'Vulnerable' Coloradans demand affordable recreation

Despite elected officials’ best intentions, sometimes change only happens when activated citizens step up.
You can tell a lot about a place from its zip code.

Consider the west Denver neighborhood of Westwood, a community that Mayor Michael Hancock once referred to as being among the most “vibrant and culturally diverse” in the city.

But here are some other things that have long defined Westwood:
  •  The average annual household income is about $30,000.
  • Its residents are more than 80 percent Latino.
  • Two out of three households are predominantly Spanish-speaking.
  • Close to half the population lacks a high school diploma.
  •  Its residents suffer from higher than average obesity rates, and many of them are children.
  •  The neighborhood has only a fraction of the city’s recommended parkland per capita.

Taken together, health indicators such as these peg Westwood residents as a “vulnerable population,” meaning these Coloradans are more likely to develop serious illnesses and less likely to access the medical services necessary to stem the tide.

Taking a shade break: Since organizing her neighbors into the neighborhood group known as Westwood Unidos, Norma Brambila, seen here, has become a familiar face in the community. Photos by Elana Jefferson

“Many of us just take for granted that we can walk out of our house and (use) a safe sidewalk to get to a grocery store that has a produce section,” says community health advocate Sarah Kurz, former Vice President of Operations and Strategy for LiveWell Colorado. “But those opportunities just don’t exist” in some parts of Colorado.

She adds that communities like Westwood, which would benefit most from affordable recreation options, simply don’t have them.

Neighbors take the lead

When LiveWell started working in Westwood nearly a decade ago, it was a neighborhood with few sidewalks, battered parks that many neighbors considered unsafe, and no recreation center.

It’s a neighborhood that on every measure needs access to physical activity that is affordable and accessible for its residents,” she says. “Yet it’s one of the few neighborhoods in the city that didn’t have a public rec center.”

Today, however, not only is Westwood slated for a $37 million recreation center, funded by voter-approved bond funds; the community also is home to several public park construction projects. According to Denver Parks and Recreation:

“Increased access to existing parks and open spaces, improved safety in parks, the creation of additional parks, open spaces and recreational facilities along with more programming, could increase recreational participation by Westwood neighborhood residents. This in turn may increase residents’ physical activity levels and contribute to reductions in obesity and other chronic diseases.”

Thanks to vocal neighbors, Denver Parks and Recreation now have several improvement projects slated for Westwood.

So what changed?

How did one of the city’s poorest and brownest neighborhoods become a lightning rod for economic development?
Its residents demanded it.

“This was something very personal,” says Norma Brambila, a 20-year resident of Westwood who has raised five children there.

This native of Jalisco, Mexico, whose comments were translated from Spanish says that Westwood was for many years a place where she never felt safe allowing her children walk or play outside. That’s why she organized neighbors into a community group called Westwood Unidos. Together they became better informed and increasingly vocal with city officials about the community’s needs.

“Westwood Unidos was the only organization that reflected the voice and ideas of the community,” Brambila says.
Through grassroots organizing, “residents became leaders (and) struggled for the major changes the community needed.”

Kurz says that is exactly why Westwood is now seeing so many of the city’s community development dollars.

“City council members for the southwest part of the city have had a rec center on their agenda for more than a decade,” she says. “The community had been asking for it but didn’t have the funding or the political know-how to get it done.”

A wellspring of artwork around West is synonymous with the community's regeneration. Photos by Elana Jefferson.

Kurz and Brambila worked together to get Westwood residents to more city council and park planning meetings, and made sure that interpreters were available as needed. They also submitted community statements to myriad city departments. “We worked to make sure that the eyes of Denver’s elected officials were on us,” Brambila says.

High country, low quality of life

Learning to negotiate with big-city government made all the difference for people in Westwood. But many of Colorado’s smaller, rural communities face distinct challenges when it comes accessing affordable public recreation spaces.

Walsenberg, for instance, is a southern Colorado city of around 3,000 residents that’s situated at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It’s beautiful country with clean air and water, and plenty of nearby biking and hiking options.

But hiking and biking get bumped down the to-do list for the two in five residents of Heurfano County — where Walsenberg is located — who live at or below the poverty line.

The Washington Underground Recreation Center, housed in one of Walsenberg's old school buildings, opened May 2016. Photo from the Rec Center.

“We are one of the least healthy counties in Colorado, and also one of the poorest counties,” says Cindy Campbell, the Herfano County director for LiveWell Colorado. “We’re also one of the highest-ranked counties (in the state) for opioid overdose.”

Until two years ago, Walsenberg also lacked a public recreation center. The five-year-momentum that culminated in the May 2016 opening of the Washington Underground Recreation Center, which is now housed in one of Walsenberg’s old school buildings, began when citizens simply started taking pictures of their neighborhoods, and looking for common themes around why so many of them were unable to access easy, affordable places to exercise. Among those themes: There was, “nothing for youth to do, and no place for them to go,” Campbell says.

So began an often arduous process of organizing a resident council, educating themselves around the fiscal issues of establishing a rec center, engaging city leaders for support, finding solutions to each and every governmental concern, and then developing a sustainability plan.

Until two years ago, Walsenberg lacked a public recreation center.

“We’re moving in the right direction, but it is a bit like trying to turn a cruise ship,” says Campbell.

What keeps her focused? The many county residents who simply show up, seemingly out of nowhere, to help out around the new recreation center. That’s how the rec center sign was repaired recently, after a gust of high-county wind knocked it down.
“People just spontaneously come in and said ‘How can I help?,’ Campbell says. “That’s been really cool.”

Elana Ashanti Jefferson is a Denver native and longtime freelance journalist.

This is part five of a collaborative editorial project between Confluence Denver and LiveWell Colorado. The six-part series examines barriers to healthy living in Colorado, and how communities are finding solutions.

Read more articles by Elana Ashanti Jefferson.

Elana Ashanti Jefferson is a Denver native and longtime cultural affairs journalist. Her work has appeared in House Beautiful, Lucky, Popular Mechanics, The Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.
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