Out of 78 neighborhoods in Denver, there are 278 registered organizations that currently exist as a means of representing them. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the words “committee” or “organization,” I think about the few making decisions for the many. However, I recently sat down with Travis Leiker, president of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods (CHUN), one of Denver’s largest Registered Neighborhood Organizations (RNO). I thought I would just type out what he had to say; then I decided to tell him how I felt. He was much more interested in speaking to me and addressing my concerns than “selling” me on anything to do with a bureaucratic organization. He really had me open up, and if walls could talk… well, here’s what we came up with.
In my research, I found that some RNOs are against any kind of homelessness advocacy or group housing (Denver’s Zoning Code Rules for “group living” being debated by a “committee”). Leiker, however, isn’t one of them. Leiker was a candidate for Denver City Council a few years ago and currently works for the University of Colorado. He is a gay man in the community who volunteers his time at CHUN. With his background and demeanor, he has philanthropy running through his veins. He was very interested in this hearing, but he worried we were getting off track and wanted to stick to CHUN and its present projects in the works.
I spoke to Leiker as a Colorado native, blue collar renter in Denver, and how I feel invisible when it comes to having a voice for any change in my neighborhood. I happen to live near where the East Area Central Plan will take effect where more than 1000 people gave their concerns at various neighborhood meetings regarding traffic, development and crime, among others. I also love Capitol Hill. I work in and frequent the businesses in this community, and I have a love for the art, Denver history, and creativity Cap Hill brings to the city.
Capitol Hill is in Denver driving home ownership into the millions, and the population of Capitol Hill being mostly white-collar workers with median incomes of over $70,000 a year definitely does not reflect me. How can anyone outside of the mold weigh in? Leiker had a lot to say to people who want to be heard and, more specifically, how CHUN weighs in on the neighborhood-scope of things.
“You have just as much of a voice and a say as a homeowner does. The challenge between renters and homeowners is that renters are more mobile. You may choose to live in another area. My advice to you, however, is to get active and get engaged in wherever you live, because you are just as deserving and just as important at shaping the future of our city as anyone else is.”
Leiker also added that work hours and meetings of RNOs often conflict with those who may work evenings, and CHUN is trying to open up times and activities for weekend hours by having board meetings with more open availability to create an inclusive balance.
“At every meeting, we now have between 32 to 38 people. More than we’ve ever had. We have a lot of financial discussions. This month’s meeting, we will have featured speakers. We wanted to fund interesting projects that were small and inclusive, diverse, visible, and tangible for the world and the city to see.” He shared that the board now contains about 50/50 owners to renters.
At a recent neighborhood awards ceremony, The Harm Reduction Action Center was awarded grant money to help support the supplies needed for activities surrounding neighborhood clean-ups.
Regarding the work the Harm Reduction Action Center does, Leiker said,”It is not an ‘us versus them’; it is a ‘WE.’ Whether you live on 7th Avenue and are struggling with addiction, or you are homeless struggling with addiction, the problem is not where you live, or what your identity is, or what your resources are; the challenge is, how do we help you not be addicted to a substance. I think what is important is to recognize the humanity that is present in all of us, that addiction knows no socio-economic bounds, race, etc.”
In addition to helping those facing addiction, CHUN prioritizes the queer community. “All of these organizations awarded recently, in some way, shape, or form, touch the LGBTQ+ community. Thinking about Blue Bench, for instance, sexual assault doesn’t know any gender bounds, but it is as present in a historically gay bar as it is a bar that caters to the broader community… With respect to supporting diversity, sometimes you can’t be what you can’t see. So, why not foster the arts, inclusivity, and a coming-togetherness within a community?”
Since 2017, and in this last year, CHUN has turned around and shifted culturally from a board perspective to a staff perspective. Leiker explained, “We are ready to go out and do good work, and that means getting engaged in public policy discussions, working with city leaders, and convening neighbors when appropriate if some sort of controversial issue arises.” He added that the organization’s main goal is, “Putting financial resources out where [they are] needed the most and investing in things and projects and programs that are aligned with our values that gave birth to this program.”
The organization is now the proud owners of the historic Tears-McFarlane House. “We own a 125-year-old property now; we’re a small non profit; we are essentially always one electrical issue away from a major issue.” By working with city investors to revitalize the property, Leiker said, “We’d like to turn this into a community space in the truest sense of the word but also provide us with the financial resources we need in order to continue to do good work.”
Leiker shared the old newspaper articles and archives from past events at the Tears McFarlane House and how there used to be a coffee shop on the grounds, a perfect perch for the Pride parade! Planners are hoping to bring this aspect back to the grounds.
With CHUN and this property in the heart of Capitol Hill, which has been the historic, LGBTQ population epicenter of Denver for decades, he added, “We embrace that history here. So, how do we preserve the historic value of our community, both with historic eventsand historic properties, etc., but to more deeply understand we are moving forward, and how do we do that wisely?”
Being told you matter is what is important to Leiker and to CHUN. You have a voice, he assured me, and to be heard in a much-loved neighborhood, look into becoming a member. If you love grabbing a coffee, or you work as a server, or you live in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, know that anyone can join CHUN at chundenver.org/membership.
“Meetings and other community events are open to members, external stakeholders, and the public at large. All are welcomed to attend, and we want to be sure as many voices, from diverse backgrounds and all walks of life, are heard and elevated through the invaluable work of CHUN and its influence throughout Capitol Hill and Denver.”
Be loud and be proud.
Photos Provided by :: CHUN