Neighborhoods

Is the Writing on the Wall for Curtis Park?

Is the Writing on the Wall for Curtis Park?
Evan Semon
Curtis Park often gets lost in the history of Denver, overshadowed by the legendary stories about Five Points — the official designation for the area in which it falls — and the commercial boom in today's rapidly developing RiNo, a commercial label slapped on over the past fifteen years. And Curtis Park itself has seen more than its share of changes over the past century and a half.

By the time I encountered Curtis Park, the neighborhood had mostly become a place to steer clear of — or to just drive through quickly as MLK turns toward downtown. Back in 1999, I was helping a local author write her family story, one that had roots on Stout Street in 1920s Curtis Park, when her Jewish family was one of many in the area. She asked me to accompany her to the old family home, which had in the intervening years turned from a single-family Victorian into a sliced-up four-unit apartment house. The couple we spoke with said there were over twenty people living in those four units, seven of them the couple and their five children. They invited us in so the author could see how the place had changed, gave us each a bottle of orange Topo Sabores while we talked at their kitchen table. They were kind and generous, and the father told me that I needed to get my friend, an older woman, out of the neighborhood before dark.
click to enlarge Curtis Park is recognized as "Denver's oldest neighborhood." - DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
Curtis Park is recognized as "Denver's oldest neighborhood."
Denver Public Library Special Collections
Curtis Park was settled early,back in the 1870s, when Denver’s first streetcar line laid tracks right up still-unpaved Champa Street; it's billed as the city's "oldest neighborhood." It was named for pioneer Samuel S. Curtis, the man who is said to have laid out the streets of Denver. Curtis donated the land that the park sits on today, in the are that now also bears his name. It was the Mile High City's first park, established in 1868 to attract Denverites to take up residence around it.

Despite its roots in city planning history, Curtis Park's exact borders are pretty muddy today; Google shows it stretching from Larimer to Welton, from Park Avenue West on the south to 30th Street on the north. Denvergov.org claims it's a little skinnier than that, placing it between Arapahoe and California, a subset in the city's official map of the Five Points neighborhood. Whatever the count, most of those blocks were developed by 1880, with a very democratic mix of homes. Mansions owned by the likes of J. Jay Joslin (founder of the eponymous Denver department store that would last for over a century) and Louis Anfenger (founder of National Jewish Hospital) sat close to smaller Victorians and cottages for those of more modest means.

But Capitol Hill soon became the place for Denver's well-off residents to build their homes. As the wealthy vacated the area over the next couple of decades, what had formerly been a population composed primarily of well-off or even wealthy European immigrants, with an especially strong Jewish contingent, was slowly supplanted by poorer immigrants from Europe, as well as African-American residents, bolstered by the Black economic hub of nearby Welton Street.

This was the era of Jack Kerouac's friend Neal Cassady, who grew up in a boardinghouse called the Snowden at 26th and Champa streets. He wrote in his autobiographical book The First Third about the vibrant nature of the area, how the people and the music and the life of the neighborhood were so important to him. Decades later, this same setting would inspire Kerouac and the Beat tradition that followed.

In the mid-1940s, Curtis Park was still attracting new residents. Many Japanese-American families moved into the area after being released from World War II internment at Camp Amache; Curtis Park was one of the places where they felt most at home and most welcomed. But post-war, the majority of Curtis Park’s new residents were of Mexican descent, and this population only increased as the years progressed. By the late 1960s, the Curtis Park Creamery at Champa and 30th streets changed from the place where local kids would get ice cream after playing in the park across the street into a still-popular family-run takeout spot with some of the best tamales and burritos in town.

Meanwhile, many Black families — long the victims of redlining — were moving out, to newly integrated Park Hill and other parts of Denver, even the suburbs.
click to enlarge Curtis Park is an official Denver historic district. - TEAGUE BOHLEN
Curtis Park is an official Denver historic district.
Teague Bohlen
A new wave of younger white residents began looking at Curtis Park in the ’90s, but the resurgence — which some would soon label "gentrification" — was a victim of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Housing prices plummeted — not quite back to where they’d been, but lower than the flippers and investors would take a chance on. By around 2012, though, the economy was doing better, prices were back up, and things started changing again.

The rise of RiNo was certainly a part of that: Two artists, Tracy Weil and Jill Hadley Hooper, were working in the old warehouse area along the South Platte River in late 2005 when they got the idea of creating the River North Art District, in recognition of all the artists based there. The RiNo Art District took off, bringing new life into the area — and also developers with big bank accounts. Although their projects were concentrated between the river and Larimer Street, speculation soon pushed farther east.

