Stop the presses: Thabiti Ngozi publishes the City Park West Gazette.
John Johnston

A Tough Read

In its short history, the City Park West Gazette has published articles condemning the temporary closing of a local liquor store due to suspension of its license, the housing crisis at East Village and what it calls Mayor Wellington Webb's policy of "economic cleansing." But the little monthly paper, which published its first issue in May, saves its heaviest ammunition for gentrification, a serious issue in Denver as housing prices in once-neglected inner-city neighborhoods soar with the influx of new residents.

Gazette founder and editor Thabiti Ngozi doesn't like what's been happening. He says gentrification means black people who have lived in the area for years are now finding themselves priced out of the market by incoming whites. According to the 1990 Census, the median home value in the neighborhood was around $84,000. In 1998, according to the nonprofit Piton Foundation, the average home sale price was $168,000. "This neighborhood feels that the trend is basically irreversible," he says. "It's a foregone conclusion."

Ngozi has lived in the neighborhood for more than twenty years and founded the paper to help "increase awareness" in the community. The Gazette's tiny office, at 1422 22nd Avenue, sits at the west end of a block-long row of businesses. It's empty save for a desk and some chairs; Ngozi does most of his work from home.

"People can't wait" to read it, he says, adding that he would like to increase his monthly run from 2,000 issues to 10,000. "It's been in great demand."

But not by Elbra Wedgeworth.

The May and June issues of the Gazette featured a two-part Q&A interview with the first-term Denver City Councilwoman that at first touched on innocuous subjects like Wedgeworth's relocation of the council district office and her role as onetime head of the Whittier Neighborhood Association. But then it got into Ngozi's peeve.

"What does gentrification mean to you?" he asked.

"Gentrification is a lot of things..." was Wedgeworth's published response.

"Could you agree," Ngozi asks, "that gentrification is, effectively, the re-peopling of a neighborhood -- at times a sort of ethnic cleansing?"

"I could agree with that," Wedgeworth replies in the story, adding that gentrification means moving people into a neighborhood and changing its dynamics. She then appears to switch tacks, saying that social and cultural integration is about people learning to appreciate differences, not about "someone or some group taking over or 'X-ing' out the 'O's."

It read as a confusing response -- and Wedgeworth says it was all a misrepresentation of what she meant. She says she doesn't think gentrification is a form of ethnic cleansing. "What I said was, 'I don't believe that is what's happening here in terms of gentrification. That's what people might feel is happening, but it's an economic issue.'"

Wedgeworth tells Westword she didn't like the negative direction of some of his questions. "He pointed to the Anglos in the district, trying to tear them down, saying that basically they were moving in and taking over the district. The questions weren't really about the district, they were about him."

On June 16, she wrote Ngozi a letter saying she had been misquoted throughout the article and opposed what she called his "deliberate attempt" to racially divide the neighborhood. She also pointed out his "ongoing resentments...with neighbors and businesses in the area."

Then she asked Fran Lowry, one of the founders of the City Park West Neighborhood Association, to make copies of the letter for neighbors, and soon they had proliferated throughout the neighborhood.

When Ngozi read Wedgeworth's letter, he was hurt by the criticism -- "I never anticipated that kind of backlash" -- but he insists his interview was accurate. "That is what she said," he says, before acknowledging that "What you hear may not be what they mean. People sometimes speak with forked tongues or with double meanings."

And in the July issue of the Gazette, he blasted back with an editorial on the front page accusing Wedgeworth of making "unsubstantiated and incendiary personal attacks" on his "professionalism and personal character."

But the councilwoman didn't stop there. A week after her first letter to Ngozi, she wrote to Doug Linkhart, a Democratic state senator and the executive director of the Neighborhood Resource Center, which provides administrative support for the Greater Denver Neighborhood Partnership, a nonprofit agency that doles out small grants to neighborhood interests -- interests like the City Park West Gazette.

Last year, Ngozi received $5,000 from the GDNP to start the newspaper, and Wedgeworth wrote that she felt the "funds have been misused to print a newspaper which is causing ill feelings and confusion between neighbors and business owners."

She also raised another issue. The GDNP's board of directors includes representatives from many neighborhoods who help decide where to distribute the money; in addition, each neighborhood selects a nonprofit fiscal agent to manage and disburse those funds. As it turns out, Ngozi is both a member of the GDNP board of directors and the head of Uhuru Sasa, the nonprofit that serves as the fiscal agent for the money that is doled out to the City Park West neighborhood.

"Ngozi administers the funding received for neighborhood programs, which I feel is a conflict since he is also a recipient of the same funding," Wedgeworth wrote.

Ngozi didn't cast a vote in the board's decision to fund his newspaper, but in the wake of the Wedgeworth flap, critics suddenly found his many roles too convenient. "We've asked him to either resign his position as member of the council or as the fiscal agent," says Linkhart.

Ngozi says the resource center knew he had received the grant and that Uhuru Sasa was the fiscal agent. He doesn't plan to step down from either role, saying he will simply continue to remove himself from voting on grant funding decisions when he has a conflict of interest. "I understand the predicament that they are presented with, but if it was not a conflict of interest in the beginning, then why is it a problem now? A year ago they didn't have that concern."

He applied for a $1,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente but says he was turned down. He is now preparing a new grant application for the GDNP, but he's worried that political pressure will keep him out of contention.

And already he's lost some readers. Fran Lowry, the woman who helped Wedgeworth distribute her letter to Ngozi throughout the neighborhood, and Allison Cantrall, who owns the City Perk West coffee shop two doors down from the Gazette, say they find the newspaper to be divisive. "We're all moving on," Lowry says. "Thabiti [Ngozi] can't move on."

"I'm an easy target," adds Cantrall, who is the only white business owner on the block and a clear focus of Ngozi's diatribes against gentrification. "I was the white woman. I was the new business. Race is a big issue to him."

Ngozi believes that Cantrall and other "gentrifiers" represent "people who do not move in with an attitude or willingness to embrace what they find there. It seems they move in to eradicate what they find and re-create something in their own image." And that mentality is driven mainly by whites, he adds.

But race and gentrification are not highlighted in the August issue of the paper, which features a profile of a bicycle messenger and a story about the new owners of a nearby bed and breakfast.

Ngozi says he is now the target of other people's ire because the Gazette calls them like he sees them. "It stepped on some toes; unfortunately, those toes are politically connected."


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