the library. But still she thinks back to her childhood in Denver and wonders how much will be remembered or forgotten.
The Latino community hasn’t been as fortunate, Abarca said. Mexicans make up the bulk of the Latino population, having moved here in the early 1900s while fleeing conflict during the Mexican Revolution, though Indigenous people lived in Denver long before that.
Homes, churches, restaurants and businesses have been demolished or changed beyond recognition. Only recently did city officials rename Columbus Park as La Raza Park.
“It takes a psychic toll on a community,” Abarca said of the Latino community. “We don’t have a sense of belonging.”
Abarca pointed to the home of Frederico Peña, Denver’s first Latino mayor and later the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and U.S. Secretary of Energy under President Bill Clinton, which still sits near 26th and Federal. No one has applied for a historic designation for the home, Weston said.
“If Mayor McNichols had spent some time there, maybe they would care,” Abarca said.
Among the important sites of Latino heritage that remain, Abarca is quick to name El Chapultepec, a recent casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as The Mexico City Lounge, La Popular and La Fiesta. Buddenborg said of those businesses, only La Popular is without a designation; the others are covered by the Lower Downtown, Ballpark Neighborhood and Curtis Park historic districts, respectively.
Wary of existing efforts to diversify, Abarca said she started the Latino Cultural Arts Center to preserve whatever history and “ephemera” like memorabilia, pictures and oral histories she can. Part of that center is already up and running, but she hopes to open a community art space, called Las Bodegas in 2022.
Over the years, some of the destruction has been acknowledged, City Councilwoman Jamie Torres said. Metropolitan State University, the University of Colorado Denver and Denver Community College launched a Displaced Aurarian Scholarship in the 1990s for students who were residents of the neighborhood between 1955 and 1973.
Torres said she earned her master’s degree with that scholarship, and her mother earned her associate’s degree with it.
“There is some poetic justice that after the neighborhood was demolished, the younger generations of the residents received their degrees from the schools,” Torres said.
The years ahead
There’s much more to be done to diversify the city’s historic landmarks, Buddenborg said. Last month her office launched a yearlong study called The Latino Chicano Historic Context project to catalogue places in Denver with strong ties to the Latino community — and a special focus on the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Denver was the hometown of Chicano Movement leaders like Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales who, among other things, helped organize the West High walkout or “blowout.”
By the end of the study, Buddenborg expects a comprehensive report — written in English and Spanish — of Denver’s Latino and Chicano history.
“From early settlements of the city and reflecting development patterns, buildings and places attached to that history,” she said, noting funding for the project runs out after this year.
If the city can raise the money, next year they want to catalogue Black history and culture in Denver before moving on to Native American, Asian American and other cultures.
Slowly, more diverse landmarks are coming to the fore, Levinsky said. In January, the city council designated as a landmark Smith’s Chapel in Lincoln Park, which dates back to the late 1800s but its ties to the Chicano Movement raised its historical significance.
Other designations in recent years include the First Unitarian Society of Denver building — a landmark in the LGTBQ rights movement — and the home of John Henderson, Colorado’s first registered Black architect.
Buddenborg said her office is also considering an application for a historic district at La Alma-Lincoln Park, which would be the city’s first cultural historic district since 2002.
The push to diversify began with a city task force’s 2019 decision to add cultural and historic significance — rather than just architectural — as additional criteria that can be considered for new landmarks, Levinsky said.
The city also is taking inventory of every building in Denver that’s more than 30 years old, Levinsky said — a decade-long project called Discover Denver meant to build an understanding of what additional buildings and districts might qualify for a historic designation.
And in March, Historic Denver will celebrate its 50th anniversary by launching a 50 Actions for 50 Places Campaign, Levinsky added, asking community members to nominate sites, buildings, pieces of public art and more, some of which could ultimately earn a historic designation.
But the conversation on what needs to be saved and protected must be led by community members, Levinsky said, because people with first-, second- or third-hand knowledge of the city’s history are the best sources to highlight what’s missing and broaden Denver’s pages in the history books.
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