Reclaiming Stapleton Park After Murder, Racist Graffiti, Naming Controversy

A Metro Denver Crime Stoppers collage that juxtaposes a photo of the late Aiden Lawrence with an overview of the Stapleton area where his body was found.
Denver Police Department
A Metro Denver Crime Stoppers collage that juxtaposes a photo of the late Aiden Lawrence with an overview of the Stapleton area where his body was found.
On Sunday, September 1, the neighborhood group Soulfully Stapleton will host a picnic intended to celebrate diversity at Prairie Meadows Park, one of the community's newest sections of green space. And the event's timing, theme and location were hardly chosen at random.

The gathering is scheduled to take place less than two weeks after residents of Stapleton overwhelmingly opted to keep the name of the community, whose moniker references past Denver mayor Benjamin Stapleton, great-grandfather of former Colorado treasurer and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton and a onetime member of the Ku Klux Klan.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, incidents at the park, which has not yet been completed, served as a distressing reminder of the tensions that continue to linger over race in the area.

At around 2:30 a.m. on August 9, Aiden Lawrence, the fourteen-year-old pictured above, was fatally shot in the vicinity of East 54th Avenue and North Xenia Street, close to the park. The homicide remains unsolved, and Metro Denver Crime Stoppers has offered a reward of up to $2,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible. (Anyone with information about Lawrence's death is encouraged to contact the organization at 720-913-STOP.)

Compounding this tragedy was the appearance of offensive graffiti on a bridge in the park just days later. According to Soulfully Stapleton founder Lori Pace, the scrawl, which was quickly removed by one of her neighbors, juxtaposed a profanity and a racial epithet and included the letters "KKK."

These incidents persuaded Pace, a local realtor, that the narrative needed to be changed. "I didn't want the last story about this park to be about a young man being killed and KKK graffiti," she says. "I want it to be a park where we celebrate other people's cultures. On Sunday, I want drivers going by to see people in the park who represent diversity, with kids playing together and parents having fun."

click to enlarge Lori Pace and her family. - FAMILY PHOTO VIA STAPLETONDENVER.COM
Lori Pace and her family.
Family photo via stapletondenver.com
Pace loves Stapleton, but she acknowledges that "it's not typically considered a very diverse neighborhood." Data shared on the Area Vibes website maintains that Stapleton is 82.04 percent white, 7.7 percent black and 2.97 percent Asian, and Pace believes that when it comes to homeowners, the only people allowed to weigh in on the name-change proposal, the disparity is even greater. "It's closer to 95 percent white when you look at the average crowd at neighborhood events, with the exception of the jazz concert," she says.

Her own research suggests that in a neighborhood with an estimated 19,000-plus residents, 678 households represent persons of color, many of whom rent or live in affordable-housing units.

Soulfully Stapleton, which currently has around 115 members, is intended to be a place for the latter group to find fellowship. "Our family would go to events, and oftentimes there weren't families of color gathering together," Pace notes. "We're a family of extroverts; we can talk to anyone. But my kids always felt they couldn't connect with other kids who looked like them, and I wanted to create something so that they could have that experience."

She attacked the challenge of building this network with gusto: "I would walk up to black families and ask, 'Do you live in the neighborhood?' And my kids would be mortified. Now it's less embarrassing because I can say, 'We have a group. Would you like to join?,' as opposed to just asking for their phone number — and I've received so much feedback from people saying, 'Thank you. We wanted to connect and didn't know how to do it.'"

The concept of Soulfully Stapleton has broadened considerably since its inception, Pace acknowledges. "Originally, it was supposed to be for African-American families, because that's what I identified with the most," she says. "But since we started, I've received messages from people who've adopted kids from other countries. They'd ask questions like, 'My kid is mixed. What kind of hair products do I use?' And we had a Jewish family ask to join the group, too. Since then, we've become a group for underrepresented families and families coming to the neighborhood looking to belong to something. It's more than I ever anticipated, and it's really beautiful."

click to enlarge A family photo of the late Aiden Lawrence. - FAMILY PHOTO VIA FOX31
A family photo of the late Aiden Lawrence.
Family photo via Fox31
The group was never supposed to be political, but the subject couldn't be avoided when the movement to swap out Stapleton's name rose to the fore. Indeed, some people felt the Soulfully Stapleton handle indicated that Pace and company were on the side of the no-change coalition, when that was never the intention. "Quite frankly, people search for the name 'Stapleton,'" she allows. "That's how they find us, and if it was different, they never would. And putting 'soulfully' in front gives it a different meaning for us. When I think of 'soul,' I only think of joyful things. It's more of a feeling or a culture than it is a destination — and a lot of people don't realize that so much of what we're about is community and healing and helping each other." One example of that is a scholarship opportunity at the University of Colorado Boulder, Pace's alma mater, that the group helped arrange for one member of a family living in a Stapleton public-housing unit.

The aftereffects of the naming fight continue to linger, Pace admits. "I'm not against changing it, clearly, but I feel it would require a different kind of campaign and a different kind of strategy," she says. "People were misunderstood, and I feel you get more with honey than with vinegar. That's why I'm all about educating people about the benefits of diversity."

She considers herself to be a "real estate activist," and while she specializes in luxury properties, she believes that people of all backgrounds should be given an opportunity to purchase a place of their own. The homeowners' requirement for participation in the naming vote "is proof that if you don't own, you have no power in the neighborhood," she says. "This neighborhood was built from the ground up, but the same issues exist with the lack of ownership for people of color. That's why we need to create a community that includes the haves and the have-nots — because there's no gray area when it comes to having power."

Such issues will take a back seat on Sunday. Lawrence's killing, the racist graffiti and the name-change results combined to produce "almost a perfect storm of negativity, and I want to turn it into something positive," Pace says. "Our slogan is 'Here Grows the Neighborhood,' and our goal is to plant a tree that will grow for many years to come and to dedicate a bench for people who have a positive vision. Because that's what we want this neighborhood to be about."

The "Here Grows the Neighborhood" picnic will take place from noon to 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 1. Everyone is welcome. Click for directions to Prairie Meadows Park.