My neighborhood’s fight for integration changed America. Now white neighbors are suing a Black pastor over his social justice work.
My family moved from Oakland, California to Denver, Colorado in 2019. We moved to Park Hill because people told us it was a nice neighborhood. They were right. It is nice. Park Hill is divided into three sections, North Park Hill, Northeast Park Hill and South Park Hill. My family lives in South Park Hill. We are a short walk away from the Denver Zoo and Natural History Museum. We can also stroll to coffee shops, Denver’s oldest non-profit bookstore, and a little market with shelves full of cans of imported Italian tomatoes. The library a few streets up from our house turned 100 last year. Park Hill’s streets are lined with big trees. Its corners are dotted with church buildings built at the beginning of the last century. The homes in Park Hill are mostly old. They range from sturdy to stately. Many are brick, more than a few have turrets.
“Nice” neighborhoods often have complex histories.
When you move into a home, you move into the history of the place the home occupies too. “Nice” neighborhoods often have complex histories. Park Hill’s history is rife with the blockbusting, redlining and rank racism that blights most cities in America. In 1932, white families met at Park Hill’s library to discuss the “problem” of Black families moving into the neighborhood.
In a flyer, The East Park Hill Improvement Association called for a meeting at the library to discuss “Great Danger Ahead”. The agenda covered “fire prevention, lighting and invasion of negroes.” The flyer reads, “Do you know that there are negroes living on Glencoe, Ivanhoe, Jasmine, Kearney, 17th Avenue on Park Hill? Let us get together and protect ourselves.” Covid research taught me that airborne droplets from talking can linger in the air for up to 8 minutes. It’s been nearly ninety years since that meeting. Still, it feels possible that some physical residue of the hate speech from that night lingers on the walls of the library.
The hate didn’t go unchallenged. In 1960, an interfaith multiracial community meeting was held at Park Hill’s Montview Presbyterian Church. The meeting founded a neighborhood organization with a mandate to integrate Park Hill. Three of Park Hill’s churches, St Thomas Episcopal Church, Montview Presbyterian and Park Hill United Methodist Church, were the first churches to integrate in Denver. In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr was asked to speak at Park Hill’s Montview Presbyterian Church. The crowd of 3,000 could not fit inside, so Dr. King stood on the steps of the church to speak. The physical evidence of his words evaporated after 8 minutes. It’s been 57 years since he spoke but it feels like some residue of that liberating speech must linger in the roots of the trees that branched out over him.
By the late 60s, some Denver pews were integrated, but its neighborhood streets and schools were not. 1954’s Brown v Board of Education made de jure segregation of schools unconstitutional. But de facto segregation, aided by white flight and school boundary lines drawn to maintain mostly white schools, continued long afterward in many cities, including Denver. Majority white schools were well-resourced while schools attended by Black and Hispanic children were left without basic necessities.
Rachel Noel was the first Black woman elected to a public office in Colorado. She was also resident of Park Hill. Elected to the Denver School Board in 1965, she was aware of the inequities in Denver schools. In 1968, just 21 days after Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated, she presented the Noel Resolution to the school board. The resolution called for a plan to integrate Denver’s schools, and for equal education for each child. Despite ongoing threats to herself and her family, Noel pressed for the passage of her resolution. It passed in 1970. Weeks later, after outcry from white parents, it was rescinded.
In response to the repeal, eight Park Hill families,with Wilfred Keyes as the lead plaintiff, filed a lawsuit against the school district, Keyes v School District Number One. Wilfred Keyes was a Black man, chiropractor and Park Hill resident. He and his wife had two children, 7 and 9 years old. Shortly after the suit was filed, the Keyes home was bombed. The bomb shattered the windows and safety of Keyes Park Hill home just six years after Martin Luther King Jr drew a crowd of three thousand to Park Hill. And just twenty-two months after Dr. King was assassinated.
The suit went to the Supreme Court. Brown declared de jure segregation unconstitutional. Keyes declared de facto segregation unconstitutional. A lawsuit meant to address inequity in Denver, now applied to the nation. With the unflinching leadership of Noel and Keyes the schools were integrated. Park Hill was too. For a short time.
