This is the most difficult letter I’ve ever written as editor of the Denver VOICE because it is my last. The VOICE has been a part of my life for almost a decade. Now, after many years as a writer and volunteer, and three fantastic years as editor, it’s time for me to move on to a new chapter.Read More
The song “Macarena” starts and Luis Dominguez hops out of his chair, delighted that the song he requested and has been patiently waiting for has finally begun. He begins dancing, first sticking out one hand, then the other in the familiar line dance. His eyes light up as others begin dancing with him. For Dominguez, this rare opportunity to dance is therapeutic.Read More
By S.E. Fleenor
Leti “Darlina” is a visual artist, poet, and screenwriter. She regularly participates in Reach Studio, the Card Project, and Hard Times Writers Workshop (page 16). This spring, in recognition of her writing, she was awarded a fellowship with Lighthouse Writers Workshop to enroll in a weeklong intensive workshop for her screenplay. Her work was so positively received in the workshop that she and her family were asked to perform a live reading of her screenplay, Daughters of Aztlán.
“I almost cried when the audience gave us a standing ovation,” said Darlina. The audience responded viscerally to the main character, Lupe, and her family’s story of traveling from Juarez, Mexico, to Denver through the desert. The screenplay sheds light on the threat of deportation, border policing, and other injustices faced by immigrants.
Many of her characters are based in part on people she has met or upon her own life experiences. “Some of the people have died or don’t have the opportunity to speak, so I see it like an obligation to share [their stories] publicly through art or writing when I can.” These voices and stories have been incorporated into her poetry and her screenplay.
One particularly vivid moment from Darlina’s life has also been included in the screenplay. When Darlina attended a vigil in honor of those who lost their lives crossing the desert, she was confronted by onlookers yelling at her. “Some of the comments made were really racist. They were like, ‘Just go back to Mexico, f-ing wetback.’” Darlina uses these experiences as fodder to create art, all in the hopes of making the world a better place. “[Making] art and writing is a way to share each other’s stories and hopefully make some kind of difference.”
Darlina’s life isn’t all sunshine and roses. Recently, she lost her place to live, but she knows she can count on spaces like The Gathering Place, RedLine, and Lighthouse Writers Workshop to be a constant in her life. “I know I can always come [to The Gathering Place] and feel safe, and I could also do my artwork, which is to me, just as important as food to live.”
Her relationship to her creative pursuits is as complicated as any artist’s: “I feel like I have a love and hate relationship with art because it’s trial by error. So is writing, but for some reason, I have mostly love for it.” The hardest thing about being creative, according to Darlina, is “drawing out reflections of our own light or darkness. Sometimes it’s hard to find this courage as we create.”
Darlina wants others who are homeless and considering attending these programs to know, “Creating art and writing speaks your truth.” Her next goal as an artist is to go to school to learn illustration so she can illustrate her own books.
Despite her setbacks and challenges, Darlina has her focus firmly on the future. ■
This summer Dave Thatcher of Picture Me Here led a workshop for a handful of Denver VOICE vendors interested in photography. Thatcher, a photographer, videographer, and community activist based in Denver, taught us how to frame a shot and tell a story with an image.
After the workshop was over, participating vendors were given a free disposable Kodak camera. The following are some of the highlights from the project.Read More
Writing Through Hard Times
Each month, the Denver VOICE publishes a selection of writing from workshops sponsored by Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
The Hard Times Writing Workshop is a collaboration between Denver Public Library and Lighthouse Writers Workshop. This workshop is open to all members of the public—especially those experiencing homelessness.
Hard Times meets every Tuesday from 3-5 p.m. on the fourth floor of DPL’s Central branch.
The Lighthouse sponsored workshop at The Gathering Place is specifically for that organization’s clients.
To check out more writing by the poets featured in this column, go to writedenver.org.
In Aztlán, it is in darkness when our hearts must soar.
For below, bullets hit. Voices condemn.
Walls built by men twisted by their own fear, hatred,
greed, power bring disaster and decay to us all.
Our blood yearns to flow through dreams… love… light.
It is the artist, totlecatl nonalnan, who with hands
guided by generations and a child’s simple wish,
who draws the true nature of Aztlán.
And with her candor of truth, bullets cease.
Walls crumble to dust!
Excerpt from the screenplay, Daughters of Aztlán
I expected the concrete steps
where a house had been,
the black exes on doors
like chalk marks
from some children’s game,
but not the tree
huge and mournful as a whale
branches silvered with moss
smashed into the asphalt
roots still shaggy with soil
crawling through a green-grey sky
like rivulets of ink.
If I had one wish in my life, if I could be granted one wish, it would be to get my baby back. I’d like to go back 23 years. Yes, it would be 23 years now, when I was 23, and I would not walk through that doctor’s door. I’m 46 years old, and I have no children. I’ve wanted children, but I never met a man in those two decades with whom I’m compatible, and who wanted to get married—marry me, that is—and wanted a family. And there was no way that I would be a single mother. But, I’d like to go back in time, when I was young and stupid, but with the smarts I have now, and staying 23, of course, and keep my baby in my womb, and raise it, alone. The father? I don’t know who he is. I was raped then. They never caught him.
An Alternative Guide to Denver
Tours compiled by Danielle Krolewicz, with the help of the following Denver VOICE vendors:
Armand and Devora Casazza, David Gordon, Raelene Johnson, and Dwayne Pride.
Intro by Sarah Harvey
Photos by Giles Clasen, Chase Doelling, Chelsea Gittle, and Sarah Harvey
Welcome to our seventh annual tourism issue and our second “Invisible City” guide. The walking tours on the following pages are quite different from most city walks you’ll encounter. These tours were created by Denver VOICE vendors, and they include both familiar landmarks and very personal landmarks.
Take David Gordon’s tour of South Broadway: you’re probably familiar with the Mayan Theatre, but have you ever given Quality Paws a second thought? Well, David has. That pet store is significant to him because it’s where he used to buy cat food, back when he had cats and an apartment of his own. And, after his circumstances changed, it’s a place he’s gone to in order to take shelter from the weather. It’s a significant spot on his individual map of Denver.
