By Kristin Jones
There was a time—still in memory for some people living in Denver—when housing policies and practices weren’t pushing people of color out of Five Points, but hemming them in.
In the 1940s, Denver faced a housing crisis. Veterans returning from World War II elbowed for space, and rents skyrocketed. Like today’s housing shortage, this crisis affected some people more than others.
At the time, it was legal for housing covenants to specifically bar non-white residents from renting or owning homes—and they did, routinely.
University of Denver law professor and historian Tom I. Romero, II, JD, PhD, has collected racially restrictive covenants from Denver neighborhoods like Bonnie Brae, Clayton, Crestmoor, Regis Heights and many others, including this one established in the southwest Denver subdivision of Burns Brentwood in 1949: “Only persons of the Caucasian race shall own, use or occupy any dwelling erected upon said lots of tracts.”
Racist covenants were even more common in the suburbs, Romero notes. In Jefferson County, a dispute over the sale of a house with a racially restrictive covenant to a Japanese American man had even gone as far as the Colorado Supreme Court in 1930. The court sided with racism, deciding it was fine that:
A person who owns a tract of land and divides it into smaller tracts for the purpose of selling one or more may prefer to have as neighbors persons of the white, or Caucasian, race, and may believe that prospective purchasers of the several tracts would entertain a similar preference, and would pay a higher price if the ownership were restricted to persons of that race.
Even after the U.S. Supreme Court held that racially restrictive covenants were unenforceable in 1948, they continued to be recorded and observed privately, according to Romero.
In 1947, around 90 percent of Denver’s black residents lived in an area bounded by the Platte River on the west and Whittier on the east, side by side with 75 percent of the city’s Latinos, and many of its Japanese American residents (who had been forced from their homes during World War II), according to a Denver Post report at the time by a member of a Denver city commission that examined race relations.
It was much more crowded back then than it is now, as multiple families squeezed into small houses and apartments. By 1950, more than 25,000 people lived in Five Points, compared to around 15,000 who lived there in the 2015 census.
Federal and local government policies conspired to prevent the people living in this neighborhood from building the kind of wealth that the GI Bill and other efforts made available to white families. The federal agency charged with promoting homeownership wouldn’t back loans there—a discriminatory practice known as redlining. George Brown, a Denver Post reporter who was black (and who later became Colorado lieutenant governor), wrote in 1951:
Jim Crow has the Negro going or coming. He will not let the Negro buy outside the restricted zone, and he creates barriers to prevent many from buying within. I tried to buy a house inside the boundaries and I couldn’t get adequate financing from any bank because they said the house was in an “area which is deteriorating and becoming blighted.”
Five Points was deliberately neglected, said Romero, pointing out that in the 1940s and early 1950s, the Denver Water Board ignored the city’s multi-ethnic center while building new lines at the city’s whiter outskirts. As a practical matter, that meant many people in Five Points lacked adequate—or, in some cases, any—indoor plumbing.
“Denver has long seen itself as post-racial,” said Romero. But the history is clear: “We are a city that is deeply invested in maintaining racial differences.”
The residents of Five Points, Curtis Park and Whittier famously rejected any efforts to turn the area into a slum. Black-owned Rice’s Tap Room and Oven had live jazz and blues on Monday. American Woodmen Insurance Company offered good jobs and insurance to people who couldn’t get it elsewhere. Denver’s first Latino city councilman, James Fresques, and its first black councilman, Elvin R. Caldwell, were both from Five Points. A flourishing Japantown stretched along Larimer Street, with its Buddhist temple surrounded by shops and restaurants.
Today, the place looks different. A majority of the residents are white. Jim Crow is gone. So are Rice’s Tap Room and Oven, American Woodmen Insurance and Japantown.
And yet communities of color are being left out of another housing boom. How much has really changed?
Memories of segregation
Marie Greenwood is 105.
She lives independently in a retirement community in southeast Denver, in an apartment with a large west-facing window that frames a broad panorama of the mountains. “My mountains,” she calls them.
