Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.
A Brief History
By Bob Homiak and Cara DeGette
The following history is largely based upon a condensed 20-part series of reflections by Art Branscombe published in the GPHN from 1994-1995, and a 2014 news story by Cara DeGette detailing Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic 1964 visit to Park Hill. Both stories can be read in full at greaterparkhill.org. The Denver Public Library also maintains a page about the history of the Park Hill Neighborhood.
The Early Years
Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. began its existence as the Park Hill Action Committee (PHAC) in 1956. In that era, 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 worked to integrate the neighborhood. At the time, the real estate industry launched a systematic push to drive white families out of large sections of Park Hill and replace them with black families.
Encouraging Integrated Housing
In May 1960, a group of neighbors met at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church to discuss what could be done to counter this attack on neighborhood tranquility. This meeting ultimately led to the formation of the Park Hill Action Committee. At first, the group consisted only of white residents who were members of seven churches in the area. PHAC then 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. It also actively recruited African-Americans to join the organization, 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.
PHAC also began to publish the monthly “Park Hill Actionews” in an effort to counter the real estate industry tactics. 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.
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.
Community Service Projects
In 1967, the Park Hill Action Committee convinced the city to purchase the building at 2823 Fairfax Street using federal War on Poverty funds and to leave it to PHAC for a nominal rent. That building has 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 about setting up a food pantry to serve the needy in Park Hill. That food pantry has remained a staple of GPHC’s operations.
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 finally 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.
September 29, 1969
The Birth of GPHC
On September 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 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. Some of these efforts include the continued operation of the food pantry. 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 Greater Park Hill News continues to thrive, delivering the news of the neighborhood to 14,000 homes, schools and business. The newspaper is delivered via a “blockworker” system, utilizing volunteers to deliver the newspapers every month to their neighbors around the block on which they live.
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. 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, with thousands of participants marching down 23rd Avenue through Park Hill.
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 organizations 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. So please, become members of GPHC and get involved with the organization. Become a blockworker and distribute the newspaper. Donate food and needed supplies to help keep the food pantry stocked.
Together we can make Greater Park Hill an even better place to live.
To learn more about the history of the Park Hill Neighborhood, visit this resource from Denver Public Library.
Gain some insight from residents by viewing this video which was produced for the Greater Park “Over the Hill” 50th Anniversary Celebration on June 1, 2019 utilizing footage from the I Am Denver storytelling lab.