An Endless -- and Escalating -- War at Home, Part II

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In my previous post, "An Endless -- and Escalating -- War at Home, Part I," I ended with the following afterthought on a prediction that Denver's Morrison Road might be the next up-and-coming neighborhood:

I only wonder if the people would change along with the neighborhood.

Actually, I really don't need to wonder.

Across America, politicians, chambers of commerce and civic leaders spew out speeches and press releases touting the miraculous rebirth of blighted neighborhoods. Born again and saved, these former outcasts have seen the light. The light of day. The light at the end of the tunnel. The light of reason. Pick your cliché. The hallelujah hype would have people believe that the aforementioned prophets, who not only foresaw this redemption but also made it happen and are now devoted to spreading the good news, are modern-day miracle workers. The marketing spin heralding these neighborhoods' salvation, deliverance and uplifted appeal ("Urban Living with a Highland Point of View" is my favorite) is disseminated in prose that waxes poetic. In reality, both the impetus and results are more temporal than celestial (except the skyrocketing real estate, which is priced out of this world; certainly out of reach for long-time locals). This wholesale revival isn't so much a moral as a material victory where salvation equates to economic opportunity. Which isn't a bad thing, but would be better had that opportunity arrived before the population most needing it was leaving.

Largely unmentioned and unnoticed with urban renewal and gentrification are the former residents. Most aren't left behind. They're left out. Or bought out, priced out or pushed out. A fortunate few sell out at a substantial profit. But not many experience a rebirth along with their 'hood. Think past the physical facelift -- the refurbished and renovated buildings along with the upswing in chic commerce and upscale clientele. Ironing out the wrinkles and assorted other ailments of age, poverty and neglect that mapped the faces of these neighborhoods usually requires a population shift. If there is a biblical metaphor running through this latter-day epic transformation of the nation's urban neighborhoods, it resembles Milton's Paradise Lost more than any utopian catchphrase like the meek inheriting the earth. And even that isn't precise because, as another adage goes, you can't lose what you've never had.

Speaking of biblical metaphors, forgive my reliance on them to describe these transformations (and transformers). I can't help it. My introduction to many of these neighborhoods came by a lifelong interest in gospel music, specifically black gospel music. For years, I traveled to inner-city churches and residences, hoping to understand the motivation and witness the energy that possessed those musicians to define not only a genre, but also an era. While learning about the origins of modern pop music, I discovered a culture and artistry that are among the richest America has ever produced. Also, I witnessed the poverty that either influenced musicians to bellow the blues or stubbornly hold out for hope.

It's no surprise that Denver's Five Points area attracted my interest. While its geographic dimensions are more confined than similar areas of Newark, Philadelphia and New Orleans that I visited pursing my passion, the neighborhood didn't lack history or examples. In 1998, I started contributing to Denver's black newspaper, the Urban Spectrum. I didn't do it for the pay or prestige. For over a half decade, I wrote dozens, perhaps hundreds, of features and articles for the paper because it allowed me to further experience the inner-city culture, talent and lifestyles. On the flipside, it also offered an in-depth view of the circumstances that explain, even if they don't excuse, some of the havoc attached to that environment.

These anecdotal and empirical experiences -- both among the inner-city Latino and black communities -- provoke mild irritation when I read the publicity boasting about these reformed 'hoods' renaissance, usually with a one-dimensional mention of their cultural diversity, even thought I realize it's unfair and unrealistic to blame the real estate agents for not dwelling on details. After all, they're trying to make a living, and explaining a complete, nuanced history in a sales pitch would only bore or discourage potential clients. But an uneasy feeling remains when marketing blurbs and even newspaper articles marvel at a neighborhood's resurgence as though cherry wood cabinets and granite countertops could rehab not only its homes but all its associated problems.

One thing is certain. The problems populating the inner-city neighborhoods aren't solved. They just relocate. Drugs, muggings, robberies and shootings continue their assault on inner-city youth even if those youths move elsewhere; the reality is that most of those youth are minorities. While we aspire to a post-racial age, made tangible by having elected our first black president, the disparities persist. A decade ago, I stood in front of the the former Rossonian hotel, a Five Points landmark, thinking about how the building's geometric planes resembled another Denver legend, the Brown Palace. But, as I later wrote, the triangular shape of the two structures might have been similar, but for minorities of the Rossonian's heyday, the Brown Palace was a misnomer. It was the White Palace and the Rossonian was the palace for blacks, browns and other ethnic bench-warmers. A lot has changed since that time.

Still, that day staring at the Rossonian, I was reminded of the enduring challenges in the community as drug dealers brazenly hawked their merchandise in broad daylight. Nobody seemed surprised, let alone shocked. As Five Points becomes more refined, I doubt there will be the same insouciance. Along the same lines, in revived neighborhoods whenever I see menus displayed in the windows of upscale restaurants, it brings to mind a restaurant in a depressed area of New Orleans. Instead of a menu, that establishment posted a warning: "NO LOITERING. This is not a crack house" Patrons and passerby didn't seem to think it alarming or even odd that a written delineation and declaration were necessary.

The seemingly endless and escalating war at home doesn't command the same attention and resources as our foreign conflicts. Perhaps the perpetual conflict and casualties at home have worn away our resistance. Maybe we're too exhausted and jaded by the repetitive reports of urban despair and violence. One thing is certain. We cannot revive our neighborhoods without reviving the hopes and prospects of its residents. As it is, while we are busy rehabbing inner-city neighborhoods for profit, the Department of Corrections is busy attempting to rehab many of those same neighborhoods' former residents. And, when that happens, seldom does anybody profit.