There's little that gives the district one easily identifiable character -- except for the empty lots, which are everywhere.
In downtown, such blocks are turned into glitzy retail spaces. In Curtis Park, much of an eight-block belt of low-income housing is being ripped up for a new development in which market-value homes will share the same turf with homes for the working poor. And as fast as the city can render Curtis Park homes into smooth blocks of dirt, developers in Uptown are transforming empty lots into townhome projects, none bigger than the redevelopment of St. Luke's Hospital into a sprawling complex of luxury apartments and stores.
The chunk of derelict land that draws the most attention, however, is the Dahlia Shopping Center. Candidates who futilely challenged Wellington Webb in last spring's mayoral election rallied around the shopping center as a symbol of urban decay and a sign that Webb was more interested in putting together big-ticket projects in the Central Platte Valley than in improving the neighborhood where he grew up and still lives. During his campaign Webb did announce plans to create an urban-renewal district at Dahlia that would offer tax incentives to retailers. So far, none have taken the bait. Last month, though, the city did cut the ribbon on the Park Hill Business Support Office (a satellite of Denver's human services department) and an office for the nonprofit Park Hill for Safe Neighborhoods; both share space at the shopping center.
And at the moment, chunks of land aren't the only things empty in District 8. Hiawatha Davis, who had been the area's city council representative since 1983, announced in September that he would vacate his seat to take over the city's Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations. Since 1955, only three men have served as councilman for the district: Lawyer King Trimble served a term prior to Davis's election, and before him, Elvin Caldwell held the seat for 25 years. Few people ran against Davis in the general elections, and those who did were soundly whupped. Now that Davis is gone, the race is wide open, with eleven candidates seeking to fill the void. The new councilperson will be determined by special election on Tuesday, December 7.
Contenders know they'll be expected to get something done with those clumps of dirt. "My first priority would be economic development," said candidate Jerry Duran at a forum last week at the East Denver YMCA. "We only have one grocery store to support the community. That's not enough. We need more stores, more places to shop so we don't have to take our money elsewhere."
Many of the district's residents want to do that shopping at Dahlia. Candidate Valarie McGee, a 911 dispatcher who ran against Davis last spring (and lost badly) says people who live in the neighborhoods near the shopping center have long desired a grocery store there. "Everyone needs to come to the table and decide what's going to happen with that property," she says.
"The deal will be driven by the people," candidate John Bailey says of Dahlia redevelopment. Once he's elected, he says, he'll "take the leadership to make sure it can happen. People shouldn't have to wait."
But the people who work and shop at Dahlia have heard that before. And among area residents, there's a sense that voter turnout will be low. "What's happened is that the Dahlia Shopping Center, Holly Shopping Center, Five Points are areas people have pointed at, but there hasn't been that commitment on behalf of the city," says candidate Zel Head, a lawyer and developer.
As she waits for her clothes to dry at the Dahlia Bubbles laundromat, Rosemary Brown, a 49-year-old administrative assistant, says she plans to vote but hasn't followed the particulars of the race, doesn't yet support a candidate and isn't terribly optimistic that any of them can get much done. "Black politicians do things for friends," Brown says, "but not for other blacks."
But whoever wins Davis's seat won't just have to do things for blacks. Whites left the district two generations ago; they were followed by blacks, who met racism and housing discrimination at Downing, then at York, then at Colorado Boulevard. Now, with many of the barriers removed, blacks are moving east right out of the district, to Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch and Aurora. Hispanics have filled the void, and whites are beginning to return home.
The most recent demographic data for the neighborhoods that District 8 comprises comes from the 1990 U.S. census. Then, roughly 36,000 people lived in the district; almost half were black and about a quarter were Hispanic, the latter concentrated in Five Points, the symbolic center of black Denver. Although these figures are clearly outdated, people claim anecdotally that the neighborhood is becoming increasingly Hispanic. Last year, 50 percent of public-school students in Five Points were Latino; in the Cole neighborhood, the number was 69 percent.
Council candidate Sandra Douglas calls the diversity in the district "so blatant you don't have time to wonder about your neighbors."
Of the eleven candidates, nine are black, one is white and one is Hispanic. Many people speculate that this will be the last election in which a black candidate has the inside track on winning -- and the race could be up for grabs now. If the major black candidates split black voters, Jerry Duran might be the one who walks away the winner. As the only Hispanic candidate, Duran may become the fourth District 8 councilman in the last 44 years -- and the first who isn't black.
Community leader Jeff X says Duran is in an excellent position to benefit from the changes in the neighborhood. "We have to start looking at what's taking place around us. We won't be the largest minority in the country. It's important for us to form alliances. Duran has support among blacks as well [as Hispanics]."
Duran, 49, grew up in the district, graduated from Manual High School in 1969 and has been involved in nonprofit work since 1974. He joined Denver Area Youth Services about half a year after it began and spent eight years there. In the Eighties he worked at the Community College of Denver, then opened a liquor store with a niece. But he kept up the nonprofit end, raising funds for scholarships on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens and fundraising as a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
In 1990 he signed on with the Mayor's Office of Employment and Training as a summer work program coordinator. He also helped raise $6 million to turn an old elementary school into the Wyatt Edison charter school, and he has spearheaded other neighborhood improvement grants. He has received several mayoral appointments, including posts on the Stapleton Redevelopment Advisory Board and the Mayor's Commission on Youth. And he has overseen a $2.25 million Youth Opportunity Grant for employment and educational services, as well as a $1.5 million Youth Offenders Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.
"They [other candidates] seem to have developed a case of selective blindness," says observer Clarke Watson, president of Watson Associates, a local public relations and government consulting company. "They'd rather cavalierly dismiss the fact that the Hispanic vote is a serious challenge. They're charging forward as if all they need to do is win the black vote. The demographics have changed such that the next councilperson from District 8 will be Hispanic."
But Duran knows the growing number of Hispanics who live in the district doesn't necessarily amount to political power, since many of them are Mexican nationals who live here illegally and are unable to vote. "We have to wait until they become citizens," he says, "or wait until the kids do."
Duran believes that only about 35 percent of the Hispanics in the neighborhood are registered voters. Meanwhile, whites are moving into the neighborhood in greater numbers, leading a campaign manager for one of the candidates to refer to the area as "Wash Park North." Already, 90 percent of the Whittier Neighborhood Association, which represents the area between Martin Luther King Boulevard and 23rd Avenue and Downing and York streets, is white, says candidate Elbra Wedgeworth, president of the association.
"To depend solely on the black community, that's political suicide," says Jeff X. "Black candidates are talking about reaching out to all groups, but will they be able to talk other folks into it?"
And will the candidates get their supporters out to vote? The district has 31,000 registered voters, but in the last election, only 4,099 votes were cast for District 8 candidates, a decline from the 7,295 cast in the 1995 election. As this is a special election, the vote tally could go down, especially if the weather is bad on December 7.
Hardcore political types will always vote, says former state legislator and neighborhood resident Regis Groff, but the race "will boil down to who gets the people out. People aren't inclined to get up and go to special elections."
The city began demolishing the 286 units of low-income housing at Curtis Park, on the west side of District 8, not far from Coors Field, at the start of October. Some blocks sit silent, cordoned off with fences, their windows boarded, their porches torn up into hunks of concrete. Roughly 220 families have been relocated to Denver Housing Authority properties citywide.
The barracks-style complexes go back to the 1940s; now 350 new units will be built on their remains as part of a federal program called Hope 6. The plan mixes one-third public housing, one-third tax-credit-eligible housing and one-third market-value homes; the idea is that families with disposable income will be lured into the neighborhood, followed by businesses and then jobs, which can be filled by neighborhood residents.
Not all of the old units will be destroyed, though. Angela Williams lives in a low-income co-op at 3300 Arapahoe Street. A block's worth of houses like hers are being spared the wrecking ball. "These are just as bad as those," says the data-entry clerk, referring to empty units across the street blockaded with fences. Crime is down in the neighborhood, she points out, but she'd just as soon be relocated somewhere else. "I don't think the people over here care," she says of her neighbors.
The federal Hope 6 grant totals $25.7 million, but officials hope that the money will be able to leverage $84 million, adding in tax credits and private development funds. So far, though, no tax credits have been sold, no developer has been chosen, and there are no final plans for the new project.
DHA executive director Sal Carpio says the project may look pie-in-the-sky but that ground should start breaking next summer. While he promises that anyone who lived in the neighborhood before will be able to do so again, drab co-ops such as Williams's look to be a strong deterrent to bringing middle-class families into the area.
Candidate Zel Head sees two economies operating in Denver: One is prosperous, and the other is more like a Third World economy, where residents are financially depressed but "don't have the chance to bootstrap themselves up."
Like all of the candidates, Head talks about affordable housing, adding that "I'm the only one with real and practical experience as a developer. I build affordable housing." He says he supports tools like tax credits and fixed empowerment zones; he also supports partnerships between public and private enterprises to "encourage an infusion of capital into purportedly depressed areas." He supports the Hope 6 redevelopment -- which is one such partnership -- as long, he says, as the City of Denver commits resources to the project without trying to micromanage it. "I think they're commendable projects."
"We have to make sure developers are really committed to building affordable housing, because I'm not sure they are," adds Wedgeworth. "I support Hope 6, but I want to make sure those poor people aren't pushed out of that project."
Candidate McGee believes Hope 6 "will be a beautiful community when they get done. We will have moneys out there; people will be coming in, and they won't be leaving. I think that development will work with the community."
But the redevelopment symbolizes one of the concerns many in the neighborhood have: Poor people will be pushed out, rich people will be lured in. Gentrification brings the promise of new and improved services to many neighborhoods -- and the threat of pricing out longtime residents who will never have the chance to enjoy them. "By the time poor people realize they're losing their neighborhoods, they're gone," says Jeff X.
Belinda Watkins works as a youth coordinator at the Curtis Park Community Center. Single and well-educated, she gave up the corporate world for a nonprofit job helping kids. Now she can't afford a home in the neighborhood where she works. "The reason I live in Aurora is I can't afford to live in Denver."
Watkins says there are black professionals who can afford to get into the neighborhood but choose not to, and she worries that the window of opportunity will close quickly as housing prices soar. She makes a comparison between Curtis Park and Washington, D.C.'s elegant Georgetown neighborhood: Back in the Forties and Fifties, she says, Georgetown was mostly black; now it is an exclusive and largely white enclave. Watkins wonders if someday the same will be said of Curtis Park. "This where we used to live," she says. "This is prime land. Watch in five years -- we're gonna want to get back in here."
If Jerry Duran is unable to capitalize on the new demographics, John Bailey is one of three black candidates most likely to prevail. He grew up in Virginia and New Jersey, spent several years playing for the Indiana Pacers and the Virginia Squires in the now-defunct American Basketball Association, and then came to Colorado. Bailey has done community work with kids for years, most notably staging annual basketball tournaments. In the early Nineties he left Colorado and went to Trenton, New Jersey, to run the Weed and Seed program, the prototype of the federal program designed to beef up community policing and expand community services in troubled neighborhoods. In 1994 he started the nonprofit 100 Black Men of Denver, a mentoring organization, and from 1995 to 1997 served as a consultant to the organization. Now he owns a consulting firm that specializes in outreach to corporations.
Bailey, who is fifty, ran for an at-large seat on the city council last spring but was soundly defeated by incumbents Susan Barnes-Gelt and Cathy Reynolds. However, the exposure of that race will help him now. More than the other candidates, Bailey conducts himself with the smooth manner of one who thinks the race is already won. "I'm not that arrogant," he says, "but am I self-assured? Yes. I want these folks to feel me."
Bailey has the support of old-time politicians from northeast Denver like Caldwell and Groff, state senator Gloria Tanner and current state representative Penfield Tate. He'll need it, because one of his opponents, Elbra Wedgeworth, has the support of the mayor.
"I've always been supportive of the mayor," Wedgeworth says. "We have similar goals." Early in the race, she sounded uncomfortable being pegged as the mayor's candidate, pointing out that Webb had not endorsed her and saying that the race was about "me representing the district, not me being the mayor's person in the district. I feel I've paid my dues the last ten years." At last week's candidates' forum, though, she announced with enthusiasm that Webb was behind her and said afterward that the mayor "believes in my leadership."
That's no surprise. Over the years, Webb has appointed Wedgeworth to many positions: liaison to the city council when Webb was city auditor, member of the mayor-elect's transition team in 1991, deputy director of the Mayor's Office of Regulatory Reform in 1992, and Denver's clerk and recorder in 1995. She is currently the director of community relations for the Denver Health Authority.
Wedgeworth, however, isn't the only candidate with ties to Webb: Bailey was a campaign organizer for the mayor in 1995, and Duran works in the Webb administration, too.
But the only other candidate with as much name recognition as Wedgeworth and Bailey is Glenda Swanson Lyle -- and she can do them one better. She's already been elected to public office twice. She served on the RTD board of directors from 1986 to 1992, and from 1992 to 1997 was state representative for House District 8 (which covers much of the same territory as the council district).
"There's not a single [other] candidate in the race who has demonstrated results," Lyle says. "Not a single one of the candidates has held elected public office."
Lyle owns an urban planning firm and has been active for years in Denver and Colorado Democratic Party circles. She is also a founder of Colorado Black Women for Political Action and sits on the board of directors of the Inner City Development Corporation, which purchases and develops land in the community.
Even candidate Steve Garber, a research assistant at the University of Colorado at Denver, sees Wedgeworth, Bailey, Duran and Lyle as the front-runners. "I suppose a betting person would bet on one of them," he allows.
But the other candidates prefer to consider their own chances.
Most were raised in District 8 or have lived there for many years. Greg Pearson has lived in the community more than twenty years, working for the Colorado Board of Nursing and for an employment program called Colorado OIC (Opportunities Industrialization Center). He was also the second black commissioned officer with the Colorado National Guard. He is now a ramp-services worker for United Airlines.
The clumps of dirt scattered around the neighborhood remind Pearson "a little bit of the early Sixties, when a lot of cities went through urban renewal. They used to bulldoze everything down and build up new. Now people are buying up old homes to gut them and renovate them." And redevelopment, the fifty-year-old says, "tends to drive some people out and drives up the price of living. How the hell are we gonna try to keep some of the housing affordable?" Pearson has few answers, but he wants businesses that develop in the district to be made more accountable to residents. Redevelopment and affordable housing can complement one another, he says, but "they end up at cross-purposes when there are tax incentives given but nothing expected by the city. We can't give the bank away to get the business. It has to be a two-way street."
Candidate Sandra Douglas, 51, president of the Cole Neighborhood Association, wants more community involvement in redevelopment talks and wants to make sure jobs are available. "Traditionally, service providers who come in provide their own staff. We'd like to be part of providing the services as well." She also wants to nurture entrepreneurs in the district -- the amateur car mechanics and quilters who could turn their hobbies into ways to make a living.
"Training and jobs have been buzzwords for the last thirty years," says candidate Ron Roulhac, a job trainer with the nonprofit Center for Self and Development. "They don't talk about what kind of jobs." When the forty-year-old moved to Denver from Washington, D.C., in 1990, houses were being "given away." With the surging economy, the neighborhoods in northeast Denver have experienced none of the benefits -- witness all those chunks of dirt -- and have paid much of the cost. "We have housing going up that is not in the market with what the average person is being paid," says Roulhac. "If businesses are going to come in, let's make sure they're not paying people $5 or $6 an hour when they're making millions of dollars."
While certain themes are emerging in the race -- most notably the need for economic development and affordable housing -- few candidates are articulating how they'll achieve these goals.
"They're more interested in winning than in what the issues are," says Clarke Watson.
Duran says his focus would be in meeting the needs of the family. "I feel we lack in a lot of resources," he says. "We've been bypassed. All the big projects have happened, but nothing has happened in Northeast." Five Points, he says, looks the same to him as it did when he was a young man.
Wedgeworth promises to focus her efforts on community development, which includes providing for "safety, education, seniors, youth, health and livable wage jobs."
Lyle's platform includes an emphasis on zoning, better funding for area police and firefighters, affordable housing and health care, and ensuring "the prompt and adequate delivery of city services." (She promises that as the race winds down, she will get more specific.)
Bailey's main focus is equally comprehensive and equally vague: constituent services. "That covers everything people need done," he claims. He says it means simply that he will be accessible and accountable. District 8 is the most powerful district in the city, he says, adding that he wants to make sure that youth are in developmental, rather than diversionary, environments.
For the majority of the campaign, civility has ruled. Duran and Wedgeworth, for instance, grew up a block apart and are friends. At a candidates' forum at Manual High School on November 16, there was a lot of agreement on issues, but there were also subtle jabs. About midway through, Bailey started to distance himself from the others by touting his experience and vision and reminding the audience that "John Bailey is not a new name in this community." He also told the audience that Lyle's earlier promise to "return every call" was a line that came straight from him.
The others eventually shot back. Zel Head reminded listeners that "yellow signs mean approach with caution," a stab at John Bailey's ubiquitous yellow campaign signs.
Bailey quickly retorted that everyone knows yellow means to "go faster."
Wedgeworth dissed Bailey by telling people they didn't want to vote for "someone egotistical. There are some folks running who are playing the averages."
Roulhac, the most energetic speaker of the bunch, in turn took a poke at Wedgeworth, telling the audience that he didn't have a list of endorsements "from people who don't live in the community." (Wedgeworth had earlier told the audience that she had been endorsed by the Denver Police Protective Association as well as the Teamsters.) Bailey later tried to play off Roulhac's comment by saying his endorsements came from people who live in District 8.
And almost all of the candidates criticized Bailey's signs. After last spring's Columbine shootings, Bailey's nonprofit organization, Joint Effort (which sponsors safe-streets campaigns and raises funds for college scholarships) created signs encouraging people to think more about their children. The bottoms of the signs read, "Courtesy of John Bailey and Joint Effort," and Bailey says he paid for these out of his own pocket and not with any campaign money. But when the signs appeared throughout District 8 over the summer, many people interpreted them as campaign material.
"I know John's wanted this seat for a long time," says Wedgeworth. "It's clear John's been campaigning for months. But should you be using nonprofits that way?"
Bailey retorts that his signs were up for months before Davis announced he was stepping down in September and that complaints about them amount to "sour grapes and fear."
The other issue is that Bailey's signs stand on city property between sidewalks and streets. "The problem I have with the signage is that many of the signs are placed illegally," says Head. "There is an ordinance on the books that dictates how they should be placed. If you're placing them in illegal places, you're breaking the law."
Lyle agrees. "It's important to abide by the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law if you want to be a lawmaker."
Bailey defended the placement of his signs -- most prevalent along Colorado Boulevard -- by saying that Webb had signs in public right-of-ways and no one complained about that. But last week, Neighborhood Inspection Services, the city agency charged with enforcing ordinances related to signs, collected 300 illegal political signs in the district. Of those, 200 belonged to Bailey.
Sniping aside, the candidates mostly tried to paint themselves as insiders of a sort: longtime residents of the district, born and raised and educated nearby. The only real outsider to emerge during the evening was Steve Garber -- the only renter, the only white candidate, the only resident of north Capitol Hill rather than the neighborhoods closer to MLK. His single theme was idiosyncratic: ridding City Hall of the influence of lobbyists, big corporations and political consultants. "City government is like a rat with fleas," he explained, "driven by money, propaganda and lies." Garber ran for city council against Davis in 1995 but gathered only 541 votes (Davis tallied more than 4,200). "I disagree with someone who would say, 'You don't have a right to run; this is a black district,'" he says, referring to something a black man told him when he ran against Davis. Garber says he told the man, "I don't think I worried Hiawatha that much. I only got 9 percent of the vote."
In Garber's neighborhood, new townhomes are going up, and developers are buying apartment buildings to renovate into condos. "There's a crisis for low-income and modest-income renters in the area," he says, and suggests that perhaps rent control is the answer.
Douglas agrees. "There should be some type of rent control or something to allow us to stay. Right now it appears like nobody can control this -- where a dump is being rented for $900."
All of the candidates favor redevelopment, though some have raised concerns about when anything will happen and about the impact of the proposed commercial and housing redevelopment of Stapleton International Airport, 25 blocks east of the Dahlia Shopping Center.
The city's Community Planning and Development Agency has several ideas for remaking Dahlia. The one being floated lately is to do a land swap between the shopping center, the low-income Elm Street Apartments and the Union Baptist Church. The last two front Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the main artery through District 8. The shopping center itself stands two blocks north of MLK and, says the CPDA's Julius Zsako, "No major grocery store would consider doing something on the existing site."
Other options include rehabbing the existing structures at Dahlia and landscaping the facility, which at the moment is a square block of broken blacktop framed by weary buildings. The city is also considering knocking down the west side of the shopping center and constructing single-family homes there. City staffers are working on a neighborhood plan, but there is no target date for its completion. "These things can take a while," Zsako says, noting that redevelopment relies in part on the private sector. But with an anticipated 15,000 new residents coming into the area, Zsako thinks that the old airport may increase traffic on MLK, which is what developers will demand if Dahlia is to be reborn.
Duran says the Dahlia project "could potentially get stalled, and Stapleton could get redeveloped, and nothing would happen [at Dahlia]."
Lyle says she's more concerned that the Dahlia redevelopment has "been on hold for way too long. It's an embarrassing, objectionable piece of property. We've studied it to death. That's why the city councilperson can be like the bully pulpit to get things done."
But not everyone thinks Dahlia should be home to new shops. Candidate Thomas Henry Juniel, a retired sociologist, says Dahlia would be better off with low-income housing. "Folks I've talked to would prefer to go to Stapleton. There's more retail, and it wouldn't pose the threat of gangs.
"The district is in bad shape," he adds. "It's one of the worst in terms of lighting and street maintenance. In snowstorms, they have cleaned Larimer Street before they've cleaned a thoroughfare like 32nd." Juniel says he's in the race because "I thought I could do something for the area, to get services that other areas enjoy. Hopefully we can get this district as good as the others."