Park Place

An ambitious plan to expand Denver's parks may take root if the political climate is fertile.

Of course, the extraordinary work of Schuetze and DeBoer wouldn't have been possible without the thoughtful leadership of a strong mayor. Speer, the turn-of-the-century mayor who would become Schuetze's and DeBoer's employer and patron, also came to Denver to cure his tuberculosis. Despite a reputation for shady electioneering that outraged reformers, Speer would come to be regarded as Denver's greatest mayor, in large part because of his determination to build a beautiful city of parks and landscaped boulevards -- the "city beautiful." It was because of Speer's convictions that we have the Civic Center and many of the other public spaces that define Denver. Talented designers like Schuetze and DeBoer depended on Speer and other supporters, who were willing to fight for their exalted plans.

Speer faced down angry taxpayers who said parks weren't worth paying for and a hostile press that portrayed his dreams of civic grandeur as an egotistical boondoggle. The Denver Post's Frederick Bonfils attacked Speer with a front-page editorial in 1912: "You have built miles and miles of boulevards -- with the people's money -- along which there is practically not a single house," wrote Bonfils. "You will be known as the most inefficient and corrupt mayor Denver ever had, as the stuffed prophet."

But Speer was vindicated. Webb has invoked the Speer tradition in his own grand plan to turn the Platte into a park-lined oasis and to create huge new green spaces at Stapleton and Lowry. It will be up to the next mayor to decide whether Denver truly becomes a "City in a Park."

Anthony Camera
Susan Baird (left) and Tina Scardina are planning ahead for better Denver parks.
Anthony Camera
Susan Baird (left) and Tina Scardina are planning ahead for better Denver parks.

Today, Denver's park planners often feel like they're under attack from Denverites with conflicting ideas of what a park should be.

Residents want new parks in their neighborhoods, but they also want the existing parks to be refurbished. Ballplayers demand new fields, while other neighbors lobby to get rid of soccer fields that attract "undesirable elements." Upscale residents who paid a lot of money to buy a house across the street from a park are horrified when a group of immigrants gathers to roast a pig and drink beer in the sun. Some City Park neighbors want all cars banned from the park, which would bar teens who like to hang out in their muscle cars. And residents of north Denver, west Denver and southeast Denver probably have the biggest gripe: their neighborhoods have far fewer parks than other areas of the city.

Experts predict that Denver will add 132,000 residents in the next twenty years, as people flock to the central city to avoid traffic congestion in the suburbs. Existing neighborhoods will grow more dense, and downtown Denver will be home to 40,000 residents. Many of the areas Denver has targeted for new residential development -- including places like Brighton Boulevard that are now semi-industrial -- have few parks. The people moving into the core city probably will live in condos, lofts and homes with very small yards, and they will demand more open space. In new subdivisions, the developers are usually expected to pay for parks. At Stapleton and Lowry, much of the park area is being funded by the developers, but Denver hasn't made a similar demand in urban parts of the city.

"Denver is becoming more dense, and development is happening in a more vertical fashion," says Baird. "We have to talk about a developer's responsibility to provide open space."

The pressures of population growth and changing demographics have already led to conflict in some of the city's best-known parks. Helen Kuykendall is a landscape architect who works on parks in fast-changing neighborhoods like Curtis Park and Globeville, and she's seen the disputes firsthand.

In Mestizo-Curtis Park, many recent immigrants from Mexico gather to play soccer. The drinking and partying that sometimes accompany the games alarmed some of the neighborhood's newer residents, leading to a proposal to end soccer games in the park. "There's a lot more gentrification in Curtis Park and people moving there and fixing up houses," says Kuykendall. "They want to be urban-chic people, and they're very involved and vocal. That neighborhood has a fair number of Hispanics with a long history there, and black families with a long history there, and new immigrants on top of that."

Kuykendall has been shocked to find that some of Denver's established Hispanics look askance at the recent arrivals from Latin America. "It's really something when you see a longtime Hispanic resident who's assimilated, and they look down on the new immigrants," she says. "There was an older Hispanic woman who said she was against the Hispanics who don't speak English."

In Globeville, many of the established residents are of eastern-European descent. In recent years, the neighborhood has become a popular place for Mexican immigrants, who often hang out in the area's parks. Some urinate outdoors. "That just disgusts the older residents," says Kuykendall. "There's not a lot of sensitivity or understanding on either side."

Kuykendall found herself in the middle of an unusual ethnic dispute when she was designing a playground in the Whittier neighborhood. That area has been home to some of the city's most prominent black people, including Webb and city councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, but in recent years, white families have been moving there.

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