An urban anthropologist looking for the perfect example of the place where Denver's past and future come together couldn't do better than the neighborhood around 20th and Park avenues.
On one side of the street, Post Properties is spending millions of dollars to transform the old St. Luke's hospital site into hundreds of new condos and apartments. On the other side of 20th, just across the small Benedict Fountain Park, is one of the best collections of renovated brick Victorians in the city.
In between, wedged into a triangular piece of land on the east side of the park, is a sprawling low-income housing project called East Village.
Envisioned as press housing for the 1974 Winter Olympics, the complex was built even after Colorado voters shot down the proposed games. The heavily landscaped brick-and-stucco two-story townhomes, with 249 units, opened in 1977. They were heralded as a new wave of neighborhood-friendly low-income housing, replacing the idea of concrete high-rises.
But today East Village is more like a hellish circle in Dante's Inferno, with new horrors around every corner.
Neighbors have actively pushed the absentee owner, California-based Casden Properties Incorporated, to tear it down. Casden, a neighborhood group and the city are now discussing the company's proposal to level East Village and replace it with a 1,200-unit building that would mix anywhere from 50 to 250 low-income units with market-rate condominiums. The neighbors have made it clear that they've run out of patience with the status quo.
"East Village has been the source of significant crime in the neighborhood," says Ted Freedman of the Enterprise Hill Homeowners Association. "The complex has consistently been on the top-ten list for 911 calls in this district."
Freedman's group has been tracking crime in the project for the past several years. Its research shows that the police were called more than 1,100 times in 1997, and there were 479 arrests for everything from rape to dealing crack cocaine. Over the years, there have been numerous shootings, and one sniper even took aim at police officers responding to a crime.
Freedman has also criticized the design of the complex because there are so many dark areas and so much overgrown shrubbery in which crack dealers and other criminals can lurk.
In the early '90s, gang members routinely shot each other in the parking lot, and East Village became so dangerous that residents were afraid to go outside at night. A hard-nosed manager succeeded in ridding the complex of gangbangers, and open warfare is largely a thing of the past. But Freedman says East Village remains a blight on the neighborhood.
Several residents of East Village declined to be quoted for this story, although one said the tenants had heard the complex might be demolished. "We know this isn't the best place, but it's still affordable," says the man, who has lived there for three years. "I don't know where we'd go if it's torn down."
Two elderly women who live in a city-sponsored high-rise for seniors across the street from East Village say they're afraid of many of the residents. "They have drug addicts and prostitutes living there," says one, who asked not to be named. "They don't seem to screen people moving in."
"This neighborhood has many conveniences for seniors, but some of them are afraid to walk to the grocery store," says another resident.
The ownership history of East Village is unusual. The project was built by a private developer with tax credits from the federal government that required it to be maintained as low-income housing through the end of 1999. The Denver Housing Authority owns fifty separate units that are scattered through the complex, while Casden owns the other 199. The city's ownership gives Denver the final say in any new development at the site.
"They can't do anything without us," says Denver planning director Jennifer Moulton. "We're all in this together." Moulton sees the Five Points/Curtis Park area as a natural for new residential construction. "In 1950 there were 25,000 people living in that area. Today there are 8,000," she says. "There's room there for more people."
Denver attorney Steve Farber is representing Casden in its negotiations with the city, but he was unavailable for comment for this story.
Five Points has traditionaly been a mostly African-American neighborhood, while Curtis Park has a diverse mix of Hispanics, whites and other ethnic groups. Moulton says there has been some conflict between groups with different visions for the neighborhood, and she is aware that many longtime residents fear being forced out by rising housing prices.
"Our challenge is to minimize gentrification," she says. "As the place starts to improve, people will knock on people's doors and offer them three times as much as they paid for their homes. It's not an easy problem to solve. We'll look at every tool we can to manage that change."
Mixing low-income housing into a middle-class development is part of a new trend around the country. Cities such as New York, Baltimore, Chicago and others have admitted that it was a mistake to isolate poor people in the huge housing projects of the 1970s. They are now acting on the theory that poor people and their children will be more successful at work and in school if they have neighbors who act as role models.
Moulton says it's not clear yet exactly how many low-income apartments the new project will have, but she says Denver will attempt to arrange housing somewhere for all of the displaced residents of East Village. She says the city wants Curtis Park/Five Points to have room for people from diverse backgrounds and income levels. "It's not our desire to have a uni-cultural neighborhood," she says.
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Freedman insists his group doesn't want to run poor people out of the area. "We like having all walks of life here," he says.
Curtis Park and Five Points have been victimized by real-estate speculators who leveled historic buildings to build parking lots during the 1980s high-rise boom and by government programs that concentrated large numbers of vulnerable people in the district, Freedman adds. He remembers that when he moved there in 1981, it was a lively working-class neighborhood with several boardinghouses that are now parking lots. He wants the area to become a pedestrian-oriented mix of cultures and classes. "We want to keep the poor people but bring in the middle-income groups," he says.
Moulton hopes to wrap up negotiations for the project within six months and would like Casden to begin construction by next year.
"This will be a neighborhood-transforming thing," she predicts. "It will be very, very big.