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Making A Better Place To Live

A Brief History Of A Remarkable Neighborhood

By Bob Homiak and Cara DeGette

For the GPHN

Editor’s note: The following history of the work of the Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. is largely based upon a condensed 20-part series of reflections by Art Branscombe, which was published in 1994 and 1995. The portions detailing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic 1964 visit to Park Hill was detailed by Cara DeGette in 2014.

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to an overflow crowd outside Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church. Photo by Mel Schlieltz, Rocky Mountain News collection/Denver Public Library

The original Park Hill neighborhood was designed in 1887 by Baron Allois Gullame Engine von Winckler, who had emigrated from Prussia three years earlier. 

Fast-forward approximately 75 years, and the Park Hill Action Committee was born, with a commitment to work toward making the neighborhood an integrated community and battle prejudice and discrimination. 

This year marks 50 years of the organization’s name change, to Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. 

When the action committee first formed, Park Hill was the first neighborhood in Denver — and was a model for the nation — to resist the blockbusting that occurred when black families started moving into neighborhoods that had been previously been inhabited mostly by white families. 

Rather than go along with what is also called “white flight,” many Park Hill residents committed to integrating the neighborhood. At the time, the real estate industry had launched a systematic push to drive white families out of large sections of Park Hill and replace them with black families. In May 1960, a group of neighbors met at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church to discuss what could be done to counter this unscrupulous attack on neighborhood tranquility. 

At first, the Park Hill Action Committee consisted mainly of white residents who were members of seven churches in the area. PHAC began to take a series of actions, beginning with putting pressure on city agencies, such as police and trash collection, to keep up the same level of services as had existed before the influx of black residents. 

The group actively recruited African-Americans to join, and enjoyed significant success recruiting Army and Air Force officers, who had gone through the desegregation of armed forces housing in the late 1940s and 1950s, and wanted their families to live in a racially diverse neighborhood.

In October 1960, the monthly “Park Hill Actionews” was launched as a monthly newsletter, designed in part to counter some of the scare sale tactics and to provide a more factual representation of what was happening in the neighborhood. The newsletter grew into the Greater Park Hill News, which continues, publishing 14,000 copies monthly. 

Finally, PHAC actively extolled the benefits of living in a diverse community, sending teams of members (both black and white) to address some 60 churches and civic groups in the Denver suburbs.

MLK, Jr. in Park Hill

In 1964, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Park Hill, highlighting the neighborhood’s efforts at integration. During his three-day visit, King mesmerized and energized thousands of Coloradans who were waging the battle for racial equality. 

He delivered a Sunday sermon at Macedonia Baptist Church just west of Park Hill, and then delivered a second passionate speech at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church, at Montview and Dahlia. The crowd, in the thousands, spilled onto the street outside. Later that year, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway.

“More and more we must come to see, we must come to see, that the problem of racial injustice is a national problem and not a sectional one,” King said while he was in Park Hill. “Actually no section of our country can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood.

“And I think as the movement progresses in the South it must progress in the North and vice versa because if you have the problem anywhere you have some aspects of it everywhere. And injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Fighting school segregation

The Park Hill Action Committee was also active on the education front, actively fighting overcrowding and segregation within Denver Public Schools. 

In 1969, PHAC joined with others in filing a federal lawsuit to force DPS to desegregate a half-dozen Park Hill area schools, which plaintiffs claimed had been segregated by school board actions. 

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and is significant because it represented one of the first instances in which the Court identified segregation occurring outside the south, in northern schools. As a result of this case, DPS was ordered to desegregate all of its schools.

Neighbors in need

In 1967, the Park Hill Action Committee convinced the city to purchase the building at 2823 Fairfax St. using federal War on Poverty funds and to leave it to PHAC for a nominal rent. That building has since been the home of PHAC – which is now the Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.

Shortly after taking possession of the building, the neighborhood organization set up a food pantry to serve neighbors in need in Park Hill. That food pantry has remained a staple of GPHC’s operations. 

The birth of GPHC, Inc.

On Sept. 29, 1969, PHAC merged with the Northeast Park Hill Civic Association, which had been working on behalf of residents located north of what is now Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. After much debate over a new name of the organization, former Park Hill resident and Colorado Gov. Roy Romer suggested the name Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.

In the mid-1970s, the organization actively opposed developers seeking to expand Stapleton Airport just east of Park Hill and what was called “hotel row” on Quebec Street. The rezoning efforts would have displaced numerous residents and was defeated. GPHC also began to challenge the long-term viability of Stapleton as an airport, as the number of flights and the jet noise were ever increasing. 

In March 1981, four Park Hill residents and one Aurora resident filed suit against the city, claiming that monitored noise levels in the neighborhood exceeded those that the EPA has identified as posing a significant threat to public health. The city finally settled the case four years later, which ultimately resulted in the closure of Stapleton Airport and the construction of Denver International Airport.

The tradition continues

Today, GPHC continues many of the efforts of its predecessors, including the continued operation of the food pantry and other services. On the education front, GPHC has worked with schools to provide tutoring assistance and supplies. On the zoning front, GPHC volunteers have worked diligently over the last several years to oppose lot-splitting and the destruction of affordable housing. 

In recent years, GPHC has worked to minimize adverse impacts on the neighborhood resulting from the comprehensive revision of the Denver Zoning Code. The organization has also been at the cutting edge embracing sustainability, battling climate change by implementing practices and policies that highlight global efforts that can – and should – begin in our backyard. 

The Greater Park Hill News continues to thrive, delivering the news of the neighborhood to homes, schools and businesses throughout the neighborhood and beyond. The newspaper, which is supported by advertisers, has won several awards for editorial excellence in recent years. It is delivered via a “blockworker” system, in which volunteers deliver the newspapers every month to their neighbors around the block on which they live.

Party-time in Park Hill

Every June, GPHC, Inc. sponsors a Garden Walk – a daylong event that showcases several beautiful gardens in the neighborhood, and whose proceeds benefit the neighborhood organization. (See page 16 for a post-script to this year’s event.)

The Park Hill Home Tour and Street Fair, held every September, is the organization’s largest fundraiser. The daylong event features several homes and churches that open their doors for tours, along with a street fair with booths, food and drink, and music. 

The annual Fourth of July Parade has also become a beloved tradition and has grown into the largest Independence Day party in Denver. This year, under the leadership of founders Justin and Alison Bresler, the parade celebrates its 10th anniversary.

Ultimately, a neighborhood organization like Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. is only as powerful and effective as its membership and volunteer base. GPHC and the organization that preceded it were able to accomplish as much as they did over the years because Park Hill residents identified issues of neighborhood concern and were willing to volunteer time to address them through these organizations.

There are many opportunities today to make all of Park Hill a more vibrant and better place to live, from improving educational opportunities at all our schools, to protecting the quality of life in the entire neighborhood. That is only possible, however, if more people are willing to get involved and to volunteer some of their time and energy on behalf of the community. 

Click here to learn more about how to become a member of GPHC, Inc. and get involved in continuing to protect Park Hill and its rich legacy. 

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