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How a Denver Coffee Shop Exploded the Gentrification Debate

The “gentrification” phenomenon unfolding in many American cities shows no signs of abating, as “gentrifiers” move into deteriorated urban neighborhoods, renovate homes, start new businesses, and pave the way for other people of higher incomes to follow. The result is usually the transformation of  those neighborhoods. Of course such transformations often entail significant changes in the socioeconomic mix of the area and often in its ethnic and racial composition as well. That can generate controversy and civic anger.

That’s what happened late last year in Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood, where a poorly worded sign set off  civic agitations and attracted unwanted national attention. Around the Thanksgiving holiday, “ink! Coffee,” a Denver-based coffee chain, put up a sign outside its shop that contained a bit of a boast. It read: “Happily Gentrifying the Neighborhood Since 2014.”

Bad move. The sign didn’t go over so well with some residents, many of whom congregated outside the little coffee shop in an angry mood. Hundreds showed up during a subsequent weekend to protest against the gentrification of their neighborhood, which they said had pushed out longtime minority residents. The shop building was sprayed with graffiti; at least one window was broken; the offending sign was carted off. The protesters demanded that the shop be shut down. Some wanted it replaced with a community center dedicated to helping residents with housing and other issues stemming from rising living costs in their neighborhood.

The shop was forced to close for more than a week. After it reopened I stopped by for a weekend visit. The broken glass on its front window had not been replaced. Although there were no protesters, the store was shuttered that day. A sign on its front door said it closes on weekends during winter, which seemed odd since weekends should be a busy time for a coffee shop. Indeed, the competing vendor across the street was open and packed with customers. It seemed that ink! Coffee was still struggling to recover its lost business.

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And the controversy didn’t recede quickly. A city councilman who represents the Five Points area suggested that ink! Coffee should have each staff member go through “cultural competency training,” presumably to ensure that staffers don’t harbor bad racial attitudes. The councilman, Albus Brooks, urged the coffee shop company to pressure employees into making charitable contributions in the neighborhood to demonstrate their civic good faith in the wake of the sign fiasco.

That led Vincent Carroll, a prominent retired newspaperman, to opine in The Denver Post: “In other words, an employee who has done nothing more offensive than greet customers with a smile while cheerfully inquiring what beverage they would like to order should be treated as a potentially bigoted ignoramus requiring an attitude adjustment.”

Carroll elicited a torrent of angry reaction when he called the protest against ink! Coffee “an embarrassment to Denver.” Anyone who expected the neighborhood of his youth to remain unchanged, he wrote, was “shockingly nave regarding the relentless power of the social and market forces that trigger such naïve makeovers.” He added there may be “one sure-fire cure” for gentrification: “urban decay and recession.”

That led one Post letter-writer to characterize Carroll’s op-ed piece as “embarrassing in its condescension.” Another wondered, “What’s Vincent Carroll smoking?”

Denver is of course not alone in being buffeted by intense feelings on the gentrification issue. In his Post article, Carroll cited press reports noting that the issue had roiled last year’s mayoral race in Atlanta, which in 50 years has gone from being majority white to majority black—and now seems on the threshold of becoming majority white once again.

And in Illinois earlier this year, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy (yes, of those Kennedys) attacked Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for what he called a “strategic gentrification plan” aimed at forcing African Americans and other minorities out of Chicago to make the city “whiter” and wealthier. The allegation backfired, as critics quickly alleged Kennedy was simply trying to exploit Emanuel’s poor standing with blacks in his city as a way of cementing his own support from African Americans in his gubernatorial run. The Chicago Tribune expressed a hope in an editorial that the governor’s race wouldn’t “get any uglier than it did this week” and suggested Kennedy had “hallucinated aloud” in pressing his allegation against the mayor.

Still, though Kennedy’s allegation lacked credibility and seemed politically motivated, it demonstrated just how emotional the gentrification matter can be, irrespective of the merits surrounding any particular controversy stemming from the issue.

