When Manual High Students Study Gentrification, It's a Real Class Act

Elijah Huff calls himself a “’hood-walker.” “It’s amazing when I walk around…. When you walk past, you never know where your next house will be,” explains the recent Manual High School graduate. The location of Huff’s next home weighs heavily on his mind as he prepares to head to Fort Lewis College in Durango on a full-ride scholarship. He hopes to become a pastor — he’s planning to major in philosophy and minor in divinity — and could see returning to the neighborhood if he feels called there, but he wonders if he will fit in then. He wonders if he will even still fit in when he comes back for Christmas break — and what he will come back to.

“I’ve lived down here my whole life, and I was gentrified three times in high school.”

tweet this
Huff has lived in Denver’s rapidly gentrifying Whittier neighborhood for most of his life. His grandparents moved here from New Boston, Texas, in the 1930s, settling into a brick bungalow at East 24th Avenue and Gaylord Street. By then, Whittier was already more than six decades old; coupled with nearby Five Points, it was the heart of Denver’s African-American community, especially after redlining and segregation made it one of only a few neighborhoods that would accept black residents. During the Depression, owners of larger homes often converted their properties to boarding homes and apartments, increasing the density of the area. The Huff bungalow also became home to many generations; Elijah lived there for the first eight years of his life. But then his grandfather passed away, and his aunt had to sell the house for financial reasons, which split up the extended family — grandmother, cousins, aunts and uncles — that had been living under the same roof.

Since his grandparents’ house was sold a decade ago, Huff has been on the move. “I’ve lived down here my whole life, and I was gentrified three times in high school,” he recalls. “I said to my mom, ‘They’re pushing us out. Let’s go live in Aurora and I’ll commute. I’m a senior; I can do it one year.’ But my Mom said, ‘I was raised here and I’m gonna die here. You’re gonna have to bury me here.’ And my stepdad, too — he’s like, ‘I gotta die someday, so I’m gonna die in my streets.’”

At Manual — the school another grandmother, an aunt and cousins all attended (though his mother chose to attend East High) — Huff learned how to describe the experiences of all of this migration: the language of gentrification. In his Advanced Placement Human Geography class this spring, students were asked to explore the patterns of movement that their families and neighbors had experienced by doing original research — choosing quantifiable or anecdotal approaches — on the history of their neighborhood from those who lived there. The Gentrification Project was dreamed up by teacher Chris DeRemer, a recent transplant to Whittier and Manual, in response to his own feelings after moving to the neighborhood.

DeRemer, a native of Pueblo and a 2007 graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, had accepted a job at Manual while he was teaching in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; he spent three years there after first teaching at Mountain Range High School in Adams County. He’d always known he wanted to return to Colorado and teach in Denver Public Schools, but it was a video on Manual’s expeditionary-learning program — a video that featured some of his future students — that convinced him he belonged at that school.

The neighborhood was something else. “We moved into Whittier without knowing anything about the history, and I think that’s pretty typical,” DeRemer says. “For me as the gentrifier, I am the classic model: I am highly educated, affluent.... I’m thirty, my wife is thirty — the young family moving in and not really knowing the responsibility or impact we’re having on the community.” The family definitely plans to be part of the community, though. As a new father (his son was born just as the school year ended), he’s looking forward to his kids attending the same schools that his students have, walking to Cole Elementary School a few blocks away and ultimately graduating from Manual.

Although DeRemer’s class initially split over the choice of anecdotal or quantifiable research, the majority of the seventeen students, captivated by discussions with their family and community members, wound up switching to anecdotal by the time their work was due. And the project wasn’t just limited to AP Human Geography: From English to social studies classes, Manual students were given a chance to share their voices and explore their histories — reading poetry to a group of CU Boulder students as part of a project called “I Am the New America,” telling their stories at community meetings, speaking to DPS representatives.

“We moved in to Whittier without knowing anything about the history, and I think that’s pretty typical.”

tweet this
“Gentrification” is a word on everyone’s lips in Denver these days, from wild-eyed developers scraping and building as fast as they can, to artists losing their studios to the marijuana grow houses of the green rush, to new residents flocking here, starry-eyed about Colorado’s legendary sunshine and blissfully unaware of the lack of affordable housing — until they get here. In Whittier — the area bordered by York and Downing streets on the east and west, Martin Luther King Boulevard and 23rd Avenue on the north and south — there was a 14.1 percent rise in home values over the past year alone. And that makes this neighborhood — until fairly recently one of the poorer in the city — currently the ninth most expensive place in the city in which to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

Manual, established in 1894 as a branch of East High School known as the Manual Training High School, is one of the oldest schools in the city; it was named for the kind of work that its original students were trained to do. The school has gone through many twists and turns in its 122-year history, including closing for a year in 2006, after test scores plummeted and gang-related violence soared. Student and community protests pushed for the school to reopen, which it did the next year, with a new curriculum that has brought its test scores from the bottom to the third highest in the city. Next year, a new principal, Nick Dawkins, will take the helm.

