With its wide lawns and lush tree canopies, Park Hill is one of the greenest parts of Denver.
But this neighborhood is also a place of stark black-and-white contrasts. Touted nationally as a shining example of an integrated community fifty years ago, it was also the focus of a case fighting de facto school segregation that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, racial justice is again at the forefront of a turf war over a defunct golf course in the northeast part of Park Hill. Meanwhile, to the south, the divide is between the haves and the have-nots living in tents in the shadow of multimillion-dollar homes.
Bringing communities together over these issues will be no walk in the park.
In 1884, Baron Allois Gillaume Eugene A. von Winckler, a Prussian, arrived in Denver. He purchased 32 acres of land east of City Park, and in 1887 platted Park Hill in what was then an area of farms and dairies north of Colfax Avenue.
But the Panic of 1893 hit Winckler hard. He wasn’t much of a businessman; in fact, he was “an incredible bungler,” according to historian Phil Goodstein, who wrote the book Park Hill Promise: The Quest for an Idyllic Denver Neighborhood. In 1898, Winckler committed suicide.
Other developers then set their sights on the property, envisioning a quiet, tree-lined residential neighborhood. “They marketed it as high-end, far away from the crime, smog and problems of the big city. And also being on a hill,” says historian Thomas Noel, author of The Park Hill Neighborhood.
Montview Boulevard was envisioned as an “exclusive residential drive” that would be the “spine” of Park Hill, according to Goodstein, helping to establish the area as an automobile suburb.
As a result, when the Denver Municipal Airport opened just east of Park Hill in 1929, some workers did not need to commute all the way downtown. But thirty years later, the first jets landing at that airport shattered the quiet of what was one of Denver’s most desirable neighborhoods; ultimately, Park Hill residents sued the city over the noise.
But there were much earlier signs of discord.
A 1932 flier distributed around the area warned of “Great Danger Ahead” and asked: “Do you know that there are negroes living on Glencoe, Ivanhoe, Jasmine, Kearney, 17th Avenue Parkway on Park Hill? Let us get together and protect ourselves.”
“There were covenants against people of color moving in,” notes Noel.
In 1944, the airport just east of Park Hill was renamed Stapleton Airfield, in honor of Mayor Benjamin F. Stapleton, who’d founded the airport after being elected mayor in 1923 with the Ku Klux Klan’s support.
But after World War II, Black families began moving into Park Hill. Black members of the military who had either been stationed in the area during the war or were still working at nearby bases settled there. Other families began moving east out of Five Points, historically home to much of Denver’s Black community. “There’s always this feeling among the Blacks that moving to Park Hill is a sign of economic success,” says Goodstein.
It became easier to make the move in 1948, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racially restrictive housing covenants.
But as Black families moved into Park Hill, white families moved out. And sometimes this white flight got a push.
“There are a couple Black realtors — Dave Smith, in particular — who are opening the door to Blacks in Park Hill,” explains Goodstein. “And what Dave Smith would do is he would sell houses, usually fairly substantial houses, to middle-class Black families, and then he would send fliers out to all the new neighbors and say, ‘Let me introduce you to the neighbors,’ and include a picture of the family.”
Available housing stock increased significantly because of Smith’s fliers, which implied that “you better sell out while you can,” according to Goodstein.
Realtors preyed on the fear of diminished home prices. As Noel tells it, “The realtors would knock on your door and say, ‘Soon it will be Dark Hill here, and your property value will drop.’”
Some Denver residents bucked the trend. After renting houses around town for years, in 1960 Dolores and Jerry Kopel moved to a home that they purchased at Grape Street and East 28th Avenue.
“We didn’t have any interest in any social issues or anything at that time. We didn’t know there were any social issues,” says Dolores Kopel, now ninety. “We liked the house, we liked the neighborhood.”
Both attorneys, the Kopels had heard good things about the area from Art and Bea Branscombe, another power couple that had moved to Park Hill a few months before.
“I do remember when I told a friend where we were going to move to, and he said, ‘Are you sure you know what you are doing?’” Dolores says. “I didn’t think anything about it. I guess maybe we were really naive. And maybe that’s a good way to be.”