Here, Greenwood entertains frequent visits from children and grandchildren, and is a favorite of the staff. She wrote down her memories of “the first 100 years,” as she puts it, in a 2013 autobiography, By the Grace of God; when we talked, she frequently referred me there for the details.
In the book, Greenwood described arriving in Denver by train in 1925 at the age of 12. She was delighted by the grandeur of Union Station and the clanging trolleys that ran along 17th Avenue.
Her family lived not in Five Points or Whittier but on 13th Avenue and Pennsylvania, in an apartment building where her father worked as a custodian. She went to school as one of only a handful of students of color at Morey Junior High, and remembers being the only black student in her class at East High School.
Greenwood‘s life then was circumscribed by the anonymous cruelty of systemic racism, as well as the personal kind.
“We could not eat at any restaurant. Not even at Woolworth. If we went to a theater, we would be met right away and sent up to the balcony,” Greenwood told me.
African-American women were only allowed to swim on Friday at what was then called the bathhouse—now the Twentieth Street Recreation Center—and black men on Saturday.
“[Then] they drained the pool so it was nice and clean for the rest of the week,” Greenwood said flatly.
Greenwood went on to graduate from what is now the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, and she became Colorado’s first black teacher, at Whittier Elementary School. Her first years teaching coincided with World War II, and the housing crunch. It was almost impossible for a black family to buy a home, especially outside of a limited area near Welton Street.
“My mother and father worked and they worked and they worked to make sure I had my education. And that was the reason I vowed, when I graduated with a degree, I would make sure my parents were taken care of and had a home,” Greenwood said. “And I eventually did that.”
An enterprising realtor, who was black, found a house on Lowell Boulevard in Barnum that the owner was looking to sell for a few thousand dollars. Greenwood bought it for her parents, and shared the mortgage payments with her father. Shortly afterward, with her paycheck from teaching, she and her new husband bought a wreck of a house in Whittier for $1,800. The bank agreed to clean it up if the Greenwoods would just take it off their hands. They did.
Her best investment, though, was buying six lots of land on West 6th Avenue, close to Lakewood, for $600. The government ended up seizing three of those lots to build the highway there, but that still left three.
Waiting out a World War II-era brick shortage, Greenwood and her husband, who had worked his way up from custodian to accounting clerk at Lowry Air Force Base, got a loan for $13,000 to build a dream house for her family. It had three bedrooms, an attached garage, mahogany doors and hardwood floors.
They were the only black family on a street of white faces.
Homeownership and wealth
When I asked Greenwood why it was so important that her family own, rather than rent, their homes, she looked surprised by the question.
“Because it would be ours,” she said.
Across the U.S., black and Hispanic families are less likely to own their homes than whites, due in part to the history of systematic exclusion. In 2016, more than two thirds of white families owned their own homes, but fewer than half of black and Hispanic families did; that gap has barely budged since the 1970s.
That gap, in turn, has contributed to a persistent and troubling racial wealth gap. In 2016, median white household wealth was $171,000, compared with $17,409 in black families and $20,920 in Hispanic families, according to a recent analysis by the Urban Institute.
In his case for a policy of reparations for black Americans, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates invokes the history of redlining, and the predatory lending practices that cropped up in its wake. Over and over, black families have been excluded from participating in opportunities to build wealth.
This is a health issue, too, and a contributor to lingering racial disparities in longevity and quality of life. Wealth derived from the assets of a home can help families fund their children’s educations and withstand job losses, fluctuating incomes and other financial shocks. More wealth, for the most part, means better health.
In many ways, Greenwood is exceptional. But her family wasn’t alone among black Denverites who found ways into the housing market even at its most restrictive—often with the help of others in the black community who shared resources and uncovered loopholes.
“What people don’t understand is that sometimes black folks scraped and stretched to own their homes,” said Terri Gentry, a volunteer and board member at the Black American West Museum, a Curtis Park monument to black history.
I met Gentry at closing time on a Friday at the museum. As the volunteers were getting ready to go home, a few others were rolling in for a meeting about fundraising. A few of them, like Gentry, had grown up hearing stories about the Jim Crow days.
