Friday, October 17, 2014

Vanishing Chicano Culture and the Gentrification of Denver’s Northside


Bobby Lefebre is a Denver activist, performance artist, poet, and Northsider. He is the driving force behind the We Are North Denver movement that has shined a bright spotlight on the massive changes happening to the Northside - good and bad. When racist flyers recently appeared in the neighborhood, Bobby responded with action that focused on "unity in the community." He continues to raise his concerns, and the concerns of many long-time Northside residents, in a variety of venues. He wrote the following article originally for his website, which you can find at this link. We are now sharing it with La Bloga readers. As a resident of the Northside for more than thirty years, I agree with much of what Bobby says in this piece. Both Bobby and I would be interested in your reactions, comments, etc.


Manuel Ramos

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Vanishing Chicano Culture and the Gentrification of Denver’s Northside


I have been thinking about the Northside a lot recently. 

The Northside my family has known and loved for over 70 years. The Chicano Northside. 


The beans, rice, and green chile Northside. The gatherings at La Raza Park broken up by the Denver Police Northside.

The all my homies live on the same block Northside. The let’s go watch Spanish-language movies at the Holiday Theater Northside. The I don’t get paid till Friday, but I have credit at Sunnyside Drugstore Northside. The Bobby needs to get baptized, call up Our Lady of Guadalupe Northside.

The Monte Carlo hittin’ switches bouncing on Federal Northside. The North High pride Northside. The “should I get a Devil from Lechugas or a Mexican hamburger from Chubby’s?” Northside. The Chicano Power, “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” Northside.

The mom and pop shop small business Northside. The hold all your parties at the VFW Hall Northside. The “where are all these yuppies coming from?” Northside. The slowly but surely vanishing Northside.


Jerry-Jaramilla-Denver-Muralist-Primavera
Jerry Jaramillo's Mural, Primavera

Last week, Jerry Jaramillo’s 33-year old Chicano Mural—Primavera— was removed from a wall on 41st and Tejon and people are pissed.

When I saw the mural being scraped away, my heart base-jumped head-first into my stomach. Seeing the red brick vacant of the image that defined that building since 1981 was jarring and surreal. The mural sat on the North wall of the historic Souden building, which was erected in 1909.

Since the 1970’s, Servicios de La Raza has owned and operated out of that building providing culturally relevant services to communities in need. The erasure of the Primavera mural is a salient metaphor for the Northside in transition. The neighborhood is changing just as it always has. When my family moved into the Northside in the late 1930’s it was unmistakably and unapologetically Italian.

My family was, and still is, unmistakably and unapologetically Chicano. The Italians scoffed at the arrival of my family, just as members of my family and community are scoffing at the arrival of the new demographic quickly calling the Northside home.

Northsiders commonly ask, “Where are all these yuppies coming from?” Well, I think I figured it out. Decades ago, when White people engaged in White Flight to escape the perceived ills of living in the inner-city, they bought round trip tickets. Their children have boarded on the return vouchers and are rapidly arriving with their cash, canines, and social, economic and political capital.


familia-photo2

I am a fourth-generation Northsider and wear that badge like a sacred heirloom passed down.

Watching everything I love about my neighborhood slowly walk into a mere memory is disheartening. It seems like every day there is another institution, business, or mural being cleared away to make room for the new.

As Chicanos, we have been educated to understand that we are indigenous to the Southwest. Our ancestors have migrated across this land since the beginning of time, so when people tell us to go back to where we came from, it is insulting and perplexing at the same time. The indigenous connection to our geography further compounds our attachment to the place we call home; politically and philosophically, we truly believe we belong here.

We affirm that we have inherited the land beneath our feet and it belongs to us, regardless of who carries the deed. For us, land and identity are inseparably entwined. Space has always played an important role in our cultural identity; if you don’t believe me, revisit the story of Tenochtitlan. I identify as much as a Northsider as I do Chicano. My identity is colored with my experiences— good and bad—growing up in Northwest Denver.


As much as I am emotionally tied to the issue of my neighborhood gentrifying, I am also academically tied to the rich, diverse history of cultures and people that have called the Northside home.

It is very important for me to note that my focus on Chicano permanence does not negate the right for others to live among and share community with us. Cesar Chavez said it best, “preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect of other cultures.” It is irresponsible of us to not contextualize the entire history of the neighborhood when taking a strong stance against neighborhood change.