Helen Wolcott, now ninety, moved to Park Hill with her husband, Oliver, in 1961 and became an early advocate of racial equality in the area. There wasn’t an integrated Scout troop at the time, so she established one. She and others challenged realtors who were engaging in prejudicial selling practices. And since local taxi companies wouldn’t hire Black drivers, she and a group of others picketed the cab line at the airport and kept the companies’ phone lines busy. “We would all call in at once and say we wanted a Black driver,” she recalls. “And they said they didn’t have any, so we kept them on the line.”
Lamone Noles was ten when she moved with her family to a house north of East 26th Avenue in 1966.
“When we moved on Niagara Street, the neighborhood was primarily white folks. Overnight, they disappeared,” recalls Noles, who still lives in Park Hill. “And next door was a family that had a boy me and my brother’s age, so they got to be friends. Overnight, they disappeared. So gradually on the block, as white folks left, Black folks were brought in, primarily because they were steered there. And the realtors have a lot to do with the demographic makeup of where people lived in Park Hill.”
Concerns about white flight led members of local churches to form the Park Hill Action Committee in 1960, to support integration…and each other.
“All of those people said, ‘We’re not afraid. We’re not going to escape like some people were doing,’” Dolores remembers.
The Park Hill Action Committee soon founded Actionnews, a publication spearheaded by Art Branscombe, a writer for the Denver Post, that reported on actions residents were taking to improve the neighborhood.
Jerry Kopel, who was later elected to the Colorado Legislature, was a key figure in pushing for single-family zoning in Park Hill. In 1964, Denver City Council passed ordinances that led to about 70 percent of Greater Park Hill having an R-0 zoning classification. Dolores remembers her husband’s advocacy as a way to maintain Park Hill as a desirable neighborhood for families regardless of ethnicity.
“If they’re Black, that’s fine; if they’re white, that’s fine,” she says. “We just want to keep it a desirable neighborhood. We don’t want it to turn into rooming houses and apartment houses and an unstable neighborhood where people are moving in and out overnight.”
The Park Hill Action Committee would report those in violation of zoning ordinances, like the time neighbors got up in arms about a “hippie commune” of “unmarried boys and unmarried girls” living together in a house on East 26th Avenue, says Goodstein,
The PHAC and later iterations of the organization also fought against attempts by local businesses to get liquor licenses. They wanted to keep things neighborly…and quiet.
While Park Hill was becoming nationally celebrated as a shining example of a racially integrated neighborhood, the schools there remained primarily white through the 1960s.
Although the Denver Public Schools system was not explicitly segregationist, students in certain parts of town went to certain schools, while students in other parts of town went to schools that were much more poorly equipped.
“We sent teams of white people out to the neighborhoods of people that were white to see what the schools were like and report back and show the differences,” remembers Anna Jo Haynes, now 87. “We worked really hard to elect Rachel Noel as the first Black person on the Denver School Board.”
Noel had experienced Denver’s de facto school segregation firsthand when, in 1960, she learned that her daughter would be transferred to Barrett Elementary School, despite Park Hill School being closer to where they lived.
“Rachel soon discovered that Barrett Elementary was small, cramped, and made up entirely of African American and Hispanic students. The quality of education was much lower than her children had at Park Hill School. Barrett had outdated, secondhand textbooks and inexperienced teachers,” reads a section of Noel’s biography on the Denver Public Library website.
In 1965, Rachel Noel won a seat on the Denver School Board. In mid-1968, she introduced a resolution to end de facto segregation in Denver Public Schools.
In January 1969, the Denver School Board passed what became known as the Noel Resolution. But an election that spring brought about a new majority that opposed Noel’s integration efforts. In June 1969, the new school board repealed the Noel Resolution.
That same month, parents of Denver schoolchildren sued Denver Public Schools and the Denver School Board on the grounds that the district had “created or maintained racially or ethnically (or both racially and ethnically) segregated schools throughout the school district.”
The lawsuit focused on how the district had maintained the schools in Park Hill as white schools while segregating Black and Latino students at other schools elsewhere in the city.
The parents sought an injunction from the court against the recision of the resolutions and “an order directing that the respondent school board desegregate and afford equal educational opportunity,” according to court documents.
After years of litigating Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, in the U.S. District Court of Colorado and the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the plaintiffs finally won a major victory in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. In a 7-1 decision, with Justice William J. Brennan Jr. writing for the majority, the justices determined that the Denver School Board, having “practiced deliberate racial segregation in schools attended by over one-third of the Negro school population,” engaged in intentional segregation in “the core city schools” of Denver.
But while the schools in Park Hill were integrated by court order, the neighborhood itself remained physically divided.
Park Hill is expansive, running from Colfax north to East 48th Avenue, with a small section jutting up to 52nd Avenue and then spanning Colorado Boulevard east to Quebec Street. The older section of the neighborhood is the southern part, while the newer parts, built from the 1920s through the 1950s, are more to the north. When Black families started moving into the neighborhood in larger numbers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of them settled in the northern area. While this section of Park Hill was more than 90 percent white in 1960, twenty years later it was only 12 percent white.
The 1970 U.S. Census numbers captured this shifting reality. “There are sufficient reasons…for questioning whether or not the Park Hill area does in fact constitute a single integrated community. There are some indications that perhaps Park Hill really consists of two or more communities existing contiguously in the geographic area known as the Park Hill area,” reads a 1973 report by the Denver Urban Observatory titled “The Park Hill Area of Denver: An Integrated Community?”
Doyal O’Dell, the author of that study, concluded that there were, in fact, two distinct communities. In the north, one that was “predominantly Black, young, [and] lower and lower-middle income range.” And in the south, one that was “predominantly white, older, [and] middle and upper-middle income range.” In the middle was a third community that, “in some respects,” had “the potential for becoming…a mixed community in racial and in socio-economic terms,” O’Dell determined.
Denver officials recognized as much, and in 1972 carved Park Hill into three statistical divisions that still exist today.
Northeast Park Hill starts at East 52nd Avenue and runs down to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (3200 block) for the western third; the eastern two-thirds start at East 48th Avenue and run to MLK Boulevard, as well. This section of Park Hill is 23 percent white, 42.66 percent African-American and 26.23 percent Latino, according to 2017 federal data.
The Denver Office of Economic Development and Opportunity characterizes Northeast Park Hill as vulnerable to displacement, while it views North Park Hill and South Park Hill as not vulnerable to displacement.
One of the challenges for all of Park Hill was noise from Stapleton Airport. “Into the early ’80s, both of our kids attended Smiley Middle School, which was at 26th and Holly. East 26th Avenue was the approach street to the east-west runway at Stapleton. That was quite noisable,” remembers Lyle Hansen, who recalls that sometimes planes passed so low that teachers would have to stop their lessons to wait for the noise to end.
In 1981, Park Hill residents got so fed up with the noise that they sued the city. After some back-and-forth litigating, the new administration of Mayor Federico Peña settled the suit, promising to build a new airport — and wound up annexing land from Adams County to do so. Denver International Airport opened in 1995, far to the northeast of the city.
But by then, Park Hill had other problems.
In the late ’60s, the Park Hill Shopping Center, at Holly and East 32nd Avenue in Northeast Park Hill, was the site of race riots. By the ’80s, when it was known as the Holly, the area became a hangout for the Bloods. Efforts by the City of Denver to revitalize the Holly and nearby Dahlia Square were foiled for decades.
Today, though, the Holly is home to a Boys and Girls Club serving the children of Northeast Park Hill; senior apartments and a mental health clinic occupy the former site of Dahlia Square. The area is relatively peaceful.
But there are still stark black-and-white contrasts between blocks.
Dolores Kopel feels that the work she and others did decades ago to create an integrated Park Hill have panned out.
“Of course, it’s been successful, because it’s a very desirable neighborhood to move to today after all these years, whereas there was a time when people were fleeing Park Hill,” she says. She also points out that home prices have gone up significantly over the years. But while that would mark success for some, she also notes that many people have been priced out of the neighborhood.
These days, the divide is more economic than ethnic.
Kopel is not the only one who’s worried about that. “I am concerned that as more and more neighborhoods continue to gentrify, we get further and further from the possibility of true integration amongst all of us, wherever we live,” says Tracey MacDermott, chair of Greater Park Hill Community Incorporated, the successor to the Park Hill Action Committee. “And unless we level the economic field on this, that’s not going to happen.”
