On both sides of a better block

Over the past few months, a group of nonprofits have banded together to organize an event in Denver’s Jefferson Park neighborhood, just south of the Lower Highlands, with the goal of demonstrating what a “complete street” could offer. This past Saturday, the fruits of their labor bloomed around the intersection of 25th Avenue and Eliot Street, and for a single day, a quiet couple of blocks overshadowed by vacant storefronts saw a pedestrian revival.

The Better Block concept originated in Texas. Inspired by its success, several local groups that included residents of Jefferson Park sought to revitalize this historic neighborhood core.

The streetscape saw a greater amount of greenery with  both temporary and permanent plantings. The empty (retail?) spaces received  facelifts from design firms and the variety of other services that moved in for the day. At the  corner of 25th and Eliot, a group performed  a variety of Spanish dances. Along another  stretch of sidewalk, a resident displayed custom-made jeans for sale. Across the street, an artist spray painted a mural of Denver.

All of this offered a drastic change from the inactive street I had seen several times in the preceding month; an auspicious omen for the future of Jefferson Park?

Despite the activity, one long-time residentlounged on the curb under a tree next to a car, perhaps one of the most comfortably shaded spots in the already blazing 100 degree day. After listening to him for maybe 10 minutes about what life in the neighborhood had been like, I asked him an open-ended question, “So what do you think of all this?”

His response was slow but intelligent. He seemed to be scanning both the street and his head for the right words; for politically correct words. After a moment, the word “gentrification” escaped with a sigh.

I felt almost guilty wearing my volunteer’s t-shirt with the Better Block logo.

Two days later, roasting in the heat even before stacking and loading what seemed like a ton of bistro tables and chairs onto a flatbed truck, I struck up a conversation with another resident. A little more animated and expressive than the man I had spoke with two days earlier, I thought her comments were racial at first. The more we spoke, the more I realized they were socio-demographic in nature.

Her reactions to the event were less about ”white folk moving in” and more about the potential absurdity of trying to open businesses that can’t be supported by a neighborhood without money: “The Section 8 [housing] across the street ain’t ‘gonna support a restaurant. That dude who shoot crack in the alley behind it ain’t ‘gonna pay no $4 for a cup of coffee every day. Who’s this Better Block for?”

Yet, she appreciated what the Better Block had been about. She just felt that the broader strategies urban designers and planners try are short-sighted or narrow in their view.

Both sides have valid perspectives.

For anyone who has lived in or visited thriving pedestrian centers, there is a magic and a viability there, often even a happiness of sorts. But anyone unfamiliar with such magic might only see an attempt toward a better block as smoke and mirrors. Their skepticism is justified, though, especially when those attempts might continue to exclude those who have lived there the longest.

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