While the influx of new, mostly white residents hasn’t changed Manual much yet (the population of white students there is still low, though it doubled last year, to 16 out of 284 students), it’s being felt. Recent meetings at Manual have focused on future demographics and potentially adopting models from Stapleton as the school explores incorporating a middle school into its campus. Kurt Dennis, the principal of McAuliffe International School, shared his methods and school culture with the Manual staff, and a petition on Facebook is now seeking community support for a McAuliffe International middle school in Whittier. “There’s no proof that their model will fit this neighborhood,” DeRemer notes. “But it doesn’t have to; it has to fit the future neighborhood. That’s the hardest part — it doesn’t fit Manual now, but it might fit Manual in five years.”

Curling newspaper clippings of stories outlining Manual student achievements are haphazardly tacked to the walls of the history room on the third floor of the school. A locked office holds vintage trophies and fading pictures of football stars, thick wool letter sweaters and a bright-crimson megaphone: relics that predate much of the physical building. DeRemer delights in finding pieces of the school’s history, which includes such notable alumni as two of Denver’s mayors, Wellington Webb and Michael Hancock. Class photos line the walls; Huff points out relatives from various years and jokes about stories he’s heard from uncles and siblings.

Together, DeRemer and Huff pore over the photos. The neighborhood’s shifts and the effects of forced busing in Denver in the ’70s are clearly reflected in the skin tones of the smiling seniors; their excited faces are a marked contrast to the worried looks worn by today’s seniors. But Huff and DeRemer don’t just talk about social issues; they have deep discussions about how the Thunderbolt teams are doing now and who was great in the past. Despite the gaps in their ages and circumstances, there is a relaxed ease to their conversation. DeRemer’s students regard him as more than a teacher and an ally; they see him as a friend.

And they need a friend right now. With struggling parents working too many jobs to keep up with rising rents and houses being sold out from underneath them, many of Manual’s students now travel for hours on buses and light rail from all over the city — Aurora, Montbello and Green Valley Ranch, in particular — to complete their schooling with their friends, within the community they consider home. If they choose to participate in extracurricular activities or sports, they may not get home until late.

Jabari Lottie made that choice, and his hour-and-a-half commute often had him arriving home after midnight his freshman year. Since before he was old enough to remember, Lottie has bounced around Section 8 housing: from North Lincoln on the west side to Montbello, then to Five Points, where he spent eight years before being pushed to Aurora, where he lives now. But even Aurora hasn’t offered the stability he craves. “I actually don’t have a house right now, but we’re looking for houses,” he says. “We’ve been looking for houses for months now, since January. There’s no houses or no apartments or nothing like that actually available for us, because we’re low-income, so we use Section 8. But there is no Section 8 anymore in this area, which is where I go to school. The only place we can actually see houses available are, like, in Green Valley Ranch, which for me would be a three-hour-and-thirty-minute trip. So it’s like everything’s just getting pushed out: You can’t find a house, you just can’t really be with your community.”

Other students feel that loss of community, too. Novaj Miles, who just finished his sophomore year, states it plainly: “When they moved us from down here, I had to create another life, basically. It changed me as a person. I had to grow up fast, because I didn’t know nobody.” Miles currently lives on Quebec Street — much closer to Manual than many of his classmates, but still a world away from 35th Avenue and York Street, where he lived when he attended Cole Elementary. The move east sent him to Smiley Middle School — now McAuliffe International School in Park Hill — and struggling to find his place. “I’d say I was an outsider. Everybody looked at me different,” he remembers. “People would judge me by the way that I dressed, because I wasn’t the same as them. I just remember everyone not [being] on the same page as me.”

He still laments the personal loss of the move. “We had everything we needed,” he recalls. “We had rec centers, all my friends were down here, I had big brothers, people I grew up with — I just had a family down here.” But today his former neighborhood is almost unrecognizable. “They changed over at 35th and York a lot,” Miles explains. “There used to be a little gas station there, and they turned it into a 7-Eleven. There was an old barbershop everybody used to go to, and they just changed it. It’s not even the same barbershop anymore. They just changed that whole block. Now when I look at it, it doesn’t even look the same, and I don’t even remember growing up on that block, because they changed it so much.”