Park Hill United Methodist Church, one of the community leaders in the 1960s fight for civil rights, is still integrated. The streets surrounding it are not. South Park Hill is overwhelmingly white. It is also overwhelmingly affluent. Some of this is the result of gentrification, the ongoing impact of historical redlining, and its modern-day counterpart. Some of this segregation can be attributed to the neighborhood’s unwillingness to build beyond its post-war single-family composition. Single-family zoning began as a way to support segregation. Neighborhoods with single-family home zoning continue to be more segregated today. This is a little awkward for ostensibly progressive Park Hillians. According to 5280, one Park Hill resident opposed to more density in the neighborhood, “said a single-family home is a “natural evolution of life”.
Even new single-family homes are often opposed in South Park Hill. In 2016, Momoko and Christopher Wong wanted to subdivide their nearly 20,000 sq ft lot on the corner of Montview and Glencoe. The Wong’s wanted to build a new single-family home in a housing-scarce market. Their neighbor who lives behind them on Glencoe, Blair Taylor, was opposed to their plan and decided to fight it. Taylor, who ran a failed bid for city council in 2019, said a new house would keep some sunlight from reaching her house.
South Park Hill residents cite the “historic character” of the neighborhood when opposing density, rezoning and affordable housing.
Taylor also said an additional single family house on the street would also threaten “the character and integrity of this beautiful and unique boulevard”. (Interestingly, I can find no record of Taylor opposing a recent 3,300 sq ft addition to a single family home on the same beautiful and unique boulevard.) After years of fighting, the Wong’s withdrew their petition to build. When not defending the sanctity of the single-family home or their unalienable right to maximum sunlight, South Park Hill residents cite the “historic character” of the neighborhood when opposing density, rezoning and affordable housing.
While South Park Hill residents measure the inches of sunlight falling across their roofs, Denver is experiencing the greatest crisis of unsheltered homelessness in its history. Unsheltered is different than being unhoused. An unhoused person with shelter sleeps in a shelter or on their friend’s couch. Experiencing homelessness while being unsheltered means sleeping on streets, on park benches, in abandoned buildings. While all unhoused people are at risk, those without shelter are more exposed to violent crime, weather and police sweeps. Women and trans people are especially vulnerable.
In 2020, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative survey found that 4,171 Denver residents were experiencing homelessness. Denver only has 2,304 shelter beds available. A survey of people who are unsheltered in 2021 was delayed because of Covid, but the numbers are increasing so quickly that any survey answer would have been outdated within weeks. Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless told the Denver Post the increase in homelessness is attributed to “housing, COVID, job loss, etc.” Denver is not alone in this crisis. It is playing out in every city in America. 2020 is the first time in our country that more people without houses are unsheltered than sheltered.
The housing crisis, Covid-19, pandemic job loss and systemic racism all disproportionately affect Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities. According to HUD nearly “4 out of every 10 people experiencing homelessness in 2020 were Black”. Almost a quarter of our unhoused brothers and sisters are “Hispanic or Latino. Together, American Indian, Alaska Native, pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian populations account for one precent of the US population, but five percent of the homeless population and seven percent of the unsheltered population.” These numbers are staggering and, after more than a year of Covid-19, do not begin to capture the reality of 2021. The pandemic ravaged communities made vulnerable by years of systemic racism.
But in America, healing is never accessible to everyone.
Vaccines are being distributed and the economy is recovering. But in America, healing is never accessible to everyone. The New York Times reports, “while no demographic has returned to prepandimic employment levels, significant differences remain.” Hispanic women are still experiencing a nearly 24% drop in employment. Black women, nearly 20% and Black men nearly 16%. People without high school diplomas are still experiencing significant job loss, as are those with a high school diploma but no further formal education. People who work low wage jobs are still enduring job loss.