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As for the Denver controversy, the question that emerges is why the word “gentrification” got so many residents of Five Points so riled up. Here we see the role of local loyalties and sentiments. It has everything to do with the history of Five Points, an area also known as the “Harlem of the West.” It is one of Denver’s oldest and most diverse neighborhoods. Named “Five Points” in 1881 for the five-way intersection of 26th Street, 27th Avenue, Washington Street, and Welton Streets, it  historically has been a predominately African-American neighborhood. Back when it got its name, it was known for its jazz music scene and vibrant commerce. From the 1950s to 1990s, however, the community deteriorated due in part to drugs and crime. Properties were abandoned, and many businesses shut down. Many residents who were able to move did so. And many who were left behind languished in poverty.

The City of Denver has tried to revitalize Five Points many times through the years. But those efforts have fallen short due to Denver’s frequent economic boom-and-bust cycles. Thus did residents of Five Points become accustomed to empty promises. Around 2005, however, Denver’s economy finally took off with the energy boom, a growing tech sector, and an explosion in the craft beer industry. Buoyed by Colorado’s $2.7 billion craft beer industry (first in the nation), Denver has become the craft beer capital of the world. Meanwhile, U.S. News & World Report ranks Denver number two on its “Best Places to Live” list, both reflecting and spurring an ongoing influx of new citizens to the city and its environs.

Denver’s booming economy and vaunted quality-of-life index have particularly attracted, it seems, people of the distinctive Millennial generation, Americans born in 1984 or later. These young migrants—with strong lifestyle preferences—prefer to live in cities, particularly diverse neighborhoods within walking distance of nightlife and entertainment. Some of them streamed into Five Points. Businesses catering to these young and affluent newcomers quickly followed. Today’s Five Points is also known as “RiNo,” or River North Art District, an ultra-trendy zip code that features microbrewery bars, new age restaurants,  contemporary art galleries, and hip concert venues.

Mod Livin’ Rino, a furniture/interior design shop, is one such new Five Points establishment. It sells finely crafted mid-century classic furniture with a modern flair. I noticed a lovely chair selling for $700 and a chest for $3,000. An interior designer who works at the store told me that the store owner is a Denver businesswoman who owns another furniture store on the more established East Colfax Avenue. She decided to open her second store in Five Points to get closer to a young, hip clientele.

But with the growth of Five Points came growing pains. The booming economy and expanding population have pushed up demand for housing. Denver is one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation, and Five Points is the hottest area in Denver. According to Zillow, the median list price per square foot in Five Points is $426, considerably higher than the Denver average of $343. The median price of homes currently listed in Five Points is $569,900.

Many long-time residents have left the neighborhood, including minorities (many of whom can no longer afford housing in the area). Though the neighborhood was once dominated demographically by African-Americans, today about 79 percent of residents are white. Further, some mom-and-pop businesses and independent artists, long a significant part of the social and economic scene, are leaving too. A notable closure was Tom’s Home Cooking, a beloved Southern soul-food eatery that had been an anchor in the community for 16 years.

During my recent visit I talked to Price Davis, owner of a neighborhood art studio. After some 23 years in Five Points, he now is in the process of closing his art studio. Davis explained that his property taxes have doubled just in two years, to $18,000 annually from $9,000. His insurance costs also skyrocketed. The cost of doing business makes businesses like his untenable, said Davis. Among his artist friends in Five Points, only five remain, and they all expect to depart sooner or later. Davis believes that the City of Denver prefers to bring in big corporations to Five Points rather than make an effort to keep independent businesses like his. Not far from his studio, a Shake Shack sign is hanging on a construction site, as if to bolster his point.

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The diversity of population and art has for years contributed to the attractiveness of Five Points. Though gentrification has brought economic growth and safer streets, it has also frayed the social fabric and eroded the community’s historic charm.

Besides, many argue that the area’s new economic growth hasn’t benefited everyone equally. About 40 percent of remaining minority residents still live below the poverty line, most of them in the area’s central and southeastern sectors. These are places that still have plenty of run-down properties and high crime rates. Residents there are also stuck with one of the worst public schools in Denver, Manual High School. In contrast, Five Points  newcomers generally can afford $2,000 monthly rents and can send their children to high-performing schools outside Five Points.

Given all this, it isn’t difficult to see why some of the area’s long-time residents reacted angrily to ink! Coffee’s poorly worded sign. (Another one, at a different location, was even more insensitive: “Nothing says gentrification like being able to order a cortado.”) But of course vandalizing a coffee shop is a criminal act. Beyond that, it’s counterproductive, likely to scare new businesses away. And shutting down ink! Coffee isn’t likely to help the neighborhood or anyone who lives there. Low income residents can’t afford to reject economic development. Without an  influx of new business, there can be no expanded employment opportunities or economic upward mobility. Five Points’ long years of economic languishment, prior to gentrification, certainly illustrate the point.

The City of Denver has tried to address the housing affordability issue with the typical progressive tools. Through zoning policies it sought to mandate that developers set aside a number of new development units as “restricted units,” to be sold or rented at government-determined affordable rates. But the unintended consequences weren’t difficult to predict. With prospects for profitability reduced or eliminated, developers abandoned drawing-board projects. With incentives to create new housing reduced, there was less housing. With less housing, real estate prices rose.

Such governmental policies distorted the market and ended up worsening the very problems they were intended to fix. Ruinous zoning and tax policies aren’t the answer. Letting the free market do its job is the only way the low-income residents of Five Points will have a fighting chance for a better life. As Vincent Carroll puts it, it’s no wonder that every so-called fix for displacement—housing subsidies, property tax assistance, construction mandates—“sounds positively puny compared to the surge of folks willing to pay what is necessary to move into neighborhoods they like.” Besides, he adds, critics should understand that “businesses that flock to revitalizing neighborhoods lift the tax base on which crucial government services depend.”

Helen Raleigh is a senior contributor to The Federalist and the author of Confucius Never Said.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "How a Denver Coffee Shop Exploded the Gentrification Debate"

#1 Comment By Steve On April 9, 2018 @ 11:44 pm

It’s terrible when people try to turn slums into livable neighborhoods. The nerve.

#2 Comment By Ray Woodcock On April 9, 2018 @ 11:57 pm

This was interesting and informative. I’m unclear on the ideology, though. I guess Raleigh is the big-business type of conservative, not the preserve-community type. I think that would explain the illogic in this:

But of course vandalizing a coffee shop is …. counterproductive, likely to scare new businesses away. … Low income residents can’t afford to reject economic development. Without an influx of new business, there can be no expanded employment opportunities …. Five Points’ long years of economic languishment, prior to gentrification, certainly illustrate the point. … With incentives to create new housing reduced, there was less housing. With less housing, real estate prices rose.

There was not “less housing” than before, when prices “languished.” To the contrary, previously there was affordable housing. In effect, developers want to take that away. Residents who could qualify for “employment opportunities” sufficient to afford higher rents would have long since left Five Points. Scaring away new businesses that would contribute to the process of pricing people out of their homes would not be “counterproductive.”

Raleigh did seem to try to understand and present different views. I think her mistake was just in attempting to force them into a preconceived script. Big business is conservative when conservatism suits its purposes; but mostly big business is just opportunistic.

#3 Comment By Lesley On April 10, 2018 @ 4:25 am

So it’s my obligation as a non-destitute, non-minority person to make sure I settle in a neighborhood with just enough poor people of color in it that they receive some outsize benefit from my property taxes going towards public schools and libraries and whatnot but not too many else my presence encourage gentrification and upset the delicate, timeless, and unchanging nature of the neighborhood, correct? Meanwhile, everybody else can live wherever they like for whatever reason they like without the implication of immorality constantly hovering over their choice?

Yea, no thanks. I don’t have the doctorate in sociology and statistics that determining just such the perfect mix would require, and I’m also not the biggest fan of overt and unapologetic double standards.