At the VOICE, we believe it is important to consider lives that are different from our own—to walk in someone else’s shoes, so to speak. If you stop to consider the lives around you, you’ll realize there is a different version of Denver for everyone living in this city. As our community grows and changes, we think it’s worth celebrating those lives by reflecting on some of the invisible cities that exist within Denver.
Home away from home—
Armand and Devora’s guide to Five Points
With many services for people experiencing homelessness and poverty, the Five Points neighborhood is a busy place with a lot of diverse foot traffic. VOICE vendors Armand and Devora Casazza are two transplants who have spent a lot of time in the area, and they’ve selected a handful of spots they think everyone should experience.
1 — Start at the Mercury Café.
“The Merc is a hidden treasure that’s literally hidden,” says Devora. “The walls are covered with so much ivy that you’d miss it if you blinked.” The Mercury Café hosts weekly events like tango, belly, and swing dance lessons, poetry slams, yoga, meditation, and many special events that vary monthly. They’re open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday and brunch Saturday and Sunday, so you can sample some of the organic food Devora loves.
2199 California St. • 303.294.9281 • mercurycafe.com
2 — Walk out of the Merc and turn left on 22nd St. Turn right at Lawrence St. to reach the Lawrence Street Community Center.
Men, women, and families have access to free meals, showers, laundry, and a safe space to spend their day at the Lawrence Street Community Center (LSCC), which was built in 2015 and is run by the Denver Rescue Mission. When Devora’s heart stopped at Stout Street Clinic, she found refuge following surgery at LSCC, and it’s there she met Armand, her now-husband. As Armand describes it, Devora could barely hold herself up when they met. “Armand saved my life,” says Devora. “He was my savior—my mini broken Jesus.”
2222 Lawrence St. • 303.294.0157 • denverrescuemission.org
3 — Take a small detour by turning right on Park Ave. and walking a block to Broadway. The “Denver—Love this City” mural will be across the street on the northeast side of the intersection of Park Ave., Broadway, and Arapahoe St.
Devora, who is originally from New York, enjoys looking at all the street art and murals on the buildings in Five Points. “It’s part of the city—it’s part of the allure to me.” The painting at the corner of Park and Broadway stands out to Devora because it makes her feel proud of the home she’s found in Denver.
4 — Walk one block north on Broadway back to Lawrence St. (or detour down an alley or two to check out more street art) and make your way to Volunteers of America—the Mission.
According to Armand, VOA is the second-best free meal in Denver. The Mission is a day shelter that provides meals three times a day Monday through Thursday, Friday at noon, and Sunday at 1 p.m. On more than one occasion, VOA has helped Armand and Devora get gas money—the two live in their van—and both of them appreciate the kind-hearted staff and volunteers that work here. Other services include job training, clothing, and food assistance.
2877 Lawrence St. • 303.295.2165 • voacolorado.org
5 — Turn right on 30th St. and walk southeast until you get to Mestizo-Curtis Park.
Mestizo-Curtis Park, commonly called Curtis Park, was built in 1868, making it the oldest park in the city of Denver. To reflect the diversity of the neighborhoods surrounding the park, the word Mestizo was added to the name in 1987. It’s fitting that Armand and Devora both love this park for that diversity, which they feel makes it accessible for all. “One side you got drunks and some pot-smokers, the other side you got people with kids playing and people playing sports,” says Armand, who usually falls asleep while Devora watches the sports and people.
30th – 32nd, Arapahoe – Champa • cityparksalliance.org
16th St. Mall
Dwayne’s on-the-cheap guide to the 16th Street Mall
VOICE vendor Dwayne Pride invites you to walk a mile in his shoes. Experience his tour via walking on the pedestrian mall that lines 16th St. from Broadway to Wewatta (or from the MallRide that runs the same route). Both are free, which is a theme on this tour and a very important word in Dwayne’s vocabulary.
1 — Start the tour on the west end of the mall where Dwayne starts most of his days, Panera Bread.
This is often where Dwayne can be found selling the VOICE. He appreciates the MyPanera program at Panera because the rewards often include free bagels and coffee. Dwayne, who stays in a shelter right now, says he valued the free food even more when he was living on the streets last year. “Sometimes I might not have eaten the whole night before. A lot of mornings, it was just necessary.”
1380 16th St. • panerabread.com
2 — Make your way east to Skyline Park.
Skyline Park hosts a variety of events that vary depending on the season. On June 9, the park between 16th and 17th was transformed into a pop-up beer garden that will remain through October 7. The family-friendly garden includes games like ping-pong, miniature golf, and yard games, as well as live music every Friday and Saturday night. Dwayne likes to go there in the mornings because it’s usually quiet and sometimes he can take a nap.
Arapahoe, 15th St. – 18th St.
3 — Let the music guide you to the permanent art installation A Series of Chess Tables.
Installed on the mall in 1992, the concrete sculpture of a chess table was designed by Colorado artist and architect Doug Eichelberger and features tile by Denver artist Susan Wick. The sculpture has a practical purpose: it can be used for actual games by passersby—just BYO chess pieces.
Each year since 2009, painted pianos have been placed on the mall. This year, there are two on this block. Dwayne says it is a pleasant area to sit outside, eat, and listen to people play—musically inclined or not.
On the mall, between Curtis and Arapahoe Streets
4 — If you didn’t fill up on German sausages and pretzels at the beer garden, then get your walking fuel from Diego’s Mexican Food & Tequila Bar.
This Mexican joint is an actual underground restaurant, found in the basement of the building on the corner of Champa and 16th. Dwayne likes to go there and watch the Broncos games while taking full advantage of Diego’s salsa bar and free chips.
1600 Champa #3 • 303.343.4671 • diegosdenver.com
5 — While you can hop on the mall ride at any point, we suggest you take in the tour by foot—especially if the weather is nice. Head half a mile east to the Pavilions and check out the many buskers that perform here.
