The president of the La Alma-Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association of more than a decade can’t afford to live in the neighborhood she oversees.
Instead, Helen Giron, 70, lives in Lakewood with her son. She was priced out of the Denver Westside neighborhood she grew up in around 2010, but her heart will always call La Alma home.
The neighborhood, west of Capitol Hill, was designated a historic cultural district by the city last year for its importance in the Chicano civil rights movement.
Giron was teargassed fighting for Chicano rights at La Alma-Lincoln Park as a young woman. She was inspired by the historic Chicano murals on the recreation center’s walls. She spent quality time with friends and family under the park’s shade trees.
“When we wanted equal rights, that’s where the fight took place,” Giron said. “That’s why it’s called La Alma — ‘the soul.’ It is where everything took place.”
Lately, though, the historic park and pillar of its community has been surrounded by city-erected barricades, closed to the public, for weeks and months at a time, due — Denver officials say — to ongoing violence in the area. It’s part of a pattern of access to public spaces being curtailed in Denver, including at Civic Center Park and Union Station, in an effort to deal with systemic issues such as homelessness and addiction.
But in La Alma-Lincoln Park, residents of the predominantly Latino neighborhood are pushing back, demanding city officials explain how cutting off access to a cultural staple is effective public safety management and begging for investment back into the gentrifying neighborhood to prevent crime and promote well-being.
Their city councilwoman, Jamie Torres, called the park closures counterproductive.
“When something like this happens, we should have swarmed the park and neighborhood with love, with resources, with programming,” she said. “Instead, it was swarmed with barricades.”
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post
Denver City Councilwoman Jamie Torres, right, speaks during a community meeting held with Denver police and Denver Parks and Recreation to discuss the reopening of La Alma-Lincoln Park and Recreation Center, which was closed for a week due to ongoing violence, on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.
Denver Parks and Recreation closed La Alma-Lincoln Park and Recreation Center for almost three weeks in December, citing gunshots fired into the rec center during operating hours. Within a couple of weeks, the park and recreation facility were closed again, this time from Jan. 14 through March 24, because of a shooting on the corner street adjacent to the rec center, said Cynthia Karvaski, a spokeswoman for Denver Parks and Recreation.
Most recently, on April 28, Denver closed the park and rec center for a week after 63-year-old Gary Arellano was fatally shot while trying to break up a fight he witnessed in the park, officials said. Police arrested 24-year-old Trahavonie Deshawd Smith for investigation of first-degree murder in connection to the shooting. Police confirmed Smith was not from the La Alma-Lincoln Park neighborhood — a piece of information that mattered to the people who lived there.
Karvaski said Denver closes parks throughout the year for multiple reasons. “Parks are public resources and require maintenance and we continue to work to restore recreational spaces for intended purposes,” she wrote in a statement to The Denver Post.
During a public meeting Wednesday evening at Denver Inner City Parish across from the park, Arellano’s family along with other members of the La Alma community circled up to hear updates on their park and the homicide.
The meeting was tense as Torres, Denver Parks and Recreation executive director Happy Haynes and Denver police officials announced the park would reopen the following day and community members vented their frustrations about it being closed in the first place.
Some asked whether this was an excuse to punish Hispanic residents. Others asked how shutting down a local place for kids to play was effective in managing crime.
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post
Homicide victim Gary Arellano’s brother, Thomas Arellano, left, and niece, April Arellano-McGwier, right, take part in a community meeting to discuss the reopening of La Alma-Lincoln Park and Recreation Center, which was closed for a week after Gary Arellano’s death, on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.
“It feels like we’re getting grounded for something we didn’t do,” said April Arellano-McGwier, Arellano’s niece, during the meeting. “My uncle would die if he knew the park was closed because of something that happened to him. That is the last thing he would want to happen.”
Arellano-McGwier described La Alma-Lincoln Park and Recreation Center as a sanctuary — one of the few left in the area.
The 44-year-old grew up nurtured by sports programs and craft projects at the rec center, where she said neighborhood kids flocked to play and keep busy. The park, she recalled, was a gathering space for the heavily Latino community — a second home where everyone knew one another and looked out for each other.
