Gentrification is Coming to Colorado

An open letter to my hometown and state.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a brief time of my life when we lived in Mission Viejo. It was a weird, in-between time for me; we only stayed a couple years. Mission Viejo is a pretty normal area, but we lived in a part with some cheaper condos. Our front window had a hole in it and we’re pretty sure, in hindsight, that it was from a bullet. It was, I will say, one of the most diverse neighborhoods I’d ever lived in. I learned recently that in 2009 the Mission Viejo HOA had to sue the city of Aurora to keep their library. The battle lasted until 2011, when the city decided to settle. The library is still open now, because the people fought for it.

I was accepted to MIT in 2014, the same year that Montbello High School closed, which I did not know about until years later. Less than 60% of students graduated, and the students that did go to college had to take remedial classes. The school was shut down and replaced by several smaller schools, with names like Collegiate Prep Academy. In 2018 people still seem to have complaints about these schools, though few want to go back to one big high school.

The winter of 2016 is probably the start of when I would come home from college and wonder: what is happening to Colorado? Was it just that it was growing normally, and I was away? A new health center opened near my church by Martin Luther King Boulevard. It looked stark, shiny and different from the settled, lived-in one story homes around it. The next year I came back, some new apartments had gone up too. The priest of the our church had to leave, and was replaced by another. Slowly, the people I grew up with showed up to mass only sporadically. It turned out that, while I was at school, a lot of big, unpopular changes were being made to the culture of the parish. The last straw was when the new priest wanted to change our parish’s description, deleting the phrase: “…we are a predominantly African-American community….” Complete outrage. One of our former parishioners was the first African-American deacon in the Denver Archdiocese.

What is happening to Colorado? Some things were exciting. I heard from my mother that Longmont recently got fiber-optic internet. My friend from high school moved there and confirmed. I was surprised when I visited her, and especially when we met up in Boulder. It was so different from what I remember. Street performers were like ghosts, so contrary to the, again, stark, shiny, new buildings around us. But the unique Boulder City spirit that I knew had not died. I watched a beat-up truck drive by with a large, homemade sticker on it. “WELCOME TO BOULDER, DO NOT CALIFORNICATE”. I laughed.

I was surprised every time I came home, and every time my brother talked about places he went. We now had a Kung Fu Tea, a Raising Cane’s, or something else I’d never heard of before going to Boston. I heard about big, big plans for my hometown. Amazon HQ. A new Google building. I didn’t hear about Montbello High closing though, not until, on a whim, I’d looked up the school today. My brother told me about an ad he saw on the light rail, a strange promotion for the city of Aurora. It was subtitled something like “Suprisingly Pleasant”, and showed two white people walking and smiling in a park. Why is it surprising, that Aurora is pleasant. The city’s website proudly proclaims, “worth discovering”.

What is happening to Colorado? By 2018, people in my community started using the g-word. What is gentrification, I thought. Did I really know what that meant, beyond a buzz-word? How worried should I be? Why was it bad? Wasn’t development good?

An article from the Atlantic’s “City Lab” includes a quote from Spike Lee, about New York: “Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?”

The problem with gentrification is not that development happens. The problem is who the development is for, and who it is not for. Displacement in gentrifying areas is not necessarily inevitable. Sometimes, the public and private investment of resources causes residents to actually stay, by making an area more desirable, especially for middle class people.

The “scary” gentrification, the kind that pushes people out at high rates, is reserved for “superstar cities” — — Boston, Seattle, New York. They face dramatic displacement issues.

This year, I closely followed the Colorado primaries. Candidates talked about how much Colorado has grown economically, and how education is a big priority. It’s clear, between these candidates, the shiny buildings, the talks of Google and Amazon, that Colorado aims to nurture something like those cities. We thirst for that status, for commerce centers, for hubs of knowledge.

There *is* something worse than gentrification, and that is just continuous, concentrated poverty. To quote directly from this Atlantic article: “A Harvard study of Chicago found that the gentrification process continues for neighborhoods with over 35 percent of white residents, and either slows or stops if the neighborhood is 40 percent black. The reality is that the displaced are getting pushed out of working-class neighborhoods that are “good enough” to attract people and investment, while the poorest and most vulnerable neighborhoods remain mired in persistent poverty and concentrated disadvantage.”

Does Colorado, or Colorado’s cities, want to be like Boston and New York and Chicago and Seattle? From politicians, to jobless residents, to small business owners, I still hear “yes”. Development is still good. We are growing, without too many pains. But between the grumblings of fellow parishioners, new graduates, neighbors, friends, I also hear “no”. Yet I am hopeful, and I hope I will not be disappointed.

My friend, a political scientist, is proud that Colorado has both Boulder, intensely liberal, and Colorado Springs, proudly conservative. We are “purple” and still manage to live with each other, to be decent to one another in a time when that seems like a miracle. We have diverse, integrated communities, like Park Hill, where my godparents and my high school art teacher both live. We are unique; other states ask us for advice on marijuana legalization policy. In middle school I visited the capitol, and watched a bipartisan committee of state senators unanimously pass a bill to expand a road for the sake of ski season. I have respect for many of our politicians, even those I fundamentally disagree with, because I know if I round up enough people, they will listen. And though that should be universal, in 2018, I do not take this for granted.

What is happening to Colorado? I hope that while growth might mean development, it will not mean displacement. I hope careful urban planning will take place, to make sure investment still reaches places that are 40% minorities. I hope the Denver archdiocese will listen to our parish. I hope Denver’s Northeast will find good education solutions. I’m not sure why I wrote this exactly — as a prayer maybe, or a letter, to my hometown and state. It takes more than just politicians to think about these things; it takes communities and businesses and ultimately, people.

There is no reason that we have to go the same direction that great cities before us have gone. I hope we will be as resourceful and inventive as usual, and make space for everyone who needs it.

MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.

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