Why the Highland Vs. Northside Debate Is All About Gentrification

Longo's Subway Tavern, a former northside staple.
Longo's Subway Tavern, a former northside staple.
Westword.com

Back in August, I wrote a love letter to Denver, the city I used to know. Though my intention was to remember the good things about my city that are gone now, it was also, perhaps, a thinly veiled criticism of the way progress is going in Denver. Recently, there was a "blog" (I say that in quotation marks because the person who runs the site identifies as a real-estate agent on Twitter) floating around Facebook about the debate over whether the north section of our city is called Highland or Northside. While this enraged me and many other natives for a lot of reasons, the biggest issue raised in the online conversation was this: The name game in Denver isn't about our written history. It's about gentrification.

See also: A Love Letter to Denver, the City I'm Getting to Know

La Raza Park.
La Raza Park.
Westword.com

I should start by saying I do not hate transplants. Our city -- like any other -- is made up of people from all over the world. Many of my close friends didn't grow up here, but found their way to Denver because of all of the great stuff we have. Before this recent boom in population (and rent hikes that seem unstoppable), many people I knew moved here because it was a relatively inexpensive city that still offered a lot in the way of music, art and culture.

But now that city is evaporating. The Denver that allowed artists to move here and sustain themselves on a minimum-wage job while devoting the rest of their time to art and music no longer exists. In the last few weeks I've run into multiple friends who were, up until this year, sharing houses in the city with other artists because it was affordable. Their landlords have now raised their rent by hundreds of dollars, forcing them to find somewhere else to go. When art and artists leave your city, it is not a good sign.

But another part of the situation Denver is facing as it grows is what happens when we discuss what the name of a neighborhood means -- like Highland. Sure, the name (and its many subdivisions of Potter-Highland, West Highland, etc.) has historical context. That's not what is up for debate. The debate here is around when new money and new folks move into a neighborhood that already exists and decide to rename it. Again, yes, Highland is not a "new" name, because it is what the area was called when it first began -- but after years of white flight out and Italian and Latino migration in, it became the Northside. David Conde at La Voz explains it best.

That's not to say that using the term or name Highland is wrong; I have friends who have been living in the neighborhood for fifteen-plus years, and they call it Highland, too. But it is when we discount the conversation to merely a name preference that it gets messy. Why? Because the current development happening on the Northside looks and feels like gentrification. And with that gentrification has come the rise in the use of the name Highland.

Growth is good for a city, there's no doubt. Denver is experiencing visible growth in storefronts that have long been abandoned now being opened back up for business. It is seeing progress through the building of structures on lots that once sat as empty parking lots. Denver is seeing old, empty buildings reborn as new miniature city centers. There is good happening all around. But there is also bad.  

When a real-estate sign goes up in a lot that says "coming soon: luxury condos" and it is sitting between two modest houses occupied by lower-income families, that's bad. When rent increases force people out of the neighborhoods where they grew up, that's bad. When a developer decides that an area like Brighton Boulevard is now prime real estate and the folks who move into freshly built apartments think they've "discovered" a new part of town, that's bad. When an existing community is ignored by the money that moved into it, that's bad.

This doesn't mean there isn't room for everyone in Denver. As I said, we're built on a population that has most likely moved here from somewhere else. I myself am only a second-generation Denverite, and I know very few people whose family lines go back much farther than that. But when we're talking about the place we live and interacting with our neighbors, it is important to acknowledge what and who is there -- and what and who was there before us.

For starters, this handy guide written for the people of Oakland, "20 Ways to Not Be a Gentrifier," might help. Doing things like supporting local businesses that have been in an area for a long time is a good start. Smiling, talking and interacting with your neighbors is another great, easy way. But most of all, acknowledging the people and the culture that have been working to build the community for decades before you moved in is vital.

You may have left your home town, but you've moved into ours. And we're all about sharing Denver with you. But just know, when you change things to make them look exactly how you want them and ignore the foundation that already exists, you are tearing at the fabric of our home town. You have the option to visit your old city as you remember it. We do not, because old Denver is quickly being painted over. We were here long before that brewpub and CrossFit gym appeared. We were here when Denver was just a working-class cowtown. So next time you hear someone refer to the north area of town as the Northside, respect it.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies



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