"The Harlem of the West": A Page Turns on Welton Street

As plans to revitalize the Five Points neighborhood are revisited thanks to $475,000 in grant money, local stakeholders are striving to balance heritage with redevelopment in Colorado's only historic cultural district.
Amidst an influx of city funds from Welton Street Challenge, the real challenge unfolds.

The legendary, jazz-dappled street hasn't bounced back with the same energy as the similarly regaled roadways in other parts of central Denver. Historic context is especially important in this case.

So if you're willing to sit down and listen, Charleszine Terry Nelson, Special Collection and Community Resource Manager for the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, will weave you a tale of a time when Welton Street was the hippest strip between St. Louis and San Francisco. 

We look back -- after all, as Nelson says, "You have to build on the past to go forward to the future!" -- for insight into Five Points, the nationally recognized place that roughly 18,000 Denver residents call home.

Nelson's story begins in 1879. A group of African Americans called the Exodusters had fled the Deep South, first to Nicodemus, Kansas, then further west. Picture a hot wind blowing so fiercely across the prairie that, by the time the Exodusters reached Denver, it seemed as if all the dust from Kansas had followed them, drifting past covered wagons hauling black fur traders and their bonnet-covered children, choking cowboys on horseback, stopping at the foot of the Rockies. 

At the time, Denver was a small town, equally dusty and ornery. Settlers pushed west because the Homestead Act, signed into law in 1863, offered land to anybody who could farm it for five years. For emancipated African Americans, this meant real freedom.

In Denver, black newcomers settled in various pockets in the city. By 1881, the name Five Points was used to describe the unique intersection of Welton Street, 27th Street, Washington Street and East 26th Avenue. In 1890, Denver had 106,713 residents; 3,254 were African Americans. 

Today's Welton Street Corridor, with its shuttered windows and boarded-up businesses, started as a cluster of small Victorian homes. Commercial buildings sprung up in the 1890s, a time when Curtis Park, a community within Five Points, was considered Denver's elegant streetcar suburb. That same decade other suburbs were built, and the wealthy dispersed to more prominent neighborhoods like Capitol Hill. By the early 1900s, restrictive covenants and Jim Crow laws had confined the majority of the city's African Americans to Five Points. 

"African Americans in the '20s and '30s, they couldn't move out to suburbs because they were redlined by banks," says Tracy Winchester, Director of the nonprofit  Five Points Business District.

In 1920, 90 percent of Denver's African American population was concentrated in eastern Five Points and western Whittier. The circumstance gave way to a unique and vibrant community where "a regular income worker could live next door to a doctor," as Nelson puts it. With a population that was "all mixed up" the place "truly was a village," she says. 

Welton Street, from 22nd to 29th streets, functioned as the main street for Denver's black citizens through the 1970s, boasting healthcare, loan and real estate services, restaurants and clubs, grocery stores, drugstores, liquor stores, three movie theaters, shoe and clothing shops and a funeral home -- essentially everything a person might need scrunched into 2.3 square miles. Some even considered Five Points its own city, and recall mail addressed to "Five Points, Colorado."

Welton Street's jazz-era heyday Welton was the main street for Denver's black citizens through the 1970s.

"The story that was told to me was that black musicians couldn't stay in places downtown, and the one place they could stay was along the Welton Street Corridor," says Ryan Cobbins, the Five Points resident who owns the bustling Coffee at the Point. Cobbins sits on the board of directors for the Five Points Business District, heads its strategic planning committee and coaches boys basketball at Mullen High School.  

"You know musicians," says Nelson. "Once they get wound up, they want to keep it going, so they came back to Five Points to jam."

Picture Louis Armstrong scatting as he sweats in the smoke-filled lounge tucked away on the first floor of Welton Street's landmark Rossonian Hotel (a.k.a. "The Ross"), the center of it all, sitting exactly where each of Five Points' streets converge. Businesswoman Charlene Jordan recalls, "Folks dressed to the nines after church on Sunday, when they frequented the Rossonian."

Norman Harris's 95-year-old grandfather of the same name, who still owns a liquor store and apartment complex in the neighborhood, remembers Billie Holiday and Joe Louis staying there, and Sonny Lister hanging at the adjacent barber shop; Duke Ellington spent an entire summer at the Ross one year. 