Before the neighborhood was gentrified, it was Chicano/Mexicano. Before it was Chicano/Mexicano, it was Italian. Before it was Italian, the Irish, German, Scottish, Polish, Welsh, Cornish, and Jewish were also here. Before any person of European decent stepped foot here, the Cheyenne and Arapahoe called parts of this land home. These cultural snapshots of the past have defined the neighborhood psychologically, culturally, architecturally, and geographically.

It is also important to remember the role ethnic enclaves play in cultural preservation. Often, marginalized groups find it imperative to their survival to stick together. They create community by forming close-knit cultural networks to meet basic needs and promote positive self and collective identity. They rely on one another to exchange resources, information, and knowledge.

As time passes, the local economy grows and ripples outward until the enclave becomes a thriving, prosperous neighborhood. Then, after years of hard work and sacrifice, folks become more stable and slowly begin to move away. As they leave, they create vacancies for the next generation of folks trying to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” The aforementioned historical template of change in the Northside is not happening with the new demographic moving in.
 


It is happening in the Northside, like it is happening in Five Points, like it is happening in San Francisco and Harlem. Poor people have been displaced, businesses have been bought out or evicted, and the fabric of the hood is a growing, clumsy, complicated patchwork. There is tension between the established and newly arrived residents. This tension, unfortunately, is only discussed honestly in ethnically segregated silos.         
 
            

Gentrification is real.


Many Latinos in the neighborhood feel they are being pushed out and that the White people moving in fail to recognize their part in displacing an established culture. On the other side of this seemingly dismal reality though, other long-time residents and home owners have willingly sold their property benefiting financially from the rise in the real estate economy. In some instances, folks have sold their homes for five-times what they paid for them back-in-the-day.

Although some will disagree with me, selling one’s home knowingly and willingly to make a sizeable profit should not be viewed as “selling out.” Instead, it should be celebrated as a well-informed business decision that was, unfortunately, jump-started by the controversial process of gentrification. Would it be nice if more Brown people held on to their homes and stood in the neighborhood? Of course it would!

When they leave, so too do their stories. You can’t blame anyone for selling their property to secure retirement, pay for their grandchildren’s college tuition, or to ensure a better future.

40 Year Legacy Servicios de La Raza from Servicios de La Raza on Vimeo.


According to public record, Servicios de La Raza has sold the Souden building (which housed the now gone Primavera mural) to Paul Tamburello and associates for $632,500.

Servicios de La Raza is purchasing a new building close to the New Corky Gonzales Library near Colfax and Federal, where they can better serve the communities that need their services most. Recently, I interviewed Rudy Gonzales, Executive Director of Servicios de La Raza, and he affirmed that part of Servicios’ decision to sell their building rested in the demographic shift of the neighborhood.

As the face of the Northside changes, so too does the depth of people’s pockets and access to resources. Servicios strives to provide and advocate for culturally responsive, essential human services and opportunities for low-income members of the community to help them overcome problems that contribute to the perpetuation of the vicious cycle of poverty. Those populations in need, although still present in the Northside, are slowly vanishing.

When Servicios vacated the building and it was subsequently boarded up in preparation for renovation, new owner, Paul Tamburello, nailed a sign to the front of the building that read:


HELP US RESTORE THE FRONT OF THIS BUILDING 

We would like to restore this building to its original design. If you have any historical photos please call (303) 991-6204.

Help-Us-Restore-Sign-Generator

When I first saw that sign, my initial reaction was, “that’s cool!”

I would much rather see the building retain its original character, than to have it smashed and replaced by some ugly cookie-cutter structure on a beautiful block of brick. My second thought was, “Hmmmm. What will happen to the mural?” Many have taken stabs at Paul Tamburello for his role as serving as a catalyst for the gentrification of the Northside. After all, he is the man behind projects and operations like Little Man Ice Cream, Root Down, Linger, and the “Lohi” Marketplace.

The Denver Post has called him “The father of rejuvenated Highland,” and his name has become synonymous with modern design and development throughout the Northside. With the removal of the Primavera Mural, Tamburello is again facing heat from the hood. The hood is upset that it has lost another iconic cultural image and all fingers are pointing to Tamburello asking him to explain why.

But who is to blame? Is anyone to blame at all? I argue we can be no more upset with Servicios de La Raza for willingly selling the building— which inadvertently led to the removal of the mural—than we can be with Tamburello’s decision to change the aesthetics of the space to meet the demand of the new.

