12 March 2007

East Colfax Improving

East Colfax Avenue has a reputation for being one of the most decrepit thoroughfares in Denver.

This doesn't come from nowhere. Miles of it are an endless stream of pawnshops, check cashing stores, seedy motels that will rent you a room by the hour, strip clubs, sex shops, bottom of the line used car lots, prowling prostitutes, and the odd tattoo shop, thrift store and marginal mom and pop ethnic restaurant. It is a haven for those who are down on their luck and looking for cheap thrills.

Most of the people you see walking its sidewalks seem to have lost their shavers last week and have ripped clothes, and the prevailing image for the women who aren't prostitutes seems to be the 1950s tart look. Most of the storefronts in these areas also have a 1950s feel, harkening back to the pre-interstate highway era when U.S. Highway 40 was a genuine route for interstate commerce, updated with iron security fencing.

But, while the stretch of East Colfax from Quebec going East almost to Peoria (where the new Fitzsimmons Medical Complex begins) retains its unsavory character for the most part, the stretch of East Colfax from Quebec to Broadway is slowly turning itself around.

The City and the local business improvement district, have been making an effort for a long time, with the Orwellian claim that Colfax is Denver's Main Street. This is manifestly untrue -- both the 16th Street Mall and 1st Avenue between the Cherry Creek Mall and Cherry Creek North fit the description better.

But, redevelopment efforts are frequently accompanied by new names. The "North Capitol Hill" neighborhood, which abuts Colfax to the North for a couple of miles, for example, has been rechristened "Uptown" and a gentrifying part of the notorious (but historic) "Five Points" neighborhood has been renamed the "Coor's Field neighborhood" to break old stereotypes.

More than governmental action or sham name charges are at work, however. The improving part of Colfax is bordered on the South by Cheeseman Park, Congress Park and Mayfair, all solid urban residential neighborhoods. To the North, Uptown is gentrifying, and Park Hill (the Northern part of which is the most affluent predominantly black neighborhood for probably 1,000 miles) is continuing to hold its own. Quebec is now carrying traffic onto Colfax from the massive new middle class Stapleton development to the North, and the massive new upper middle class Lowry development to the South, onto East Colfax, enroute to downtown.

The small city of people who have moved into lofts in downtown proper, LoDo, and the South Platte neighborhood (upwards of 6,000 in less than a decade), and the slow gentrification of the Highland neighborhood just to the West of downtown, has also made East Colfax a convenient route for folks heading East, many headed to the new Fitzsimmons medical complex between I-225 and Peoria on East Colfax.

For much of its length, particularly in the areas where it is improving, East Colfax is a last holdout of ghetto conditions wedged between rather affluent residential neighborhoods. This is particularly striking from Colorado Boulevard to Quebec, where million and multi-million dollar mansions fill both sides of the tree lined boulevard that is 17th Avenue, just two blocks from East Colfax (which is located where 15th Avenue should be) where beggars roam, drugs are sold in the open air, and whores own the night. The "East Colfax effect" likewise vanishes within three blocks to the South.

East High School, on East Colfax near York, is one of the last remnants of Denver's desegregation era schoolscapes, and anchors the improving section of East Colfax on the East, bolstered by the newly relocated Tattered Cover Bookstore (from Cherry Creek), record store (relocated from my West Washington Park neighborhood) and restaurants.

East's High School's attendance area draws from both affluent neighborhoods to the South, and working class and middle-middle class minority neighborhoods in North Denver (including some of the economically healthiest predominantly minority neighborhoods in the state), giving it an integrated and, alas, somewhat internally self-segregating, student body, something that has disappeared from most other Denver public schools with an end of busing for desegregation purposes accompanied by the resegregating effects of school choice.

Because of its substantial draw from more affluent neighborhoods, East High School has managed to hold onto a "critical mass" of middle class kids. This has caused it to become one of the better academically performing public high schools in the city. This in turn has discouraged middle class families from using school choice to flee the school in overwhelming numbers.

Reports on programs specifically trying to integrate East at the high school level, and reports from places like the Bell Policy Center, suggest that what is going on at East is good for all involved -- affluent kids, and less well off kids alike.

Anchoring the improving area on the Quebec side are Johnston and Wales University (a culinary school the prevented the old University of Denver law and fine arts campus from deteriorating), the prestigious Denver School of the Arts (relocated from the Byers neighborhood within walking distance of my home), and Stapleton's new Denver School of Science and Technology.

In between, a revitalized National Jewish Hospital complex provides a little band-aid for the vitality lost as University Hospital and Children's Hospital have moved to Fitzsimmons.

Honestly, it is hard to imagine an East Colfax Avenue that has recovered, although the trends seem to indicate it is headed that way. It crosses many city council districts and its health has gotten intense, thoughtful attention from the city council as a result. We have yet to see the impact of newly adopted "form based zoning" along the street. The Ethiopian community in Denver has helped keep the area from absolutely hitting bottom by starting new businesses there, picking up some of the slack left by Greek town on East Colfax, which has remnant businesses but little remaining cultural character in the larger neighborhood.

Trends, even slow ones, can gain an inertia of their own. The surrounding area has proved resilient in the face of the loss of Gove School and a lot of hospital activity (the St. Luke's Hospital had already consolidated with the Presbyterian Hospital in the area, creating a very successful Post Properties redevelopment where it once was, and some of the University Hospital area on Colorado Boulevard is also well on its way to redeveloping).

While the 1970s era of community redevelopment has been roundly criticized in retrospect for its top down, command and control remaking of reluctant neighborhoods, those who live through it rarely feel great hostility to the more organic form of gentrification we've seen in Denver. Departing property owners are paid off handsomely with improving property values. Low rent leases are not renewed piecemeal, rather than en masse. Blocks transform one house at a time. New businesses seem good when they arrive. Old businesses that leave frequently amount to blight themselves.

But, ultimately, the same question is presented by any gentrification, tactfully done or otherwise. What kind of future does this portend for those who used to live there, who stay poor, and who have to move on? Where to do they go? Is poverty a zero sum game, or can people forced out of one bad situation be pushing into a better situation, with more coping options for those who leave?

The issues come up gradually in a place like East Colfax, but they are no less real.

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