There was also Ben Hooper's Ex-Servicemen's Club, started after World War I, where black and white musicians would gather well past the witching hour to exchange ideas. (A few years later, during the Great Depression, Hooper himself gave lamb, rabbit and pig's foot stew to the poor.) It's no wonder the neighborhood's heritage -- complex and lively as Dizzy Gillespie's trumpeting -- was recognized in 2002 through designation as the only historic cultural district in Colorado. The Rossonian, explains Civil Technology, Inc. Director of Project Development Martin Willie, was a major factor in this unique decree. 

The Ross anchors two triangular corners at 2642 Welton St. and has been called "the most distinctive building of the Welton Street business district." Built in 1912 and purchased by H.W. Ross, a Pullman porter, from the white Baxter family and remodeled, it was "the most elegant of venues," according to the application for Denver Landmark District. 
Writer Wayne Trujillo says the white elite wanted in, and the Ross happily accommodated anybody with "big money and attitude." On the first floor adjacent to a five-star restaurant, the lounge room was the space where top-notch talent performed for a mostly white audience, with only a few prominent blacks gaining access. In addition to jazz, there was prolific gambling, late-night pool games and liquor aplenty. It was, by all accounts, every bit as glorious and mysterious as it seems today.  

The day the music died

The last major building project on Welton Street was the expansion of Ben Hooper's hotel in 1945, followed by the construction of the Casino Ballroom, now Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom. "The Five Points area was busting at the seams during the '40s and early '50s," according to Trujillo. By 1950 the enclave's population reached 25,000. 
Nelson grew up in the '50s and '60s, just up the street from the Blair-Caldwell library where she currently works. She fondly recalls the neighborhoods "fabulous Easter parade, summer bible school for the kids." Co-ed basketball teams played at the public schools in the evenings. There was swimming at Curtis Park. 

As civil rights bills rolled out near the end of Nelson's childhood and housing restrictions lifted, many Africans Americans flocked to the suburbs as fast as their white counterparts had. During this period, "Five Points lost a lot of its discretionary funds from people with higher incomes," explains Nelson. The Ross officially closed its doors in the late '70s. But even as some fled, the early '80s were still a bright time on Welton Street, a time when those like Harris recall playing ball out front before walking to a "plethora of businesses." 

"But," she continues, "when the economy goes, everything goes" -- the "real downfall" began in the late 1980s. As Harris puts it, "Ask five people why Five Points declined, and you'll get five different answers." 

By Trujillo's account, "criminal elements" were to blame. "My parents' generation was really hit hard by the drug epidemic of cocaine and crack," says Harris. Cobbins adds that Five Points, in the '90s, was, "riddled with gangs and had some violence which portions of the media fed on." By 1990, the neighborhood's population had declined to less than 6,000.

Later in the '90s, the city center came alive with sports stadiums, theater, art and transit, underpinning a residential boom. But as LoDo bounced back, Welton Street has remained more or less the same.

Welton Street todayDevelopers are striving to balance heritage with redevelopment on Welton Street.

"Organically, Five Points reached the point where it needs to be revitalized," says Willie. While property owners along Welton Street are largely African Americans, the residential demographic has shifted to a population that's roughly 50 percent white, 25 percent African-American, and 25 percent Hispanic. "The demographic's not changing, it has changed," says Winchester.

There's Cervantes' across from the RTD stop, where jam bands hold court. A young woman in a Lululemon skort runs by with her leashed goldendoodle, hopping over the spot where somebody got sick last night. Two blocks southeast in Cousins Plaza, a DJ spins Common at the Mo' Betta Green MarketPlace, the neighborhood's modest response to its food desert label; kids play on sparkling new equipment and a man cooks meat on a small Weber grill on the sidewalk.

A block north, right at the Point, is the Ross. The hotel is not dilapidated, far from it. Aside from a few windows covered with trash bags, a very small graffiti tag, and a portion of a purple gutter coming loose, the Art Deco exterior boasting Italian brick is well kept, thanks to a renovation project in the 1970s and owner Carl Bourgeois' diligence. 

Light-rail trains pass by every few minutes. Across the street there's Coffee at the Point -- now serving craft beer -- looking the part of a trendy Denver coffee shop.
In 2010, the Welton Street area received approximately $287,000 from the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative, created by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Transportation. "It was largely a planning exercise," according to grant administrator Stephanie Troller, economic development specialist for the Department of Local Affairs. City planners did "a comprehensive study of what kind of development would work in Five Points and why," holding a series of public engagement meetings for the community at large, as well as another series designed specifically for property owners. 