#4 Comment By Xenia Grant On April 10, 2018 @ 8:23 am

Also the light rail goes to five points. And at 30th and Downing are many different buses that go to different areas of Denver.

#5 Comment By Lert345 On April 10, 2018 @ 9:44 am

White people leaving a neighborhood – bad. White people moving into a neighborhood – also bad.

#6 Comment By Ricardo On April 10, 2018 @ 9:56 am

When blacks and other minorities move into white neighborhoods and “white flight” occurs, it’s because they’re racist. When whites move into black neighborhoods, the blacks get upset and turn themselves into victims once again, by turning “gentrification” in some type of anti-black racist issue. Double standard, baby! The real issue is that blacks don’t like whites (or Hispanics) moving into their hoods any more than whites do.

#7 Comment By Rick On April 10, 2018 @ 11:46 am

“From the 1950s to 1990s, however, the community deteriorated due in part to drugs and crime. Properties were abandoned, and many businesses shut down. Many residents who were able to move did so. And many who were left behind languished in poverty.”

No the drugs and crime were symptoms, the reason was FHA redlining which denied investment capital in that area and obliterated household equity as a means to maintain those communities, put people through college, make home improvements, etc.

Much like the red state drug issues today, economic desperation leads to bleak communities and zero social cohesion.

In the case of black communities that economic desperation was due primarily to economic apartheid.

#8 Comment By EarlyBird On April 10, 2018 @ 12:18 pm

While by no means would it be a perfect fix, perhaps Denver should provide long-term residents rent control for up to 10 years, with rents increasing each year, but under some percentage cap. Once someone vacates, the rents are what the market will bear. After 10 years the rent control ends.

That would allow gentrification and all of the improvements that go with it to occur, while providing a soft landing for the current residents.

#9 Comment By Jon On April 10, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

Where there is a free market for impoverished populations are in the neighborhoods built with substandard slabs of clapboard — no sewerage, no electricity except that which is culled from power lines, no indoor plumbing, and little if any sanitation. The residents rely exclusively on gray markets, black markets, and seasonal employment to get by finding recourse in bartering when currency is scarce. They also grow their own food to supplement the expense of purchasing produce in grocery stores keeping as livestock a few chickens.

These are people who are destitute due to economic forces and political ones including in the latter extra-legal expulsion from lands held in common where they had engaged in subsistence agriculture. They crowd the cities, and in the developing countries where this phenomenon abounds, built around their hovels are high rise apartment buildings for the wealthy so that they can hire these individuals as domestic help. Living nearby they can walk to work rather than commute via local surface transit.

Such is the way of “[l]etting the free market do its job.” Where there are free markets for the impoverished classes of a society, there are the favelas. What chance do these residents have for a better life?

#10 Comment By DRZ On April 10, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

If the protests around ink! Coffee were anything like the anti-gentrification protest I saw in the Wicker Park and Bucktown neighborhood’s in Chicago in the 90s, a significant percentage of the anti-gentrification protesters were white suburbanites who had recently moved to the neighborhood, often living solo in an apartment that had recently housed a Latino family of five or six. I’m curious if a similar process is happening in Denver, with some of the gentrified so fighting the process that brought them to the neighborhood originally.

#11 Comment By paradoctor On April 10, 2018 @ 3:50 pm

I call gentrification ‘economic cleansing’.

#12 Comment By E Kent On April 10, 2018 @ 3:55 pm

“It’s terrible when people try to turn slums into livable neighborhoods. The nerve.”

It’s also terrible when people try to turn slums into livable neighborhoods and in the process price the people who were living there out of said neighborhood.

I mean, that’s the whole “gentrification” problem in a nutshell isn’t it? It’s all well and good to try to improve a neighborhood, but the people living there weren’t there because they like living in a slum. They were living there because it was the best they could afford. When you improve it the cost of living here will ultimately increase as more people decide they want to live there.

It’s a problem with no really sure fire solution, just a whole lot of messy fixes that sometimes work and sometimes don’t.