So what do we do when we have a difference in cultural values? Long-term residents are sad to see the Chicano iconography wiped away, but there are others who find the restoration of the building to its original character to be preserving history as well. Either way, the scraping of the mural is indicative of a much larger issue.

The scraping of the mural is indicative of the hood’s inevitable transition. It’s indicative of the intricacies and symptoms of gentrification. It is indicative of the ways Chicano culture, Brown culture, and marginalized culture is devalued and discredited in dominant society. 


As I am writing these words, they taste bitter. The words taste bitter because I love my neighborhood and it hurts to see it commodified, rebranded, and deliberately dissipated.

These words taste bitter because they are spiced with contradiction and mixed feelings and hard truth. There are some things I know for sure, though. I know my neighborhood is being gentrified. I know that gentrification is a complex issue of race and class and power and economics and it creates winners and losers.

Gentrification, sitting like a prize trophy on capitalism’s most prestigious shelf, is fueled by White privilege; it’s a direct descendant of our nation’s ugly. Gentrification is a manifestation of racism, colonization, and greed. It’s the American way. And it is not going anywhere anytime soon.

I also know, however, that every newcomer to the neighborhood is not inherently bad. Not everyone moving into the neighborhood is an appropriating snob. Not everyone moving into the neighborhood is on a land-grab conquest. Just as we have misguided perceptions of the newbies, the newbies have misguided perceptions about us long-time residents.

Paul Tamburello may be controversial, but he is not inherently bad. I know this because, just as he has worked with Servicios de La Raza on their real estate transactions, he and his colleague helped my wife and I buy our first home last year—right here in the Northside.

Story-Telling2 

So what are we willing to do?

It is not too late to ensure our story outlives us all. Talk to your families and document your history. Our elders are living museums. They are libraries made of flesh and bone and they are the gatekeepers of our collective memory.

Let’s honor our past by ensuring Northside communities of all backgrounds are not erased. Let’s work together to preserve our diverse traditions and cultural artifacts; even if preservation means creating things anew.

Let’s engage in difficult conversations with the people we perceive to be different from us.

Only by stepping outside our comfort zones will we be able to build bridges where rifts exist. Join the conversation by visiting We Are North Denver on Facebook, or on our website, www.wearenorthdenver.com . What does cultural preservation mean to you? What would you like to see stay in the Northside? What would you like to remember? What do you miss?

I don’t know about you, but I refuse to say goodbye to the Northside of yesterday. There is room for us all in the midst of neighborhood change. We just have to step up, define our space, and fight like hell for it like we always have. 


Con Safos,
~Bobby LeFebre

7 comments:

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Gracias for this post Bobby & Ernesto. It's good to know what is happening in the North side of Denver. It's happening here in LA too in the Northeast side and also in Boyle Heights. Where I live I've begun to see the disappearance to panaderías...they're being replaced with fancy donut shops and homemade ice cream. I love fancy donuts and homemade ice cream, pero yeah, as the rents rise and poor/working people get pushed out, what happens to the "newly developed" or "developing" neighborhood?

ERNEST HOGAN said...

A bad sign in the Metro Phoenix Area: I can't find Mexican comic books anywhere, and I live where the yuppies fear to tread.

Author Giora said...

I don't get why they took off the Mural called Primavera (reminding me the beautiful song Maldita Primavera by Yuri). It's very pretty, making the building unique and easy for people to remember it. Also sad is that some Latinos feeling being pushed out from their area.

EOPR Task Force said...

Is part of this happening because developers don't come in with opportunities for affordable housing or leasing discounts for small businesses that have been in the community for years? What ever happened to mixed-income housing?

msedano said...

Que plus ça change que plus the regret. Once changed, some landscapes never revert. I watched the orange groves of my hometown, once "the navel orange capital of the world," violently dried to kindling then ripped out, replaced by tract housing that came with restricted covenants meaning the gente who picked the fruit weren't permitted to live in the houses that replaced their livelihoods.

Manuel Ramos said...

Trite but true that change is the only constant. Change is also one of the hardest things for humans to deal with even if it happens to all of us. Northside gentrification, agave blooms, fall colors - so many metaphors for life itself. One thing about the Northside is that many of the developers and new residents have no respect for what has been here for decades. Not all, but many.

Anonymous said...

why don't we combine our resources and purchase the land back!