There were stalwarts in the neighborhood working to make it better, though, to save the history and improve conditions. Resident and realtor John Hayden has lived in Curtis Park for 27 years with his husband. Hayden has a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Denver, and not only specializes in real estate in his home neighborhood, but works tirelessly organizing community events like historic walking tours, park stewardship programs, Five Points First Friday Jazz, and family-friendly events around several holidays. He was one of the neighbors who urged the city to allow a safe-camping site on Welton, before nearby businesses objected. And most recently, he helped organize a GoFundMe campaign to help the much-loved Welton Street Cafe move into a location about a block north, where Welton crosses 28th.

"The diversity of the community" is Hayden's favorite thing about Curtis Park, "and I mean in every way," he says. "It's a cultural and racial diversity, but it's also a diversity of housing and uses. The fact that you can walk to places, because the residences are mixed in with the commercial. There are still corner stores. People work on Larimer and downtown and in the Posner center and walk to work. Other parts of the city pay lip service to valuing a diverse walkable neighborhood, but in Curtis Park, we live it."
click to enlarge The Curtis Park Creamery has been family-owned and operated since 1969. - TEAGUE BOHLEN
The Curtis Park Creamery has been family-owned and operated since 1969.
Teague Bohlen
Seven years ago, I became a resident of Curtis Park, too. It was the place I’d been trying to move since I’d left the Northside a decade earlier. I bought a house that had already been flipped twice and still needed some TLC. It had a thick 1970s office door serving as a front door. Most of the trim and original woodwork were long gone, having been burned by the family that had lived there from the 1950s through the ’90s when they couldn’t pay the gas bill but still needed heat. Neighbors who’d been around a while told us stories of how our place used to be the crack house on the block, how the matriarch of the family was someone with whom you didn't dare mess around.

When we moved into the neighborhood, we did so in part for that history, that grit. We didn't want the same-same smoothness of a planned community, with its glossy, HOA-approved paint over building materials designed to last a number of years measured in decades, not centuries — so unlike the already-century-plus homes constructed of solid brick and family legacy that we were looking at. We appreciated the mix of homes in Curtis Park both on an economic and a cultural level: We were coming from the neighborhood-formerly-known-as-Stapleton, where ethnic diversity was not a hallmark.

And we were lucky to find a place that was still relatively affordable in 2015. We loved the aforementioned Curtis Park Creamery on one end of the neighborhood and La Fiesta on the other. We loved the jazz festivals on Welton, loved that we could hear them from our front porch. We loved going to the public pool in the park, loved walking to Rockies games, loved meeting all the dogs and their owners that walked by, loved the little Champa Store owned by a friendly family, a great place for snacks or last-minute groceries.
click to enlarge A mural on the old Champa Store inspired plenty of community comment. - TEAGUE BOHLEN
A mural on the old Champa Store inspired plenty of community comment.
Teague Bohlen
That store soon became something of an epicenter for the gentrification that was crossing over Larimer into Curtis Park. The family that ran the Champa Store, which had been there for decades upon decades at that point, sold the building to a couple, Jessica Ralston and Reuben Zacharakis-Jutz, who wanted to restore it into a combination living space and storefront. They planned to open a coffee shop there with a walk-up window, maybe sell some flowers and small gifts, too.

In 2020, the new owners had a mural painted on the wall: a lady with flowers in her hair, holding a steaming cup of coffee. That mural, the first by Blackbird Ink Tattoo, lasted only a short while before being graffitied. Over that graffiti was painted an invitation: “LET’S TALK ABOUT THIS.”

And talk they did. It turned out that the person who defaced the mural — he uses four black bars as a signature of sorts, a mark of disapproval for whatever those bars cover — was identifiable on Instagram, and Ralston reached out to him. The initial tagger (Ralston asked that his name be kept confidential) responded with James Roy II from Urbanity Gallery, who added the "LET'S TALK" message — and over thirty people turned out for the subsequent talk. 

"It was an amazing conversation and an amazing experience," Ralston says of the group meeting and her initial talk with the tagger. "I learned a lot. I got his perspective on gentrification and history, and it was a white woman drinking coffee — sort of a symbol of gentrification — facing projects that have been torn down. This was stuff that hadn't occurred to us. We didn't do our homework."