Today, Park Hill is again a battleground. The fights involve the potential development of the Park Hill Golf Course in Northeast Park Hill, as well as a safe-camping site in South Park Hill.
In 2019, Westside Investment Partners purchased the defunct, 155-acre Park Hill Golf Course for over $24 million from the Clayton Trust. That same year, a group of Denver residents formed Save Open Space Denver to prevent the property from being developed. Save Open Space Denver, which counts former state legislator Penfield Tate and former mayor Wellington Webb as members, argues that it’s important to preserve the acreage as open space; the group hopes to see the city purchase the land and turn it into a municipal park.
Westside Investment Partners wants to build a mixed-use development on the property, however, and characterizes attempts by SOS Denver to prevent development as non-Northeast Park Hill residents trying to tell Northeast Park Hill residents how they should manage their neighborhood.
“I find that problematic, because so much of what we talk about is local control of land-use issues,” says Kenneth Ho, the project lead at Westside. “The needs of a community, especially like Northeast Park Hill, can’t be known at a granular level by folks who live miles away.” According to Ho, neighbors of the course want diverse housing, economic opportunity, healthy food, basic services and amenities, and active park land.
But Tate, who lives in North Park Hill, objects to Ho’s characterization of SOS Denver. “Wellington and I each have served in elected office and every time received significant support from the community,” he says. “I represented it in the state legislature for six and a half years, and I would dare say that I feel that I have as good a feel for how Blacks in Park Hill feel in these things as anyone else.”
Last October, Westside announced that the Holleran Group, a local firm composed of Black real estate professionals, would become a partner in the Park Hill Golf Course development project.
“Their deep roots in the Denver community will be critical to ensuring that the voices of local families will be leading the planning process, and we can’t wait to get started on making their vision a reality,” Ho said when the announcement was made.
“The [Holleran Group] didn’t exist until Westside decided it needed some support,” says Tate. “So, yes, they began to hire Black people and put them on the payroll to try to make it look like they were concerned about the needs, desires and aspirations of the Black community.”
Norman Harris, who serves as the Holleran Group’s lead on the golf course development, rejects Tate’s assertions, saying that the Holleran Group was not formed specifically for that project and has other jobs in its portfolio.
“I’m really saddened by Penfield’s remarks questioning another African-American firm’s credibility. However, I can assure the public that Holleran is a true partner in this project, and what that means is we have equity ownership,” Harris says. “We are making decisions and we are taking accountability for the ultimate outcome of this project and our responsibility to ensure that the community benefits. Instead of responding to negativity, we focus on achieving our goals, which we are doing.”
This is more than a war of words. The two sides are both pushing initiatives on Denver’s November 2 ballot, and SOS Denver has also sued the city, arguing that it took an early, pro-developer position on the project before the community had weighed in.
Fourteen blocks south of the southern border of the Park Hill Golf Course, another turf war is under way. The fight here focuses on the parking lot of Park Hill United Methodist Church, between Forest and Glencoe streets on Montview, which is currently hosting a safe-camping site for people experiencing homelessness.
In May, five Park Hill residents filed suit in Denver District Court to prevent the site from being established. A judge dismissed the suit because the plaintiffs hadn’t exhausted all of their potential administrative remedies. The Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals will hear a challenge to the Park Hill site at 9 a.m. on July 27.
In the meantime, the site is up and running. The congregation of the church approved the project, viewing it as a continuation of Park Hill United Methodist’s legacy of social justice.
“It’s part of the work that we do; it’s part of putting our faith into action,” says lead pastor Nathan Adams. “Here’s what we believe, and let us show what we believe. We believe firmly in having both of those together. Yes, this was an opportunity. We have an asset — a parking lot, if you will. We have people power; we have the ability to help folks experiencing homelessness. This is something that we can do and, frankly, something that God is calling and expecting us to do.”
Dolores Kopel, who helped push the integration of Park Hill, is watching this fight from the sidelines. “So far, so good,” she observes.
“Actually, I thought it was wonderful,” says Anna Jo Haynes, her fellow social justice warrior from decades ago. “It gives these Park Hill people a chance to say we really do care about people.”