By, Bob Homiak
The following is largely based upon a remarkable 20-part series of reflections by Art Branscombe published in the GPHN from 1994-1995.
The Greater Park Hill Community, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, began its existence as the Park Hill Action Committee (PHAC) in 1956. PHAC was founded in response to the paranoia that swept Park Hill during the late 1950s, when the real estate industry – not just brokers and salesmen, but bankers, appraisers and insurance firms – began a systematic push to drive white families out of large sections of Park Hill and replace them with black families. Prior to that time, blacks trying to buy or rent homes in Park Hill would be steered to homes west of Colorado Boulevard or north of Colfax Avenue. Banks were simply not lending to black families who wanted to live in Park Hill.
This changed when a small developer purchased property near 34th and Dahlia and announced his intention to build homes and sell them to black residents, something that terrified white families in the area, who began moving away. Real estate firms actively encouraged this flight by warning that housing values would decline as the area became more populated by blacks, and suggested that whites leave while they could still get decent value for their homes. The pressure on whites to sell was often relentless. At the same time, these firms discouraged new white families from moving in, showing available homes in certain sections of Park Hill only to their black clients.
Encouraging Integrated Housing
In May 1960, a group of neighbors met at Montview Presbyterian Church to discuss what could be done to counter this attack on neighborhood tranquility. This meeting ultimately led to the formation of PHAC. At first, PHAC 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 by August 1962.
Fighting School Segregation
PHAC 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 in the northern schools. As a result of this case, DPS was ordered to desegregate all of the Denver Public Schools.
Community Service Projects
In 1967, PHAC 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 (and GPHC) ever since, and is now owned outright by GPHC.
Shortly after taking possession of the building, PHAC 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; in 2009, an average of 58 Park Hill residents and families utilized the food pantry each month. Heavy usage continued in 2010 and into 2011.
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 Boulevard. After much debate about what the new name of the organization should be, former Park Hill resident and governor Roy Romer suggested the name Greater Park Hill Community, which was overwhelmingly approved.
In the mid-1970s, GPHC 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 resultant jet noise were ever-increasing. In March 1981, with active support from GPHC, four Park Hill residents along with 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 DIA.
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. More recently, GPHC has worked to minimize adverse impacts on the neighborhood resulting from the comprehensive revision of the Denver Zoning Code.
Ultimately, however, a neighborhood organization like GPHC 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 lots of 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. Together we can make Greater Park Hill an even better place to live.