17 July 2005


Alpine ecologies are famous for their microenvironments. Valleys just a few miles apart sport their own species of wildflowers and their own, largely independent ecologies. The difference between being on the shady side of a mountain and being on its Southern exposure, or being in the face of prevailing winds from the West or sheltered from them, or the number of below freezing days that occur at one point on a mountain and another 2,000 feet higher, can create profound differences in the traits needed for life to survive there. A little ridge may be all that is necessary to isolate the ecosystem from cross pollination and allow speciation. This makes weather forecasting in the mountains hard, but creates an extraordinary degree of biodiversity.

The urban ecology of the Mile High City, like most urban areas, is also a panopoly of intensely different microenvironments that permit extraordinary human diversity. For example, my children go to the Denver Public Schools. By absolute measures of academic performance, it is single worst school district in the state. By value added or poverty adjusted measures, it is still hardly the most outstanding district in the state. So, why do I permit my children to attend this school district? Because the only thing that matters is the microenvironment. Until the 5th grade, my children will attend a neighborhood elementary school a few blocks from my house. This particular elementary school, which is one of the most desired in the district's school choice system, is a good learning environment. So, despite attending school in a district that overall, performed poorly on standardized tests, my family has found a good niche within it that serves our needs.

Schools aren't the only aspect of the urban microenvironment. The Washington Park Recreation Center, which my family uses, is heavily used by people using it for its intended purpose. In nearby Baker, about two miles away within the city, there is another recreation center, La Familia, with similar resources that abutes another park. My family uses it sometimes when our local recreation centers is closed for renovations. But, La Familia gets a lot less traffic, and is also a gathering place for groups of teens and young adults who dress and act like their looking for trouble. I won't pretend to call it gang activity. I'm not enough of an insider to really understand whose doing what why in that context. But, when you go to La Familia in the evening, you have to be more aware of your surroundings if you want to be safe. An encounter with five teenage boys with ripped t-shirts and chains hanging out of their pockets who are arguing in loud voices has more potential for trouble than an encounter with a gray haired couple in khakis and birkenstocks walking their poodles.

I don't live in a crime free neighborhood. My car was broken into last week in a failed attempt to steal the stereo. Many of my neighbors have experienced this, or thefts from porches, or even burglaries committed while they were away from the house. But, travel three miles to the Northwest within Denver, and you're in Sun Valley, the highest crime neighborhood in the city (it is home to dense high rise, low income apartments). Where I live, crime is a quality of life nuisance. In Sun Valley, it is an everlooming menace.

Addressing urban microenvironments when making policy in a way that is both fair and acknowledges the reality, isn't an easy thing to do. Denver is a highly segregated city. School test scores, precinct voting patterns, crime rates, and even measures as seemingly benign as the number of trees per block in a neighborhood all closely track the city's racial and ethnic fault lines. Four decades of fair housing laws have done little to change those fault lines.

The school desegregation story in Denver is a case in point. Denver recently ended decades of school busing to achieve racial and ethnic diversity within its schools, which has returned Denver to a neighborhood school system modified by a school choice system. The desegregation plan was not an unqualified success. It did integrate those students who remained in the school district. It also caused large numbers of middle class, mostly white, mostly non-Hispanic parents in the school district to move to the suburbs or enroll their children in private schools. The effects remain today. Despite an increasing population, Denver has fewer students in its public schools than it did before school desegregation. DPS is about two-thirds minority, and Denver as a whole is far more white.

The post-desegregation order school choice plan was intended to allow poor minority children in "failing" schools to find better options, mitigating the resegregating effects of a return to the neighborhood school system. It hasn't worked out that way. It turns out that out of 84 or so elementary schools in the district, about half a dozen receive the vast majority of children who "choice in". All but a couple of them are majority white schools whose choice students tend to be white or middle class children who are choiced out of attendance areas with schools with lower test scores and predominantly minority populations. The other couple of popular choice in schools are predominantly black schools with reasonable good test scores which are chosen primarily by middle class black parents who live in predominantly white or Hispanic neighborhoods for their children. Thus, school choice is actually a segregating, rather than a desegregating force in the Denver Public Schools. Moreover, parents in poor Hispanics familes in the so called "failing" schools in DPS, by and large, are generally fairly happy with their local schools, contrary to what outsiders would think was rational action on the part of the parents. Those parents could be misguided, but those parents also might know something that the "experts" don't.

It isn't just Denver either. While Brown v. Board of Education did produce significant desegregation in the small town and rural South, where small school districts left few alternatives, in big cities outside the South the likelihood that children will end up in highly segregated schools is at least as great, if not greater than it was before Brown. Fair housing laws have had an impact on new housing developments -- neighboring Aurora and Denver's Gateway subdivision come to mind, they have done little to upset the status quo in older neighborhoods. Instead, neighborhoods have remained segregated, although the groups that live in particular neighborhoods have shifted over time. For example, in Five Points and other neighborhoods North of Denver's central business district, which is near the invisible boundary between Denver's heavily Latino West Side, and mostly black North Denver, Latino populations are moving in, while black populations are moving out.

Latinos, blacks and whites aren't the only players in the microenvironment game in Denver. East Colfax which is the nexus between Denver and Old Town Aurora, is home to many immigrant Koreans and Ethiopians in the city, as well as street walking prostitutes. On a drive through Hilltop, or 14th Street near Sherman in Denver on the sabbath, you are likely to see many Orthodox Jews walking to synagogues. The Federal and Alameda area is home to much of the City's Southeast Asian immigrant population. Many Middle Eastern businesses congregate on Colorado Boulevard between I-25 and Yale. The central business district's Sakura Square remains the symbolic center of Denver's Japanese American community, even though not all that many Japanese Americans live there any more. "Queen Soopers" at 9th and Downing and Cheeseman Park are epicenters of gay and lesbian life in Denver (and a Metropolitan Community church, which is gay centered, is just a couple of blocks away). The far Southwest dogleg of the city called Bear Creek is the home of choice to a large number of police and fire personnel who need to live in Denver to meet residency requirements but prefer a surburban style setting -- call it Denver's copville. The Seventh Day Adventists have staked out a large area with hospitals, churches and regional headquarters for their operations South of Evans Street on Downing. Denver's Greek Community is bifocal, with Greektown, near East High School and the giant gold dome of the Orthodox Church between Alameda and Leetsdale, providing twin foci. The Parkway complex at 11th and Speer, a mix of upscale apartments, condominiums and townhomes downtown, is a stark contrast with the surrounding predominantly Latino Lincoln Park neighborhood which is home to a lot of small homes, often rented, housing working class families, and one of the city's largest housing projects, which ironically surrounds one of Denver's most upscale restaurants, the Buckhorn Exchange, at the Osage Stop on the light rail line.

And, it isn't just Denver proper either. For example, once you've lived here and read the papers on a regular basis, it becomes pretty clear that Westminster is home to several of the metro area's Asian street gangs.

Understanding cities isn't just about grand theories. Much of it is descriptive, and much of the descriptive detail involves the abundant microenvironments a city will have. In contrast, the State of Wyoming, for example, has fewer people than the City of Denver, and has an incredibly larger geographic expanse, but actually has a far more homogeneous social environment than Denver does.

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