The Mall hosts street performers of all kinds, but Dwayne has narrowed it down to two favorites. According to Dwayne, when the busker who goes by Chainsmoker isn’t smoking, he’s performing magic. If you aren’t lucky enough to catch a sighting of Chainsmoker, you’ll most definitely see RoboMike. He dons a homemade Michael Jackson robot costume to entertain passersby.
This marks the end of Dwayne’s tour, but there’s still plenty of exploring to do downtown!
500 16th St.
A Colorado native’s guide to Colfax
When he was in high school, VOICE vendor David Gordon spent a lot of time in and around East Colfax. Although he doesn’t spend as much time there now, he’s noticed that many of the places he remembered from his high school days have closed in the last five years. For David, Colfax represents a lot of memories and a changing Denver.
1 — Start at Thatcher Memorial Fountain, City Park.
Just a short detour off Colfax and down the street from East High School is City Park. “It takes me back to the good ole days when I was a young, energetic, handsome guy,” jokes David. “We used to go there every Sunday when I was young. We used to drive through the park and hang out, feed the ducks, and go fishing at the lake.” When he was older, this was the place he would go with friends when skipping class. There are lots of things to do and see in the park, so explore at your leisure.
City Park Esplanade
2 — Head south on Esplanade toward East High School.
Visible from City Park, the tower of East crowns this section of Colfax. Notable graduates/attendees of East include Pam Grier, Don Cheadle, Neal Cassady, Judy Collins, and, of course, David Gordon.
1600 E City Park Esplanade
3 — Turn left onto Colfax and head east to Pete’s Gyros Place.
Grab lunch around the corner like David used to do at Pete’s Gyro Place. According to David, “it’s been there forever” and he spent lots of lunch periods here. Pete Contos, who moved to Denver from Greece in 1956, is the namesake of this Pete’s and five others in the Denver metro area.
2819 E Colfax Ave. • 303.321.9658
4 — Continue walking east on Colfax Ave until you get to the Bluebird Theater (about a five-minute walk).
David, who is expert on what “used to be,” says this was once an X-rated movie theater, a fact you won’t find on the Bluebird’s website. Built in 1913 and renamed in 1922, it has “gone through various phases over the years,” according to its website. David says, “I like it better as a music venue because there’s action and performances several times a week.” Despite its seedier history, according to him, “There’s more action there now.” Surrounding the theater are plenty of bars, coffee shops, and restaurants, proving his point.
3317 E Colfax Ave. • 303.377.1666
5 — Hop the 15 bus at Cook St. and head west to the High St. stop to visit DenUm (or walk the mile in between the two and check out the spots you might’ve missed earlier).
Technically the first VOICE “office” was a booth in a dive bar, but after that it had a long stint in the Denver Urban Ministry building—now Denver Urban Matters. DenUm today is a resource center that helps with basic needs, provides support for job seekers, and is an advocate in the community for people experiencing homelessness and poverty.
1717 E Colfax Ave.
303.355.4896 • denum.org
6 — Continue west for one mile toward the State Capitol building and the adjacent Capitol Hill Books.
Denver is home to its fair share of indie bookstores, but David prefers ones that sell old books. With Denver’s largest searchable database of used books, it’s no wonder David likes Capitol Hill Books best.
300 E Colfax Ave.
303.837.0700 • capitolhillbooks.com
David Gordon’s guide to his favorite blocks on South Broadway
VOICE vendor David Gordon prefers to sell papers and hang out in this neighborhood because of the atmosphere, which he describes as down-to-earth and open to new ideas. An added perk: most of the businesses are locally owned.
“They welcome everybody, all races,” says David. “The area co-exists with the homeless. They don’t run them off. They don’t bother them.”
1 — Start the tour by grabbing a slice at Pie Hole and preparing yourself for all the window shopping that’s about to happen.
Although David’s favorite pizza place, The Walnut Room, closed its location on Broadway last year, there are still several options for pizza by the slice in the neighborhood. Of them, David likes Pie Hole best. It’s unpretentious and, with slices for $2.50 and toppings that start at an additional 23 cents a pop, it’s also the most affordable option.
44 S Broadway • 303.777.4743
2 — Head north on Broadway to True Love Shoes and Accessories.
You’ll know you’re in the right place when you spot the giant red shoe on the sidewalk. David likes this store because they sell quality men’s and women’s shoes at reasonable prices—shoes and sandals are $48 or less and boots are $58 or less. He also appreciates the welcoming staff, whose friendliness toward people extends to the goods they carry: nothing is made from animal products.
42 N Broadway • 303.860.8783
3 — Go next door to Quality Paws.
This pet store is more of a boutique pet store, selling natural pet foods, toys, and supplies. David says, “I’ve known Danielle [the owner] for eight years—that was before I became homeless.” David used to shop here for food for his cats, Hope and Spirit. He no longer has cats, but David still stops in here to chat with Danielle and the friendly staff. And, if the weather gets bad while he’s vending, he ducks in here to stay dry.
46 N Broadway • 303.778.PAWS • qualitypaws.com
4 — For an embodiment of what David loves about SoBo, head next door to Hope Tank.
David explains what—and who—Hope Tank is: “It’s a charitable boutique where a portion of the sales goes to a certain organization.* So when you go in and buy a product, it will show what organization the money goes to. Not only is [owner Erika Righter] making a living, she is giving back to the community and supporting local artists who create the products. That’s awesome.”
64 N Broadway • 720.837.1565• hopetank.org
*Including the Denver VOICE
5 — End a tour with a drink and a movie at the Landmark Mayan Theatre.
David often vends papers outside the Mayan, though he’s never been inside. Built in 1930, the theater has three screens. The building itself is unique, one of just a few theaters left in the country designed in Art Deco Mayan Revival style. Oh, and it has a bar inside.
110 N Broadway • 303.744.6799
A born-again Boulderite’s tour of Boulder
Several VOICE vendors call this city home, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t include a Boulder tour! Although not a Boulder native, VOICE vendor Raelene has lived in Boulder several times throughout her life and says she has “always felt at peace in Boulder.” On her tour she shares places of significance from her past and present, and a few spots she enjoys.
