Reviving the Neighborhood -- At What Expense?

11/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A recent headline in the Denver Post business section announced, "Home prices in Lower Highland go up." In this economy, and a couple years after the media wrote the obituary of the real estate boom that drove home prices to record heights and the economy to the brink, such a headline is guaranteed to command attention, if not outright disbelief.

Since I live in the so-called "Lower Highland" neighborhood, the article interested me for reasons other than financial. What fascinated me most was the current hyperbole surrounding the area (several months ago, Men's Journal hailed the neighborhood as one of the nation's 30 best). Of course, all this recent acclaim attests to the power of marketing and money to revamp reputations and glamorize history. I fell in love with the neighborhood's sense of self and its place in history, even if much of that history wasn't exactly stellar in the past 50 years, and its past reputation was definitely not something real estate agents would mention, much less tout. When I tell people familiar with the area but not its renaissance about the ad copy of current sales pitches, they ask if we're discussing the same neighborhood. They can't reconcile the Lower Highland of only a few years ago to today's trendy restaurants and renovated structures and reputation. Refer to the area as "East Highland" or its marketing monikers of "Lower Highland" and "LoHi," and they'll return a blank expression. They're more apt to simply recall the neighborhood as the barrio.

Sure Lower Highland has always had a cool and distinctive mix of large Victorian houses and modest bungalows, but the overall atmosphere was heavy with hard times. Poverty and its accessories -- drugs, muggings, robberies, stigma and hopelessness -- resided on practically every block, especially on those nearest downtown. Most of its inhabitants with any financial means escaped to the suburbs.

The exodus didn't occur overnight. Nor was the plummet of Lower Highland's fortunes a rapid or unnatural occurrence. It was simply the progression of American upward mobility and the suburban flight common to the latter half of the 20th Century. And even in its youth, Lower Highland wasn't exactly the hipster she's becoming today. No national magazine would've proclaimed the area one of the nation's coolest. With a population comprised largely of immigrants since its settlement, the community didn't entirely epitomize glamor. Latino immigrants dominated the area in the past several decades, but its greatest public identity was that of Little Italy. When Italian immigrants settled in Denver, they faced many of the obstacles and stigmas that hound their latter-day Latino counterparts. About the time Mother Cabrini -- patron saint of immigrants -- helped establish a school and the local Italian Catholic church in Lower Highland, she bemoaned the treatment of Italian immigrants (many of whom settled and worked here without papers or official permission) in words almost identical to those spoken by today's immigrant advocates.

Knowing this history and having seen the area in its darker days, I can't help but feel today's headlines and hosannas are somewhat contradictory and even ludicrous. Of course, the contradictions could be testaments to the area's diversity. I must admit, it's fascinating that such diversity and/or contradiction is glaring immediately outside my front door. A recently constructed residence across the street, with an asking price of $750,000, abuts a subsidized housing project on the west and is within a few hundred yards of another one to the east. Its amenities boast solar panels, a rooftop Jacuzzi and heath spa, but some days the first thing people notice about the pricey property is the recurring graffiti decorating its exterior. Then there's the obvious contradiction of poverty and all its burdens residing within feet of privilege and all its perks. That is one aspect of Lower Highland's current diversity that isn't typically highlighted in magazine articles or real estate ads.

Yes, there is not doubt that the area is diverse, sometimes startling so, but that's changing. Sure, the Mexican grocery stores and taquerías that Men's Journal saluted among the neighborhood's attributes are present, as are many of the Mexicans and other Latinos who established and frequent them, but for how long? Most Latinos in Lower Highland either bought years ago or are renting residences that saw their best days before the Great Depression. How long before developers buy out those properties, raze rather than remodel the worn but charming structures, and erect prefabs and the requisite lofts? How long before Lower Highland becomes the neighborhood equivalent of a tourist trap where long-time locals can't afford to live?

Actually, this trend is hardly limited to Lower Highland. From Five Points to Harlem, historical neighborhoods long associated with poor people and rich history are getting gentrified. And pricey. Despite my worries that the neighborhood will lose its distinction and diversity, others might argue that the change isn't even a bad thing. Long-time residents can sell their dilapidated dwellings at relatively hefty prices and purchase a sparkling new home in the suburbs. Anyway, they might add, wasn't that what successive generations of Lower Highland residents did throughout its history, including many of the Italian immigrants who gave the neighborhood its original nickname, Little Italy? Move up in the world and out of the 'hood.

My only response is that, in the past, they left the 'hood, the 'hood didn't leave them. That is definitely not the case today.

There is some comfort that even though the Italian presence in the neighborhood has greatly diminished in the last half century, there are a few of the old Italian restaurants still around. So, on second thought, while I'm fairly certain the Latino population in the neighborhood will decrease in the near future, at least some of the Mexican grocery stores and taquerías might survive.

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