Small Wonders

Bobbie Boyer retired last September after 24 years of teaching in Denver elementary schools. But in the last year of her career, she planted a little seed that's about to bear fruit.

During that final year, she taught third grade at Smith Elementary School--now known as Smith Renaissance School of the Arts. "Our curriculum for that grade called for teaching the history of Denver," Boyer explains. "But when I went to the library to research the history of Denver, I found almost nothing about the Park Hill neighborhood." And, she adds, information about northeast Park Hill, where Smith is located, was completely nonexistent.

At Boyer's urging, Smith instituted an after-school project, and Boyer supervised third-, fourth- and fifth-graders as they went out into the community to gather an oral history of the neighborhood. Material from 22 of those interviews will hit the stage at Smith on Friday, and through a mixture of dance, song, recitations, live interviews and--since the performance takes the form of a radio show--civic "commercials" delivered by district leaders, kids will give back to their community some of the valuable information they've discovered.

"The children truly enjoyed it," Boyer says of the interviewing process, which included conversations with a wide variety of neighbors, from retired Smith principal Frances Davis to former state legislator Arie Taylor.

It's been a long road for the project, which hit some deep ruts in its early stages, especially since it involved the sometimes difficult-to-manage cooperation of educators, organizers, artists and students. Then there was the financing, which came through a grant from Neighborhood Cultures of Denver.

"In the application process, they pick an artist and a lead organizer," says Mary Kennedy of Neighborhood Cultures, describing the method for obtaining grants from her organization. But, she says, the northeast Park Hill group "had trouble between those two people at first. That happens sometimes, but those often turn out to be the best projects--they had to stop what they were doing and regroup, choose a new organizer and artistic team. We coach as much as we can to make things work," she notes, "but ultimately, it's really up to people in the neighborhood to create something with their artist."

The Heritage Project's final team, multi-arts performing trio Jafrika and neighborhood mover and shaker Loretta Richardson, took on the arduous challenge of molding Boyer's original vision into an entertaining show. In the process, they had to deal with diverse input from a number of neighborhood groups. "Everyone has their different slant," says performance poet SETH, a member of and spokesman for Jafrika. "Whenever we had meetings, there was that dynamic of people coming from different directions. It was not so much an intense conflict but one of competing interests. In a neighborhood this diverse, finding common ground shows you can work together. You can achieve things. We have, and we need to keep going."

In the interest of raising civic pride, the project uncovered a lot of revelatory information, SETH says. Denver--and Park Hill, in particular--led the way for national civil-rights legislation during the Sixties. "Quite a few people from the east and southeast came here to get away from discrimination," he notes. "When they moved in, they became very active." Several key events, including passage of the precedent-setting Colorado Fair Housing Act three years earlier than similar federal legislation, were spurred by such activists. Stories such as these will be highlighted in a portion of the program called "The Northeast Park Hill Hall of Fame," which will feature essays on prominent community figures by students at Smiley Middle School, staged with musical accompaniment created in collaboration with Jafrika.

"I'd like to see the district incorporate something like this into the curriculum," Boyer says of the final product. "It meshed very young people with seniors, which was a neat experience for the kids. Senior citizens have a lot to give children, and the children are so fresh." Boyer condensed several of the collected oral histories into a book to be placed in the nearby Pauline Robinson Branch Library; she hopes to add new volumes in time.

Like Boyer, Loretta Richardson would like to see a continuation of the project, if only for the way it's perked up a neighborhood fallen on hard times. Most residents, she supposes, don't know what to be proud of in northeast Park Hill. "I'm seeing this performance as the kickoff," she says. "We've planted the seeds--maybe now we can get more people interested, when they see what can come of working together."

For Richardson, who envisions an eventual community festival pulling together schools, churches, businesses and other resources, the real goal is simply taking the next step. "In the long run," she says, "it's all about building pride in our neighborhood. And we can't build enough pride."


Northeast Park Hill Heritage Project, Friday, May 14, 6:30 p.m., Smith Renaissance School of the Arts, 3590 Jasmine Street, 303-764-7732.