Developers talked about restoring the Rossonian and various Welton Street storefronts. The details of why urban development plans fall apart are as mundane as the details of why marriages fail. (It wasn't the right time and The stars weren't aligned, et cetera.) Suffice it to say, the Ross was not renovated in 2010.  

The Welton Street Challenge

How about the new push for revitalization on Welton? "These plans are completely new," says Winchester. "The thing that's different this time, it is not just the Rossonian. You can't be a one-horse wagon." 

Winchester harps on the importance of building residential projects first. "Retail is not going to survive unless you have foot traffic," she says.

"The Five Points neighborhood has doubled in number of households over the past few years," says Paul Washington, Executive Director of the Denver Office of Economic Development (OED). "A lot of times with urban redevelopment, the story is much more about the residents that remain versus those who are displaced, and a lot of the increase in households is due to the development of vacant parcels and increased density."

As to whether there's vacant land in the area, that really depends on who you ask. Winchester sees ample space for adding contemporary housing, but Nelson says the land is "not as vacant as they think it is." Cobbins agrees, noting, "In terms of bare land, there isn't a whole lot of that."

The Welton Street Challenge, led by the OED, "came out of various conversations with the property owners in and along Welton," says Washington, adding, "What we thought would be most effective would be to take away some of the development burdens from property owners."

It follows that grants awarded to five recipients will fund planning for the restoration of several businesses and construction of some 170 new residential units along the Welton Street Corridor. The money is intended to reduce some financial risk by covering costs related to hiring architects, engineers and other consultants. 

The Rossonian received $150,000 for a 192,000-square-foot project that includes renovation of the historic hotel and development of the adjacent lot. Three $75,000 grants went to The Arcade and Rosenberg's Bagels, nuROOT Innovative Office Space and St. Bernard Properties.

"The differing amounts of money were based on the amount of resources they needed to get the project to completion; there was no rank order," says Washington

Preserving character in the historic neighborhood is at the forefront of the conversation. "One of the key criteria to the Challenge and our overall development policy was to make sure that whatever was developed or constructed or rehabbed really pays attention to the aesthetic value and heritage of the area," says Washington. 

According to Harris, Charles Cousins, an ambitious man who worked on the Union Pacific and moved to Denver from Kansas around 1910, owned roughly 40 to 50 percent of the storefronts in Five Points, and now his granddaughter, Dr. Renee Cousins King, has inherited ten of those parcels. 

The Arcade, acquired by Cousins in 1928 and renovated into an indoor mini-mall, received grant money for Rosenberg's Bagels, which opened in mid-July. In refurbishing that space, King has preserved as much history as possible; the store contains some of the original tile her grandfather laid in 1930. 

Three years ago, King renovated the fully occupied Alta Cousins Terrace, an eight-unit residential complex Cousins built and named for his wife. "Being a property owner and developer was never my calling," says King, a physician. "When my parents got sick, especially my dad, it was clear to me I needed to do renovations and repairs and try to attract tenants who would be good for the area." Her tenants range from Wells Fargo Bank to a small community church. 

Civil Technology, Inc., a company that's been in Five Points for more than 25 years, will lead development of the Rossonian. Willie says two development plans are currently being vetted. The first concept is primarily retail on the main level, with two levels of below-grade parking, a commercial office space and residential housing above. The second would incorporate a hospitality component, bringing a boutique hotel back to the area.

Nelson, for one, hopes for a nod to the hotel's halcyon jazz days. "Oh, I hope they do a five-star restaurant on the first floor with a jazz club, that's my wish," she says.

Civil Technology, says Willie, is in the pre-construction phase, and giving consideration to neighborhood input and economic analyses, and plans will be made public once finalized. Regardless of which plan is approved, the façade of the original hotel will be preserved given the building's standing on the national register. 

Most residents, though, seem at peace with the transition, if not gleefully behind it. "There's just no way of not having it," says Nelson, "but we hope the future has some quality rather than quantity." 

"Gentrification means different things to different people," says Cobbins. For some, it's a financial nightmare.

Still, for Cobbins, gentrification means more people with money coming into his shop to buy coffee, which enables him to pay rent and his 16 employees.

"For some people, it is kind of an uncomfortable change," admits Harris, whose grandfather's apartment complex serves low-income tenants with housing vouchers.

Harris says his 95-year-old grandfather hopes his legacy will be honored as Welton Street enters a new era. "His dream," says the younger Harris, "is to continue to have his name on his building."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
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Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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