Roy also put Ralston and Zacharakis-Jutz in touch with local artist Kacjae Barnett, who worked with one of the artists of the first mural, Blackbird Ink owner/artist Kirsty York, to create something new, something more in keeping with the diverse background of the neighborhood. Borrowing from the great jazz traditions of the Welton corridor just a few blocks away, a mural depicting singer Billie Holiday was created. That art has remained untouched.
click to enlarge Jessica Ralston and Reuben Zacharakis-Jutz decided against opening a coffee shop, but are staying in Curtis Park. - EVAN SEMON
Jessica Ralston and Reuben Zacharakis-Jutz decided against opening a coffee shop, but are staying in Curtis Park.
Evan Semon
Ralston and Zacharakis-Jutz have changed their plans about opening their own coffee place, though. They just signed a five-year lease with Rivers and Roads Coffee, which plans to open a second location there (the original isn't far away, on Bruce Randolph just east of York). But they're staying in Curtis Park — just as residents, at least for now. "We love this place," Ralston says. "Even more now that we understand it better."

Still, it was a shock to the system for a neighborhood undergoing significant shifts — proof that not every resident was happy with the rising property values, the greater attention from the city in terms of roads and services, the improvements to the bike lanes and traffic patterns and the park itself. It wasn’t the first shock, and wouldn’t be the last.

Things are changing in Curtis Park. The Snowden, the boardinghouse that was home to young Neal Cassady, sat vacant for many years; only recently, right before and during the pandemic, did someone renovate it into a single-family home.
click to enlarge Volunteers of America will move most of its operations. - TEAGUE BOHLEN
Volunteers of America will move most of its operations.
Teague Bohlen

The story of the Champa Store was written on the wall long before that wall was full of lovely murals and graffiti messages. Maybe it was a foregone conclusion that the little bodega would close once the next-door Platte Valley Homes — a nine-building public-housing complex that had been there since 1942 — was partially demolished in 2018, taking with it the kids who'd no longer be buying candy, the families that didn't need milk for cereal.

Some of the affordable housing would be rebuilt, gutted and then renovated like much of the rest of the neighborhood — six of the nine buildings, anyway. But the community center and three other residential buildings, as well as most of the common space that the complex once enjoyed, would be sold off to developers building private homes, most of which would be grand and beautiful and decidedly not for low-income families.

There’s good and bad to that, of course. The bad is the shifting nature of the community, the loss of those families that moved out because they couldn’t wait for the refurbished affordable residences, the loss of the history that went with them, especially the kids who called it home. The good — well, the renovated spaces are a vast improvement over what was there before. And a return to the economically diverse neighborhood that Curtis Park was at the start is a good thing in the long term. But it’s hard to look long-term when you appear to be losing ground in the short term.

Losing ground isn’t an uncommon worry in Curtis Park. One person’s improvements are another’s gentrification. It’s hard not to feel for a family that spent the last fifty years just trying to survive in what was often a rough environment — even if it was also one they loved dearly — only to sell or have to move and see their home and the ones around it go for ten times or more what they had before. It’s not quite a zero-sum game, but it’s too close to one for the families in question.

And the questions about development in Curtis Park are only expanding, reaching new segments of the population all the time. The latest controversy surrounds the plans for a complete redevelopment of a block between Lawrence and Larimer and 26th and 27th streets, most of which had been owned by Volunteers of America. The VOA bought the property back in 2000, when most of the city shelters and services were in the area; the organization had already been there for a century, helping needy residents. It set up its headquarters and a kitchen complex in a brand-new building that wrapped around Joe’s Liquors, which did not want to sell. The nonprofit and the liquor store co-existed quietly until 2017, when several new RiNo business owners challenged the renewal of the shop's liquor license. With community support, that was settled; four years later, the owner of Joe’s sold the building — really the land on which it sits — for a reported $4 million.

Now the VOA is moving its kitchen and food warehouse to cheaper digs in Commerce City and selling the rest of the block — minus the office space at 27th and Larimer — to EDENS, "a retail real estate owner, operator and developer of a nationally leading portfolio of 110 places." EDENS actually played a role in helping the VOA move its prep facilities.

"We met them first as neighbors," recalls Tom Kiler, EDENS' western region managing director. "We were both right next door to each other. It became apparent that their commissary kitchen and warehouse were just old and undersized and didn't work efficiently. They make 3,000 to 5,000 meals a day there, and they studied every possible way they might expand, but nothing made sense. And that's not really what the corridor is anymore."

