It started with whispers: Don’t eat the leafy vegetables growing in your backyard. Don’t let your kids play with toys that have been outside. Don’t let them roll around in the grass. If the air smells bad, go inside and close the windows. Never play in the pond near the plant.
In the summer of 1994, the cleanup workers came. Armed with shovels and Bobcats, they ripped away sod, flower beds, vegetable gardens, and some of the heirloom rose bushes throughout the Globeville neighborhood in north Denver. They removed the poisonous soil: 12 to 18 inches of contaminated dirt laced with arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and lead from the nearby Asarco plant, which had processed heavy metals for nearly a century. The area’s “terroir”—that rich, riverfront loam along the banks of the South Platte River—had become terrifying.
Area residents had worried for years, whenever the plant’s stacks spewed out the white-blue ash that covered their homes, that something wasn’t right. They’d sued Asarco, screamed at the state health department, and filed lawsuits to get someone—anyone—to clean up the mess that urban industrialization had made of their neighborhood.
In 1993, they had won a $28 million settlement, with the stipulation that Asarco would fix up the neighborhood. Of course, victory in this case meant that all summer long, the cleanup crews worked throughout Globeville. They removed the dirt from Argo Park, home to the local swimming pool, and the soil around the Holy Transfiguration of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, a towering church built in 1898. If a homeowner protested, they’d spare a bed of marigolds or a rose bush. They left paved surfaces undisturbed, assuming the concrete would cap the contamination.
His house was a 10-minute walk from the plant—or, as the particulates fly, a strong breeze away. When the crews arrived at John Moyers’ home, he gladly let them work. His house was a 10-minute walk from the plant—or, as the particulates fly, a strong breeze away. By then, the 49-year-old had lived on Lincoln Street for 21 years, during which time his two girls, Kendra and Shelbia, grew up playing in the very backyard now being torn apart. This was the home he and his wife, Rachael, had coveted while living in the basement of her parents’ place across the alley. The “dollhouse,” as Rachael called the tiny two-bedroom bungalow, was where they wanted to raise their own family. They bought it for $17,000 in 1973 from a woman whose husband had built it for her as a wedding present more than 30 years earlier. At long last, it was theirs.
John had soft hazel eyes framed by a face that couldn’t stop smiling. He was a tinkerer, a handyman who constantly puttered around, making small improvements, such as a two-story playhouse over a sandbox that the neighborhood kids would clamber around. He was proud of the life he and Rachael had built. The girls were doing well, going to school, starting jobs, and moving on. Sometimes John thought they were embarrassed about being “the kids from Globeville,” that place with high crime, awful smells, and—now—toxic pollution. He sensed it when they urged their mom and dad to leave the neighborhood. But he didn’t want to move. No matter what the chemical engineers and inspectors said, this was still their home.
During the excavation, the couple watched the work through a kitchen window as their yard became a mess. Inside, though, the house was immaculate. Rachael, a modern version of June Cleaver, made sure of that. She’d throw on her jeans and say, “Let’s get this place clean.” Her demeanor was calm, like smooth water, until something would break the surface. The workers were cracking that facade, ripping apart her once-immaculate yard, and replacing the rich riverbed soil with dirt choked with clay and pebbles. When the homeowners complained, they were told that the soil had passed the required quality tests and they’d just have to live with it.
Eventually, the cleanup became part of Globeville’s daily life. (The project should be completed in 2015.) The work wasn’t any louder than the Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway trains that rumbled through the neighborhood, or the noise from traffic racing by on I-25 or I-70, which cut the neighborhood into four parts when they were constructed. The whole process wasn’t much different from the way the city had treated them for decades—as an afterthought. Like all the past indignities, the homeowners got used to it.
Still, they couldn’t help but wonder when Denver might finally notice their little hamlet, just 10 minutes from downtown. The South Platte River bounds its southern edge, offering plenty of development-ripe riverfront property. For years, they’d heard rumors the city might swoop in and set the neighborhood on a more prosperous path, as it eventually would with nearby areas such as LoHi and Sunnyside. Their community was a new frontier—maybe Denver’s final frontier—and the residents wanted to know when their turn might finally come.
On July 15, 2013, Mayor Michael Hancock stepped up to a podium at Denver’s Forney Museum of Transportation for his annual state of the city address. Rolling into his third year in office, it was time for Hancock to cement his legacy. In the first row were past mayors who’d already written themselves into the history books. Wellington Webb had transformed the nearby South Platte River and jump-started the Union Station revitalization. John Hickenlooper’s folksy moderation helped nurture neighborhood rebirth in LoDo, LoHi, Sunnyside, and RiNo. Propelled by those successes, Hickenlooper went on to direct Colorado’s political traffic from the governor’s desk.
The location for Hancock’s speech was a calculated choice. The museum is in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, just across the river from Globeville, near the spot where one of Its smokestack spews fumes that pierce the sunlight behind a bald eagle and the Capitol’s dome. the city’s first ore smelters once stood. These adjacent communities would be a major focus of the speech because Hancock needed them to establish his own signature accomplishment—and because he knew Denver owed its wealth, and part of its very existence, to the labor force in this area. After the railroads laid tracks through north Denver in the 1880s, smelters popped up to serve mines in the high country, and Globeville quickly became a bustling hub for their workers. One of the original smelters, the Omaha & Grant, is depicted on Denver’s city seal; its smokestack spews fumes that pierce the sunlight behind a bald eagle and the Capitol’s dome.
This golden seal adorned the very podium from which Hancock spoke. He opened with a characteristically broad smile and upbeat delivery. “Our challenge today is to take bold new steps to connect the city with the world,” he said. “To connect Denver with its future.” He emphasized the city’s international connections before quickly pivoting to the “bold transformational change” he was prescribing for Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. “We will reconnect these neighborhoods to a better future with a coordinated push on six key projects,” Hancock said. “We will vastly improve the health of the South Platte River; turn Brighton Boulevard into an inviting gateway to downtown; reconstruct I-70 in a way that reconnects these neighborhoods and businesses; deliver more accessibility with new commuter and light rail stations; implement neighborhood revitalization plans; and partner with the National Western Stock Show to create a year-round destination.”
In less than 40 seconds, the mayor had rattled through a half-dozen massive projects that could forever alter the area. But while some call them catalytic changes on par with Union Station’s rebirth or LoHi’s new-urbanist revitalization, others see catastrophe. They use words such as “gentrification” and “urban renewal” as epithets to describe how some of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods are suddenly in vogue simply because developers see dollar signs. Those opponents ask, “Why now?” and “Why should we trust you?”
The first answer is easy. With the South Platte River’s network of parks and bike trails in place, finishing the cleanup of the polluted waterway is next. The RiNo neighborhood’s success has accelerated improvement plans for Brighton Boulevard, which the mayor envisions as the city’s “grand entrance.” At 50 years old, I-70’s viaduct is deteriorating. (To bolster their appeals for assistance, area residents bring chunks that have fallen off the raised roadway to CDOT meetings.) Work is underway on a commuter rail stop at 41st and Fox streets in Globeville. It will be the first station north of downtown and has already helped nearby residential prices skyrocket. Most important, this December, the Denver City Council will review the Globeville Neighborhood Plan, a growth and redevelopment road map for the area bounded on the east and south by the South Platte River, Inca Street to the west, and the city limits to the north (around 52nd Avenue). It’s the first formal, comprehensive look at how this neighborhood should grow since 1989.
Getting an answer for “Why should we trust you?” is more complicated. The question is loaded with implications about race, poverty, exploitation, poor urban planning, and generations of hostile actions by the city. Some people see Globeville as a blank slate, much like Stapleton or Lowry once were with their vast parcels of undeveloped land. The difference, though, is that Globeville isn’t blank. It’s brimming with families, homes, and churches that have been there for a century or more. These folks have long been frustrated with the city, its bullying, and its broken promises—and they view further government engagement with suspicion. “Globeville, if it has a personality,” explains local historian Mary Lou Egan, “has a chip on its shoulder.”
The neighborhood’s name changes—it’s the Polonia Triangle in Chicago, Five Points in New York City, Bloomfield in Pittsburgh, the North End in Boston—but the immigrant storyline remains the same. It starts with escaping the old country to pursue the American dream: jobs, money, and a say in government. In Globeville, established in 1889, that first wave was Eastern Europeans fleeing forced army conscription and poverty. They worked 12-hour days to scrape together $2 in daily wages (about $18,000 a year in 2014 dollars) and found a community of immigrants who banded together to form fraternal lodges.
These groups—including the Western Slavonic Association and Polish National Alliance—were ambassadors to the new arrivals. The lodges gave the newcomers loans when banks wouldn’t, served them drinks after a long workweek, and showed them how to dress, how to talk, how to meet women. They held town meetings and passed noise ordinances and community rules. They built churches, and then they built saloons next door. They sent money back to the old country, which brought more laborers. They arranged Globeville into neat sections of homes and the businesses that served them.
Denver wooed Globeville, but the tiny outpost preferred to remain independent; it even had its own water-treatment facility and street lamps. In 1902, Denver finally annexed the area, which had started to fear that nearby Elyria or Adams County would try to do it first. Plus, the city promised a plethora of services: A streetcar! Amenities! Better streets!
It didn’t take long to realize the city was more interested in Globeville’s tax base than in making civic and physical improvements. The streetcar system was never a priority. Neither was a completed network of streets nor the amenities. And around 1903, the smelting businesses began to wither after labor unrest crippled Colorado’s mining industry. The Globe Smelter, which eventually became the Asarco plant near East 51st Avenue, survived by transitioning from silver and gold to processing lead and then cadmium. During World War II, area women took up the Rosie the Riveter call and replaced their soldier husbands at the plant.
As progressive as Globeville’s immigrant village might have looked back then, it stunk. Smelting odors were bad enough, but when meatpacking houses and rendering plants became the next As progressive as Globeville’s immigrant village might have looked back then, it stunk. wave of industrialization, the stench became overwhelming. Rendering plants boil, cook, and incinerate animal parts left over from butchering. If the wind blew from the north or east, the smell of scorched blood competed with the aroma of manure to give Globeville residents headaches, sore throats, and bouts of nausea. They tried not to complain: This sickening stew was the smell of progress; it was the smell of money.
What happened next was completely out of Globeville’s control. As the automobile became ubiquitous, the United States began a massive campaign to link cities with thoroughfares, replacing rivers and railroads with concrete circulatory systems. After seeing the Nazis move whole battalions with ease on Europe’s highway system as a five-star general in World War II and fearing the Soviet Union’s ability to do the same, President Dwight D. Eisenhower became obsessed with ensuring that the United States was better connected for tank and troop movement, should the Cold War land on our soil. He helped push through the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the original catalyst for the more than 47,000 miles of paved freeways we have today. In Denver, that meant construction of Colorado’s Valley Highway—now known as I-25—which started in 1948. The roadway cut through Globeville, forcing people’s homes to be relocated or destroyed via eminent domain. (These new routes always seemed to traverse cities’ poorest neighborhoods while skipping the tonier zip codes; if you owned a home in the new highway’s path, well, too bad.)
The construction of I-70 quickly followed. Local legend has it that the jog up from the foothills and through the north side of Denver—rather than a straight shot through town—was a reward from Senator Ed Johnson to local businessman Michael Pomponio for swaying the Italian vote toward John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. The route for I-70 would march past Pomponio’s restaurant and shopping center and a buddy’s truck stop. It also meant the spot where I-25 and I-70 meet—the Mousetrap—literally stood on the heart of Globeville. (Residents curse Eisenhower to this day.)
Those in the construction’s path had to evacuate. Some buildings were split in half when owners refused to move—though they still had to pay property taxes on the entire lot. St. Joseph Polish Church and its school barely survived; it’s just 50 feet from the I-70 overpass. During the seemingly endless construction, President Kennedy toured the area, driving by the church and shaking hands with the crowd.
From the start, the Mousetrap was poorly planned. In 1984, a semi carrying Navy torpedoes tipped over on one of the intersection’s slender curves. Over the years, a good 20 projects have sought remedies by closing exits, rebuilding ramps, adding bridges, and further shutting down access to Globeville.
The noise, the pollution, and the isolation began to drive away longtime Globeville families. In their places came a new wave of immigrants to work at the area plants. Globeville absorbed them, like it always had, creating a modern-day melting pot just when the American dream’s once-stalwart middle class started to fade.
The storms had been building for days. High pressure circled the Great Lakes, low pressure twisted over Arizona, Utah, and Nevada—and the Colorado Rockies were caught in the middle. The resulting showers created deluges all along the Front Range. When the South Platte River flooded on June 16, 1965, it decimated Santa Fe Drive, downtown Denver, and Globeville. What the author James Michener had once called a “sad, bewildered, nothing of a river” became a ferocious beast, crushing six bridges with raging water that carried away railroad cars, homes, cows, and automobiles.
In Globeville, water poured over the banks and into the streets. The slurry flooded the basement of the Holy Transfiguration cathedral. Argo Park’s pool filled with mud. The home of Rachael Reyes’ family got caught in the muck, with water seeping in through the basement’s foundation. Her parents put in a sump pump, and Rachael, then 24, was grateful they hadn’t suffered worse; they’d worked too hard for their tiny home.
Her father, M.C., hailed from Mexico, and her mother, Margaret, grew up in Kansas. M.C. was a freelance minister, teaching the Lord’s way whenever—and wherever—he could. Margaret raised nine kids with a firm hand. They moved around before settling in Globeville’s Stapleton housing project in 1957. The low-income complex had been built five years earlier next to the Asarco plant. Rachael’s parents worried about the neighborhood and its tales of kids getting into trouble with the police, crime, and drugs. So the Reyes kids kept to themselves and their church friends, creating an insular environment around faith and family.
Once they’d saved enough money, the Reyes moved into a small house a few blocks down. Rachael quit high school and went to work, saving $5 of each paycheck for herself and giving the rest to her family. Her mother sold burritos and tortillas to the workers at a telephone company in Aurora, and Rachael ferried over the orders every day at noon.
John Moyers had ridden into Denver right as the flood hit. The scared and lonely 21-year-old was headed for duty at Lowry Air Force Base—only it was deserted. “Where is everyone?” he asked the only person he could find.
“Down on the Platte, sandbagging.”
John, who plays at being a practical realist, actually has unbounded enthusiasm, optimism, and faith—all of which led him to Rachael. After the floods had subsided, the Reyes girls were singing for one of Billy Graham’s Crusade Choirs when the evangelist’s tour stopped in Colorado. One day after practice, they spotted the young airman and his friends, and the sisters started to quiz them. “What church do you go to? What kind of music do you like?”
John soon was heading to Rachael’s apartment carrying a box of gospel records, some Pepsi, and black licorice for a first date. They didn’t care—the records kept spinning. There were differences—John could have been an extra on the Andy Griffith Show; Rachael’s first language was Spanish—but they bumbled through them and found commonality in music. On that first night, Rachael put some popcorn on the stove while they talked but forgot to take off the paper cover. The small apartment filled with smoke and the smell of burnt kernels. They didn’t care—the records kept spinning.
The couple married in 1967 and moved to Globeville in 1972, after their daughter Kendra was born. John worked as a draftsman for steel companies, hunched over a desk with pencils and T-squares, drawing joints and fixtures and getting everything just right. Rachael minded the kids, walking them around the neighborhood and cooking dinner every night. She always made sure the girls—Shelbia was born in 1974—jumped at the door to greet their dad after a long workday.
When the girls started going to the neighborhood school, Rachael joined them as a teacher’s aide. John realized too late that he wanted to be an engineer. He enrolled in night school, but the demands of school and work and church and being present for the kids proved to be too much, so he stopped. Instead, he sang. They all did. Sitting on the living room floor at night, Kendra would practice the different parts of quartet music. And, like her parents, Rachael kept her girls close to home, making sure they avoided Globeville’s trouble.
You probably noticed the paint-flecked homes, the rusted-out vehicles, the chain link fences plastered with “Beware of Dog” signs, the plywood planks hastily nailed over broken windows, or the passed-out homeless man with his three grocery carts of stuff parked under a cottonwood tree near a church.
What you may have missed is Globeville’s very essence: the heirloom rose bushes that survived the 1994 cleanup and still bloom; the grandmother who sweeps the alley, just because; the teenage boy who strolls the streets on summer days, selling ices from a cart; the family that barbecues in Argo Park every weekend; the parishioners who fill the area’s many churches on Sundays.
Logistically, though, Globeville is a mess. The Mousetrap cuts the neighborhood into four quadrants, making it difficult to get around. (For example, the area’s primary school, Garden Place Academy, is south of I-70, but most residential properties are on the north side.) It’s nearly impossible for pedestrians to stay out of the street because the city never built a consistent network of sidewalks, gutters, and curbs. There are about 60 dead-end streets, and the lack of city planning is apparent on almost every corner.
Globeville’s zoning map is even worse: It looks like something Jackson Pollock would have splattered and dripped onto his studio floor. Industrial zones run adjacent to residential zones, sometimes putting a single home next to an industrial building. Although it looks haphazard, this havoc always seemed intentional.
Around the time the interstates were being built, Denver was pondering whether to create an industrial park in Globeville to lure businesses and jobs. Opponents pointed to cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, whose industrial cores seemed doomed for decay. Rather than finishing the debate, the city enacted a code in the 1950s that prohibited a “nonconforming structure in an industrial zone” from being modified or improved.
The problem was, many decades-old residences in Globeville were, technically, in what had become industrial zones, meaning these homeowners couldn’t repair their porches or install additions without violating the code. “They just wanted the house to fall apart,” Paulette Hirsch, a neighborhood activist, told me in 2009. (She died in 2010.) “They couldn’t even fix their bathrooms.” The city’s message was clear: Abandon your house or live in decay.
Less clear, for some, was whether or not their home was in an industrial zone, because the city kept changing—or threatening to change—the classifications. In 1966, the Denver planning board tried to reclassify north Globeville, including the Stapleton Projects, as an industrial zone. Residents—still livid about the interstates casting shadows over their homes, bathing the neighborhood in exhaust fumes, and creating a decibel level likely outside of what the World Health Organization now says is required for healthy sleep—fought back. They thought they’d finally won one of these battles in 1972, when the city’s Study for the Community Renewal Program concluded: “Globeville should remain residential in the areas that are at present residential.”
Unfortunately, the city lied. In an effort to formally declare the neighborhood blighted, it decreed that nearly 71 percent of Globeville homes needed structural repairs. Coming from the same entity that created the zoning rule that wouldn’t allow people to address these repairs, the announcement was essentially a death sentence.
The idea of turning Globeville into an industrial park came up again in 1975. It took another two years of resistance from the citizens to beat back the city—seemingly for good. It ultimately would be more than 50 years—until 2006—before the city council revamped its original zoning code, and during that time Globeville slowly slipped into neglect. Area banks, aware of the turmoil, refused to issue home improvement loans.
In the ’70s, packing and rendering plants, the area’s major employers, started moving to areas such as Greeley and Iowa, where they could find cheaper labor and rent. Automation wiped out even more jobs. And as the jobs left, so did the people. Globeville’s proximity to the interstates boosted drug and gang activity. Its crime rates were among the highest in the city. The Moyers girls were pretty sure their next-door neighbors were into drugs; random people were always coming in and out of the basement during the night. Stray dogs ran loose, and occasional gunshots popped. When Kendra reached junior high in 1984, the Moyerses decided to bus her out of the neighborhood. Shelbia soon followed. Church and choir kept the girls busy and out of trouble—which was good because the family couldn’t have afforded to leave Globeville if they’d wanted to.
By 1987, contamination at the Asarco plant was being studied. (Eventually, it would be considered for the Superfund site list, a designation for the most contaminated spots in the United States. This would put it in the same class as New York’s Love Canal, a toxic-waste dump covered with housing developments, and Colorado’s Rocky Flats, which produced nuclear bombs and then cancer patients.) The remaining community readied for a new fight. In 1991, they sued the company, one of many legal actions taken against Asarco, and two years later, they won the $28 million settlement that required the company to clean up the neighborhood.
Winning that battle finally gave people in Globeville some hope for the long term. For a few months, the neighborhood even looked like it had in the past. There was new sod in every yard. The flower beds were tilled. The air smelled like good dirt—healthy terroir. Some things even thrived: A patch of morning glory flowers near the Holy Transfiguration church survived the dig and came back the next year as if nothing had happened. “The cultural piece of Globeville is really the draw,” says District 9 city councilwoman Judy Montero who’s represented the neighborhood since 2003 and worked in the area for more than two decades. “Through all the ups and downs. Through the Asarco case. The building of the highway. People are still there. They are tenacious and as strong and as vocal as ever. They definitely know what they want, and they definitely know what they need.”
And sometimes, they need outside help. As buzzwords like walkability, synergy, and recreation (rather than interstates) became part of the city-planning lexicon, the focus on urban cores shifted toward restoration and building up instead of out. Developers became prospectors looking for places to impose their visions. In Globeville, that spot was the Taxi complex. In 2000, after eyeing the property for about five years, Denver developer Mickey Zeppelin purchased the former digs of a taxi dispatch company. “It had a lot of great assets,” he says. “The river. The proximity to downtown. A grittiness that was really attractive in terms of being authentic.” He set about creating an arts- and startup-focused community near the city’s central core. “Taxi was never meant to be an island,” he says. “It is a center and it extends out to Globeville, both sides of the track, the riverfront and downtown. I think the future of the city is really tied up in making it work.”
The gossip started last spring, near the end of the school year. “I was hearing more whispers about rent going up and some of our parents not being able to afford it anymore,” says Rebecca Salomon, the principal at Garden Place. Her century-old school sits on the southern edge of Globeville. Generations of working-class and immigrant kids have trekked up the worn stairs. More than 95 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Now increased rents across the metro area, particularly in Globeville, are forcing them out.
The decades-long zoning problems aren’t helping. Globeville has no major grocery store, just a 7-Eleven. The nearest chain grocer is more than two miles away. (On average, the rest of Denver travels less than a mile.) There’s no east-west bus line unless you get on the interstate or make multiple transfers. Since 2003, there has been no neighborhood clinic; a nonprofit health center fills the gaps.
There are some signs of progress, though. Crime is down (until 2013, the neighborhood was split between two police districts). The Asarco cleanup is finally winding down after 20 years, and the site is expected to open as a commercial development next year. And, of course, there is Mayor Hancock and his six catalytic projects. He grew up in Denver and has been watching Globeville closely since 1993, when he worked with a group that was assessing the fallout from the Asarco plant’s contamination. “I fell in love with this little, quaint community,” Hancock told me. “I felt like it had received a great deal of injustice through this plant that was contaminating their water and their way of life.”
The mayor talks fluidly about Globeville’s perch at the gateway to the city, how it’s time to “revitalize” and “uplift” the neighborhood—and why some of the area’s residents don’t believe him. “I get the sense of anger that people have,” Hancock says. “They’re paying their taxes just like anyone else in the city, and they can’t get you to pave the road or pick up the trash or sweep their streets? I get that. I can’t answer to what was or what was not done. All I can say is that from this point forward, all I can do is show you.”
Hancock has established the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, an office run by longtime public planner Kelly Leid that will help the revitalization projects collaborate. Both Hancock and Leid—as well as everyone interviewed for this story—say they believe these projects are unprecedented in number and scope for an American city. “I can see why the city found other things to do over the last 40 years, because the list of issues gets really long, really quick,” Leid says. “There’s not one thing in this part of the city that’s easy.”
Inside Globeville, discussions about these efforts are ongoing and vehement. Homeowners tend to favor development, which could give them the chance to cash out. (Area home prices rose almost seven percent year over year as of press time, compared to 0.5 percent throughout Denver.) Renters—a common casualty of gentrification and If Globeville’s rents start resembling LoHi’s, where will its low-income workers go? new urbanism in American cities—are less optimistic. If Globeville’s rents start resembling LoHi’s, where will its low-income workers go? Mayor Hancock seems keenly aware of this and chooses his words carefully when he says, “I’m very, very, very cautious of not bringing government intervention to disrupt something that people want.” Of course, without government intervention, none of these catalytic plans can succeed. But after so many “official” studies—the draft neighborhood plan is merely the latest—there’s a palpable sense of survey fatigue among Globeville residents, who wish the city would just do something already.
Courtland Hyser, a senior city planner, is trying to address this frustration with his grand plan for the neighborhood. The draft outlines major initiatives—like creating a better way for students to travel on Lincoln Street, under I-70, to the local school—and seemingly simple changes, such as creating a pedestrian bridge over the South Platte to the Stock Show complex. Many of the proposed changes are byproducts of meetings Hyser and his associates have held with area residents over the past few years. “Our only agenda was, tell us what you like about your neighborhood and tell us what you’d like to change,” says Hyser, whose draft isn’t a mandate, but rather a proposal that needs feedback from locals and the city council. “There’s a mix of things that need to change and things that need to be preserved,” he says. “Within Globeville there are some areas that have the opportunity for transformation,” such as the rail stop at 41st and Fox that’s ripe for mixed-use development.
Standing at that corner this fall, with bulldozers already at work, it’s easy to see what could be. Although the spectacular downtown view won’t change, the small brick homes will be gone. Bike racks will replace the chain-link fences. The parking space holding a rusted-out pickup truck will probably be used by a Car2Go vehicle. It’s hard to say no to all the shiny promises urbanization makes. Why not rip this patchwork neighborhood apart and start over? Wouldn’t that be doing good after a century of neglect?
These are questions Dave Oletski ponders. His family has owned a part of Globe-ville since the 1880s, but about 10 years ago he was ready to sell and move. “I got to looking around and thought, I don’t like this place,” he says. “The trash. The drugs. You name it. I’m leaving. So I put a sign up: For sale by owner. I was gone. Then I got to driving around and got to looking at Taxi and downtown, and I told my daughter, ‘If I sell, I’m going to sell 10 years too early. I’ve been here all these years. It’s been in the family all these years. If I sell now, that would be foolish.’ I didn’t like it so I thought, Well, I’m going to get involved.”
Oletski became president of the neighborhood association and spends many of his days in planning meetings, making sure Globeville doesn’t miss out—again—on the benefits of Denver’s explosive growth. “People are saying, ‘Oh, gentrification; you’re going to kick the poor people out,’ ” Oletski says. “It’s just making a full circle. It’s just the way it is. The prosperity with the immigrants; the prosperity is coming back. Is there anything wrong with that?”
On a sparkling day in October 2013, John and Rachael stare at their home, bewildered. They’re wearing neon yellow shirts and hard hats; a tool belt hangs from John’s waist. They stand side by side, their arms touching as if they are one. Even their shoulders, slightly stooped with time, form the same curve. Behind them, workers once again tear apart their home.
