By Shannon Stage, Annie Levinsky, Kara Hahn
On Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, Denver City Council approved the designation of the La Alma Lincoln Park Historic Cultural District by unanimous vote, the first Denver district, and one of the first nationally, designated for association with the Chicano Movement. Among the many eloquent remarks that evening, Tony Garcia, executive artistic director of local nonprofit Su Teatro Cultural & Performing Arts Center, stated, “This is a story about community, culture, and social justice … and also it’s about place, who belongs here.” Councilwoman Jamie Torres, who represents the district, stated before the final vote, “Historic designation is our human attempt to ensure our roots aren’t forgotten, erased, built over, and every day in Denver, I see our city disappearing.”
This designation is a first step in recognizing a glaring blind spot and the decades-long neglect of the historic places of people of color…Integrating community development and culture in a meaningful way fosters a sense of belonging and healing and will have an impact on generations to come. — John Lucero, Ean Tafoya, Molly Urbina, Historic Denver Board Members writing in advance of the historic cultural district vote, July 29, 2021.
A Grassroots Effort Grows
A portion of La Alma Lincoln Park, which is predominantly filled with 19th century vernacular homes, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The National Register listing occurred just as the Chicano Movement gained steam in response to the damaging impacts of redlining, urban renewal, discrimination in education, and other federal and local policies on communities of color. By 2016, residents were increasingly concerned about demolition and displacement, and most significantly, the potential loss of the area’s cultural identity.
Meaningful to many was the land’s early use by Apache, Ute, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Arapahoe peoples, as the area was along migratory paths and trading trails. By the 1870s, Alexander Cameron Hunt—eventually Territorial Governor—had platted the land for development, and a nearby railyard and flour mill attracted others, mainly immigrants from Europe and Mexico who built homes and small businesses.
By the mid-20th century, the in-migration of Mexican American, Hispano, and Latinx families increased, shaping the culture of the neighborhood. During the 1960s and ‘70s, through community art, including significant murals, and numerous gatherings, protests, and activities, the public park and surrounding homes became central to Denver’s growing Chicano Movement.
Hoping to honor the history and culture, members of the local neighborhood association sought assistance from local nonprofit Historic Denver, Inc. Historic Denver provided funds for completing an inventory and context statement, technical assistance, and outreach support. Together, the group hosted community meetings and listening sessions with facilitation and interpretation services. A consultant prepared inventory forms, collected oral histories, and wrote a context report to document 150 years of history. In between meetings, neighbors offered walking tours, delivered fliers, shared research, and conducted surveys.
Ultimately, conversations pointed to a formal historic designation for the blocks closest to the public park, a central part of the neighborhood’s story. However, these conversations also revealed a desire to do something different for La Alma Lincoln Park, to attempt to use the long-time historic district tool in a new way, to embrace the multiple layers and evolving nature of the built environment by creating a historic cultural district.
The Four Key Strategies
Most significantly, four strategies emerged that made the La Alma Lincoln Park Historic Cultural District effort different than its predecessors, strategies that sought to include resident voices, embrace community feedback, incorporate equity, and expand conventional preservation thinking.
First, the period of significance established for the district spans a full century, from the 1870s to 1980. While the majority of the homes were built before 1900, focusing only on this era of construction was far too limited to capture the full story of the place, as so much of the area’s meaningful history occurred during the mid-20th-century Chicano Movement. This extended period of significance was critical to establishing and prioritizing the importance of the more recent history.
Second, due to the long period of significance, the lens used to evaluate integrity was broad, honoring that the changes and modifications that had taken place in the 20th century are as relevant as the original vernacular design of the buildings. For example, numerous brick cottages had been stuccoed in the 20th century; most buildings have some version of non-original windows and doors; porches had been added or altered and in a few cases, front porches have been enclosed to create additional living space as families grew.
Third, the district was the first district designated using a new set of designation criteria adopted by the city and county of Denver in 2019, which added cultural criteria to architecture, history, and geography. Using the additional criteria, the historic cultural district could be designated not just for its early residential development and its vernacular architecture, but also for the evolution of the built environment over time and its important role in the Chicano Movement.
Each of these decisions became part of the rationale to take on the fourth innovation strategy, customized design guidelines that reflect the reality of a neighborhood where the layers of history are visible and tangible. These guidelines accept that brick buildings have and may continue to be stuccoed, that the addition of Perma-stone on facades is part of the story, that vinyl windows are already the predominant window material (so allowing for their continued installation), and that the low-slung fences, whether wrought-iron, wood, or chain-link, are important not due to their materials, but because their low-rise character encourages neighbors to see, hear, and greet one another.
The staff of Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission was a key partner on these innovation strategies, specifically in creating the customized design guidelines. Most other Denver landmarks and districts follow a standard set of citywide guidelines. The city formed a working group and encouraged community residents to join and participate. The group met four times to develop the specific concepts for the custom-design guidelines, and city staff modified existing guidelines chapter-by-chapter to meet the community’s needs. The guidelines were hosted on the city’s website, presented to the public in virtual community meetings, and discussed and debated with the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission. The commission officially adopted the guidelines the month after City Council approved the designation.
The Challenges of Protecting Chicano/a Murals
Throughout the five-year process, the importance of the district’s Chicano murals came up repeatedly. The neighborhood is home to several murals, including a seminal work of muralist Emanuel Martinez, the father of Colorado’s Chicano Mural Movement. One of Martinez’s murals, titled La Alma and created in 1978 on the neighborhood’s recreation center building, became so synonymous with the area that the park was eventually renamed La Alma Lincoln Park.
The murals in the district were inventoried and documented in the application, and care was taken to specifically note murals as key features on the buildings on which they were painted, regardless of the contributing/non-contributing status of the building. Despite this, the district and design guidelines were not wholly successful in providing protection for the murals, as Denver’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance does not include a mechanism to regulate activities that do not require a permit, including the application of paint in any form. So, while the district creates eligibility for grants and tax credit incentives to restore the murals, there is work to be done to ensure their long-term protection and to evolve local tools to the diversity of cultural resources important to the community. An ongoing effort by the Chicano/a Murals of Colorado Project, with support from Historic Denver and other partners, will seek to address this need and stave off the erasure of murals as gentrification intensifies across Denver.
Building Trust through Partnerships
Partnerships were fundamental to the success of the La Alma Lincoln Park Historic Cultural District and will provide the foundation for additional work in Denver and the region. Together the partners, including the neighborhood association, Historic Denver., Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission and staff, and the resident leaders, took the time to listen to community voices, to build trust, and to develop a proposal that establishes that the aspects that make this community special deserve treatment that supports authenticity and affordability, preservation, and access.
A nearby Chicano theater organization, Su Teatro, and the Denver Inner City Parish, a non-denominational community organization, supported these connections and served as hosts for gatherings. The Chicano/a Murals of Colorado Project informed the discussion, and dozens of former residents offered context and insight. Without these partnerships, and the time it took to foster relationships, the effort would not have succeeded, and the opportunity to adapt existing tools would not have emerged.
In a city where demolitions are hitting record numbers and the pace of development is actively displacing long-standing communities, the historic cultural district ensures that La Alma Lincoln Park can evolve in the tradition of those that built and sustained the community for 150 years.
Shannon Stage is the manager of grants and preservation services and Annie Levinsky is the executive director of Historic Denver. Kara Hahn is a principal planner with Landmark Preservation at the City and County of Denver.