Phil Goodstein on Five Points, real estate and the future of Denver
Phil Goodstein's newest book looks at Five Points, Curtis Park and the evolution of East Denver.
Courtey of Phil Goodstein
As Denver's crankiest historian, Phil Goodstein takes his audience on a journey into civic corruption, greed and corporate maleficence. He sniffs out stories of scandal and blasts ruling elites for degrading the potential of the Queen City of the Plains. Since the 1980s, Goodstein has walked and biked around Denver neighborhoods, escorting gaggles of curious history buffs through the city's sordid tales and political conflict. Untarnished by corporate dollars and independent of academic institutions, Goodstein is a fulltime writer and historian who supports his research with the proceeds from his books and tours -- including a bicycle tour through Five Points this weekend. In advance of that event, Westword spoke with Goodstein about the history of the neighborhood and his style of research.
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Westword: Talk about what the bike tour through Five Points is going to look like.
Phil Goodstein: Basically, Five Points is all sorts of things. It's a figment of the imagination. It's the area right along the Welton Street Corridor, where the Five Points intersection is properly. It is historical houses. It is churches, institutions, whatever.
In the course of a two-hour bike ride, we simply explore a sampling of the area. Probably, we won't be going any farther to the north than California Street. We'll make it all the way down to 20th Avenue near Glenarm, up then perhaps all the way to 28th and Downing. We never really know exactly where the tour is going until the tour starts because there are timing considerations and traffic obstructions. The idea is to give people a basic introduction to the what, where and why Five Points is about.
How long have you been doing these tours, and what got you started?
Actually, I've been giving different varieties of tours since 1986. The overwhelming majority of them are walking tours. Part of the reason I got into the tour business was an extreme dissatisfaction with the existing tours, how they would be anemic, whitewash everything, not get into the color, the detail, the politics, the scandals of areas around town.
This particular tour, I'm actually partly doing it for myself. The book I'm working on right now is called Curtis Park, Five Points and Beyond: Exploring Historic East Denver. The book, I hope to have out by September. This helps me confirm my research, get the photos, see who is interested in this back and forth with that. I usually learn from my own tours. I try to tell stories. I learn what I know, what I don't know, sometimes see things and encounter people who help educate me better about the area.
How much of that occurs from the participation of the other people coming along on the tour?
It depends on the people. Sometimes they ask good questions. The interaction and their responses help on that. Sometimes I think I tell something and when I see the blank faces, I know I'm not telling the story properly, and it needs to be modified. That's one of the key things that any teacher, any speaker realizes: You have to relate to your audience and speak to them at exactly the level they want.
Where do you see Five Points within Denver as an evolving city?
Basically, right now, it's something of an extreme transition zone. It starts out as an elite white suburb. By the early twentieth century, it starts becoming a fashionable black area. It's soon the heart of black Denver. By the end of World War II, many blacks are dismissing it as a slum.
A keynote of Five Points, for many years, was black flight. In the same way the whites were fleeing the city to get away from the blacks, a lot of blacks were fleeing Five Points claiming they were getting away from other blacks. Right now, it's a relatively depressed area, if you see the large number of vacancies, particularly along Welton Street.
A lot of the black community is very unhappy with what's going on down there in terms of their fears that there's this big white conspiracy to drive all the blacks out of Five Points and transform it into another yuppie neighborhood. Amidst all of this, there is a lot of construction going on down there of extremely modern houses.
Actually, the mayor and the city councilmen have both boasted about how much whiter the area is becoming, even as they're trying to tout it as the Harlem of the West.
How do you see Denver shaping as a twenty-first century city? Where do you see Five Points within that?
Actually, the reason that developers so like it is that it's amazingly close to the central city. Here you have the Five Points intersection proper at 27th Street and Welton Street, eleven blocks off of the 16th Street Mall. They have the light-rail line cutting right down there, which is bad for bus riders. The light-rail system has been terrible for Five Points in terms of that. But in terms of people that think light rail is the cutting edge of trendiness, there you have it along the way.
There's been a lot of city subsidies going on there. Another interesting thing about Five Points is that historically, black landlords have owned most of the property. They've always been willing to work in the name of development. The problem is that for the last thirty years, at least, maybe even longer, all the repeated renovations and redevelopment have seemed to fall flat.
The interesting thing is that Welton Street proper, from about 25th Street up to 29th Street, you don't have the historical aura of the existing buildings. There are a number of vacant lots there. Currently, there are all sorts of plans to fill them in with these glass-and-aluminum condominiums, but whether there's any space in there for the historic Denver black culture of Five Points is actually fairly questionable.
It gets into a very complicated issue of what is black culture. Is it the Civil Rights Movement and the protests and its success? If that's the case, well what about the Civil Rights Congress, which actually was a Communist Party organization that had a Five Points presence that's sort of been written out of the history?
There's a lot of promotion and talk that Five Points was a jazz center. You look at the concert halls that are down there. It's mostly pop rock-and-roll. Historically, at least, in the past generation, whenever Denver has talked about reinvigorating the city as a jazz center, you don't really get that many blacks supporting jazz in Denver, compared to hip hop, rap or Michael Jackson.
There are whole efforts to have a black theater there that have been tried and have been unsuccessful. In some ways, it's the whites more so celebrating the area than the blacks have.
Is that a marketing scheme? What's the reason?
The black community has the Wellington Webb take on this. It's amazing the amount of money he helped the city to invest in the Blair-Caldwell Library. That's something of his own personal museum take on that. What has happened historically, this goes back to the so-called black and tan crowd of the 1930s, maybe even earlier, is that a lot of whites have been convinced that blacks are far freer, far less repressed, far more spontaneous than this hypocritical, uptight, white, bourgeois society.