It’s not like it was in 1994. Each year, former President Jimmy Carter selects a few neighborhoods around the country in desperate need of housing assistance, part of Habitat for Humanity’s Carter Work Project, and Globeville is one of the selections for 2013. The group will build 11 townhomes for income-qualified families on the site of the old Stapleton projects. Habitat also is performing “critical home repairs” on 15 neighborhood houses, including the Moyerses’ place, owned by low-income homeowners who’d applied for the program. It’s a modest but welcome step toward fixing a neighborhood that’s been neglected while Globeville homeowners were stuck in five decades of zoning limbo.
The many volunteers move about like worker ants, scurrying over plywood sheets and Tyvek insulation piles. Carter makes an appearance, as do musicians Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. A few Denver Broncos—in the middle of their march to Super Bowl XLVIII—stop by to swing hammers, too. The Moyerses’ dollhouse is getting the deluxe treatment: energy-efficient windows, siding, shingles, gutters, and additional insulation in the attic. John and Rachael can’t believe their luck: that someone—anyone—would care that much about their home. They walk around the site with a notebook, asking every worker for a name and address so they can send thank-you notes. For the Moyerses, this is their catalytic event.
This past summer, the house is as tidy as ever, with everything arranged just so. A crocheted blanket lies across an overstuffed couch. John and Rachael sit at the kitchen table, glancing out at their backyard. A Christmas clock on the wall chimes out carols on the hour. “We just keep it up all year,” John explains. “Don’t sing!” Rachael warns jokingly, although the family still sings in a number of choirs. They don’t have air conditioning, and a fan in the window helps stir a breeze and lets them hear the neighbor children’s giggles and shrieks. It’s in the mid-90s outside, but the interior is cool thanks to the new insulation and windows. John even says it gets chilly at night, and Rachael echoes his point with an exaggerated shiver.
They talk in tandem the way only a couple who have lived, loved, and worked side by side for nearly half a century can. He says one thing, and she picks it up in the next breath. “We get offers in the mail all the time,” John says. “We’ll buy your house. Pay cash for your house. Please sell us your house.” Rachael chimes in: “You see the signs everywhere.” There were times they thought they’d have to pay someone to take their house. Today, they live in a real estate hot spot.
“We don’t have plans to leave,” John says as Rachael nods, her arms firmly crossed. Part of their agreement with Habitat is that they will stay for five years. It’s doubtful they would listen to any offers anyway; from the looks of it, Providence itself couldn’t convince them to move. “It is just kind of unbelievable how blessed we’ve been,” John says.
In a neighborhood that has learned to distrust government, again and again, something feels different. The whole area seems more planned, more intentional, with less taking and more giving. “It took us 100 years to get to this point, and it is going to take several years to remedy it,” Leid says. To address that, the mayor’s 2015 budget proposal sets aside $47 million for projects in the area (although much of it will go to Brighton Boulevard projects in Elyria-Swansea, not Globeville).
The question now is whether this is enough. “We’re working really hard not to have siloed thinking,” councilwoman Montero says. “That won’t help the traveler coming in from DIA. It won’t help generations of families living in Globeville. It’s not going to help RiNo. It is not going to help the tax base of the city.”
In the end, it comes down to faith: belief the city will finally do right by this neighborhood. In the end, it comes down to faith. Belief that there is a compromise between low-income housing and urban development. Belief that Globeville will survive. It’s a daunting and uncertain prospect, one that will play out in the city council next month as it reviews the latest neighborhood plan.
Amid all this change, what might be most telling about Globeville is what remains the same. Take the maple that stands next to the Holy Transfiguration church. More than a decade ago, a bolt of lightning ripped through the trunk, tearing it in two. For a while, it looked like the whole thing would die; the damage was too extensive. A minister came out and blessed the tree, placing a tiny hand-carved icon in the heart of the scar. He asked for it to live, to thrive. Slowly, the tree recovered, and sap and bark curled around exposed soft wood to stop the bleeding. The next spring, leaves budded and bloomed. And it thrived. Today, from the street, you can’t see the damage. But if you walk around the ancient tree and trace your hands on the bark and the icon, you can see and feel where the damage was—and how it’s healing.