When these losses occurred in Colorado, they happened in a state already veined with historical and growing inequality. A 2019 census demonstrated that the poverty level of Black residents of Colorado is twice that of white residents. The median household of Black residents is two-thirds the median household income of white residents. No surprise then that white home ownership exists at double the rate of Black home ownership. Black people account for 18% percent of the Colorado prison population but just 5% of the general population. Many Denver residents already harmed by redlining, inequity in the schools, over-policing and a lack of affordable housing have been tipped out of stable housing into experiencing homelessness.
While (controversially) illegal encampments for unhoused people are cobbled together across Denver, many of South Park Hill’s residents are doing just fine. Low wage jobs decreased during the pandemic, but high wage jobs grew by “almost a million in 2020”. In 2017, South Park Hill had an average household income of over $140k. While some South Park Hill residents have been deeply impacted by the pandemic, generally our high wage neighborhood is doing well. Homes are being remodeled, yards are being landscaped, and houses are selling for over asking before officially hitting the market.
South Park Hill is emerging from the pandemic unmarked by the signs of loss that mark so much of the rest of the city.
Over 80 percent of homes in South Park Hill are owner-occupied. Many of those homes have some version of the “In This House We Believe” sign. In this house we believe Black Lives Matter, Science is Real, Love is Love, No Human is Illegal. But those signs are the only external evidence in South Park Hill that there are people in our community who need help. Separated from downtown by a large park, and from nearby less affluent neighborhoods by price per square foot, South Park Hill is emerging from the pandemic unmarked by the signs of loss that mark so much of the rest of the city. There are no encampments for the unhoused here.
Park Hill United Methodist Church, led by Pastor Nathan Adams, would like to change that by hosting a Safe Outdoor Space in the church’s large parking lot. A Safe Outdoor Space is a fully-staffed, temporary campsite. The spaces are a temporary solution for our unsheltered community members. It is an emergency measure supported by the City of Denver. Park Hill UMC sits on Glencoe, one of the streets targeted by Park Hill residents in 1932 because a Black family lived on it. In the past, Park Hill UMC has provided sanctuary for families facing separation. It makes sense they would also be eager to provide sanctuary for those living without shelter.
Denver’s Safe Outdoor Spaces are created and maintained by Colorado Village Collaborative, a non-profit working to “bridge the gap between the streets and stable housing.” Many residents of these spaces find work because they have a mailing address for the first time in years. There is a large tent in each Safe Outdoor Space where SOS residents meet with social workers and gain access to healthcare, mental healthcare and other benefits they’ve lived without. Some SOS residents are able to quickly transition into permanent housing. Others get on housing waitlists while getting care and rest they’ve been denied. Park Hill UMC is charging CVC $10 for the use of their parking lot for the six month project. The congregation has committed to volunteer work to help support the space while they host it.
When the Safe Outdoor Space comes to South Park Hill, it will be the first time in years that many of these unsheltered community members have slept in a quiet neighborhood. They’ll be able to walk under the trees I love so well, the ones with the memory of Dr. King’s words in their roots. The Safe Outdoor Spaces are efficient and clean. The space is gated and staffed by CVC members 24 hours a day. Resident laundry is done for them. They have access to safe restrooms and a shower truck comes three times a week so they can bathe.There is dignity, along with safety. Residents sleep in their own shelters, big ice fishing tents that keep residents warm with room to stretch.
Safe Outdoor Spaces are set up on private property in residential areas. There are rules. SOS Residents need to pass a background check and commit to a code of conduct to be given a place in the space. The number of residents in the Park Hill space will be limited to 40. Residents cannot consume alcohol or drugs on the premises. There is a curfew. The space isn’t permanent. South Park Hill’s proposed Safe Outdoor Space will only last for six months.
These rules and the collaborative nature of the spaces work. The head of a Denver neighborhood association where a CVC Safe Outdoor Space is currently hosted said while some in the community were initially hesitant, there were no issues. He said it was an experience the neighborhood would cherish. The data shows Safe Outdoor Spaces aren’t just safe for SOS residents, they are safe for the neighborhood that hosts them too.
Maybe South Park Hill’s historic character is its history of men and women willing to bring the fight for social justice into their own congregations and their own homes.