Kiler insists that the entire deal took into consideration what's best for the VOA and all of the people it helps. And it's not like the VOA is abandoning Larimer altogether. "Their headquarters will stay right where it is," Kiler says, "and the corner lobby will be renovated into a sort of heritage museum. They really wanted to celebrate the history of the VOA. This will just solidify their place in the neighborhood."

But the neighborhood is changing, again. “The future of retail is coming to RiNo,” proclaims the EDENS website. The developer plans to create a mix of retail and housing, open and public spaces, including a central alley much like the one developed behind the nearby Denver Central Market. The Lawrence side will be devoted to neighborhood-friendly services such as a small grocery store, a pet boutique and a hardware store. Big Colorado-friendly businesses like Patagonia have expressed interest in taking some of the space on Larimer. In all corners of the development, EDENS has promised a significant network of green space with mature trees and pedestrian-friendly walkways, and Kiler mentions plans for generous setbacks and "activating the street" while also giving people a more livable space. "It's about urban design complexity," he says.

As it stands, though, the plan requires a significant zoning change; among other things, EDENS wants to be able to build up to seven stories on Larimer and five on Lawrence. "The plan is to vary the building heights to fit in with the existing character of the neighborhood," Kiler says. "Inside the urban spaces, there's one-story sort of patio areas. There are sections that are three stories and sections that are five. And then on Larimer there is a seven-story section, but that's less than 20 percent of the overall development. It's really about blending and transitioning into the neighborhood."
click to enlarge The owner of Joe's Liquors finally sold his place. - TEAGUE BOHLEN
The owner of Joe's Liquors finally sold his place.
Teague Bohlen
“It’s turned into kind of a nightmare,” says Julie Rubsam, a boardmember of Curtis Park Neighbors, who objects to the current plan for several reasons. For one, EDENS is only proposing two levels of underground parking — about 500 spaces, 50 of which will go to the VOA. That leaves 450 or so spaces for a proposed 350 new rental units and all the proposed retail, both employees and customers. That's not nearly enough, she argues, and the surrounding neighborhood will have to absorb all the extra cars.

There’s also the issue of building height: Seven stories would cast a long shadow on the western side of Curtis Park, affecting gardens and solar and living conditions for residents. It's also more than double the height currently allowed. Rubsam and other neighbors think that any new builds should stay within the current guidelines and address population density and the traffic and parking issues that go with it.
click to enlarge The VOA Colorado offices will remain on the corner of 27th and Larimer. - TEAGUE BOHLEN
The VOA Colorado offices will remain on the corner of 27th and Larimer.
Teague Bohlen

At a Curtis Park Neighbors meeting late last year, Rubsam — along with fellow residents Aurelio Martinez and historian Bill West, who's lived there more than forty years — stated their case against the EDENS project, but to no avail. Once again, the writing was on the wall. There was too much support for the idea from current and former boardmembers who believe that the retail space will improve the livability — and walkability — of not just Curtis Park, but the surrounding neighborhoods. The board voted to support the EDENS plan. In response, Rubsam, West and Martinez gathered 107 signatures from Curtis Park residents against the proposal in a single weekend.

John Hayden is excited about the project. "We're lucky to have an owner who wants to build a block that reflects the diversity of the neighborhood," he says. "The vast majority of developers are building giant apartment blocks. 'Zombie blocks' is what someone called them, because they kill the life of the community around them. What EDENS is proposing is a mixed-use, mixed-income development that will have significant public spaces for people to meet and congregate in. They also have plans for minority business incubators. The development is oriented toward human beings, making a walkable place with alleyways and a public square. With income-restricted units, minority-owned businesses and high-quality pedestrian spaces, I think this could be a model for how Denver can return diversity to ot her neighborhoods, as well."

EDENS is now prepping its presentation for a zoning-change request; it could go before the Denver Planning Board later this month.

Rubsam and West and other Curtis Park residents are preparing, too, gathering more petition signatures and arguments against the project. “If nothing else,” Rubsam says, “Larimer is a funky street. People like it that way, like to feel the sun while they’re walking.” But at this point, she worries, “it doesn’t seem like compromise is possible.”

That's a sentiment that’s not unfamiliar to Curtis Park, not unfamiliar to many historic neighborhoods in Denver. How do places and populations safeguard the history of a community that's facing growth and change? Where do you draw the line between improvement for some and misuse for others? How does a neighborhood keep one foot planted in respect for its past while the other steps forward into the future?

That's the challenge facing Curtis Park...the same one it’s faced for about 150 years.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen