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Shirley Valentine's Family Has Lived in Swansea More Than a Century -- and She Plans to Stay

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Swansea and Elyria, just to the west, were once industrial towns on the outskirts of Denver, enclaves occupied by workers laboring in the surrounding factories and smelters that sprang up by the railroad tracks on the north side of town. In 1902, Denver annexed Elyria and Swansea. The neighborhood, now called Elyria-Swansea, is home to approximately 6,400 people, as well as the National Western Complex, two schools and several churches. Soon light rail will come through, connecting these neighborhoods to central Denver once again for the first time since the interstate arrived.

Interstate 70 was part of President Dwight Eisenhower's dream to create a national network of high-speed cross-country routes that would give the military as well as civilian travelers easy access to all parts of the country. The viaduct that takes off west of Colorado Boulevard and continues through the Mousetrap, passing over Elyria-Swansea as well as Globeville, was built in the early 1960s and designed to last thirty years. It currently carries between 47,000 and 205,000 vehicles a day, and parts of it are crumbling. For more than a decade, the Colorado Department of Transportation has been working with the feds to come up with a solution for replacing it; CDOT's preferred plan calls for tearing down the viaduct between Colorado and Brighton boulevards and rebuilding the interstate belowground. In that proposal, one cap will be put over the underground interstate between Columbine and Clayton streets and another possible cap will span from St. Paul to Cook streets. Playgrounds, plazas and community gardens will fill in the area above the interstate, attracting new businesses and reuniting the neighborhoods. That's the plan, anyway.

But right now, if Shirley wants to go to a grocery store -- as she does today, since she's shopping for her church's food bank -- she needs to travel several miles outside of her neighborhood. The nearby Stop-N-Shop Food Store, stocked with overpriced potato chips and candy bars, is not an economical or healthful option. Every month, Father Felix Zermeño-Martin, the priest at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church, gives Shirley $300 to spend on food for the parish's 32 families in need. She founded the food bank three years ago and has operated it on a shoestring ever since. To keep the project going, she has to find bargains -- and the best are nearly five miles away, at the Save-A-Lot discount store in Commerce City.

A few blocks from her house, Shirley crosses herself as she drives past the church at 2645 East 48th Avenue, a humble, orange-brick-and-cinderblock structure. She has attended Our Lady of Grace since it opened in 1955, nine years before I-70 cut through Denver's north side and changed the neighborhood, once a thriving community of immigrants from many European countries. When I-70 came, she says, "the whites left and the Spanish moved in." But her family stuck around.

Her father had bought the family home at 47th Avenue and Columbine Street, and Shirley inherited it. The house was worth so little, they could never afford to move. So they stayed, despite frustration with Swansea's shifting demographics. Shirley doesn't speak Spanish; many of her neighbors don't speak English. Neither do some of her fellow parishioners. Since taking over Our Lady of Grace a few years ago, Father Felix has shifted the focus of the church; today he celebrates Mexican holidays and hosts processions for Our Lady of Guadalupe. "Most of the people here are Spanish, so if you don't cater to them, you don't have a church," Shirley says, adding that the language divide has torn the community apart just as much as the highway did. People just don't look after each other like they used to.

Continue for more about Shirley Valentine and Swansea, including additional photos.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris