By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Looking at the ashes in May 2008, Roberts knew there was no time to lose.
In 1961, when Odell Holleman and his family moved from the Whittier neighborhood into a home just off Holly Street in northeast Park Hill, he knew he'd found the perfect place to live. The streets were wide and quiet. Smith School, an elementary school for his two children, was one of the best in the city. Downtown was an easy bus ride away down 32nd Avenue, a stretch that would later be renamed Martin Luther King Boulevard; Stapleton Airport was a handful of blocks in the other direction.
"Honestly, I think it's one of the ideal sections of Denver," says Holleman, who still lives in the house with his wife. And in the beginning, one of the best things about his home's location was the Park Hill Shopping Center, as the Holly was then known, right around the corner.
The 2.6-acre Park Hill had been built for $750,000 in the early 1950s, just as tidy brick bungalows were sprouting from the plains. The "huge shopping center," as the Denver Post described it at the time, was notable for featuring parking for several hundred cars. Like the dozens of other retail centers popping up around town, the mall was designed to lure in a new breed of shoppers, consumers who were now mobile and suddenly flush with disposable income.
"Increased use of automobiles, more than any other factor, made the shopping center a part of every day life," noted a Rocky Mountain News article a few years later. "The average shopper, if he can obtain the service and variety he wishes, will avoid the downtown traffic jam and lack of parking for the convenience of the shopping center."
Holleman, who worked as a dining-car steward on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad's famous California Zephyr passenger line, didn't have a car at the time — and didn't need one to enjoy the mall. His family would commandeer grocery carts to shuttle home their purchases from the Safeway at one end of the center. On Sundays after church, neighbors would head over to the Horizon, the family restaurant on the corner, with many of the kids sporting fresh trims from Frank's Barber Shop, one of the establishments just down the way. Later in the day, families might move on to the Dahlia, a larger shopping center that had opened a few years after Park Hill, which had a bowling alley and a Chinese restaurant.
Holleman didn't mind that his family was the only African-American family on the block when they moved in. He'd never wanted his kids to grow up in a segregated area, and his neighbors insisted they were welcome. But soon enough, those neighbors began putting "For Sale" signs in their yards as other black families drove up and down the street, looking to buy.
No longer were such families being politely instructed that their kind should look for homes west of Colorado Boulevard and north of Colfax Avenue. Now they were being actively recruited to Park Hill. White residents who didn't like the sound of that began moving away, and realtors went door to door, warning holdouts that as black people moved in, housing prices would fall and city services like schools, police and trash collection would decline. By playing on racial tension, the real-estate industry reaped the rewards — buying up homes at below-market prices from whites desperate to get out, then selling those houses to African-Americans for considerably more.
"The real-estate industry was used to segregation. That's where they made their money," says Marge Gilbert, a Park Hill resident since 1948. "They determined where each demographic group would live."
Gilbert and many other Park Hill residents, both white and black, fought back against the block-busting. Forming the Park Hill Action Committee, they started a campaign that strengthened the state fair-housing law in 1965 and later filed a lawsuit that forced the Denver Board of Education to desegregate Denver schools, a case that the U.S. Supreme Court would use to order school desegregation nationwide. Their efforts resulted in Park Hill's becoming known as one of the first integrated neighborhoods in the country — but they weren't enough to halt the white flight from its northernmost section. In 1960, northeast Park Hill was more than 90 percent white; twenty years later, whites accounted for just 12 percent.
Holleman watched as nearby homes were practically given away. One family sold their house, only to build an almost exact replica in a neighborhood to the south. "Some of the things I've seen, all you can do is laugh at it," he says. "I guess they moved out of fear. I guess they thought bad things were going to happen."
Bad things did start to happen — not just in northeast Park Hill, but across the country. For decades, African-Americans had been migrating from the South to urban areas in search of better opportunities — but instead they'd found economic and social segregation. By the late 1960s, tensions were at a breaking point. There were race riots in cities from Los Angeles to Detroit, and when anger bubbled up in Park Hill, it spilled over into the heart of the community.