Race for the Cure

Within the boundaries of Denver City Council District 8, high-rises loom above downtown. City Park spreads out around the zoo and the natural history museum. Nightspots draw nouveau-cool crowds to 17th Avenue. Neighborhood kids walk to East and Manual high schools, while vagrants wander near the Ballpark Neighborhood -- Denver's unofficial shelter district. Welton Street, the heart of Five Points, beats erratically. At the district's eastern edge, blocks and blocks of brick bungalows line the streets of Park Hill.

There's little that gives the district one easily identifiable character -- except for the empty lots, which are everywhere.

In downtown, such blocks are turned into glitzy retail spaces. In Curtis Park, much of an eight-block belt of low-income housing is being ripped up for a new development in which market-value homes will share the same turf with homes for the working poor. And as fast as the city can render Curtis Park homes into smooth blocks of dirt, developers in Uptown are transforming empty lots into townhome projects, none bigger than the redevelopment of St. Luke's Hospital into a sprawling complex of luxury apartments and stores.

The chunk of derelict land that draws the most attention, however, is the Dahlia Shopping Center. Candidates who futilely challenged Wellington Webb in last spring's mayoral election rallied around the shopping center as a symbol of urban decay and a sign that Webb was more interested in putting together big-ticket projects in the Central Platte Valley than in improving the neighborhood where he grew up and still lives. During his campaign Webb did announce plans to create an urban-renewal district at Dahlia that would offer tax incentives to retailers. So far, none have taken the bait. Last month, though, the city did cut the ribbon on the Park Hill Business Support Office (a satellite of Denver's human services department) and an office for the nonprofit Park Hill for Safe Neighborhoods; both share space at the shopping center.

And at the moment, chunks of land aren't the only things empty in District 8. Hiawatha Davis, who had been the area's city council representative since 1983, announced in September that he would vacate his seat to take over the city's Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations. Since 1955, only three men have served as councilman for the district: Lawyer King Trimble served a term prior to Davis's election, and before him, Elvin Caldwell held the seat for 25 years. Few people ran against Davis in the general elections, and those who did were soundly whupped. Now that Davis is gone, the race is wide open, with eleven candidates seeking to fill the void. The new councilperson will be determined by special election on Tuesday, December 7.

Contenders know they'll be expected to get something done with those clumps of dirt. "My first priority would be economic development," said candidate Jerry Duran at a forum last week at the East Denver YMCA. "We only have one grocery store to support the community. That's not enough. We need more stores, more places to shop so we don't have to take our money elsewhere."

Many of the district's residents want to do that shopping at Dahlia. Candidate Valarie McGee, a 911 dispatcher who ran against Davis last spring (and lost badly) says people who live in the neighborhoods near the shopping center have long desired a grocery store there. "Everyone needs to come to the table and decide what's going to happen with that property," she says.

"The deal will be driven by the people," candidate John Bailey says of Dahlia redevelopment. Once he's elected, he says, he'll "take the leadership to make sure it can happen. People shouldn't have to wait."

But the people who work and shop at Dahlia have heard that before. And among area residents, there's a sense that voter turnout will be low. "What's happened is that the Dahlia Shopping Center, Holly Shopping Center, Five Points are areas people have pointed at, but there hasn't been that commitment on behalf of the city," says candidate Zel Head, a lawyer and developer.

As she waits for her clothes to dry at the Dahlia Bubbles laundromat, Rosemary Brown, a 49-year-old administrative assistant, says she plans to vote but hasn't followed the particulars of the race, doesn't yet support a candidate and isn't terribly optimistic that any of them can get much done. "Black politicians do things for friends," Brown says, "but not for other blacks."

But whoever wins Davis's seat won't just have to do things for blacks. Whites left the district two generations ago; they were followed by blacks, who met racism and housing discrimination at Downing, then at York, then at Colorado Boulevard. Now, with many of the barriers removed, blacks are moving east right out of the district, to Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch and Aurora. Hispanics have filled the void, and whites are beginning to return home.