1 — Start your tour in North Boulder at Boulder Shelter for the Homeless.
The Boulder Shelter operates as a shelter during fall, winter, and early spring. It also offers things like “wake-up morning services” year-round that include showers, breakfast, mail, and locker access. The shelter was the second place Raelene lived when she moved to Colorado from Florida in November 1997. “All I knew is that I wanted to leave Florida, so a church paid $60 for a bus from Clearwater to Denver.”
The first place Raelene slept was across the street outside the Boulder Housing Authority building at 4800 Broadway. She remembers sleeping between the fence and a big metal container so as not to be seen from the road.
4869 Broadway • 303.442.4646
2 — Head west to Foothills Community Park.
After visiting the shelter, Raelene recommends you take a drive up a canyon to explore the mountains and natural beauty for which Boulder is known. Lee Hill Drive is nearby and takes you toward the 65.2 acres of Foothills Community Park, but this is just one of Boulder’s many accessible options.
800 Cherry Ave. • 303.413.7209
3 — Hungry after all that exploring? Head to the Pearl Street Mall, park your car nearby (you’ll be on foot for the rest of the tour), and hit up Pizza Colore.
One of the places Raelene stops for a quick, inexpensive bite is Pizza Colore. She likes it because the slices are big and cheap and she can’t resist the cannolis.
1336 Pearl St. • pizzacolore.com
4 — Once you’re feeling re-energized and full, check out the mall at your leisure, but don’t miss the Boulder Theatre.
Comedians, musicians, and everything in between have graced the stage at the Boulder Theatre. Raelene has been to several shows here, most of which she wins tickets to by entering drawings, especially at the Farmers Market.
2032 14th St. • 303.786.7030
5 — Walk south on 14th, then turn right onto Canyon Blvd. and walk west until you get to Central Park’s Boulder Bandshell.
When Raelene was in Boulder the fist time, she was a 15-year-old runaway from Connecticut. “Back then, there wasn’t a ban to sleep there overnight,” says Raelene. Nowadays, the outdoor amphitheater hosts live music and dance parties throughout the summer.
1212 Canyon Blvd. • boulderdowntown.com/go/central-park-bandshell
6 — Head north on 13th St. back to the Pearl Street Mall and Raelene’s spot.
When she isn’t at the Boulder Farmers Market or one of the festivals in the surrounding mountains, this is the where Raelene has established herself as a VOICE vendor. She feels grateful to the VOICE. “They didn’t care about my past, education, felonies, or anything except that I wanted to work,” says Raelene, who started vending almost a decade ago and is the top female vendor.
Pearl Street Mall at 13th St.
By Katelyn Skye Bennett
Photo by Giles Clasen
Born and raised in the Curtis Park neighborhood, then known as the “Brick City” projects, Thomas Jonathan Jackson had a rough life. The youngest of seven, he called himself spoiled but said he was raised up fast. He was allowed to do as he pleased.
At age ten he worked his first job as a dishwasher at D. Boones Hamburgers. He said the owners, whom he knew, spoiled him rotten.
TJ sold candy door to door as a teenager, developing his “gift of gab,” a career tool he uses to this day. Despite the naturally rough timbre of his voice, he was skilled enough in sales to teach others his pitch.
That gruff voice is a hallmark of TJ’s. When he was a child, he sounded like Froggy from Little Rascals, but he grew out of that into the voice he has now—a gravelly but effective tone for pitching his papers and sharing stories about the Denver of his youth.
Throughout his life, TJ worked hard to save money to buy cars. When he was just 12, he bought a 1973 Buick LeSabre with the help of an older cousin, and he drove without a license until he was old enough to qualify for one.
He was also athletic and into sports, including football, soccer, running, and swimming. TJ regrets not going further with his athletic talent, but a coach told him he was too short. (He rounds up his height to five foot six.) Without a good support system, he took the coach’s words to heart and let most of his athletic gifts slide.
Still, he stuck by the swimming pool. TJ worked for the city of Denver as a lifeguard on and off from age 14 through 43.
Starting at 22 he worked as a cook in restaurants, but TJ said those days are done now. “That’s something I never want to do again in my life.” He also sold drugs, receiving several felonies and spending some time in jail.
TJ experienced homelessness on and off as an adult. From 2012 to 2014 he lived at a motel, where he met Denver VOICE vendor David Gordon. It was David who first connected him with the VOICE.
TJ lost one of his brothers in 2015 and began to do drugs again. He cleaned up at Samaritan House, bought a car using the money he earned by selling the VOICE, lived between his sister’s place and the car, and then moved to the streets. A friend named Ron taught him how to live the homeless life. TJ bought a tent, but he said the cops would come and harass him at two in the morning.
Wringing a water bottle wrapper in his hands, TJ described the injustices he has faced—being denied Social Security more than a handful of times and being denied housing based on his felony history.
TJ is now 53 and feels the effects of an aging body. At age 14 he was hit by a car, injuring his lung, wrecking his shoulder blade and all but one rib, and requiring surgery to reconstruct the bones under his right eye. He also has hypothyroidism, which has contributed to recent weight gain, but he hopes to become healthier and shed a few pounds.
Today he lives with his family and works as a vendor for the VOICE. He is saving his money to buy a car and rent his own place—a place that he hopes will not judge him based on his history.
“From having a lot of things, from selling drugs, from living a fast life, having a lot of fancy cars and all that stuff, I came to find out the main thing is God letting you wake up the next day, so I’m happy [without] the material things in life now. I’m just happy I woke up today and take it one day at a time,” TJ said.
TJ prides himself on his work as a vendor for the VOICE—not a panhandler, he clarified. But some people make false assumptions about him.
“People, when they think you’re homeless, they think you’re no good, you ain’t trying to do nothing for yourself, you’re just no good. You’re just trying to play the system or you’re no good or you’re just lazy. Either you’re lazy or you’re on drugs. You just gave up on life and want other people to support you,” TJ said.
