Being young and living in the city, the term “gentrification” is nothing new. As a former resident of Richmond, Virginia, I’m used to the idea that all the privileged, often white, college kids are driving up rent prices and changing the landscape of the city, making it harder for families — often African-American ones that have been in the city for decades — to get by. However, the thriving college is also changing bad neighborhoods to hip hotspots and making sure an otherwise washed-up city doesn’t go completely bankrupt.
Here in Denver, and especially in my neighborhood of the Lower Highlands, a similar thing is happening. The influx of transplants to the city and the booming nature of Denver’s current economy are replacing run-down or modest homes and local restaurants with fancy brunch places and upscale homes. While much of the original charm of the neighborhood remains, it’s impossible to walk a block in the Lower Highlands without seeing a fancy place to eat or modern and expensive houses with for sale signs out front.
As usual, this conjures up mixed emotions. As a transplant in a city that can often be hostile about the influx of new people, it’s hard not to sometimes feel unwelcome. However, I constantly remind myself that I did not move here just for legal weed, but because there were no jobs in my home state. And because I am a white person, I also sometimes feel as though my presence in a historically Hispanic neighborhood is some type of transgression. But as someone who grew up lower middle class, I’ve always looked to cities as a place where I can find cheap housing or live communally to make rent; I’m certainly not one of the people moving to LoHi to buy up one of the premium homes.
And despite the changes that the Lower Highlands is undoubtedly facing, much of its original character remains. One of the best restaurants near my house is Los Carboncitos, a Mexican restaurant with delicious and affordable entrees featuring giant burritos and tasty tacos, and offering authentic options like tripe and tongue. Every time I visit, I notice that many of the other patrons are Hispanic families or individuals speaking Spanish, while many are other young people who look as though they moved to LoHi for the great location and quiet neighborhoods. In other words, this business seems to be benefitting from gentrification, and by doing so it is still able to serve those who might have been coming in for years. Similarly, the fast-food Mexican restaurant Chubby’s is expanding its location to better serve the LoHi community, and staying open while they expand.
It is certainly true that gentrification and neighborhood growth is not all bad. After all, the alternative is a city like Detroit that experienced so much stagnation and loss of jobs that people were leaving in droves. But why does gentrification necessarily have to mean multi-million dollar homes and brunch bars so fancy that the burgers come with goat cheese and a balsamic reduction? People are complaining left and right about the rising rent in Denver, so are more expensive houses and restaurants no one can afford really the answer? It seems as though the Lower Highlands could use a few more newly built homes that are modestly priced or for rent, or that they could roll some of that building money into preserving historic buildings.
Additionally, to get to the grocery store in LoHi, you either have to venture further into the Highlands and away from downtown, or you have to cross the bridge to get to King Soopers in the Little Raven area. This isn’t a super-friendly route for those who are on foot or bikes or trying to trek home with a ton of groceries. It seems like before we build yet another brunch place, we should put a grocery store in this neighborhood so that those without cars can walk in.
To get on the light rail, you have to make the same trek. Going to Union Station or Sports Authority Field to catch the Light Rail isn’t super convenient. If you work downtown, you’ve already made half the trek by bus or bike or foot once you get to those stations, so you might as well just finish the trip that way. If you work further away, you have to go out of the way to get on a train. While bus service is great in this neighborhood, it would be helpful to have more public transportation options.
In short, this writer believes that gentrification and neighborhood change are somewhat unavoidable. It’s not always possible to keep things the same forever without a neighborhood stagnating and suffering. But it is possible to make positive changes more in line with creating an amazing neighborhood than with catering to those who can afford super-fancy new homes and eating out every day. Let’s get a grocery store, light rail station, community garden, and affordable eateries into the Highlands alongside these other innovations, and restore or build affordable housing. This way, everyone can truly benefit from the amazing neighborhood that is LoHi.