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Earth Matters: Diversity And Sustainability

We Need To Preserve Park Hill’s Legacy

As you’ve no doubt read about in recent issues, earlier this year Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. was accepted into the Sustainable Neighborhoods Program with the City of Denver. The program focuses on areas that include ways to preserve and protect energy, air, water, land and people.

Over the past several months in these pages I have been writing a lot about what we each can do to avert the worst of climate change. I have weighed in the need to say “no” to plastic straws and Styrofoam anything, yes to composting and recycling, and other critical things we need to do to become sustainable and to protect our land and our oceans.

This month I am compelled to address another critical reality: the important role that the people in our community serve in this effort, and why keeping a diverse neighborhood serves a critical factor in our efforts toward sustainability.

Park Hill has a long and rich history when it comes to diversity. It does not come without scars, but even a scar can be beautiful if we pay attention to how we got it. During the civil rights movement more than 50 years ago, our predecessors took a stand that we need to continue to celebrate, and emulate. At the time, all across the country, in neighborhoods and communities, blockbusting and “white flight” resulted in white families “fleeing” to the suburbs, rather than sharing their neighborhoods and schools with African Americans.

Not here. In Park Hill, community and faith leaders decided to take action. Through the 1950s, 60s and 70s, our neighborhood became a national model for its commitment to diversity, working black and white, elbow-to-elbow, toward racial equality in schools, in housing, and in community life.

Purposeful integration of our neighborhood is a value that many Park Hillians continue to hold dear. But in a time of increasing gentrification, are we putting our legacy at risk? Are we setting the stage that will in fact diminish our past progress?

Our neighborhood will lose its rich and vibrant culture if we continue to allow recent economic-driven development to push out those that have lived here generation after generation. Do we want to exchange that for a more trendy, more posh Park Hill?

I don’t. And I know I’m not alone. Yet over the past couple of years I have been troubled by comments I’ve heard from a sometimes-vocal handful of people, during community meetings and on social media platforms. Some use words recklessly, perhaps without thinking. Others are shockingly racist.

I have also heard rumblings in our community meetings that development is fine as long as it gets rid of “these people” – a reference to people of all colors who hang out on public sidewalks, sometimes loitering, sometimes being loud and boisterous, sometimes drunk – but sometimes just hanging out.

All over Park Hill, in an increasingly inflated citywide housing market, we are witnessing economics and development pushing out the working poor, African Americans, and other neighbors of color.

The residential and commercial development on 28th and Fairfax Street – named by the developer “Park Hill Commons” – is just one example. The project is an effort to gentrify the block. And yes, African American owned businesses, clientele and possibly residents, are certainly being displaced.

I know you must be thinking: “What does all this have to do with sustainability? What can it possibly have to do with climate change?”

To help answer that, I offer this quote from The Guardian: “Think of climate change as a globalized form of gentrification, reducing complex environments, uprooting species and cultures, punishing the poor and rewarding the rich – or at least leaving them out of the purges.”

If our neighborhood continues on its trajectory to build bigger, newer, trendier – and much more expensive – houses, we will lose family homes that have stood for decades, hauled off to a landfill and replaced by McMansions. We will lose locally owned and operated businesses that will be replaced with more high-priced coffee and yoga studios, and chains.

We lose when we don’t fight for justice and equal access to opportunity. And guess who wins?

I don’t want us to lose our neighbors, and risk altering the fabric of the best neighborhood in Denver, for the economic prosperity of a few. I am asking us to dig our heels in again, as our forebears did five decades ago. Let’s work together to develop solutions to keep our neighborhood economically, politically, racially diverse and yes, sustainable.

Tracey MacDermott is chair of the board of Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. Active in the Registered Neighborhood Organization for many years, MacDermott was the 2012 recipient of the Dr. J. Carlton Babbs Award for Community Service. She was trained as a Climate Reality Leader in 2017.

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