By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"People love this area," Alcaro says. "All the big shots like to have their meetings here. They forget they wanted to demolish it. These buildings were saved at the last minute, and that was it. They put in a little marker, and that's our history. It's a tombstone."
It's difficult to get a feeling for the old Auraria neighborhood from this one preserved block; placards outside the houses provide only bare details about the original owners. That's why Alcaro likes to tell visitors about his grandparents' journey here. "Their story," he says, "is a microcosm of the history of Auraria."
Auraria began as a gold camp staked out on the west bank of Cherry Creek by two brothers from Georgia in 1858; by the spring of 1860, it had been absorbed into Denver's west side. Over the next few decades, the area attracted an influx of German, Irish and Jewish immigrants, followed by Mexicans fleeing the violent revolution in their native land. In 1913, Ramón and Caroline Gonzalez arrived in El Paso. They soon moved on to Las Cruces, New Mexico, then southern Colorado, then Denver.
Ramón worked as a printer, photographer and carpenter, Caroline as a nurse. The couple didn't speak much English at first and had trouble getting housing. But in 1933, Caroline was able to obtain a loan to purchase the Smedley house, a handsome two-story clapboard home that was the oldest Victorian on the block. They rented out a carriage house behind them to Irish families and eventually converted the lower floor of their house and a patio into the Casa Mayan restaurant.
The food was popular with Anglos, who would slip local kids a few coins to "watch the car" while they tucked into their enchiladas. The restaurant soon evolved into a kind of cultural center. There were sewing classes, dance classes, meetings of the Guitar Society of Denver. José Feliciano liked to drop in when he was in town, and so did a young Judy Collins. "It was a hub for writers, too," Alcaro notes. "William Shirer came through here."
It was all part of the melting-pot experience that was Auraria, which by the 1950s had come to encompass 38 blocks of working-class homes and light industry, including a dairy, a Rainbow bakery, a pickle factory, a cookie factory and a potato-chip factory. There was also a synagogue, a bar and three Catholic churches — one for the Irish (St. Leo's), one for other immigrants (St. Cajetan's), and one for the better-off whites (St. Elizabeth's).
"We had a health clinic here, a credit union, four schools, a newspaper," Alcaro says. "The story that Denver Urban Renewal Authority told was that after the war, the Mexicans came in and the property went to heck. That's not the true story. It was always a mixture of communities and industries. It was definitely old, but it wasn't a slum."
In the late 1960s, DURA was keen on rehabilitating properties damaged by the South Platte River flood of 1965. City fathers were also searching for a permanent site for Metro State, CCD and a proposed Denver campus of CU; at the time, Metro was a cramped, fast-growing school of 4,600 students holding classes in seven rented spaces around Civic Center and 27 other buildings in five counties. Close to downtown and "underutilized" from a real-estate perspective, the Bottoms neighborhood was a prime target.
What followed was a skillful campaign to win public support for a bond issue to create the Auraria campus — and, at the same time, wipe out a community some considered an eyesore. The Denver dailies quickly got behind the effort, running large photos of weed-choked auto salvage yards and declaring that redeveloping this "run-down area" would be the key to stopping the rot threatening Denver's core. Dick Johnston of the Denver Post described the neighborhood as "a generally blighted mismatch of small houses, salvage yards, railroad tracks, small businesses, junk cars, showing clear signs of age and long bypassed by new development."
DURA claimed that three-fourths of the houses in Auraria were "dilapidated or damaged beyond repair" — and that many of them were vacant, anyway. One survey reported that the number of occupied homes in the target area had dwindled from 823 in 1940 to 134 in 1969. Other researchers insist that there were still 200 to 300 families living in Auraria in the late 1960s and more than 200 businesses operating there.
"I didn't think it was that bad until people started moving out and giving up on their property," says James McNally, a retired teacher who grew up in the shadow of St. Leo's. "The flood of '65 didn't help anything. But I do think there was a conspiracy to get rid of the neighborhood."
Although outgunned and outspent, residents and business owners tried to fight back, asking where they were supposed to go. Pete Garcia, the priest at St. Cajetan's and one of the leaders of the opposition, pointed out that his parishioners had a median income of around $3,400 and couldn't afford a house for more than $9,000. There simply wasn't much in that price range available to them elsewhere in town, even with the modest relocation money the project would provide — and renters weren't expected to receive any aid.
I give daily tours for one of the colleges on this campus. I am also a student here. Talking about the St. Cajetan's and Auraria's history is always one of my favorite parts of the tour. I know that there is a lot of anger and negativity around this development, my Chicano studies professor and I would have plenty of talks about it often. However, I always try to out a different spin on it. This campus has a beautiful history and though it's gone now it should be celebrated. The history parts aren't required on the script for our tours but I include it because I love it and almost always get a positive response from prospectives. This was an awesome article and it confirmed some information I already knew (people always asked where I got the line that none of the development was supposed to go south of Colfax, I'm glad other's are saying the same) and also helped with providing some more tidbits I might work into future tours. I hope the issues on this campus can be resolved, I have enjoyed my time here and when I graduate next year, I will miss this campus for sure.