But evolving architecture and amenities aren’t the primary concern in this community, where gang violence has recently flared again. Of the seventeen murders that occurred in Denver — most of them in the northeast part of the city — in the first five months of 2015, twelve have been determined to be gang-related. That’s more than occurred all last year — and before summer had even started. Changing racial demographics are at least partially responsible, suggests Reverend Leon Kelly, the city’s premier anti-gang activist, who points to a “collapse of space” that has increased tensions. “Because of that compression, these kids, who are trying to fight for a little bit of identity and a little bit of territory that they’ve had in the past, become an issue,” he explains. After living in the neighborhood for thirty years, Kelly has taken to calling it “the new ’hood” in the wake of all of the recent changes, changes reflected at community meetings discussing the rise in violence. “Out of 100 people in that room, 90 of them are white,” he notes. “This is our ’hood now.” So he says he understands the frustration felt by kids: “When you feel like there is a group of folks, a community, that is losing [its] identity, then it has an effect.”

“When you feel like there is a group of folks, a community, that is losing [its] identity, then it has an effect.”

tweet this
Here’s how Huff explains the minefield that he and his friends traverse with each displacement: “When you get kids that have to move out there, it’s two different worlds, from here and Park Hill. A lot of white people, sadly, don’t want to accept that. They think, ‘Oh, this gang violence is pointless.’ Well, the honest truth is, it’s two different worlds from this side of the boulevard and that side. I’ve got a lot of friends who went to Columbine Elementary, and we all lived down here. I think now over 80 percent of my friends live in Montbello or Green Valley Ranch. So then, you’re forcing kids who have lived their whole life in one world to go to an opposite world that is considered an enemy world, you know, but then I’ve got to come home, if I do get to stay here, and then I’ve got to deal with the oppression from white folks.

“I used to be able to walk these streets as a little boy and be fine, but now, at seventeen years old, I walk these streets and I can get pulled over simply for having a hoodie on,” he continues. “Or the cops might stop me just because of what I look like, because I always fit the description. As a black man, I always am going to fit the description.”

Sitting in that Manual classroom, his fellow students nod vigorously in agreement.

“It’s incredible to me how a lot of people are completely just leaving out the fact of the gentrification as a connection to the rise in homicides that we have. It just adds more stress and more tension,” Huff adds. “When you’re forced to move out at an older age, you’re identified as either an East Side kid or a Park Hill kid; it’s just kind of how it works. When you’re a little boy and you move in, nobody knows you but your little friends. You go to Stedman Elementary and then you’re fine. But if I were to move to Park Hill between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, that’s dangerous. That’s dangerous because everybody asks, ‘Where you from, when did you move in here?’ And then the next thing you know, you’ve got everybody knowing where you’re at, who’s supposed to be your enemy. I’ve got a cousin who’s sitting in the hot zone — right on 33rd up by Dahlia or something like that — and his parents want to move back down here, but they can’t afford it.”

DeRemer hears stories like this all the time. “I was talking to a mother the other day,” he recalls, “and that’s exactly what she said: ‘We cannot get ahead enough to get a deposit. If we could get a deposit, I have the income.’ She’s held a job, and she’s amazing — that’s the hardest thing that just kills me. These kids are loved. These kids are loved. They’ve got family that loves them, they’ve got community that loves them, they’ve got extended family that loves them…so this assumption that there’s no one there for them is a total lie. They’re loved; they just need to get that step ahead.”

The students recognize what their parents are going through. “The stress that I see in parents’ eyes when you run into somebody — it’ll be like, ‘Hey, girl, how you doing,’ and my mom will be like, ‘Trying to find a place,’” Huff sighs.

Kids are losing other places, too. Fuller Park, which is next to Manual, has turned from a spot where they’d hang out into a dog park primarily used by new white residents, Kelly points out. And a couple of blocks from Manual, shifts in staffing at the Red Shield Recreation Center, which is run by the Salvation Army, impacted programming schedules — and further ripped the community. “Whenever they bring in someone new, they have a different way of seeing things,” says Lillie Betts, Huff’s aunt, who worked at the facility fifteen years ago.

