My Way for the Highway

North Denver neighbors get a crash course in I-70's future.

An anonymous call led police to Robert David Cline's body, tucked inside a concrete cave under the on-ramp for westbound Interstate 70 at York Street, where the traffic backs up and the air smells like dog food.

Cline had been living under the ramp for some time. There was a spot he used as a bathroom, a broken-down grill marked his kitchen, and five-foot-tall weeds walled off the area.

His squat was just a hundred or so yards from the Wonder house on Claude Court. When Betty Wonder realized that the homeless man could see into her bedroom, the family installed iron bars over the windows and put in an alarm. The security job was just finished when police found Cline on a mattress this past August. The 43-year-old man had drunk himself to death.

Mark and Betty Wonder in front of their family home.
Jim J. Narcy
Mark and Betty Wonder in front of their family home.

The little bungalow where Betty lives dates back to the late 1800s. Before the railroads came to Colorado, the wealthy built their houses in this area close to the South Platte River, north of the new settlement of Denver. But with the railroads came industry -- smelters, stockyards and packing plants -- and the affluent soon moved out, replaced by immigrants who were willing to live on the wrong side of the tracks.

Betty Wonder's parents bought the house in the late '40s, before I-70 came to Colorado. Betty raised her 35-year-old son, Mark, in this house.

He's never known the neighborhood without the highway.

Now the traffic the family has grown to loathe may finally be their ticket out of I-70's shadow.

In 1919, a young Army officer named Dwight D. Eisenhower passed a hundred miles north of this spot, along what is now U.S. 30, in one of 81 motorized vehicles. This was the first transcontinental envoy, and according to Eisenhower's archives, it took 62 days to complete the 3,251 mile trip from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, at an average of six miles per hour.

Thirty-four years later, Eisenhower was the president of the United States, facing the growing threat of the Cold War. He realized that the nation needed a network of highways that would allow people to flee the cities if they came under attack and give the military a quick route to get weapons across the country. Congress had been talking about an interstate system for a decade; now Eisenhower made it happen. In 1956, the government approved the 41,000-mile National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

One of those highways, I-70, opened in 1964 and went right through the heart of Denver -- from Colorado Boulevard west through Swansea, Elyria and Globeville, a trio of poor, working-class neighborhoods filled with the offspring of immigrants. A swath of houses disappeared; the once-cohesive community was divided into little islands of residents.

The rationale behind this choice of routes is lost to history. But, notes local historian Tom Noel, "You wouldn't build a highway through a country club."

Forty years later, as they assessed traffic eastbound from Denver on I-70, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration determined that it was also time to rebuild the 1.2 miles of elevated viaduct between Colorado and Brighton Boulevard, the main route out of downtown. Four decades of traffic had taken a toll on the structure.

Not to mention the neighborhoods around it.

Twenty-five Elyria neighbors are rallying in the parking lot. They've got signs and songs. They're hollering about their 500 signatures, all from people who want I-70 turned into a tunnel.

A tunnel was floated as an early alternative to the current I-70 route through north Denver, but CDOT has decided that it isn't a viable option.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, government agencies tackling projects on public lands are supposed to take community concerns into consideration. In an unprecedented public-outreach campaign, CDOT collected ideas -- 170 in all -- on how to repair the viaduct. Three of those ideas remain on the table; two involve relocating the highway, and one calls for leaving it where it is -- either dropping it to ground level, or rebuilding the existing viaduct across Swansea, Elyria and Globeville, taking between 64 and 92 houses in the process.

CDOT's community meetings on the I-70 project are designed like block parties, only without beer. But the angry neighbors who came to this October gathering at a local middle school aren't in a partying mood.

Jumetta Posey stands directly in their path, wearing a bright-yellow shirt like a living yield sign. Posey was the first African-American female in the country to own a licensed investment banking company, right here in her home town of Denver in the 1980s. She left it to work for the Enterprise Foundation as a senior project manager trying to preserve African-American history, residences and businesses in Five Points, then joined the National Urban League's Denver chapter, where she helped minority owners of small businesses. Posey says she was skeptical when the company that CDOT has contracted with to rebuild I-70 came to her for help with the project's outreach requirement, she says. But the company met her demands of diversity training for everyone -- including the big-shot engineers and consultants -- all taught by her.

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