How to Build a Ghetto

Traffic starts stuffing up at the corner of Alameda Avenue and Quebec Street at about 7:30 a.m. The cars leaving the former Lowry Air Force Base stream into a double line of shiny luxury sedans and caravans of SUVs. The cars heading north, onto the base, are driven by construction workers. They, too, drive SUVs and new pickup trucks. At Lowry, times are good even for the carpet layers.

After most of the cars have left the base -- say, about 9 a.m. -- if you walk north on Quebec next to a seven-foot brick wall nicknamed "The Great Wall of Lowry," you'll come to a crossroad named Cedar Place.

Turn left onto Cedar Place and you'll enter Park Heights, where the sign reads "Custom Homes. From the $500s." As in $500,000. From outside the Great Wall, you can see only the massive domed rooftops and second-story windows. Residents say a few Denver Broncos live inside Park Heights, but they decline to identify which ones.

If you turn right instead of left on Cedar Place, you'll enter the more reasonable Crestmoor Estates. "From the $300s," the sign reads. It's a folksy neighborhood with two-story brick homes set back behind green, fluffy lawns. Porches are big but empty this time of day, save for a temporarily abandoned tricycle or discarded baseball bat and glove. The new fences between homes stand erect, with artful lattice work at the tops. Keep walking down Cedar Place and you'll notice that the houses don't change much. That's okay, though -- they're not supposed to.

Pass Rosemary Street, and the brick homes gradually begin to fade into rubble. Here the cement sidewalk simply ends. New homes are under construction along this row, but they are only skeletons now. You can see the workers inside them. The street is covered in dried mud, rocks, piles of scrap wood and electrical wires. Men in hard hats rumble past in tractors, kicking up whiffs of dust. Large numerals are spray-painted on sheets of plywood to identify the homes' future addresses. In front of these homes, spiked in the mounds of dirt that will one day be front lawns, signs read "Sold."

Look directly to the left of this mess on Cedar Place, which now resembles the main road of a Third World town. You'll see brown one-story houses, some surrounded by sagging chain-link fences, that have the character of Monopoly pieces. These homes were built in the late '50s, renovated in the '70s and left behind by the Air Force when the base closed in the early '90s. Plagued by asbestos, non-compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, they're useless today.

But if you walk farther into this square block of brown homes, you'll see that people still live in some of them, the ones that aren't fenced off. If you stroll onto East Maple Street and go to the corner house with the large tree, you've come to where Shely Lowe lives with her five children: Andrew, nine; Kadezshia, seven; Tamara, five; Kaila, three; and Eric, two.

The value of Shely Lowe's home starts somewhere in the $20s. As in $20,000. The inside of her home is painted canary yellow. The entire floor, from the kitchen through each of the four bedrooms, is linoleum. "Which is murder to keep clean," Lowe says.

It shouldn't be so easy to find Shely Lowe's home.

Ghettos don't rise overnight. They take years of planning.

If you studied a map created before Park Heights and Crestmoor Estates began sprouting up two years ago, you'd see that this neighborhood, made up of some 300 units of modest Air Force housing, was once known as Aspen Terrace.

Back in 1987, unaware of budget cuts that loomed around the corner, the United States Congress passed one of its more altruistic bills, the Stuart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. Named after the passionate Connecticut congressman who sponsored it, the McKinney Act ordered that providers for homeless people would have first dibs on any surplus federal property, such as retired military bases. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law.

In 1988, Congress was forced to accept the Base Closure and Realignment Act, sparking the closure of 352 dollar-draining military bases around the country and the realignment of 145 others. By June 1990, the Air Force announced that Lowry's time had come. At approximately 1,860 acres centered between Denver and Aurora, Lowry was one of the largest, most neighborly bases to be axed. The Air Force left behind 867 units of military housing, spread out primarily among three neighborhoods, all of which straddled Quebec, the base's main north-south road: the Blue Spruce community to the north, Sunset Village in the middle, and Aspen Terrace to the south.

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Justin Berton