Montbello Fights Against Food Desert, Old Rep About Gangs and Crime

This week's news about two deaths in Montbello over a 24-hour span couldn't have come at a worse time.

Today, Angelle Fouther, chairperson of the Montbello Organizing Committee (MOC), and other neighborhood leaders are scheduled to gather at the chambers of Denver mayor Michael Hancock to meet with representatives of grocery stores. At present, Montbello is what's known as a food desert — a large, urban community that doesn't have a single full-service supermarket — and Fouther and her fellow residents argue that its 34,000 residents can more than support such a business. But entrepreneurs have been traditionally wary about investing in locations with high crime rates and gang activity, and the more reports there are about violence in Montbello, the tougher Fouther's mission will be.

Nonetheless, Fouther refuses to let Montbello be defined by the portraits typically painted by TV news broadcasts, which tend to only report about the neighborhood when something bad happens and seldom fail to use its name rather than a directional designation (northwest, southeast) in headlines, unlike many, if not most, other communities within Denver metro. She's armed with statistics, optimism and tremendous pride in a place whose negative reputation she sees as consistently overstated.

"This month, we're celebrating the community's fiftieth anniversary," Fouther says about festivities that will take place on September 23 and 24; get more information below. "Montbello came about in the mid-'60s as a purposefully diverse community; it's about 60 percent Latino, 28 percent African-American, and the rest is a mixture. It's a quiet, beautiful place that, unfortunately, gets a bad rap."

It's not that Fouther is blind to violence in the area. Late last month, 7News broadcast a report about gang-related shootings near Maxwell Place and Sable Street, with a woman seen in silhouette identifying one bullet-riddled house as the root of the problem — and Fouther attended a neighborhood meeting on the topic last week as a community member and to demonstrate MOC's commitment to safety.

Moreover, she notes, "We actually saw some of this kind of activity on my block — and what wound up being a big part of the issue was the fact that a lot of the houses nearby had been purchased by investors at the time of the recession. Folks were upside down with their mortgages, there were all kinds of foreclosures, and the houses were quickly scooped up — and a handful of the investors rented them out and didn't care who they put in there."

Several neighbors organized in the area and subsequently confronted one of these landlords. "It wasn't that he was a bad guy," Fouther allows. "He just had no idea what was going on because he hadn't been around. And in a neighborhood that had already experienced serious predatory practices in terms of loans some folks had — loans that had a lot to do with their mortgages going underwater — that's a serious issue. When you have investors who purchase properties without investing in the community, you leave a gap — and then you have the potential of those houses being taken over by gangs. That isn't the case in every situation, but it can happen, and when it does, there's recruitment of youth who may see that lifestyle as glamorous, and they want to be a part of it. And that starts a cycle."

These days, such foreclosures are rare in Montbello, she points out, and the overall pace of crime is moderating despite the two most recent deaths; note that the most recent of them has been deemed not suspicious by the Denver Police Department, despite earlier suggestions that it was. According to Fouther, Montbello's rate of 8.9 crimes per 1,000 residents is in the bottom third of Denver neighborhoods — "lower than Cherry Creek or Stapleton or the Central Business District downtown. But there's still the myth that we have a lot of crime. It's a minority community, and maybe that plays into it — and when something happens, the news is all over it. But the statistics tell another story."

This tale is one that Fouther plans to share with grocers. A few years back, Safeway pulled out of Montbello, and at present, there's only what she describes as "a little Walmart neighborhood store." Meanwhile, she goes on, "there are a lot of people at the lower- and median-income level who are cooking at home more, because we don't have a lot of restaurants aside from fast-food. That's a dedicated audience, and if you combine that with adjacent Green Valley Ranch, which is a food desert, too — just one grocery store for 28,000 residents — you have over 60,000 people with almost no competition."

Montbello Organizing Committee members "have run the numbers," Fouther points out, "and the projections show that Montbello alone has enough demand to support a 50,000-square-foot facility — and if you combine that with all of the far northeast, there are enough people to support 150,000 square feet. That's about four or five grocery stores."

On top of that, Fouther reveals, Denver's Office of Economic Development "has already approved a $250,000 grant as an incentive, and there's also a $750,000 financing package. So that's $1 million to incentivize someone to bring a grocery store to Montbello."

That such a large financial carrot is necessary to get grocers' attention "is kind of crazy," Fouther acknowledges. "But it's one of the things we want to show folks — that when you get engaged in the work of building your community, good things can happen."

MOC has been boosting the community in other ways, too, by, among other things, working to enhance transportation options for residents — particularly those who need a way to get to that Walmart neighborhood store. But at the same time, Fouther is wary of Montbello becoming the next target for gentrification, as has taken place in neighborhoods such as Five Points and Cole.

"We're starting to see little signs of it, and in some ways, we're the final frontier, because of how people have tended to view the community, for better or worse," she says. "There's more investor interest in the housing market, because housing prices are going up, and rents are going up, too. But MOC has a lot of community members that are fighting against that. We want quality of life, we want the resources that other communities have to scale — but we don't want people who've lived here for decades, or people who moved here because they like the affordability, to get pushed out." She jokes, "You want to dress nice, but not too provocatively, because you don't want to attract the wrong people."

With that in mind, Fouther will push companies to build a grocery store now, rather than waiting to see if greater gentrification happens. She hopes to have good news on that front within the next six months — and if community members succeed, the new project may at least partially counteract the sort of stories that usually circulate about Montbello.

About those fiftieth-anniversary festivities: On September 23, the Montbello Organizing Committee and Steps to Success Montbello will host a community awards program beginning at 6 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Denver Airport Convention Center; click for more information. That's followed by a full day of activities on September 24, including a parade and events aplenty at the Montbello Recreation Center. Here are additional details.