“I’m a good person. I got a good heart,” he said. ■
What does your personal map of Denver look like? Mine includes Paris on the Platte, circa 2000, back when it had an adjoining bookshop instead of an adjoining wine shop, and the café was filled with goths, punks, nerds, and the scent of clove cigarettes.
For those of you newer to Denver, Paris on the Platte once occupied the building that now houses Carbon Café & Bar. Paris went through multiple transformations during its three decades at 1553 Platte St. And even though my Paris was gone long before the business closed in 2015, I still think of my version whenever I walk down that block.
Everyone living in Denver, natives and transplants alike, is living in his or her own highly personalized version of the city. These other Denvers are built from our memories and our routines, and they are the inspiration for this issue, our second “Invisible City” guide.
Five Denver VOICE vendors contributed to our city guides this year. Armand and Devora Casazza helped create our walking tour of Five Points. In addition to being vendors, Armand and Devora are also married, and their map of Denver is layered with their love story. At the heart of it is the place they met: the Lawrence Street Community Center, a day center just around the corner from the Denver Rescue Mission. Some of the spots on their tour are landmarks that will be more familiar to people experiencing homelessness, but their lives aren’t entirely centered around emergency shelters and food pantries. They’re big fans of the street art in Denver, and they listed their favorite mural as one of the spots on their tour. Devora also loves the Mercury Café, and, like many other Denver residents, they both enjoy the parks.
City guides and walking tours are helpful for residents who want to define a place, and they’re a great way for visitors to learn about a place. We like to use our annual tour guide to help both locals and tourists consider the diverse people who make up a place. In presenting these tours to you, we’re asking you to step into someone else’s shoes in order to experience the city as they do. It’s something we believe is a truly worthwhile endeavor. ■
Background checks are often a necessary part of the hiring process, but there is little oversight for the reporting practices of some of the largest background check companies. Colorado resident Elsie Compo is hoping to change this.
By Matthew Van Deventer
When Elsie Compo applied for a job at Wal-Mart, she was quickly denied employment after the company ran a background check on her.
Her background check, which was processed by one of the country’s largest background check companies, Sterling Infosystems Inc., noted that Compo had been a resident of a high-risk residential facility. Those are facilities whose residents are considered a significant public safety risk and may be undergoing evaluation or rehabilitation.
That was not the case with Compo. While struggling with homelessness, she was a member of The Gathering Place (TGP), a daytime drop-in shelter for women, children, and transgender women. Like many others, Compo received her mail at TGP and used its address as her permanent address on job applications. TGP is a day center, not a residential facility, and the term “high-risk” is not an accurate description of its clients.
“I knew that it was a mistake,” said Compo in an email about the background check. “And there was all kinds of other stuff wrong too—like they have me living at lots of different addresses. It’s wrong and unfair.”
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. Thousands of people across the country, no matter their socioeconomic status, are victims of incorrect data reporting, according to David Seligman, the Towards Justice attorney who is representing Compo in an existing class action lawsuit against Sterling.
“It makes her appear to be more transient, less employable, and in general less the kind of person that someone’s going to hire, than if she had an accurate report,” said Seligman.
According to court documents for Compo’s case, this is not the first time Sterling has been accused of reporting faulty information. In 2015, it settled a class action lawsuit and agreed to pay damages and stop reporting incorrect data. The documents go on to say that the company considers certain consumers’ addresses at hotels, motels, rooming houses, boarding houses, or personal care facilities to be high-risk facilities—but it is this type of subjective definition that harms people like Compo.
Technically, Compo is not alleging she was denied employment at Wal-Mart because of the background check, despite that being the case. Rather, she is suing over Sterling’s careless reporting procedures, claiming the company violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act, or FCRA. Fighting her denial of employment may provide her with an individual win, but it wouldn’t necessarily tackle the bigger issue: that Sterling regularly misreportsinformation, which could hinder thousands of peoples’ abilities to get a job.
The FCRA wassigned into law in 1970 and is enforced by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The federal legislation protects consumers’ personal information and promotes accuracy in reports like credit and background checks gathered by consumer agencies.
Per the law, a company is required to provide plausible evidence that they are denying an applicant employment because of a note on their background check.
Compo and Towards Justice are bringing claims against Sterling that “they weren’t following reasonable procedures in verifying the accuracy in some of the things they report,” among other allegations, said Seligman.
Sterling did not respond to requests for comment. Julia Stewart, TGP’s vice president of internal resources, assumes Sterling runs some sort of algorithm to characterize different organizations like The Gathering Place. Regardless of the method in place, it has clearly proven to produce inaccurate information and can impact peoples’ lives negatively.
“[Sterling] not only misclassified us as a residential facility, but then they took the extra step of characterizing that and flagging us as high-risk,” said Stewart.
In the 31 years TGP has been open, no other member has been in this situation, to Stewart’s knowledge.
Stewart continues, “So, somehow, just by virtue of receiving mail at The Gathering Place, [Sterling is] saying this makes someone high-risk to hire for a position.”
Information about people’s lives is bought and sold online by companies like Sterling—and sometimes with a large price tag, according to Seligman. However, there are few measures, if any, taken to ensure the information is up-to-date and accurate. And somewhere along the line, The Gathering Place was labeled a high-risk facility by Sterling, an error that proved incredibly detrimental to Compo.
Seligman believes Compo’s case could set a precedent for better enforcement of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and that’s one reason why it’s important for people in her situation to file suit. “Otherwise these companies have very little incentive to follow the law,” continues Seligman.
Compo said when she received her background check she was mad and eager to take action to fight for her rights and the rights of the countless others who have been affected by inaccurate background reporting procedures. “I want to stand up for my rights and stand up for the rights of all who’ve been harmed.” Compo continued, “I would like to lay the foundation to prevent these companies from lying about people who’re just trying to get a job.” ■
Philadelphia-based journalist and writer Peter Moskowitz’s newest book explores gentrification and its impact on American cities. As low-income people face higher rents and being priced out of their homes, he calls on Americans to unite and form a “mainstream housing movement.”
