Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Northside of people OR developers' gentry Highlands

In John Carpenter's ancient 1981 film Escape from New York, convicted bank robber Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is sent into futuristic 1997 to rescue the US President from Manhattan, which by 1997 is a gigantic max-security prison. The film was called sci-fi, but today's gentrified Manhattan or San Francisco or Denver makes the film alternate history, a future not based in reality.

Two recent news and developments in Denver's gentrification made we wonder about my Northside neighborhood, which I and Bloguista Manuel Ramos have often written about, realistically, facetiously, or soberly, as Ramos wrote:
"One of the regrettable things that has happened to Denver’s Northside, where I've lived for more than thirty years, is the rise and victory of the 'suburban aesthetic': boxy, boring housing lined up in rows; a uniform 'non-conformist' style from clothes to music; restaurants that are destinations rather than good places to grab a bite to eat; an obsession about 'making it,' a flaccid, common denominator cultural perspective. A great neighborhood has to be more than that."

A Highlands developer's dream
Gentrification is defined as: "revitalizing neighborhoods, the movement of young, often single, professionals into low-income, heavily minority, neighborhoods near urban employment centers. Low-income and minority residents are pushed out by gentrification as the local culture and consumption patterns are taken over by upwardly mobile professionals."

Progress is defined as a gradual betterment; the process of improving or developing something over a period of time; the act or process of growing or causing something to grow or become larger or more advanced."

Bolded words above took on different meanings as I sat on my front patio this week, wondering how gentrification had "revitalized, improved" or made the neighborhood "more advanced." It is "larger" in terms of population density, with condo and apartment complexes going up like Peyton Manning's touchdown-record.

Gazing down the street, from house to house, this is what I know. When people moved into these houses that were built in the 1940s, they were looking for homes to start families, places to raise their kids, within walking distance of neighborhood schools [3 within 5 blocks], and maybe not far from their jobs.

A home the developers didn't raze
In both of those two houses (imagine following my finger) live steelworkers, in that one a factory worker and his grocery clerk wife, in that one a retired railroad worker, in the corner one a postal worker, in that one lived a president of her union, and next door, a federal government worker, Until recently, I was a teacher. All of those people belonged/belong to unions--there's more I don't know about--which were part of the community culture. Finding a gentry-neighbor who's part of a union or who would support a union picket is as hard as finding cheap houses around here.

Next door to me lived a Chicano who I went to college with and was part of the Chicano student movement. Across the street, a woman who was one of its poets. The three of us, at least, had that in common. Student radicalism, Chicano pride, nonviolent protest. None of the gentry on my block come from such backgrounds.

A home, not an investment
Across the street lived two girls who went to the Northside middle and high school with my two kids, one of whom lives five blocks away. Next door and two houses down, and in others sprinkled down the block, live/lived other kids who went to the same schools. They called themselves Northsiders, Vikings and attended North High School. Many stayed together at the same schools until they graduated or went on to college. With charter and split or hybrid schools all around us, the few gentry kids won't have neighborhood schools in common.

I can see the house where the Italian old lady [her son still lives there] use to drink on her porch. She was the same woman who would take care of neighborhood Mexican kids when their mother was late getting home. Or would feed Chicano children who she knew didn't have enough to eat when they got home from school. A steelworker from another house would regularly mow the two lawns of old ladies who couldn't push a mower or afford to pay anyone. A welder who lives over there and the guy who live there will weld something for you for free or run his snow-blower down other people's sidewalks. Another guy helped me with my fire-pit and another has fixed my car for me and neither would accept money. Of course, sometimes neighbors paid for work or bartered. I wonder whether today's gentry neighbors, with some exceptions, would act so neighborly for kids who might have lice in their hair, or let their gentry kids play with them, or even imagine that hungry neighborhood kids might be part of their responsibilities.

Really--you'd want to live in this?
South of me lived a Chicano, then a Mexican family, then another Mexican family that had migrated without papers from the same region of Mexico. Next door to them, another family from that region. North of me lived a paperless Mexican family, and I can count five others on the block that are still homes to Mexicanos. Counting us, there's six Chicano families still around. Decades ago, I had no doubts about why my family moved here. Because there were Chicanos, working class, Mexicanos who spoke Spanish. Good decent-priced restaurants with a chorizo breakfast, or bars with affordable shots or a variety of tequilas, or clubs with live music and no cover and cheap beer, or Catholic church bazaars where you ate good, danced in the street and saw and talked with your raza neighbors. With the gentry here, most of that is disappearing. I know that in a lot of cases, the gentry see that as Progress.

Kurt can't save us from Highlands
Our Chafee Park pocket of ranch house bungalows is zoned for families and no apartments. The developer-gentry may try to change that. (Over mi cuerpo muerto.) The old Northsiders moved here to find homes. Yes, they expected the house's value to rise, at least from inflation. But they moved here to stay, except for Mexicanos and Chicanos who got trapped by balloon payments, ARMs and under-qualifying loans. The four families I know about who lost homes had to move east to Aurora where ethnics can more afford to live or rent.

