Change Comes to Westwood

Westwood has a storied history on Denver's west side, with a diverse population and vibrant culture, along with plenty of challenges. The neighborhood was long an afterthought in the city's plans, but City Councilman Paul López has been fighting to change that, with visible -- and colorful -- results.
Representing District 3 in West Denver, Denver City Councilman Paul López sits in his office on Morrison Road in Denver's Westwood neighborhood.

López, who was born and raised in West Denver, recently stepped on a shard of glass during a home-improvement project. It required seven stitches, but it's not slowing him down.

Listen to him talk about his seven years in office, and one gets the impression that very little would stop him from pursuing his lofty goals of improving the neighborhoods in his district.

"Westwood is unique in the city," López says. "It has a long working-class history and it has one of the most diverse populations in Denver. That's what sets it apart. You have this rich culture. You have the best Mexican and the best Vietnamese food in Denver -- we're not talking about Taco Bell."

But López is quick to note it's not all about green chile and bánh mì. "Westwood has always had its challenges. For far too long, it has been ignored."

When he took office in 2007, there had been minimal paving since the 1970s, Westwood had the least park acreage in Denver and the neighborhood was a textbook food desert. It's one of Denver's poorest neighborhoods (35 percent of the 15,500 residents are below the poverty line), with one of the city's highest high-school dropout rates.

López says he's been fighting to "close that equality gap." Progress has most definitely been made. The graduation rate and job creation are starting to trend up. Nearly every street in Westwood has seen fresh pavement in the last seven years, along with new bike lanes, a new grocery store and over 100 units of affordable housing.

That's not all: The area's first two new parks in 30 years are under construction, including Cuatro Vientos Park at Alameda Avenue and Osceola Street, as is the Rodolfo "Corky” Gonzales Library at Colfax Avenue and Irving Street, named for the late boxer/poet/activist.

The Colorado Health Foundation has helped bring together a coalition for an initiative dubbed Healthy Places: Westwood. The aim is to foster a more walkable and active neighborhood through a variety of recommendations.

There has also been a push for small-scale agriculture in the neighborhood spearheaded by Westwood-based Revision International, including the Ubuntu Urban Farm and home-based promotora gardens.

"The page has been slowly turning," says López. "I ran for office so Federal Boulevard would be treated the same as Speer, and Barnum Park would be treated the same as Washington Park. I want the people here to be at the table and not on the menu."

From tagging to artBuCu West commissions local artists to create public art on Morrison Road.

López calls graffiti "a symbol" of the neighborhood, but one that is on the wane. 

"At one time, every wall in Westwood was tagged," he says. "We went after that. We have to instill a sense of pride and a sense of ownership. With a little bit of elbow grease, we can turn it around."

Through a campaign to enforce anti-graffiti laws, remove tags within 24 hours (or else the property owner faces a citation) and prevent graffiti, the tagging has decreased.

In 2007, the BuCu (Business and Culture) West Development Association organized a public art initiative that has aimed to replace the graffiti with colorful artwork. On Morrison Road, walls, electrical boxes and trash cans sport all kinds of colorful artworks.

And the artists get paid for their labors.

"It's highly successful," says López. "I'm a huge fan of public art. It creates a sense of place and a sense of character. It's very rare that a mural has been desecrated."

BuCu West Community Development Coordinator AnaCláudia Magalhães says the initiative has its roots in 2007, but became more formalized with the establishment of the District 3 Arts Community (D3 Arts) last year. D3 Arts acts as a liaison between artists and businesses, resulting in numerous murals on privately owned walls.

"We commission all of the artwork on Morrison Road," says Magalhães. "We have trash cans that been painted. We have electric boxes and bollards that have been painted."

There are 13 participating artists, a number Magalhães hopes to see rise in the future. "It took a long time to establish those relationships," she says. "It's very gratifying to see the community take ownership of those works."

While artists are typically paid for the commission (or businesses donate the paint), many of them donate their time to maintain the murals and other art. "That time commitment is precious," says Magalhães.

Magalhães is aiming to get the area an official designation as a Colorado Creative District from the state.

Third-generation Westwood resident Santiago Jaramillo is one of the participating artists, specializing in contemporary Aztec and Chicano paintings.

The program has "given us hope for change around here," he says. "There are a lot of things on Morrison Road that aren't too cool -- like prostitution. The art sets a different tone."

Jaramillo opened Black Vulture Tattoo and Art Gallery on Morrison Road in 2013 and sold the business earlier this year. He now has plans to open a bigger gallery on the street by the end of 2014.

"We're trying to find a spot," he says. "We have a few locations in mind. It could open pretty quick -- the more industrial and old it looks, the better."

Jaramillo envisions Morrison Road evolving into a more "homegrown” Art District on Santa Fe -- not unlike the city's standout arts drag was a decade ago.

A linear mercadoSantiago Jaramillo's public art on Morrison Road.

López also has a dream for the 1.4-mile street that runs from Knox Court to Sheridan Boulevard, the Lakewood-Denver border: He envisions a "linear mercado."

"We're working to create a strong cultural district," says López. "Morrison Road has had a reputation for blight and a place to get your car fixed. Most people drive through it. We want them to stop. We want to keep Westwood dollars here."

All of the ingredients are there. The street is one of the few diagonal roadways in the city, and the pervasive public art is indeed a distinguishing feature.

"Imagine one day you're driving east on Morrison Road and you see arches: 'Welcome to Denver.’ There are ice-cream and taco vendors, and colorful buildings and families listening to mariachi bands. That is a vision I've been working on since I came to this office."

Making the vision reality will require "a lot of planning, strategic thinking and pushing," he adds. "That requires the city to become more agile and look at Westwood as a cultural district. We have to be creative. We also have to be bold."

But López is not necessarily waiting for the city to act. "We don't have to wait for the city to give us permission or make resources available," he says. "We're going to do it anyway."

He's pushing to update the city's comprehensive neighborhood plans for both Westwood and Barnum, both of which were written about 30 years ago.

"The neighborhood has changed," he says. "We need a neighborhood plan that is comprehensive and and doesn't collect dust on a shelf."

López sounds like he's in this fight for the long haul. Giving up, he says, is not an option.

"I'm proud to be part of change in the neighborhood I was raised in. It's beyond advocacy. It's fighting for the neighborhood. That invites people to participate, people to be part of something big."

"We want to build a neighborhood our kids can be proud of calling home. We want to build a neighborhood that is gleaming with self-respect."

Adds López: "I like to say it's a strong foundation for a great future. We're not the roofers of the project. We're pouring concrete."
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Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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