By Jared Paben
Insufficient income taxes on the rich, cash-starved local governments, and opportunistic developers constitute the ingredients for a particularly bitter pill for low-income people: higher rents.
So says Peter Moskowitz, who has written a new book exploring gentrification and its impacts on American cities. But what particularly worries him is the fact that young white people moving to cities—those urbanites who contribute to gentrification while also suffering the effects of it—fail to recognize they can be part of a badly needed mainstream political movement for housing, he said.
“They just see themselves as like, ‘Well, I just have to make more money to afford more rent.’ Or, ‘Well, I should move to a different city,’” Moskowitz said. “It’s much easier to see yourself as individualized than it is to see yourself as part of this collective action that needs to take place.”
That collective action is materializing in cities overseas.
“It’s not uncommon in Berlin to have tens of thousands of people on the streets protesting gentrification, which seems almost unfathomable in most U.S. cities right now,” he said.
Moskowitz is the author of How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, which he describes as a narrative journey through gentrification in San Francisco, New Orleans, Detroit, and New York City. The book was published in March.
The Philadelphia-based journalist and writer spoke with Street Roots, a street paper based in Portland, Oregon, about gentrification, its causes, its effects, and some potential solutions.
To set the scene for readers, I was wondering if you could give us a sense of what gentrification looks like on the ground. If I were walking down the street, how would I recognize it?
It looks like a couple of different things. When it’s first starting out, you might just see the renovations. Or you might just see new trees being planted. It might look like a neighborhood is really coming back to life, especially if it’s happening in a neighborhood that’s been disinvested in for a long time. Slowly but surely things will change. How I see the end of gentrification—or the last stage—is that neighborhoods move into a different scale of living. Buildings get bigger, they become completely unaffordable to the people that used to live in that neighborhood, and the entire feel of a neighborhood changes because it now caters to that new demographic. So I think the changes can start out as subtle, but nowadays…I think you’re seeing less of that mom-and-pop-moving-in-and-fixing-up-a-house kind of gentrification and more of the corporate, top-down gentrification where condos are all of a sudden plopped into a neighborhood.
What are some of the ingredients that lead to the gentrification of different parts of cities?
I think you should go all the way back to how cities became attractive real estate investments in the first place. If you look at right after World War II and the creation of the suburbs—really right after the Great Depression, which is when the suburbs started to be created—the federal government essentially subsidized the mortgages of white people and redlined communities of color. And what “redlining” means is literally they drew red lines on maps and said, “Banks cannot lend here.” And they determined what neighborhoods those would be based on how many people of color lived in them. And so what that essentially did was push an entire generation of white people out to the suburbs and give them wealth in the form of housing and create a completely disinvested urban core. So now fast forward to the 2000s, and what’s an attractive real estate investment if you’re an investor? The suburbs are already built out. Commute times are ridiculous. No one wants to live there anymore because it’s boring. And cities all of a sudden seem like a great investment: they’re cheap. You can buy a bunch of single-family homes and build a huge condo there and get a great return on your investment. That’s the main ingredient is this decades-long history of disinvestment in the cities. And now that kind of seesaw has tipped it the other direction.
I also think you have to look at how governments fund themselves these days, when tax rates on the rich are so low, especially at the federal level. We used to have 70, 80, 90 percent income tax rates for the richest Americans, and now that’s down to about 39 percent. And with all the loopholes, even lower than that. That used to pay for things like public schools. That used to pay for things like public transit, for public housing, for housing subsidies. And now none of that exists, so cities are fending for themselves, and the only way that they can fund their tax base is to attract rich people. That merges with developers’ interests to buy up real estate for cheap. And cities all of a sudden say, ‘Hey, want to bring a bunch of rich people to the city? Well that’s good for our bottom line. Here’s some land, here’s some tax breaks. Please come and do what you will.’
Some of what you mentioned about mortgage policies and redlining I recognize from the Vice article you wrote focusing on LGBTQ communities in New York. Looking at that, are there examples of specific places where it’s been most disheartening—or even maddening—to see this occur? You talked about New York, but you also mentioned in How to Kill a City New Orleans, San Francisco, and Detroit.
I think pretty much every large and mid-sized city is under pressure right now. To me, the most disheartening is a place like New Orleans because of how (Hurricane) Katrina decimated the city and how the city used that as an opportunity to essentially kick out 100,000 African-Americans. There are now 100,000 fewer African-Americans living there than there were before Katrina. And you know, the politicians essentially said—the governor at the time, Kathleen Blanco, said it took the storm of a lifetime to create the opportunity of a lifetime. And they dismantled the school system, they dismantled the public housing system. So that was just the most direct and evil—for lack of a better word—version of gentrification I saw. But I really think anywhere it’s happening it’s sad. Because even if it does bring new public transit or revitalization in an aesthetic sense to a neighborhood, it’s pointing to this deeper sickness of how we fund our cities and how we think of our cities.
In your research, did you find that liberal cities are more prone to this than conservative ones? Or did you see any kind of difference at all with regard to political philosophies in a city?
I don’t really think political philosophy matters that much because, nowadays, liberals and conservatives have very little differences when it comes to city policy. New York, for example, or San Francisco—they’re both good examples, but let me talk about San Francisco. They’re socially liberal. They’re pro-gay marriage. But they’re still giving tax breaks to developers. They’re still giving tax breaks to large companies. They’re still underfunding public transit and public housing. So there are maybe degrees of difference between these cities, between a conservative city and a liberal city. At the end of the day, I don’t really think it matters that much these days. Every city is kind of addicted to funding themselves via gentrification.
Is that fair to say, in general, that government fiscal policy is a prime driver?
Yeah, I think it’s the prime driver. Let’s say you have a hundred poor people and a hundred middle-class people and a hundred rich people in a city. The poor people are going to require more resources in terms of housing, in terms of public transit, and all those things. Theoretically, the rich people in a classical Keynesian economic model would fund those poor people, but because we don’t have high enough income taxes, we have to extract wealth in other ways. And that’s essentially become the job of city governments, is to convince rich people to spend their money in cities. Whether that’s buying a condo so they can extract it through property taxes or coming there as tourists, whatever it may be. Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, one day on the radio said if we could just get a couple more billionaires to live in New York, so many of our problems would be solved. That’s really the modus operandi of cities: how do you get as many rich people living there as possible?
