By Michael Roberts
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Since the late 1980s, a combination of city, state and federal money has flooded the neighborhood, targeting everything from job training and rehabilitation centers to law enforcement programs and cops' salaries to housing renovations and street beautification projects. Yet the drama that has taken place in Cole this decade has been one of well-intentioned but often inexperienced leaders acquiring funds and then losing them because of mismanagement and political bickering.
Cole seems habitually to get the short end of the stick. This is where Denver's drug-gang problems were born and where anti-tax fanatic Douglas Bruce was found guilty of being a slumlord. The neighborhood used to be home to a prestigious Montessori program until it was moved from Mitchell Elementary School to southwest Denver. Similarly, the Denver School for the Arts was booted out of Cole Middle School this past fall in favor of a Washington Park location.
To some, the departure of these institutions is a sign, despite the influx of money, of an overall indifference to the neighborhood's fate--except when a public-relations point about "helping the poor" can be manufactured.
"You've got one of the poorest neighborhoods in the community being exploited," says a city official who asks not to be identified. "You have poor people who are not particularly sophisticated, and to be excluding them is huge. The city is allowing this to happen."
In a city known for its neighborhoods, Cole is an amorphous area. Officials say it's contained within eighty or so square blocks, from Downing Street east to York Street and from Martin Luther King Boulevard (32nd Street) north to 40th Street. Unlike Curtis Park, to the west, Cole is not being gentrified by yuppies. Unlike nearby Five Points, which is built around active Welton Street, Cole isn't built around anything; it's built between. Bruce Randolph Avenue (named after the late barbecue owner and philanthropist) is Cole's central street, but it's a business and social hub only in fits and starts.
Some other neighborhoods, like Baker or Highlands, have sharper boundaries. Cole, by contrast, stretches. The large grounds of Cole Middle School and Mitchell Elementary, across the street from each other, lend the neighborhood visual elbow room. Huge abandoned buildings break up the area into an airy collection of bungalows, liquor stores, groceries, churches and California-style row houses. Only on the east side of Cole, around High Street, do you see the neat, uniformed residential blocks so common in many other Denver neighborhoods. The more valuable property is closer to York, and the most long-standing ethnic group in Cole lives there: These days, that means African-Americans. Most of the rest of Cole is Hispanic.
Cole started as a working-class neighborhood, home to smelters, foundries, factories, railyards and the men and women who worked them. At its northern edge are the remains of its industrial heritage: large, abandoned factories and unused rail lines that snake across the asphalt, disappearing into gravelly fields littered with weeds and glass.
The area first became populated in the 1860s, as Denver grew to the northeast from downtown. Cole was originally platted as "Eastside" and then subdivided into additions: Hyde Park and then, in 1868, Ford's Addition. The neighborhood was later renamed for Carlos M. Cole, a superintendent of Denver Public Schools.
The neighborhood's initial lure lay in the appeal of Ford Park, a park and racetrack laid out between Race and Downing and from 36th to 38th, but when railroad tracks supplanted the park in 1870, Cole's working-class status was confirmed. It became part of the city in 1874.
The junction of the Kansas Pacific and Denver Pacific rail lines was at 40th and Walnut Streets, in the northwest corner of the neighborhood. Many railroad workers lived near the yards east of Downing. The still-standing Annunciation Church at 36th and Lafayette got its start as a church for Irish railroad workers.
Railroad jobs necessitated temporary housing, and the hub of Cole took shape in the 1890s with the construction of the Franklin Hotel at what is now Bruce Randolph and Franklin. It still stands today, an impressive three-story building with shops and apartments that gives Cole its strongest neighborhood feel.
More than a century ago the neighborhood was dominated by Irish and German immigrants, though some Eastern Europeans--Russians, Poles, Hungarians--as well as Scandinavians also settled there. Many blacks had settled around Five Points, but segregated housing and real estate practices kept them west of Downing until the 1930s. Even so, Cole was home to Bradford Turner, owner of the first black-owned laundry in Denver, who purchased a home at 3525 Gilpin Street in 1919 and lived there until 1979.
"Even as late as 1950," local historian Wallace Yvonne McNair writes in a survey of the neighborhood, "the Cole population was overwhelmingly white. Of the 6,883 residents at that time, only 6.6 percent were non-white." In the next decade, a steady migration of blacks eastward toward Stapleton Airport and Montbello left the neighborhood with a population of 7,259, nearly evenly split among Anglos, blacks and Hispanics.
Since 1960, white flight and then black flight have left Cole with about half its peak number of residents, most of whom are Hispanic. An increasing number of Mexican nationals, many of whom are believed to be illegal immigrants, have settled into the northwest corner of Cole. African-Americans tend to live farther east and south.