What happened? A brief history of gentrification in Denver

By Robert Davis

Part one of a four-part series examining gentrification in Denver, its history, causes, and where our city is going next. The first part of the series will explore the historical beginnings of gentrification and how they still effect Denver and its residents today. 

Gentrification in Denver began with the passage of the National Housing Act of 1934. 

Before then, the term “urban renewal” was nonexistent. White people overwhelmingly populated the city which was teeming with jobs, affordable housing, and public transportation. 

“It’s impossible to ignore the racial aspect of gentrification, and how it displaced many of the city’s cultural minorities,” said Dr. Tom Noel, professor of history at the University of Colorado Denver.

In the 1930s, the U.S. faced a serious housing shortage. After the passage of the National Housing Act, and as a part of the New Deal, mortgages became more widely available to white working and middle class citizens willing to move into the suburbs. 

The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) was created under the act to service the new mortgages. However, the FHA didn’t ensure all mortgage loans. In fact, the Authority “redlined” — literally drawing red lines on a map around black and cultural minority neighborhoods — so that banks knew which development projects were insured. 

  An aerial view of downtown Denver in 1976 shows much of the city had been developed as parking lot space. (Credit: Jack De Wolf)

An aerial view of downtown Denver in 1976 shows much of the city had been developed as parking lot space. (Credit: Jack De Wolf)

Redlining also helped the FHA subsidize developers who were mass-producing suburban neighborhoods. This is why many of the homes in Denver’s old neighborhoods, such as Curtis Park, look exactly the same.  

The FHA’s justification for not ensuring loans to developments inside the red lines was that if African Americans moved into the same suburban neighborhoods as white people, property values would collapse and the crime rate would soar. 

This argument was demonstrably false. Those who moved into such neighborhoods paid a premium price for their home because neighborhood deeds explicitly denied non-whites the ability to purchase homes. They were also subject to racially motivated animus from white residents, including having crosses burned on their front lawns.

Then came World War II. While many white people were enlisted overseas, African Americans and cultural minorities migrated to the city to fill vacated factory jobs. To accommodate the influx of workers, minority workers were allowed to rent in housing projects that were once “white-only.”

In the mid-to-late 1940s, returning soldiers were offered low interest and zero down mortgages under the GI bill. Denver Urbanism, a blog focused on Denver’s development, estimates that north of 16,000 new homes were built in Denver between 1940 - 1949 while the city’s population increased by almost 90,000. 

Some of the fastest growing suburban neighborhoods were Elyria-Swansea, East Colfax, Villa Park, and Sunnyvale. Today, these neighborhoods are primarily inhabited by minority residents and are increasingly at risk of losing their cultural ownership of the city. 

“Gentrification is putting Denver at risk of becoming a homogenous city. One where you have to be white and rich to afford to live here,” Noel said. 

Between 1940 and 1965, Denver’s population swelled from 400,000 to just over one million. This influx spurred the local government to build thousands of subdivisions on land that was once used as agricultural industry, according to a study of neighborhood growth commissioned by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

After 1965, Denver looked completely different. Lower Downtown (LoDo) became synonymous with skid row housing for the down-and-out. Low-income tenants stayed in the city for its cheap housing and myriad bars. 

  Referred to as a “residential security map,” this map shows the redlining of Denver districts in 1938. (Credit: Denver Public Library, Western History Division, Call number CG4314.D4 E73 1938. U556)

Referred to as a “residential security map,” this map shows the redlining of Denver districts in 1938. (Credit: Denver Public Library, Western History Division, Call number CG4314.D4 E73 1938. U556)

In order to reclaim their once bustling city, Denverites voted on and approved the Urban Skyline Renewal Project in 1967. The project revamped 30 blocks of downtown, pushed the displaced to the outskirts or farther, and created a more affluent city. 

The project cleared many of the city’s historic buildings in favor of retail businesses. One of the fallen buildings during the project was the Cooper Building at 17th and Curtis, which was home to the Denham Theatre. Today, the area is home to the Kimpton Hotel Monaco.  

Many of the historic buildings were torn down in favor of parking lots under the project. This was meant as a sign to wealthy investors and middle class consumers that the city was safe again. For the poor and homeless individuals in the city, it was a sign that they were no longer welcome. 

“Back then, downtown had everything poor people wanted. Food, booze, a little sociability. The Health Department knew where to go to help these people. That all ended after the Urban Skyline Renewal Project,” Noel said. 

After the project, Denver routinely traded historical buildings and streetcars for modern skyscrapers, pedestrian malls, and parking lots until the city began to look like it does today. 

Some say gentrification ended in the 1970s and that Denver naturally grew into its modern form, but the links to Denver’s past continue to guide today’s growth. ■