After ticking off seven things that ruffle the super-preened feathers of some Stapleton residents, we decided to take on another one of Denver’s vaunted neighborhoods: Highland.
I lived in Highland (aka "the Highlands") for about a decade, from the late '90s through 2008, and in that time it changed a lot. Lower Highland became LoHi, with a giant milk can as a landmark. The comic book store that a friend owned on Tennyson Street struggled in the early part of the 2000s, holding on for the renaissance that would, for that store, come too late. The vacuum store became an organic Greek place, the Safeway upgraded itself, and Billy’s Inn went from dive-bar watering hole to well-lit trendy bistro. And the houses all over just kept escalating in price. These days, Highland is just another neighborhood in the Denver core that has priced itself out of the market that gave it its boom times — and for some residents, that's engendered rage issues unique to this corner of the city.
6. The Focus on West 32nd Avenue
Back in the day, 32nd and Lowell (aka Highlands Square) was the heart of the resurgence — but it hasn’t been the only Highland heart for a while now. Sure, it’s still got its share of go-to places (West Side Books, Mead St. Station, Mondo Vino), but it’s lost a lot of the locales that made it what it was: Common Grounds moved to Sunnyside, Heidi’s Brooklyn Deli vacated the Highlands completely, and Bang! closed its doors just last year. The changes make sense, in terms of how the Highland gentrification has spread from this starting spot: To the west, the Tennyson corridor has exploded over the past decade, as has LoHi to the east. Today, Sunnyside on the northern edge is in the early stages of doing the same thing. The Highland neighborhood can no longer be identified by a single intersection — despite the fact that some people still try.
5. Zoning Woes
While Highland has welcomed most of its redevelopment over the past twenty years (sometimes to an arguable fault), there are some projects that still get residents up in arms — or at least provoke them to put out a sternly worded yard sign. On 38th and Wolff, a new high-speed car wash has locals complaining about increased traffic and pollution issues, fighting the in-place zoning that currently allows such a business to open. A similar battle is being waged farther down Speer Boulevard, where Emmaus Lutheran Church is working to build a medical facility in place of shuttered school buildings, and running into similar contention from residents worried about traffic, parking and related woes. Growing pains suck, sure, but when your house triples in value over the course of a decade, it’s understandable that the rest of the city might find it tough to muster a lot of sympathy.
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4. Crossing the Highlands Mommies
It might have started with a “baby seeking baby for a play date” note posted to the community board at Common Grounds (or so goes the story), but it’s called the Highlands Mafia now, paisan. Not that you’d say that to the face of these mothers — it’s just the nickname people apply to the influence-heavy ladies of Highland who can shutter a local business with little more than a snarky comment posted to the right people. It deserves mentioning that They-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named also do some good in the community, connecting parents and kids in a pseudo-informal network throughout northwest Denver, but their sway is considerable, and their protests to the contrary somewhat hollow. If you’re on their good side, you’ll find support and advice and companionship. If not, it’s “Leave the car seat. Take the organic cannoli.”
3. Being Left Out of Light Rail…Again
Despite considering itself one of the most progressive areas in a pretty progressive city, Highland is completely out of luck when it comes to light rail. What makes it even more frustrating for Highland residents is that one of the reasons the area originally boomed was streetcar service that went straight up 38th Avenue and connected what was then called the Northside to the rest of the city. There was some talk to bring this idea back — with light rail coming up 38th Avenue — but negative response from homeowners bordering the street (as well as other factors) scuttled that relatively quickly. For now, the Highland sits alone, without even so much as a future plan to link it to the rest of the light-rail network. Fortunately for residents, getting into downtown on a bike is a breeze; it’s that trip back up that’ll hurt.
2. Mentioning Pop Tops, McMansions and Assorted Terrible Ideas for Redevelopment
Here’s one of the unfortunate things for which Highland has become known: sweet original brick bungalows — the same houses that drew many residents to that neighborhood in the first place, mind you — sitting right next to modern monstrosities with three stories, rooftop patios, rust-metal facades and absolutely no respect for the architectural tradition of the neighborhood into which they were shoehorned. It’s a byproduct of profiteering, questionable taste and a neighborhood that grew too fast for historic designation to keep up. And Highland homeowners are tired of hearing about it, whether they're the folks who restored the traditional brick Victorian or they're the Todd and Margo in the boxy modern house next door. Here’s a tip for anyone looking to scrape and rebuild in any historic part of town: If the first questions your designer asks is “Can we build right up to the lot lines, are there material restrictions, and are there any restrictions as to building height?,” you’re probably not going to make friends with your new neighbors. Or anyone who appreciates architecture. Or, you know, people who can see.
1. Calling It a “Suburb”
There’s a reason that the rich and famous in Denver relocated to Highland back in the nineteenth century: They wanted, literally, to “look down” on Denver and its smog and its crime and the rabble-crowded streets who lived in the "city." Because Highland wasn’t actually part of the city until Denver annexed it officially in 1896. And after all these waves of residents and changes in population and years of use, Highland still isn’t — not really. Yes, sticklers, it’s within Denver city limits…but so is Stapleton. Case closed.