How Gentrification Has Changed the Whittier Neighborhood

Homes in the Whittier neighborhood.
Homes in the Whittier neighborhood. Denver7 via YouTube
Editor's note: This is the third in a series about changes in gentrifying Denver neighborhoods. Click to read about Five Points and Cole.

Like Five Points and Cole, which border it in north Denver, the Whittier neighborhood has traditionally been home to people of color, many of whom have faced historically discriminatory roadblocks to owning housing. But as data from a sweeping research project demonstrates, Whittier experienced a growing demographic shift over the past decade epitomized by an influx of higher-income folks and the departure of many longtime residents who could no longer afford to stay in the place they'd called home for generations.

The information was culled from the Child Opportunity Index 2.0, a mammoth database created by Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. The project examines the 100 largest metro areas in the United States, including Denver, at a granular level, neighborhood by neighborhood, to reveal the sort of inequality set before many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it served as the foundation of our post "Study: White Children in Denver Have Huge Edge Over Hispanic, Black Kids."

At our request, a team headed by Clemens Noelke, research director for the Institute of Child, Youth and Family Policy for Brandeis's Heller School for Social Policy and Management, pulled together facts and figures for a number of Denver neighborhoods, including Whittier, by drawing from the U.S. Census tracts it encompasses.

The main sources are American Community Surveys that the U.S. Census Bureau pegs to the years 2010 and 2015, though they actually cover wider periods: 2008-2012 and 2013-2017. As a result, they show what led to the conditions in Whittier today.

The Child Opportunity Index 2.0 collected data from 72,000 census tracts focusing on 29 indicators. Each factor is weighted according to how strongly it predicts health and economic outcomes, with the results combined to create a single opportunity score between 1 and 100. The bottom of the scale represents the 1 percent of kids who live in neighborhoods with the lowest opportunity scores, while 100 designates the neighborhoods offering children the best odds of reaching their full potential.

Whittier's overall numbers document enormous leaps between the 2010 and 2015 reports, as measured against the national average and the one for Denver specifically — from 28.0 to 60.0 for the former and 17.0 to 40.0 for the latter. That the scores doubled in each of these metrics would be remarkable if these gains were experienced by longtime residents instead of more advantaged newcomers. But that doesn't appear to be the case, as a closer look at information grouped in three broad categories suggests.

click to enlarge A map of the Whittier neighborhood. - GOOGLE MAPS
A map of the Whittier neighborhood.
Google Maps


The number of children living in Whittier fell substantially between surveys, from 1,437 to 1,224. This trend is seen among children defined as "non-Hispanic white" (416 to 291), "not non-Hispanic white" (1,021 to 933), "some other race or two or more races" (235 to 140) and especially "black or African American." In 2010, that category accounted for more than 50 percent of the youth population, or 733 children, but the number was more than halved, to 344, in its successor.

That comparison exemplifies how this traditionally African-American neighborhood has transitioned, as many longtime residents and their children have moved on; the stats echo those documented in Five Points and Cole.

In contrast, the number of Hispanic or Latino kids rose substantially, from 291 to 578 — a likely indicator of migration within north Denver. So, too, is the complete departure of every child in Whittier of American Indian or Alaskan native descent; the 20 kids counted in 2010 was reduced to zero in the 2015 tally.


The assumption that low-income folks who'd lived in Whittier for generations were pushed out because of financial factors can't be stated definitively. Noelke warns that "without further information, it is not clear what is driving this change." But while the data certainly offers intriguing hints, there are some anomalies.

Single-headed households rose from 2010 to 2015 in both Five Points and Cole, likely because families priced out of those neighborhoods were replaced by millennials who chose to rent apartments in one of the many new complexes built during the past decade's development boom. But for Whittier, this data point moved in the opposite direction, going from 70.3 percent to 35.1 percent, suggesting that the area proved attractive to couples, including those with kids. As a result, the rate of home ownership stayed fairly steady (56.5 percent to 53.2 percent) and housing vacancies were almost nonexistent by the second report: 8.1 percent to 1.7 percent.

That's a formula for rising housing costs, and the people living in Whittier later in the decade were better able to pay the price; median household income shot from $47,028 to $74,611. Strangely, the percentage of people working in high-skill employment slipped at the same time, from 57.2 percent to 50.1. But all of the other major categories under this umbrella reflect an influx of cash: fewer folks on public assistance (17.5 percent to 13.9 percent), a much lower poverty rate (24.0 percent to 15.7 percent), and modest bumps in overall employment (82.0 percent to 85.6 percent) and those who have health insurance coverage (85.9 percent to 86.3 percent).


Early childhood education enrollment actually tumbled by 73.7 percent to 46.0 percent from one analysis to the next — another seemingly contradictory result, albeit one that also popped up in Five Points. But otherwise, most of the stats related to schools show steady improvement.

For instance, school poverty, as measured by the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, went from 92.3 percent to 85.9 percent. Also up were those 25 or older with a college degree (48.0 percent to 49.4 percent), the high school graduation rate (63.0 percent to 65.9 percent), the number of high-quality early childhood education centers (up by 27 percent) and third-grade proficiency in reading and math (increases of 4.5 percent and 6 percent, respectively).

All of this fits with the gentrification narrative that's still being told in places like Whittier today.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts