North/East Denver Change Looks Critically at Development, Gentrification

The Cherokee Generating Station towers over homes in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.EXPAND
The Cherokee Generating Station towers over homes in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.
Kevin J. Beaty

A team led by University of Colorado Denver professor Jordan Hill has launched North/East Denver Change, a website dedicated to nonpartisan information about developments and the neighborhoods being affected.

The site was assembled in a space on the Auraria campus, where Hill works with a mix of master's students and undergrads on a project dubbed "Critical Public Humanities."

There, an extremely industrious group of credit-earning volunteers are taking a comprehensive look at the city’s numerous projects along the I-70 corridor.

Hill calls his program an exercise in “the future of what the 21st century university could be." It's intended as an effort to use hands-on learning, as well as CU’s extensive resources, to produce a tangible community project.

An interactive map made by the North/East Denver Change GIS team.

Recently tapped to direct University of Colorado Denver's 

social justice program

, Hill actively recruited students for this program from a myriad of disciplines.

“This is the dream team,” he says. “This is the best that the University of Colorado Denver has to offer in our graduate school, working on the most important contemporary social justice issue in Denver.”

The group logged more than 3,500 hours of work consolidating information about Denver’s burgeoning development plans while also collecting the history of the neighborhoods that will be affected by those projects.

Professor Jordan Hill works with the North/East Denver Change team on the eve of the launch.EXPAND
Professor Jordan Hill works with the North/East Denver Change team on the eve of the launch.
Kevin J. Beaty

For many of the students, "Critical Public Humanities" really hits home.

“It’s a personal thing to us,” says GIS student Isaac Rivera. “A lot of us grew up in Denver. A lot of us grew up in the communities surrounding Globeville and Elyria-Swansea.”

Nikte Contreras, who is going for her master's degree in social science, came of age in north Denver.

“I saw my community change,” she recalls, “and I no longer really feel like I’m a part of that community, because a lot of the people who were once there were completely displaced.”

Isaac Rivera (left to right), Nikte Contreras and Trishia Vasquez take part in a group discussion.EXPAND
Isaac Rivera (left to right), Nikte Contreras and Trishia Vasquez take part in a group discussion.
Kevin J. Beaty

The team sees its site as the “alternative to the pro­-growth rhetoric of the City of Denver,” according to a release announcing North/East Denver Change.

“We all struggled to be very objective at the beginning,” says Dan Hutchinson, who has worked on sections pertaining to North Brighton Boulevard and RiNo redevelopment plans. “I think what we found was that we maybe reserved judgment a little too much, but then we began to worry that we were sort of just parroting what resources were already available and not lending any critical voice.”

The critical voice that Hutchinson and his colleagues hope they're adding to the conversation is the perspective of residents of Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, which they feel has been veiled by “rhetorical techniques.”

Terms like “development” and “progress" might not apply to families whose lives could well be disrupted by impending projects like Central I-70 and the National Western Center revamp, Hutchinson notes.

Dan Hutchinson and Kirsti Klaverkamp work out some last-minute details before North/East Denver Change's launch.EXPAND
Dan Hutchinson and Kirsti Klaverkamp work out some last-minute details before North/East Denver Change's launch.
Kevin J. Beaty

“The ‘Corridor of Opportunity’ is a really classic example of just basically empty rhetorical technique,”  Hutchinson continues, citing a term often used by Mayor Michael Hancock and his North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative.

The city's Cornerstone Collaborative overview of the “Corridor of Opportunity Initiative” quotes Mayor Hancock as saying, “Signature development projects will strengthen our economy, create jobs and improve neighborhoods.”

“Whose opportunity? Opportunity for whom?” Rivera asks.

“No one really knows, except maybe some realestate interests,” adds Jenny Niemann, who has been gathering info on the I-70 project and is also part of the group’s PR operation.

Daniel Wilde sits below a list of pre-launch goals.EXPAND
Daniel Wilde sits below a list of pre-launch goals.
Kevin J. Beaty

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To many in this classroom, the true cost of development is gentrification. Hancock’s goal of stimulating neighborhoods economically could very well accelerate already rising home rates that have made it difficult for current residents to keep up, they say.

Contreras, for example, sees her north Denver neighborhood at the end of a process that is now creeping into the areas along I-70. “The people who are still living there, who are natives of that area, continue to get fliers like asking them to buy their houses even though they’re not for sale, and that’s happening in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea,” she says. “It’s just starting to happen.”

Rivera, who became active in neighborhood issues after the Suncor refinery oil spill was discovered in 2011, says a history of neglect has allowed environmental health disasters to occur time and again around Elyria-Swansea and Globeville.

A GIS specialist, Rivera worked on creating data maps that illustrate how the area has been affected by environmental disasters over the years. An interactive master chart displays neighborhood boundaries, historic pollution sites and development plans in dizzying juxtaposition. Paired with demographic maps produced by the GIS team, it presents a strong visual representation of whose homes and health are at stake.

A demographic map produced by the North/East Denver Change GIS team,EXPAND
A demographic map produced by the North/East Denver Change GIS team,
North/East Denver Change

“Part of our purpose here is not only adding geographical clarity,” Rivera explains, “but also kind of providing some voice, some anything from the communities that are on the verge of being displaced.”

Activists fighting various development projects along the I-70 corridor frequently complain that communication has been inadequate with the largely Spanish-speaking communities in the area.

Project members have spent a lot of time visiting with residents of the neighborhood. (I have accompanied them to shoot videos for a project of my own, but some of these will appear on the North/East Denver Change site.)

The headquarters of North/East Denver Change on the Auraria campus.EXPAND
The headquarters of North/East Denver Change on the Auraria campus.
Kevin J. Beaty

None of the existing information portals “are accessible to the current population,” says Trishia Vasquez, who's put in many hours to to ensure that North/East Denver Change will be presented both in English and Spanish. “For me, that was the most important part of [our] website,” she adds.

While North/East Denver Change has succeeded in collecting a mass of information in one place, the website still requires some work to connect all the dots.

“A complete picture of the changes taking place in the greater northeast Denver area has been challenging to assemble in a coherent and reasonably complete way,” Hutchinson says.

“Dividing up such major changes into discrete silos is not only an organizational technique employed by the developers and city in order to break up this massive undertaking in manageable chunks, but it also serves to obfuscate the overall picture and furthers the aim of controlling the flow of this information into the popular gaze.”

See the North/East Denver Change website here.

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