Gentry’s great-grandfather Thomas Ernest McClain, the first black registered dentist in the state, had paid for a house to be built near York Street in Whittier in the 1920s. But once the white seller found out McClain was black, he refused to hand over the keys. A cross was burned on the front lawn.
McClain ended up buying a house on Marion Street near 26th Avenue, which he had to enter by the alley instead of the front door, in order to keep a low profile as a black man on a white street. Gentry’s grandparents eventually bought the house from him.
The other thing people don’t understand, said Gentry, is that redlining never really ended.
“They say it’s gone, but it’s not,” she said. “We still have higher interest rates for black folks, more scrutiny of your credit. Stricter guidelines.”
There’s plenty of research that bears this out. In 2015, blacks in Denver were more than twice as likely as whites to be denied an application for a conventional mortgage, according to data analyzed by Zillow.
Research has shown that blacks and Latinos nationwide are more likely to be offered high-cost mortgages than whites with similar financial profiles. Wells Fargo Bank, the nation’s largest residential mortgage originator, agreed in 2012 to pay more than $175 million to settle a complaint that they gave African-American and Hispanic borrowers subprime mortgages when they qualified for prime loans.
Five Points as a social center
Greenwood didn’t find out until after her father’s death that he had left the South for fear of being lynched.
In her book, she described her life as a series of near-misses. The life expectancy for a black woman born in 1913, like her, was about 41, compared with 56 for a white woman. She wasn’t supposed to live to see the 1960s.
But she did. And along the way, some of the inequities she faced growing up were dismantled.
Each step forward was hard-won; no barrier was relinquished without a fight. In her book, Greenwood described belonging to an interracial group called the Cosmopolitan Club, which in the late 1930s and early 1940s went to restaurants and soda fountains to demand service, invoking a widely ignored Colorado state law that outlawed discrimination. The Blue Parrot Inn on Broadway across from the Brown Palace Hotel was the last to open its doors to black patrons, she remembers.
The Colorado Fair Housing Act of 1959 and the landmark federal civil rights legislation of the 1960s did away with many of the legal structures that supported segregation here.
“Realtors reluctantly opened up houses for sale or rent in some of the all-white areas,” Greenwood wrote. The theaters and hotels opened their doors to African-Americans. Greenwood went on:
With all these avenues opening up to us, there was no “flood” of minorities pouring into the restaurants or moving into exclusive residential areas. The Cosmopolitan Club achieved its purpose of breaking down barriers of discrimination so that we had the privilege of choosing [the emphasis is hers] where to eat, where to go, or where to live, just like any other citizen. Most African-Americans preferred to be near their own. Many could not afford the expensive hotels, restaurants, and homes, but it was consoling to know that the doors were open.
Seeing those cracks in the doors, many people of color did choose to leave the northeast Denver neighborhoods that had been so neglected by their government, and sought out new opportunities in places like northwest Denver or Park Hill, formerly an all-white neighborhood.
At the same time, whites were increasingly moving from the city center to the suburbs. The population of Five Points dropped from the 1950s through the 1980s, reaching a low point around 1990 at about a third of its peak population.
Greenwood doesn’t wax poetic about the neighborhood. I asked her whether Five Points was important to the African-American community.
“I suppose so, since it was the only place we were allowed,” she told me.
Greenwood preferred the mountains. “Camp Nizhoni!” Her face lit up and she pumped her fist as she remembered a summer camp she went to 90 years ago.
Then again, the camp was organized by the Phillis Wheatley Colored YWCA Club on Welton Street, because the other camps excluded African-American girls.
Then, too, Greenwood’s beloved church, Shorter A.M.E., was in Five Points. The school where she became Denver’s first black teacher was in Whittier. And the friendships with black women she met through the community here sustained her through a lifetime.
A lot of people in Denver’s black community can say something similar about the neighborhoods that fan out from Five Points, whether or not they have ever lived here.
“What’s wonderful is we ebb and flow together,” said Dorothy King-Stockton, another volunteer at the Black American West Museum. Her mother knew Greenwood. She did African dance with Gentry.
King-Stockton remembers Five Points as a place where people looked out for each other. That’s disappearing, she said.