“The classes do change and will change according to attendance and to reflect community needs,” confirms Tahreem Tashaglen, special events and PR director for the Intermountain Division of the Salvation Army.

When Huff was in the eighth grade, the gym, which had always been open to kids when it wasn’t booked for an event, suddenly got a more structured schedule of classes. The impact was immediate. “When they shut down open gym at Red Shield, almost every one of my friends started gang-banging,” Huff remembers. “Every single one of them started gang-banging. Because that was our outlet. We would go in and ask the lady, ‘Is there a chance we can get open gym?’ And she would say, ‘No, but what you can do is you can have your parents come up here, sign this paper, then you can pay for an activity.’”

“And she wanted everybody to do karate!” interjects classmate Tra Carolina.

Continues Huff: “And I’d have to tell her, ‘Well, my mama can’t afford this $450 summer camp. We’ve gotta pay rent!’”

And rents in Denver are definitely rising, increasing at 3.4 times the national rate. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Whittier this spring was a whopping $1,200. Home prices have risen, too, and for many families in the area, the increase in the value has been a dream come true, with older residents selling their homes and moving out of the empty nest — taking their history and knowledge of the neighborhood to the suburbs or beyond. But for those who want to stay, increased property taxes increase the financial pressure, especially for anyone on a fixed income. But rents are only one part of the squeeze being felt. With the influx of newcomers moving from cities with historically higher pay and property values, long-term residents are at a distinct disadvantage with stagnant wages. Throughout Colorado, the cost of living has increased three times as quickly as wages have, and it’s even worse for minority families, who already have a lower median income.

Though class is definitely the driver of gentrification, racism remains an uncomfortable reality.

Huff’s most recent move was from a house where his family lived in the 2500 block of Race Street. “So my mom is talking to the new homeowner,” he says, “and we’re like, ‘Well, why do you want us to move? Tell us the truth.’ And he said, ‘We don’t want you black people in here no more. We don’t want you type of people living in this community. If you don’t notice, this community’s changing.’ He said that straight up to my mom. We pay our rent, my stepdad has a well-paying job, my mom works — there’s no reason. And he was just like, ‘We don’t want you people living in this community anymore.’”

From its founding, the history of this country has been one of migration. But instead of settlers worried about Indians in the Old West, now it’s frightened white residents posting reports of gunshots on Facebook pages and not understanding why the neighborhood youth gather on the corner, as they always have.

“No, gentrification can’t be stopped, but like anything, we can control how it will affect us.”

tweet this
“There’s a stigma that us African-American men feel,” Huff explains, “especially when gang-banging, that ‘I gotta keep my ’hood a ’hood.’ So when white people come in and bring these nice resources, they want to tear it up, and it’s ignorance, but it’s truth. Because I’ve gotta know that my ’hood’s a ’hood — it’s a sense of pride. Just like Chicago or Harlem or Brooklyn, I gotta know my ’hood is a ’hood, so I can’t be letting these white people bring this nice stuff in. It’s gotta stay raggedy. And it’s ignorance, but it’s the culture.”

Which is why DeRemer’s Gentrification Project has been invaluable — not just for the students, but to help push discussion in the community. “I think Manual has built an incredible amount of momentum being a voice in the community,” DeRemer says with pride. “I think one thing we do at Manual better than any place is that we really push [students] to think about their role right now in the community, and Manual has always had new stuff thrown at it. I think they’re finally saying, ‘Wait, we have the tools and the system to actually have our voice in this. We know that if we say something, people will listen. If we speak, people are going to be blown away.’ That’s been really cool, to see them say, ‘Let’s do it, let’s be part of not the change, but the growth of awareness of these issues.’ I think it’s an empowerment that’s huge for them.”

DeRemer’s students spoke about the project at three public gatherings this past spring — at the Whittier Neighborhood Community Meeting, at the Martin Luther King Symposium held at the school, and at a Rotary meeting — each time telling their stories of how the “new ’hood” has affected their lives. “The mood of the staff is that Manual students are much more powerful than anyone has ever given them credit for,” DeRemer says. “There’s an innate brilliance among our kids, and it’s not just unique to Manual. I would say that for any school that houses a marginalized or minority population that’s just so intense…you can’t not unleash it. So now we’re saying, ‘This works. This is engaging. This gets kids going.’ And that exposes how brilliant they are.”

Those meetings aren’t always comfortable. No one wants to acknowledge that their new home was once home to someone else, someone who may not have left of their own volition.

At the Whittier neighborhood meeting in March, the discomfort was obvious as the students, clustered at the front of a sweaty room full of fidgeting adults of varying degrees of newness to the area, spoke about the results of their research. They spoke bluntly about the new realities of their lives, not shying away from the often politely avoided topics of race and class. “I loved the awkwardness sometimes,” DeRemer says. “I loved that they didn’t pull punches. I was just sitting there thinking, this is so good, so uncomfortable. And until we get into a spot that is uncomfortable, nothing will be done about it.”

Many of the kids had been worried about speaking so plainly, but he told them: “You can’t not say it. You have to say it. It’s okay to say it. And if you don’t, you’re doing a disservice to the rest of the group who thinks, ‘You won’t dare say that to me.’ You deserve to ask the questions, and you deserve to have an answer.” DeRemer also warned them that not everyone would be open to hearing what they had to say. “There’s a level of privilege in which you don’t even have to dive in,” he notes. “So the students are like, ‘Why don’t we just talk to them? Everyone wants to talk about this.’ And I say, ‘No, they don’t.’ There’s a level of privilege where you don’t have to talk about it.”

By the end of the school year, the students are feeling good about the progress they’ve made on the project. The tensions they might feel outside of Manual usually disappear when they are in DeRemer’s classroom, where the jovial atmosphere is infectious. Still, the teacher likes to remind his class of the work/life balance at the start of every session, setting aside a few minutes to discuss the stress students experience as they race toward the close of classes, ticking off goals and assignments. Despite all of the surface differences, it’s clear the students feel that their teacher is on their side.

DeRemer is highly conscious of what he represents. “I think that’s the best thing about this project: I use the idea of my privilege in class all the time,” he says. “I will never know what it’s like to be on that side of it. I don’t want to pretend. So I’m going to be exactly who I am and do exactly what I am doing and tell them that, and then now we’re having a real dialogue. The classroom becomes a real, live community discussion instead of pretending, ‘We’re all in this together; let’s join together.’”

Despite the hardships caused by gentrification, most students recognize some benefits to the changes. They like seeing run-down places fixed up and new cafes and restaurants appearing — even if some of those places don’t seem to be meant for them.

Huff describes himself as “on the fence” regarding those new businesses. “There’s some nice things I like,” he admits. “I don’t mind having the Whittier Cafe; I think they have good coffee. It’s expensive, but it’s just kind of how it is. But it’s like, ‘Can I have an opportunity? I’ve already been robbed enough because of the color of my skin. Don’t rob me because of my socioeconomic status.’”

DeRemer isn’t comfortable with some of the changes he’s seen during his two years in the neighborhood. “It’s actually far less of a community,” he says. “It’s far less tight-knit. It’s far more separated and split and tense; it’s not better. It looks beautiful, and the lawns are amazing, and the home prices are excellent for the homeowners, and the organic coffee is fantastic — but it’s not better.”

Although no one — not the teacher, not the students, not school staffers — has any idea how to effectively mitigate the effects of those changes at Manual, they recognize that posing questions is a good place to start. But all the conversations seem to lead back to one place: the realization that everyone was blindsided by the speed of the changes. “The train is going so fast, we can’t catch up,” DeRemer says. “I wonder, if we really cared and loved as we say we did, wouldn’t we do a little bit more? Is the ultimate goal a diverse and rich community? Or is it, at the end of the day, how much our home value is worth? And I think we want to say it’s community, and it’s diversity, and it’s city pride, but really, the driver is the home value.”

Still, solutions start with conversations, and the seeds planted by the Gentrification Project may germinate in unforeseen ways. The vision for the future that Huff outlines in his final paper for the project is beautifully inclusive and utopian: “In order to ensure that everyone is positively affected, we must sit down as one big family. Whites, blacks, Hispanics, people of all cultures need to come together to find how we can set up the next generation for success. Making sure we honor those before us, with us and after us in mentioning all parts of our communities. No, gentrification can’t be stopped, but like anything, we can control how it will affect us. We must create a community that reflects what the world is around us.”

But is it too late? Perhaps for Whittier. Huff, with his family roots reaching back eight decades and throughout northeast Denver, will return from college to more changes. Younger students at Manual will struggle to stay there and ride out the changes with their beloved Thunderbolts. Not all of them will make it.

DeRemer pauses and looks out the window of his classroom, to the old-growth trees reaching above rows of peaked Victorian roofs. “Denver had a missed opportunity,” he says finally. “And it’s not necessarily that it sold its soul, but…I’m not saying that it didn’t.”