Local Buzz: Jazz & Gentry

Published March 2010 Vol. 14 Issue 3

Will Denver Have its own Harlem Renaissance?

written by Tim Covi
reporting by Dwayne Pride
photography by Adrian Diubaldo

Standing at the corner of Welton and Washington Streets, if you look hard enough you might still see throngs of people coiling around the sides of the Rossonian Hotel. Young men standing under tipped fedoras and women in cocktail dresses and heels lined up to hear some of the best jazz the country has to offer. You’d have to look hard, mind you. Past the dusty, lightly sootsoiled brick, past the 1993 renovations, around the light rail that sidles up to the hotel’s flank and comes to a slow, furtive stop at the traffic light before rushing off down Welton with its payload. You’d need to look beyond the empty shell being remodeled, well into history. Because for several years, this corner has been a husk of what it was.

In 1881, the name “Five Points” came into popular usage to denote the intersection of Welton Street, Washington Street, 27th Street and East 26th Avenue, and eventually was used to refer to the surrounding neighborhood.

By the mid-1920s, the Five Points neighborhood had become the center of Denver’s Black community, and it has remained that way until today. It was dubbed the Harlem of the West in its heyday. It went through a swingin’ phase as the epicenter for Denver jazz and nightlife. And like a lot of urban neighborhoods, it went through a crash and has looked more like an urban ghetto for the last quarter of a century.

Today, as a trend toward urban living grows in Denver, the neighborhood is again under the strain of changing times. And Welton Street, its thoroughfare, is at the heart of that strain. In 2009, Five Points was one of five neighborhoods selected to participate in Denver’s Neighborhood Marketplace Initiative, a program that intends to strengthen and enhance neighborhoods by fostering development along key business corridors. For Five Points, that means Welton Street and it’s a fate that residents see with a mix of hope, skepticism and surrender.

Wil Alston is the executive director of the Five Points Business District, a platform within the Marketplace Initiative whose goal is to attract businesses to the area and support those that already exist.

Alston sees the current trend in Five Points from a cup-halffull perspective. He wants new businesses and dollars to infuse the neighborhood. “The purpose of the Marketplace Initiative is to give girth and strength to some of the smaller neighborhood business corridors around the city,” Alston says. “Some of [the neighborhoods] are progressing faster than others. Five points is progressing nicely and the city of Denver wants to make an investment,” he says.

But outside the business community, this “progress” isn’t always met with celebration. Some residents see signs of gentrification around them. All over the neighborhood, investors and homebuyers have been putting that recognizable stamp of urban sheik on everything from remodeled Victorians to scrapes and new condominiums. Walking down Welton Street, Ali Jackson, a local filmmaker and documentarian who lives in Park Hill yells to his friend that gentrification “has swept over this community like a tsunami.”

A quick look at price tags gives a nod in that direction. In just eight years, the median sales price for a home in Five Points went up 80 percent. It jumped from $133,000 in January 2000, to approximately $300,000 in January 2008, according to Trulia.com. Like most Denver neighborhoods, property values have dropped in Five Points since 2008, but its median sales price is still 23.69 percent higher than Denver as a whole. What was largely a working class neighborhood in the 1990s has become increasingly difficult to afford.

To put these numbers in perspective, you would have needed to earn approximately $5,000 a month and have $30,000 for a down payment to afford a $300,000 home in January 2008. This is true, assuming that affordability means budgeting 30 percent of your income for mortgage and that the average mortgage rate was roughly 5.5 percent at that time.

The median household income for African Americans in Denver in 2008 was $31,991, or $2,665 per month, according to a report by the Front Range Economic Strategy Center.

Ali Jackson talked with a friend on Welton Street near a light rail stop. The two say more condos are being built in the area that cater to the wealthy. They say that gang wars and crack problems shook the community and made the property values plummet. As people moved out of the area, investors moved in. Now Jackson says the cost of living is so high that some who have businesses in the area can’t afford to live there.

But Alston says the racial and economic changes aren’t about gentrification. “Gentrification is such a tricky conversation,” Alston says. “At one time, we were pretty much relegated to this area, and now we have the ability to live in Lakewood, and Douglas County and Green Valley Ranch, and so we’re living all over the State now. So, if you use the property, if you sell it and you go buy a house somewhere else, were you really forced out of a neighborhood?” he asks.