Gentry grew up in northeast Denver. She went to Manual High School in Whittier, and she loved it there—the restaurants, the shops, the whole community. She brings her grandchildren to the Five Points and Whittier neighborhoods as often as she can.
When a decline in health prompted her grandparents to sell their Whittier house—the same one that was bought by McClain in the 1920s—Gentry wanted to buy it. But she had just been laid off from her job at Public Service Company of Colorado, and she couldn’t afford it.
That was in 1996. The neighborhood was already beginning to see a shift by that time, as more white residents moved in.
“I keep playing the lottery,” said Gentry, who now lives in Littleton. “When I win, I’m moving back home.”
“Happily Gentrifying the Neighborhood Since 2014”
The sign put outside Ink! Coffee in November 2017 hurt. Protesters gathered, and it quickly became a symbol of the indifference of newcomers to the history of neighborhoods like Five Points.
Conversations about gentrification scratch a deep wound. Even within communities of color in Denver, there is no agreement about what caused it, and what to do now.
Gentry recalled having to walk away from a woman who strolled into the museum recently and said that she had just moved into the neighborhood, announcing, “I’m just joining the gentrification bandwagon. And I wanted to know why you’re here.”
Robert Eanes, who was there for the fundraising meeting, said that part of the trouble was that “people weren’t coming to join in. They were coming in to replace.”
Eanes is chairman of an organization called The Points Historical Redevelopment Corporation, which aims to preserve African-American history and culture.
“There’s a lot of blame to go around,” cut in Walter Huff, an African-American real estate broker who focuses on distressed properties. “Our community takes a lot of the blame on gentrification, because we moved out.”
Others say they were pushed out.
The burst of economic activity and redevelopment of Five Points has been no accident. In part, it’s a function of a growing population and a national trend toward urban living. It’s also the result of a deliberate strategy to funnel investments into a central part of the city that had been historically underfunded.
Denver City Council President Albus Brooks, who represents this area, said gentrification was long underway by the time he took office in 2011. While he was campaigning, he heard repeatedly from people of color who said they were tired of Five Points being left out of the city’s economic development. They wanted to know why white businesses a short distance away had access to tools they didn’t. They were talking, said Brooks, about tax increment financing, a redevelopment incentive meant to counter urban blight and promote businesses.
Brooks said he took steps, along with the mayor and other city partners, to support Five Points businesses, especially those that were owned by people of color.
“My hope is that the result will be transformative,” he said.
Still, City Council’s 2012 decision to declare a large section of Five Points “blighted” felt to some like an echo of earlier history. The move incentivized outside investors to come into Five Points. It also raised fears—so far unfounded—that the city would use eminent domain in Five Points to displace people of color.
“They keep saying they won’t do it,” said Eanes. “But they’ve done it before. That’s what made people uneasy.”
Eanes brought up the Auraria neighborhood, which was predominantly Latino when it was targeted for urban renewal in the 1960s. Against the strenuous objections of its residents and its church, an entire community was forcefully displaced to make way for the campus that’s there today.
Brooks said he understands that the pain that’s evident today is rooted in history. “People keep talking about eminent domain,” he said. “Those are systemic racist economic tools.”
Many people have profited from the sharp rise in housing prices in Denver. There are the private equity firms and real estate investment trusts that bought up houses and apartment complexes at the bottom of the market, and have made impressive profits from renting them out. There are luxury housing developers who are selling or renting skyrise apartments with amenities like yoga studios and dog spas. There are those who flip houses. There are also individual homeowners who got into the market at the right time, or who already owned high-priced homes and watched them get pricier.
Who hasn’t benefited from the boom? As in the post-war years, this burst of new wealth has largely bypassed communities of color.
In 2015, about a third of blacks in their prime working age in the Denver metro area and fewer than half of Latinos owned their homes, compared with nearly two thirds of whites. That has meant losing out on a huge increase in home value.
The zip code that includes much of Five Points, 80205, went from being one of the hardest hit during the foreclosure crisis (which disproportionately affected blacks and Latinos nationwide) to having the highest two-bedroom rental cost in the city, the Denver Post reported.