The neighborhood started changing as Arellano-McGwier grew.
Her neighbors and friends were getting priced out as people with more money moved in. Newer development, including around the 10th and Osage light rail station, brought businesses and housing catering toward more affluent people, displacing the mainstays they knew. Increasingly, there weren’t as many residents who looked like Arellano-McGwier and her family.
“The people coming here don’t consider the existing culture,” she said.
More and more, Arellano-McGwier and her neighbors had the unpleasant sensation of not recognizing the neighborhood that had raised them.
“Where is the investment back into the community for the people who were already here?” Arellano-McGwier said.
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post
La Alma-Lincoln Park in Denver is fenced off on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, several days after a fatal shooting occurred in the park.
“Swarmed with barricades”
During the public meeting, Haynes told the residents that the park had to be closed due to a slew of “really scary moments over the last few months.”
“My responsibility is to take action,” Haynes told the crowd, who talked over the parks director, venting grievances about the closure and shifting neighborhood dynamics.
The city has closed other parks to address systemic issues like homelessness and drug use in the past.
Civic Center Park was closed in September after city officials said the downtown space had become a “hotspot for violence, crime, drug sales and substance misuse.” The park recently has been almost entirely reopened to visitors, but certain areas remain closed while grass grows and to prevent illegal drug activity, city officials said.
Governors Park playground was closed in September as well “due to finding many needles in the playground area,” Karvaski said. She said the city is awaiting fencing to provide “controlled access” to the area until it can be redesigned.
Additionally, the union representing the Regional Transportation District called Denver’s historic Union Station a “lawless hellhole” in December, citing drug use and violence in the area, and RTD now restricts the once-public bus terminal to paying customers only.
“Denver Parks and Recreation has the authority to close as necessary for sanitary, health and safety measures and as needed for the preservation and management of the park and recreation system,” Karvaski wrote.
Torres, the councilwoman who represents the neighborhood, said she hopes to find solutions beyond shutting down public spaces, including ideas such as volunteer community policing programs and holding more community meetings to hear what residents want.
Haynes said the city and police are working together to come up with better ways to make the park safer. She mentioned increased police patrols throughout the park and security cameras.
Denver police, in a statement, said they would continue working with Parks and Recreation and Torres to improve safety, including through “proactive patrols.”
“The Denver Police Department understands the safety concerns in the area of La Alma Park and Rec Center and recognizes the tremendous value these spaces provide for the community,” police officials said.
“During the meeting, community members talked about how they feel watched all the time, and you don’t feel that in other communities,” said Lucha Martínez de Luna, director of the Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project and associate curator of Hispanic, Latino and Chicano history at History Colorado. “You don’t feel that at Washington Park. Why? That’s the big question.”
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post
La Alma-Lincoln Park and Recreation Center in Denver is pictured on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.
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Giron wanted to be clear that the La Alma-Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association does not represent “the gentrifiers.”
“It’s not for them,” Giron said. “It’s for us. Even when the barricades are up, our kids are kept from playing, but they (the gentrifiers) go out there and walk their dogs and everything is fine for them. This is a white and brown issue.”
Giron wants to see more youth programming at the recreation center. She wants buses picking up the neighborhood kids this summer, transporting them to a community pool that isn’t going to be closed for repairs all summer like La Alma’s will be — a reality neighbors protested at the meeting. She wants officers patrolling the area to form genuine relationships with residents so they’re not policed by strangers.
The neighborhood association will work on these goals and find strength in the fact that at least the community’s soul is back open.
“They feel like they’re losing the neighborhood,” Martínez de Luna said. “That neighborhood really is one of the last kind of somewhat intact neighborhoods that still has a population of people of color… It’s scary that it’s one of the only left. Residents are scared. Their only escape and sense of their grounding is that park. So much history is in that park and for the city to just come and keep putting these barricades, that is only sending a message to the community that, ‘We have control and we’re going to punish you with it.’ “