When people stop multi-family units from being built in South Park Hill, they say they are protecting the neighborhood’s historic character. What is the historic character of South Park Hill? I guess it could be large lots undivided and dominated by Denver Squares. But maybe it’s something more. Maybe South Park Hill’s historic character is its history of men and women willing to bring the fight for social justice into their own congregations and their own homes. I believe it is this historic character Reverend Nathan Adams was protecting when he and his congregation decided to take on the work of providing shelter from the summer and winter storm.
After the Safe Outdoor Space was announced, someone left a fear-mongering flyer on my doorstep. It referenced the proximity of schools to the Safe Outdoor Space. It fretted over the presence of needle receptacles. Of course in an urban environment, schools are generally close to everything. And Denver airport bathrooms also have a place to safely dispose of needles. The flyer didn’t invite me to meet at the library to discuss “great danger ahead” but it did invite me to call my local representatives to stop the space from coming to the neighborhood.
Maybe the person who left the flyer on my doorstep thought I’d agree with them. I am a mother of three children. My family lives just one block from the proposed Safe Outdoor Space. If so, they were wrong. Safe Outdoor Spaces are not perfect. They are imperfect because they should not exist. We should not need to house our community members in tents. We should have enough stable housing for everyone. Shelter should be a right. But while we wait for cities and neighborhood associations to allow more affordable housing, Safe Outdoor Spaces are a viable emergency solution for one of the human rights crises of our time. The great danger ahead is not those who are unsheltered, it’s those who would leave them that way.
The great danger ahead is not those who are unsheltered, it’s those who would leave them that way.
Opposition to the space hasn’t stopped at anonymous flyers. On the neighborhood Facebook page, some neighbors say that SOS residents should be required to undergo mandatory drug tests and vaccinations. These are requirements not set out for other South Park Hill residents, obviously. It would be illegal to require a person to take a drug test or get vaccinated before moving into a neighborhood. This rhetoric reflects a certain attitude about those who are unsheltered, the dangerous stance that those who lack roofs should also lack civil liberties.
Another persistently voiced concern is that South Park Hill is a neighborhood without resources. These neighbors say we do not live close enough to services, grocery stores or bus lines to serve SOS residents. This is silly. The city services come to the residents, so that is no issue. It is one of the great benefits of a Safe Outdoor Space. Our neighborhood is urban and incredibly walkable. I walk to get groceries, to the bus, restaurants, bookstores and coffee shops. This position pretends that a neighborhood where a home up the street from the church sold last month for $4million dollars is not a well-resourced neighborhood in many meaningful ways outside of walkability. It also reduces the needs of those experiencing homelessness to some line far below the needs of those who can afford to live permanently in South Park Hill. Won’t a SOS resident join current South Park Hill residents in feeling relief in the shade of our trees, ease in our wide streets, joy from our summer flowers?
Denver’s children are at risk because of inequitable education, a lack of affordable childcare, poverty and a dearth of affordable housing for their families. They are not at risk because a church decided to give forty people a safe place to sleep.
Others say that having new neighbors in a Safe Outdoor Space will endanger South Park Hill’s children. This is alarmist #savethechildren rhetoric dressed up as neighborly concern. Children are not at greater risk because of strangers, housed or unhoused. Children are overwhelmingly endangered by people they know, often in their own homes. And even when safe around the people they know, Denver’s children are at risk because of inequitable education, a lack of affordable childcare, poverty and a dearth of affordable housing for their families. They are not at risk because a church decided to give forty people a safe place to sleep.
Who has the right to define and then protect the historic character of a neighborhood?
Some of the people upset about the SOS have been in the community a very long time. They preface their opposition with the number of years they’ve lived in the neighborhood. This qualification raises an interesting question. Who has the right to define and then protect the historic character of a neighborhood? When I’ve met someone raised in Denver, they tell me how many generations their family lived in the city. Mostly, when someone tells me they can trace their family back to the earliest days of Denver, they are being welcoming. Their people loved this place so much, they never left! They are sure I will love it too. (I do love it.) But sometimes, they are explaining that they are real community stakeholders and newcomers are not.