It’s unclear from academic studies how many people are displaced by gentrification. People in chronically low-income neighborhoods move, too, buffeted by evictions, job loss or health problems.
Meanwhile, investment and an uptick in economic activity have positive effects, to be sure, affecting things like school funding and employment rates.
Still, these material gains don’t benefit the whole community. A large survey in Philadelphia found that living in a gentrifying neighborhood meant a slight improvement in overall self-reported health—except among black residents. They were more likely to report poor health than residents in neighborhoods that weren’t gentrifying.
Another study of preterm births in New York City found a similar divergence by race. White mothers benefited from living in a gentrifying neighborhood, and had fewer preterm births. Black mothers living in the same neighborhoods had more.
One thing is clear: It isn’t just people who are displaced who are hurt.
“I feel isolated in my own neighborhood,” said a black woman who told me she had lived in Park Hill for 35 years, and who didn’t want to be named.
The importance of history
Exclusion is the thread that ties segregation to gentrification.
Gentrification, operating in coalition with discriminatory lending practices and income inequality, has managed to offer a different way than Jim Crow of excluding people of color from building wealth through homeownership.
But this time around, there isn’t a unified community to draw strength from, no Camp Nizhoni, no central neighborhood where most people of color live. Gentrification’s second blow is to fragment the community that might otherwise offer a source of resilience and power.
That health is affected by the strength of social ties is strongly supported by research. It’s not an exaggeration to say we need each other to survive. As Robert Putnam, an expert on social capital, wrote in Bowling Alone:
“[S]chool performance, public health, crime rates, clinical depression, tax compliance, philanthropy, race relations, community development, census returns, teen suicide, economic productivity, campaign finance, even simple human happiness—all are demonstrably affected by how (and whether) we connect with our family and friends and neighbors and co-workers.”
These connections are especially crucial for people of color and other communities that are systematically locked out of economic opportunities.
Romero, the DU legal historian, was born in 1973. That was the year that the U.S. Supreme Court found that even after legal segregation had ended, the Denver School Board had intentionally manipulated school attendance zones and neighborhood school policies to maintain segregated schools.
The son of Chicano civil servants who were active in labor struggles in their workplaces, Romero was bused from his neighborhood in northwest Denver to a school 15 miles to the south that was a mix of black, Latino and white kids. His family later moved closer to the school. Romero made deep friendships with some classmates, and also endured racial taunts from others, and stops by the police that his white friends didn’t encounter.
Busing ended in 1995 after a federal judge determined that blacks and Hispanics had sufficient political power to make it unnecessary. Today, Denver’s schools are among the most deeply segregated in the nation.
Romero is writing a book about the history of race relations and law in post-World War II Denver. One of the things that spurs him is that the Denver history his family spoke about wasn’t reflected in the commonly taught rendition. Major upheavals, like the displacement of Auraria residents, are forgotten by many.
In his office in a labyrinthine wing of Sturm College of Law, we toggled back and forth between the post-war history that he studies and what’s happening today.
“There are patterns and practices that are tied to a long history of institutional racism. I call that white supremacy,” said Romero. “We as policymakers and citizens want to say, ‘Colorado is not like that, Denver is not like that. Those are problems of the South. Denver’s different.’ It’s something I hear explicitly, or between the lines, over and over and over again.”
Ignoring the role of institutional racism can mean failing to notice its current beneficiaries—who are mostly white.
“This is not about laying blame. It’s not to say that the recent wave of gentrifiers are themselves explicitly racist,” Romero said. “But they’re certainly benefiting from a system where they’ve had generational advantages, structural advantages.”
Throughout our history, too, there are instances where citizens and government leaders have fought hard against racist practices. Romero cites as an example the Park Hill Action Committee, a neighborhood group that organized for an inclusive community and integrated schools, and faced backlash.
Sustaining progress, he said, means focusing explicitly on racism—and not falling back on more palatable proxies like economics.
It means asking the same question over and over, said Romero: “How are these policies and practices going to reinforce patterns of racial discrimination, or how are they going to change them?”