Architecture: Highlands-ugly
The developers have created another circle of Dante's Hell. Apartment buildings are going up, yes, like a Broncos' score. Monthly rents average $1,145. "Over 9,000 new apartments were built in 2013, 8,700 more are expected this year, and another 8,700 in 2015. 55,000 people will migrate here next year. "People are definitely looking at Colorado as the place to be. We have become an area where young professionals are moving. Entrepreneurs can start their businesses anywhere in the country, and so they are choosing areas where the lifestyle matches their preferences."

You buy this, you breathe the chems
I think of the new Northside--the developers renamed us Highlands, without our input--as Legoland. Like Ramos described above, apartment and condo boxes are slapped together with OSB instead of plywood like the old homes. It's 2/3 cheaper and the gentry will only see the outside. It doesn't matter that California wants to require special warnings for these "chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm, wood dust known to cause cancer." The median price for these boxes is $263,000. It's about money, investment, flipping houses and moving on. Not about neighbors and community.

This month in the Denver Post, Fine Arts Critic Ray Mark Rinaldi published "Did diversity miss the train in Union Station's architecture?" (The place is only ten minutes from my house.) The whole article is worth reading, but here's a sample:

Not Union Station; just big Lego

"The urban playground at Union Station isn't drawing people of color and it may be the building's fault. Walking through the station, it doesn't look at all like Denver in 2014. More like Denver in 1950, Boise, Idaho, or Billings, Mont. If, that is, you are white and not paying attention. Or if you think diversity doesn't matter. If you do, you can't help but feel like something is off amidst all the clinking of martini glasses. If you are a tourist, you might get the idea that Denver doesn't have people of color. Or worse, you might think it's one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. That's not the case.

"The architecture's roots are in the glory days of France, England, Greece and Rome, empires that were nearly absent of ethnic minorities and who felt fully at ease invading, exploiting and actually enslaving the people of Africa, Asia and South America.
"Yes, that's all in the past; things have changed. But the $54 million renovation of Union Station doesn't take that into account. It restores the symbols of an old world with no updates. The gilded chandeliers have been rewired, the marble polished, but there's no nod to the present. Is Union Station Ready for the Next 100 years, as its marketing proclaims?"

Rinaldi received over 316 comments. I won't't be surprised if the paper's conservative owners demoted or restricted him to articles about Bronco Stadium architecture. Here's a sample of the comments:
"So writing a racist article is OK if it is against white people?"
"White guilt is a large part of any college education now."
"We should just blow up all beautiful old buildings so that nobody is ever made uncomfortable by being reminded of what their ancestors didn't accomplish."
I don't know how many comments came from developers or gentry. But none of this sounds like the old Northside's neighborly ways of Italians, Chicanos, Mexicanos and others living next to each other. It certainly doesn't sound like tolerance.

Highlands next improvement?
If you missed it, check Bobby Lefebre's La Bloga post from last week, Vanishing Chicano Culture and the Gentrification of Denver’s Northside. "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 wrote the following article originally for his website, which you can find at this link." Like Ramos said there, "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."

The Northside that's become the developers' and gentry's Highlands is a great candidate for a new Darwin Award for City Suicide. Already the signs of super-congestion, unflavored architecture and an unaffordable lifestyle and life have settled over my neighborhood like a new Brown Cloud. It didn't and doesn't have to be that way. Richer, whiter neighborhoods were inoculated from turning into Legoland. For instance, there's the Bonnie Brae Neighborhood Association whose zoning committee reviews all zoning requests. It's one of the most charming, coveted, million-dollar-homes areas in the West. Take note developers--of million-dollar-homes. Not made of cheap, toxic OSB or intended to look like Legos. And how about some solar?

Old Northside home, family-friendly
Except for the Lefebre and Rinaldi articles, I don't know why I wrote this. I'm not lamenting so much as remembering. Why we came here. What here is. And was. What it shouldn't become. What it shouldn't lose. Its ethnicity. Its multi-national neighborhood quality. Its sense of community. It's the Northside.

Es todo, hoy,
RudyG, a.k.a. a Northside who's not quitting. Or moving.


msedano said...

an epitaph? a eulogy? a call to arms?

Anonymous said...

MSedano, I have no answers. Just observations. - RudyG

Manuel Ramos said...

Provocative post, Rudy, much food for thought. A view from the "belly of the beast" so to speak. Perhaps the rush to the Northside eventually will burn out and those of us who have stuck and stayed will have to deal with the remnants including unsold legos and overpriced restaurants. Already see signs that some of the boxy condos are not selling as quickly or at all.