Newness to a neighborhood doesn’t absolve me from its sins.
I am a newcomer. South Park Hill is the only neighborhood we’ve ever lived in Colorado. I am still learning about this community and this city. But newness to a neighborhood doesn’t absolve me from its sins. I am a white home owner on a street that was previously restricted by redlining, in a city facing a housing crisis. (A housing crisis caused by a catastrophic coalition of newcomers and neighborhood approved stakeholders. The newcomers buy and the stakeholders will not build.) My relatively recent addition to the community does not free me from the work required by its progressive past or problematic present. The rallying words spoken by Dr. King on those church steps and the lingering effects of the words spoken by racists in that library require me to speak and act. I am far from alone in feeling this way.
Many South Park Hill neighbors are speaking and acting in support of the Safe Outdoor Space. I am absolutely the least of these. Some have offered full-throated support from the beginning while many others were willing to reach out and learn more. An over the fence interaction with a dear retired neighbor the other day left me in grateful tears. She said that while she and her partner were apprehensive, that was no reason not to try something new. Many people in Park Hill are eager to help. There will be opportunities for the neighborhood to provide meals for residents of the Safe Outdoor Space. In preparation, South Park Hill neighbors are swapping recipes that will feed a crowd.
While some Park Hill residents prepared meal trains, others prepared lawsuits.
While some Park Hill residents prepared meal trains, others prepared lawsuits. On May 6th, five Park Hill residents sued to stop the Safe Outdoor Space. According to the Denver Post, the suit claims the Safe Outdoor Space “poses a danger to children” and “‘does not address the impact it will have on the neighborhood.’ It also requests an injunction to keep the site from being opened.” The suit names three organizations as defendants, Colorado Village Collaborative, the City of Denver, and Park Hill United Methodist Church. Only one individual is named as a defendant, Pastor Nathan Adams. Pastor Adams is Black. The five plaintiffs are white. Prominent white people falsely accusing a Black man of endangering children has never ended well in America.
When Wilfred Keyes tried to create more equitable schools in this community, someone threw a bomb at his house. When Pastor Nathan Adams tried to create more equitable space in this community, five people used the court system to threaten his safety. The five people who named Reverend Adams in their suit have names too. Jean-Baptiste Varnie, Justin Lovac, Kurt Monigle, Dave Rodman and Blair Taylor.
Prominent white people falsely accusing a Black man of endangering children has never ended well in America.
I know two of those names. Blair Taylor is the woman who kept a home from being built in the middle of a housing crisis because she was worried about losing some of her home’s sun exposure. Of course, tents are so necessary in the summer because the unsheltered in Denver are too exposed to the sun. A mile high summer day without clouds means blue skies and sunburns. The Safe Outdoor Space tents won’t interfere with Taylor’s home’s sun exposure for the six months they stand and shelter. But, if she let them, they might change her view.
Kurt Monigle is a Principal at Monigle, “the country’s largest independent branding agency.” Monigle serves clients like Mini, the Denver Broncos and GE. The Monigle site says their branding is “centered around human connection” and that they “humanize brands.” It’s a compelling message. In 2019, Monigle did over $30 million in gross revenue. Unfortunately, humanization is a service Kurt Monigle seems to have performed more admirably for his clients than his own neighborhood.
In 1970, with the support of Park Hill UMC’s long-standing social justice work, eight Park Hill families filed a lawsuit to protect the most vulnerable from systemic inequality. In 2021, five Park Hill families sued Park Hill UMC to stop it from doing social justice work for those made most vulnerable by systemic inequality. The case goes to court tomorrow, May 19th. As I wait alongside concerned neighbors for the resolution, we are forced to wonder how a community that once knew so much can remember so little.
Meg Conley writes about women’s work, economic justice and the home. Read her three part series on what Kate Flaim calls, “the cult of American home ownership”. Subscribe to her newsletter on home culture. Or go say hi on Instagram or Twitter.