Jazz is supposedly a music of liberation compared to these very straitlaced forms of white music. See, you never really have anything like the Harlem Renaissance in terms of Denver. I can't think of any major black writers or poets who made waves, either within the Denver community or the national black community, being centered around Five Points.
Do you really think Five Points and this idea of this intense black culture and community is something imagined by white culture?
No. There are elements there, but again, it doesn't really gel together as a whole.
It's actually been some years since Denver has really had a big jazz concert stage, especially a black jazz. That's a whole other controversy of what is jazz? Is there white jazz? Is there black jazz? A lot of jazz aficionados will claim any form of music that they like is jazz. There have been Olympian efforts at a black theater troupe. It failed. There is a building the city helped subsidize called The Point right at the Five Points Intersection. There's a place called the Crossroads Theater. It's mostly used for church services and some movies these days. There is very little live drama. There's a place called Fern Hall that was supposed to be reinvigorated as a black performing arts venue space. It's mostly vacant these days.
They do have some programs over at the Blair-Caldwell Library, so that's sort of in the heart. That's the first place I send somebody if they really want to get a grasp of what the official image is of what goes on at Five Points and in the community's history.
What are your thoughts of food in Five Points?
They used to have a number of locally based, long-term restaurants that were part and parcel of the community, like Ethel's House of Soul that just got changed into a Haitian restaurant. That's tentatively slated for demolition as part of a renovation and expansion of the Rossonian Hotel Complex. Another place slated for demolition is the old Pierre's, near 22nd and Downing Street. For years, that was sort of the key black gathering spot. Actually, it did have a good jazz-club atmosphere with catfish and Cajun whatever on there.
As I say, you just don't have that same kind of destination. Then again, you get back into the historic Five Points. At one point, the historic Five Points had a number of Chinese and Japanese restaurants, which was a reflection of the area. Five Points never was all-black. There was a large Hispanic community, and at one time there was a fairly visible Japanese community over there.
In what decade?
It was especially in terms of the 1930s to 1960s, when the Japanese tended to be over there. The church over at 25th and California streets was once the Japanese Methodist Church of Denver. That moved out in the early 1960s.
You do have this Latino presence. Where does Latino Curtis Park end and black Five Points begin? It's a long debate. Some in the black community were very angry when the city named Curtis Park Mestizo-Curtis Park in 1987. Was this an implication that this was a Chicano park where blacks are not welcome? There is that underlying black-Hispanic tension and actually a lot of the Hispanos have also been moving out of the Curtis Park area.
As part of development?
The Denver Housing Authority is partly responsible for this. It had two really big Curtis Park housing projects and tore both of them down. Its replacement houses look more like a suburban condo complex complete with existing market rates. The existing housing project, the Platte Valley, over near 30th and Curtis streets, is slated for demolition one of these years. That had a black clientele virtually from the time it opened in 1941.
This was another tension that was going on there: People who grow up in poor neighborhoods often want to flee them. They want the new. They want the trendy. They think that's a sign of success, while it's often people who have grown up in thoroughly sterile suburban, modern areas that appreciate more Curtis Park, these vintage Victorian houses, distinguished pre-World War I architecture. In so far as there's been this trend of the yuppification of the area, people like that have been in the vanguard of it.
As you approach the different neighborhoods and subjects you address, what is your process?
That's one of those jokes that I tell that actually has some validity. When I give a lecture, I'll say, I'm qualified to talk about this area because I wrote this book on the subject. If you look at the book, it says, "He's qualified to write the book because he's talked about and given tours of these areas."
What happens is that the tours have forced me to start delving deeper, trying to understand the areas, trying to see what is changing, why it's changing, how it's changing.
Often, my tour notes are the shell from which I try to start writing. And as I'm writing, that's telling me what I don't know, what I need to look at more, because it's one thing to give a two-hour bicycling tour about the area that just touches the surface of this compared to all the details and background in a book. The problem I've had with my books is that they keep growing. For example, this East Denver book that I was originally expecting to be 250 to 300 pages might now be lucky if it's less than 500 pages.
What is your relationship to the academic world? How do you navigate that as an historian?
I basically have very, very little connections with Denver academia. Most of the academic historians around here are venal. They have taken money from corporate interests for their books. Often they do shoddy research out of that to bless the establishment altogether.
They purged Ward Churchill for maybe shoddy scholarship or saying the wrong thing. As some of the people who've written on Colorado history at the University of Colorado, they have been on the outright payroll of the corporate establishment, have fabricated photos and have printed corporate press releases as their own writing. That's the quality of academic history in Denver.
Where do you see our current mayor and city council in terms of the past and future?
They're completely in the hip pocket of the real estate industry. Whatever the rich want, they deliver. It's actually one of those controversies that has been going on over the years. The city tended to dump what it calls problem individuals onto Five Points, on the East Denver area, especially over near the 23rd and Lawrence shelter center.
Now, the real estate development is coming over there. There's the clash between the colonial settlers and the old people and, for the most part, City Hall has completely backed the settlers in this.
You take something like the Five Points park, Lawson Park, over at 23rd and Welton streets. Yes, the indigent had taken it over. People with drug abuse and alcohol problems have tended to make it their home. Now all the city does is push them out of there in the name of encouraging the colonial gentry developers to come in. But does that really solve the problem or does it simply shuffle it off elsewhere?
Want to join Phil Goodstein on this tour? Bring your bike to the Black American West Museum, 3091 California Street, at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 11. The tour costs $10; for more information, call 303-333-1095.
Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris
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