That’s an interesting idea. It almost sounds like the land-use laws that allow this kind of upzoning are really being driven by a lack of tax revenue, and that’s what’s having the downstream effects on low-income people in those neighborhoods.
But isn’t there something to be said for upzoning areas to allow more density, to allow more transit-oriented development, walkable cities, things like that?
Sure. I think it is unfortunate American cities were developed in this really silly way that was based on automobiles, and it does make sense to create walkable cities. But the problem is that you want to do that in a way that doesn’t just end up creating these rich enclaves. You can’t just use buzzwords like “walkability” or something. You have to actually create policy that protects people. Looking at Williamsburg in Brooklyn, for example, that was completely upzoned to have 30-story-tall, 50-story-tall condo towers. Before, it was kind of an abandoned industrial waterfront. Is that really a problem? Not necessarily. But if the people living on the next block don’t have rent control, then they’re essentially forced out. And if they don’t invest an equal amount in public transit as they did upzoning, then you have what you have now. They literally can’t fit enough people on the EL Train. It doesn’t work anymore. They’re building more densely. That’s great. But if you’re building more densely and you’re not protecting the people across the street from the effects of that, then what’s the point? If you’re doing transit-oriented development without adding transit, then what’s the point?
What are some concrete steps that American cities can take to mitigate some of these impacts on low-income people?
In terms of government solutions, I think the most pressing thing is rent control across the board, universal rent control. And I believe essentially every city should have that. I think a lot of cities get scared that if they institute rent control, then it doesn’t give incentives for landlords to fix up places or to even buy up buildings. But rent control in Detroit doesn’t have to be the same as rent control in Portland, which doesn’t have to be the same as rent control in New York. Every city can figure out a system and a metric by which to cap people’s rent.
In terms of other government solutions, I really think higher taxes are the way to go, but we’re so far from there in this country. The biggest solution is we have to start building a political movement around housing. Housing is not thought of really politically in this country. In the last presidential election, it wasn’t mentioned once during the entire campaign, even though it’s everyone’s biggest expense, not only in cities but in suburbs, too. We have food-justice movements; we have anti-poverty movements. There’s not a mainstream housing movement in this country, which is kind of baffling to me and is something I think needs to change if we have a hope of changing how we live.
To play devil’s advocate a little bit, if the private sector is looking at an area and investing a lot of money in there and creating jobs and bringing in tourists, does that always have to be bad?
I think if communities can wrest control from that situation, it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. In Detroit, for example, they’re working on instituting a community benefits ordinance where big developments have to talk to community members. Before they move in, they have to guarantee a certain number of jobs to go to local residents for publicly funded developments like stadiums and things like that. So I think there are ways to wrest control away from corporations and more toward citizens, and that can give people a better say in how development happens. It’s not like people living in the outer neighborhoods of Detroit don’t want to see development. Because I think people would rather live next to a bunch of houses that are filled with people than live on a block of abandoned houses and wild dogs, which is what a lot of Detroit is. So it’s not like people are saying, “Don’t come here. Don’t develop.” In some places, like in San Francisco and New York, it’s a different story: people are saying that, for good reason. But in places where development could be used, I don’t think it’s viewed as a completely negative. I think people are just saying, “We want a say in how this happens, and we want to make sure that it benefits everyone and not just the developer.”
I’m kind of an incurable optimist. Have you ever seen an example where investments are done right in a community, where the community had input and got benefit from that?
I think there are lots of examples of communities revitalizing their own neighborhoods. If you look at Jefferson-Chalmers in Detroit, or even the Lower Ninth Ward right now in New Orleans, both of those places are facing pressures from gentrification. But also they’re communities coming together and rebuilding parks and rebuilding houses and having neighborhood watch groups and things like that. I don’t know if there’s ever been a successful corporate redevelopment that didn’t have negative impacts on low-income people. I think there’s always going to be fallout from that. ■
Courtesy of Street Roots / INSP.ngo
Fake parking signs are spreading the poetry of a diverse cast of Denverites down the Colfax Corridor.
By Katelyn Skye Bennett
Drive down Colfax and you will notice parking signs that contain poetry and prose rather than parking directions. These signs are part of a Write Denver project to change the face and attitude of the city.
Write Denver is an outreach program of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Dan Manzanares, community programs coordinator, said the parking sign project began with “generative” writing workshops. The neighborhood-focused workshops take place across LoDo, the Colfax corridor, and Five Points.
Write Denver received a grant from the Colorado Art Tank in 2016. “We immediately started holding workshops around town in those three target neighborhoods. People would write, then they submit, and we kind of curate or edit those writings when Write Denver gets a submission. And then we ‘publish’ them in the form of parking signs,” Manzanares said.
The idea was to flood the city with literature so that even ordinary spaces could transform people through poetry and prose, according to Manzanares. “I think we can have a conversation through art, or art can be a catalyst for deeper conversations.”
Write Denver collected short compositions from the neighborhood-focused workshops as well as a variety of off-site and pop-up writing workshops geared toward diverse and marginalized communities. The goal was to highlight alternative voices rather than the typical Lighthouse members.
In October 2015 Write Denver led a special workshop for Denver VOICE vendors. Some of the writing from that workshop has been installed on parking signs. The signs also feature writing from the Hard Times Writing Workshop, a collaboration between Lighthouse and the Denver Public Library (see page 16).
Manzanares hopes to have 100 parking signs up by November as long as they continue to have enough funding, but he said Write Denver is putting them up “guerrilla-style.” They did not ask the city’s permission, so the signs will stay up as long as others keep them up. Save for one sign by the capitol that the city asked him to remove, he said the response has been positive and has drawn more Denverites to Write Denver.
“It’s going very well,” Manzanares said, cracking a smile. “It’s kind of been a game changer for Lighthouse. It’s forced us to integrate our audience base. It’s diversified us in fantastic ways.”