Alston says what is happening to Five Points is similar to what is happening in New York. “It’s a changing time,” he says, “Maybe it was a couple weeks ago, there was an article talking about Harlem in the New York Times, and it talked about the changing face of Harlem. I kind of posted it on my Facebook account and said ‘Scratch out Harlem and put in Five Points,’ because I think the concepts were really the same. That is, as people moved out, these young Caucasian couples who had the financial resources to buy these urban properties, they bought ‘em. They didn’t come in and force people out. They bought vacant properties. And so again, I think this whole issue of gentrification and whether it’s this subject of displacement…to some extent it’s a tricky conversation.”

Regardless of the name you give it, there is no question that the neighborhood is changing. Today, abandoned storefronts and businesses sit derelict next to thriving cafés, media offices and other long-running establishments along Welton. Urban decay butts up against revitalized buildings. The barely 15-year-old light rail clanks down among the shops and light foot-traffic.

The neighborhood is gripped by forces pulling in opposite directions: on the one hand, a need to be relevant to the upwardly mobile, White population that has been buying up property, and on the other, its older identity as a focal point of Denver’s Black community.

And amidst this strange and hybrid scene, Alston and supporters of the Marketplace Initiative have a vision for a Harlem of the West Renaissance.

Alston thinks that these forces pulling at the neighborhood don’t have to be at odds. He says change can happen while not only preserving the neighborhood’s identity, but celebrating it, building on it. In his opinion, tourism is the powerful force that will build the area’s economy and keep its Black heritage alive simultaneously. Framing the area as an African American cultural destination is the primary goal.

“I’m not worried, because I think Five Points has its own equity,” he says. “Tourism continues to be probably Colorado’s second biggest revenue generator, and if Five Points can become this destination that people want to come to Colorado to explore, that’s money for Colorado.” On the marketing end of that tourist concept, Alston says Five Points is very well positioned. “Until you get to Kansas City heading east, and to California heading west, this kind of critical mass of Afro-centricity does not exist anywhere else. So we have a unique selling point,” he concludes.

According to the 2000 census, Five Points has a much higher percentage of African-Americans compared to the city as a whole. 25.4 percent of Five Points residents identified as African American, where only 10.8 percent of the city as a whole did. 27.41 percent of Five Points identified as White, where 51.93 percent identified as White throughout the city as a whole. Finally, 42.88 percent identified as Latino, where 31.68 percent identified as Latino throughout the city.

While Alston holds onto optimism and thinks the best is possible for Five Points, some community members are still nostalgic for the old days. “I miss Daddio,” Robert Martin says, referring to the owner, operator and DJ of Denver’s bygone radio station KDKO. It was one of the oldest R&B stations in the region in its time.

Robert owns a 17-year-old wireless store right below the former studio on Welton Street. In his words, nothing compares to the way things used to be. The radio station was sold to an investor, and it took a piece of Five Points with it.

Five Points might be losing some of its African-American businesses, but to Alston, that’s not to be scared of. “Will Five Points ever be this 100 percent African-American owned and operated area. No, I don’t think it will be. And then, I don’t think it ever was. I think it’s always been this place of diversity,” he says.

Michael Tipton, a community activist, thinks the power to make the most of a changing community is in people’s hands, they just need to be aware of it. Crossroads Theater, for instance, has been a crucial part of local culture for a long time. Situated near the Rossonian Hotel on Welton, it’s a place where people can go to put on small act shows, host local meetings or poetry slams.

Crossroads is now turning over the reins to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, a company that bills larger acts. DCPA has said they want to continue some local work like Café Nuba, a poetry slam founded by Ashara Ekundayo, but they also want to open the theater up to a more national scene to pay the rent and make the theater more viable. Having attended a community meeting about the change, Tipton says, “It could go either way. We have to be smart enough to make it a good thing. Get down there, support it—it’s in our community. Don’t just give it away and let them do whatever, but make it a good thing for us. Rally around Café Nuba, Donnie Betts, different smaller production companies that have been using it.”

His attitude of being active is an important reminder. Alston almost echoed the sentiment with a cautionary note. “If you allow a thing to be relegated to insignificance, it will be relegated to insignificance,” he said. “So I think Black folk all over the city, people that live down at E-470 and Smoky Hill Road, they need to care about what’s happening in Five Points, and I think if they continue to care about what’s happening over here, I think the rich culture and heritage will remain the same.”•