Is Gentrification Fueling Gang Crime In North Denver?


Denver has seen a dramatic surge in gang killings and violence in North Denver this year, after a lull in the many years of the Great Recession and the slow recovery from it.

Yet, now, Denver’s economy it hitting on all cylinders and North Denver.  These neighborhoods were historically black and except for Park Hill, which was a rare black middle class to mixed race middle class neighborhood (from North to South), poor to working class.  When I first moved to Denver from Grand Junction in 1999 and looked at census data from 1990 while I was investigating neighborhoods to move into in the city, about 50% of the African-American population of the State of Colorado lived within five miles of the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Colorado Boulevard.

This shifted in two ways in my first decade of living in Denver.  First, Hispanics, who had historically lived on Denver’s West side, gradually migrated east into historically black neighborhoods like Five Points and North Capital Hill (now called “Uptown”).  Second, young lower middle class white families and gay couples started snapping up inexpensive houses close to downtown and the hospital complexes in these neighborhoods despite historically racial divides in the city.  Since that decade, full fledged gentrification which has reached critical mass has taken hold.

Why should an area that is becoming more affluent also be seeing more crime?  A short but thoughtful 9News story explores this question.

Recent incidents of gang violence in northeast Denver may have many causes, but a noted anti-gang activist says urban renewal may be one of them. Rev. Leon Kelly says as more wealthy people are revitalizing neighborhoods, it is pushing gangs into smaller territories. “When you’ve got folks sitting on top of each other, gangs sitting on top of each other, it’s causing tension,” he said. . . .

The city has already seen more gang-related murders this year than it did all of last year. “We’ve had 17 murders this year. Twelve of them have been gang-related,” Denver Police Chief Robert White said in a press conference Wednesday. “That number is relatively high.” . . . White blames incidents at a rap concert in November for some of the violence seen so far this year. He says in most cases, shootings are retaliatory and other gang members are the intended target. . . . 

Rev. Leon Kelly says as more wealthy people are revitalizing neighborhoods, it is pushing gangs into smaller territories. . . . Kelly says gang members are more aggressive these days than they were 30 years ago. He says there is still more of a need for alternative programs to get them off the street. But he also says gentrification is playing a role in this. “When the gangs used to coexist over in the hood, over in the east side, Park Hill they had room to expand,” he said.

Rev. Leon Kelly’s thirty year ministry to North Denver’s gangs is a Denver institution that has frequently played a critical role in quelling outbreaks of gang violence like this one, and in helping gang members turn their lives around. He has been a rare figure who is able to bridge the gap between the city’s establishment leadership and gang member’s in the city’s poor minority communities.

Everyone is worried about what will happen this summer, when gang violence usually peaks.  Some fear we will see a summer rivaling the gang warfare fueled carnage of 1992’s “Summer of Violence”.

Of course, it is one thing to identify a cause, even if Kelly’s analysis is correct, and quite another to devise a solution.

Overall, the Denver metropolitan area desegregated more than almost any other metropolitan area in the country between 1990 and 2010 as blacks and Hispanics moved into new, affordable mixed race suburbs fueled by eased underwriting of mortgage loans to people with less strong credit scores, lower incomes, and smaller down payments in places like the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood in Denver near DIA, in Westminster, and in Aurora.  The migration has also been aided by the cash windfalls that minority homeowners in those neighborhoods received when their homes were sold to would be gentrifiers for far more than the purchased their homes for years ago when the area was considered to be an irredeemable ghetto.

But, this invisible mass migration was largely limited to very stable working class and middle class black and Hispanic families.  Minority families that are truly poor, or are unstable working class families where unemployment is a regular occurrence or other family dramas disrupt family stability, who have always rented rather than owned their homes, have largely remained in Denver’s older neighborhoods.  Now, however, they struggle with rising rents, and the windfalls of gentrification have gone to their slumlord landlords, rather than to them.  These people remain in the same neighborhoods that now lack the old pillars of their communities who have moved to the suburbs, and can have uneasy relationships with their new gentrifying neighbors for whom the feeling is mutual.

from Wash Park Prophet
via Denver News

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