“One of the goals that Write Denver has made clear to us is that we can do these outreach programs to these kind of marginalized communities and get them more comfortable or confident that their voice matters, that they have a perspective to share, a story to share that’s just as important as the mainstream society,” he continued, adding that he hoped the project could inspire conversation between the Denver social strata.
Brian Dibley, a former Denver VOICE vendor whose poetry was used for the project, hopes the signs will help people and encourage them to pursue their dreams. Several of Dibley’s poems are published on signs around the city, including “Hands” and “Cheesman Park,” which describes the park he went to with his wife before she died a few years ago.
“It feels fantastic [to have my poems on the signs]. Guess it gives me a big boost to keep on writing,” Dibley said. “It’s an honor.”
Lyric Saint James, another poet who submitted her art to the VOICE through Hard Times, said, “I love that my poetry is being published. Other works I have self-published without much recognition. My poems are inspired by the look I see in a person’s eyes, and how I translate it into mine...It is my hope that the work causes others to think.”
Manzanares hopes the signs inspire more empathy. “I would love the conversation to grow so large and be based around this idea of people experiencing homelessness or extreme poverty, that they are people, that they are intelligent, creative human beings.” ■
This column shares the thoughts and opinions of the diverse group of people who make up the Denver VOICE vendor pool. Have a question forVOICE vendors? See below for information on how to submit it.
What is your favorite place in Denver, and why?
One of my favorite places to go is the Pearl Street Farmers Market. I like to go buy local foods and support my neighbors. It’s a good feeling, and it makes me eat healthier. I also vend the Denver VOICE at the Pearl Street Farmers Market. From the first day I was there, the people made me feel like I belonged there.
My favorite place in Denver is the Museum of Nature and Science and the zoo. The park and the area are really beautiful and very restful. I like to walk and enjoy the scenery.
The place called SAME Café. It has very nice people and great food. I’m thankful for all at SAME Café who give their time to help those who are down and out. I’ve been there a few times; it’s just an awesome place to eat. ■
Help us continue the dialogue by submitting your questions to email@example.com.
Writing Through Hard Times
The Hard Times Writing Workshop is a collaboration between Denver Public Library and Lighthouse Writers Workshop. The workshop is open to all members of the public—especially those experiencing homelessness. Each month, the Denver VOICE will publish a selection of the voices of Hard Times.
Hard Times meets every Tuesday from 3-5 p.m. on the fourth floor of DPL’s Central branch. To check out more writing by Hard Times participants, go to writedenver.org.
Papers of copybooks are dancing – by wind – in front of the café!
. . . .
Our friend blocks the Muggins dominoes game, and checks off five scores on a folded piece of a cigarette pack,
And then, he bows his head and says:
We checked off another five souls . . . and now, another friend must be torn up in the next explosion!
. . . .
It’s always the same game, repeating itself, on the café table or on the café curb:
With each bang of a domino, on a swaying board, there is a jest of explosion at the entrance!
With each throw of a dice in backgammon game, there is a dead body rolling . . .
With each puff from a hookah hose, there is a chortle vaporizing.
. . . .
Laughing, Raed says: Son of brew (coffee)
This is not an insult being addressed to anyone, nor is sarcastic joking;
It is only a statement of the taste of bitterness that a loss and another imminent waiting leave on a customer’s mouth (between a loss and another, we pour a bitter loss and wait)
It is a silent and pallid statement; a sign that we are charred and leave our entrails behind us, swelling in proportion to the extent of calamity . . .
He says: ‘Son of brew’; and dwindles;
Disappears with any chair or couch that is listed in a contract to supply Paradise furniture.
. . . .
The café empties gradually,
And any slight crack can start from a cup of tea, and extend through a glass, running on the wall of the café, then the floor, to crack, at the end, a heart!
. . . .
The last corpse that’s been buried next to me in the cemetery . . . A corpse of a female employee who we used to watch while she was passing by the opposite side of our café – in front of a café shop that was blown up yesterday, she told me:
Your café remained empty . . .
Yet the people passing by still hear sounds: laughter, snap of dominoes, a roll of dice, and a sound of glass smashing . . .
Listen they do closely to the glass that is smashing,
And say about us: wreckage is smashing and bleeding its glass!
While papers from the debts ledger are frolicking on the café curb, shaking off our names and numbers . . . and they don’t calm down until someone says:
“Son of brew!”
Yesterday, I made it home
just in time to partake
of the sight of a deluge
of a hard, hard rain
which quickly developed
into a hailstorm. The skies
cracked open and hammered
the parked cars and shredded
the leaves of the trees along
the streets. Inwardly, I expressed
gratitude to The Powers That Be
for bringing me to a safe,warm
dry place—my front door, made
of glass—whereI could observe
the deluge. I nearly dropped
my jaw to drink in the sight
ofthe might of the heavens
as they poured dirty rainwater
andhalf-inch pellets downward,
Ere long, the lawn outside
my door, the sidewalks
and the streets lay forlorn,
carpeted by two inches of hail.
For once, I had no spiritual delusion,
no holy metaphor to attempt
to gain a superior handle on
the phenomenon, just
a mammal’s awe at the fury
expressed by theenvironment
weshare on the planet.
If i but taste as sweet as I look
Would you then understand
From my ripe pink soft inner core
The sacrifice dig into me as my seeds
Reminding me of my youth memoirs
My umbilical code known to be a stem
To the fighting my sibling for water
As circular with the greatest of grass color
Forming into the yellowish beauty today
Picked by your rough hands against me
My life story has now begun
In the distance I realize it’s about to the end
For i am the succulent taste you craved
I AM A GUAVA
This spring a federal judge granted class action status to a lawsuit against the city of Denver over its practice of periodically “sweeping” the belongings of people experiencing homelessness from downtown streets.Read More
This column shares the thoughts and opinions of the diverse group of people who make up the Denver VOICE vendor pool. Have a question forVOICE vendors? See below for information on how to submit it.Read More