#13 Comment By cka2nd On April 10, 2018 @ 4:15 pm

Ricardo says: “When blacks and other minorities move into white neighborhoods and ‘white flight’ occurs, it’s because they’re racist.”

Well, if the economic class of both the blacks and other minorities is pretty much the same as that of the white residents, than yes, it might very well be because they are racist, or because they have been convinced by real estate and banking interests that the mere fact of blacks and other minorities moving into the neighborhood – never mind that they are of the same economic class as the existing white residents – will drive property values down.

“When whites move into black neighborhoods, the blacks get upset and turn themselves into victims once again, by turning ‘gentrification’ in some type of anti-black racist issue.”

And here, I would argue, it’s less an example of racism at work than class-based gentrification, which does however have the effect of driving out current residents and whatever cultural institutions they’ve enjoyed in their neighborhoods, from churches and restaurants to barber shops and beauty salons. The impact is often on de-classed and lower-class blacks and latinos, although we might be seeing the same thing happening to de-classed and lower-class white populations in the de-industrialized Rust Belt. I wonder if that phenomenon is playing out with explicit class politics replacing the racial ones in the bigger cities?

#14 Comment By Chris On April 10, 2018 @ 4:40 pm

So if a handful of units intended to be let at (presumably) below market rates causes entire housing projects to become unaffordable, then how is leaving the housing market up to the unfettered free market going to suddenly make more housing affordable?

#15 Comment By Dan Green On April 10, 2018 @ 6:44 pm

Remind’s me of the introductory song on the old TV program the Jeffersons. ” Moving on up to the east side.” Folks move into these questionable neighborhoods to buy real estate at a reasonable price then sell it when prices go up.

#16 Comment By Rosita On April 10, 2018 @ 10:08 pm

Have to agree 100% with Lesley’s comment.

#17 Comment By Nancy On April 10, 2018 @ 10:22 pm

Petty! Find something about which it is worth complaining!

#18 Comment By Steve On April 10, 2018 @ 11:19 pm

The issue here was picketing a coffee shop for being “insensitive.” The coffee shop is not to blame for anyone’s problems. They are providing a service and maybe a few jobs to this community. For their trouble, they get this sickening harassment.

And people wonder why it’s so hard to get businesses to invest in certain areas.

#19 Comment By Tom Cullem On April 11, 2018 @ 1:45 pm

I’ve heard this story dozens of times, from neighbourhoods from Brixton in London to the Upper West Side of Manhattan – American friends who lived in the latter area for years told me that they knew when Lincoln Center went up that their days there were numbered. The quiet character of the area was lost, the traffic increased exponentially, boutiques replaced bodegas, ugly high-rises blotted out the beautiful old brownstones, rents skyrocketed, and the low-income population moved ever farther north decade by decade: first above W. 79th St., then above W. 86th St., then above W. 96th St., then above W. 110th, until suddenly Spanish Harlem was becoming white and complaints rose about heritage and culture and appropriation, as was also occurring in Harlem.

Gentrification never “benefits everyone equally”. That’s why in England we call it “the gentry”. As the scorpion said to the turtle in the old fable, “I can’t help it: it’s my nature.”

Gentrification by its very nature is a process of replacement.

It was with great amusement that I followed the “affordable housing” debate in the New York TIMES last year about areas like Chappaqua, in Westchester County (where I believe the Clintons have a home) – with columnists accusing residents of fighting to keep their beautiful, expensive, and historic old community white by refusing to build affordable housing, despite having taken federal funds to do so.

When whites move into an area it’s called “gentrification” and identified as a form of oppression. When blacks move into, or are force-fed into through affordable housing programs, a formerly all white community, it is called “diversity” and is considered progress.

I doubt this debate will uncover any real solutions to the fundamental unfairness of life.

#20 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 12, 2018 @ 2:08 pm

What we mean by free market is fee market. All of life reduced to being able to be the highest bidder, and the poor devils take the hindmost.