Denver’s La Alma Lincoln Park proposed as an historic district honoring the Chicano Movement

Residents in one of Denver’s oldest neighborhoods are working to preserve its sometimes forgotten history.

La Alma Lincoln Park, founded in the 1880s, sits a few blocks from the city’s heart. Predominantly Hispanic, this west side neighborhood located behind the Santa Fe Art District is mainly composed of single-family homes, many of which are from the turn of the 20th century. What the two-story brick Victorians and bungalows can only allude to is how much has happened there.

This neighborhood is vying to become one of the country’s first historic districts honoring the Chicano Movement.

“I hope that all the people that live in these houses are speaking up for themselves, and it’s not outsiders,” said Virginia Castro, widow of Richard Castro, who helped lead that movement in Denver.

Denver’s Latino community has long fought to keep the west side as their own. The “whitewashing” of the city can be traced from its history to the present. Most of the city’s historic districts and landmarks are tied to white people. The Castros were a part of the West Side Collation, which aimed to build a group of people large enough to pressure the city into equitable policies for the neighborhood, Castro said.

La Alma Lincoln Park was at the center of both these efforts.

“The neighborhood was the heart of the Chicano movement and is a significant part of the Chicano/Latino story of Denver,” the Proposed Historic Cultural District design draft to the city states. “The neighborhood was initially established near the railroad and Burnham Yards as a working-class immigrant community. The architecture of the neighborhood reflects the early development of the area and illustrates the changes over time as it evolved into the center of the Denver Chicano Movement.”

If passed, the proposal would require properties within the designated area to reflect the neighborhood’s historic character. There would be an eye on things like windows, facades and fencing. The hope is that the look stays the same and the encroaching redevelopment projects that are nearing the district’s borders, stay out.

“The desired effect of a historic district is it architecturally retains some of the identity and feel of the homes that are there, and the style of home that was built in La Alma Lincoln Park is the early 1900s,” said Jamie Torres, the councilwoman for District 3 where the neighborhood is located. “It doesn’t make it impossible to do upgrades, renovate or make additions. It just has to then go through this design criteria.”

The application focuses on the city’s three culturally significant criteria that were introduced in 2019. The only landmark designated on those new metrics thus far is Smith’s Chapel, which has ties to the Chicano Movement and is located in the neighborhood, but outside the proposed historic district.

The only Historic Cultural District in Denver is Five Points. Five Points is more commercial than La Alma Lincoln Park, which is nearly all residential.

Torres compares the importance of La Alma Lincoln Park for the Latino community to Five Points’ significance for the Denver’s African American community.

The neighborhood and the surrounding area were once the center of the Chicano community in Denver. As crews demolished neighborhoods on the west side to complete the Auraria Campus in 1976, La Alma Lincoln Park grew. The 1960s and ’70s on the west side were a microcosm of the struggles for Chicano and Mexican American families across the country.

“It is definitely a nod and acknowledgment to all of that history that came with this neighborhood; it really helped create a lot of the influence that you see today for the Latino community for cultural marks, for murals, for politics,” Torres said. “There are roots right there in that neighborhood.”

Many Latino families moved from all around the Southwest to La Alma Lincoln Park in the post-war years, Adrianna Abarca, the founder and board chair of the Latino Cultural Arts Center, Denver, and Latino Community Foundation of Colorado, said. Abarca believes this designation would help honor some of the Chicano histories she and her peers were denied growing up.

“You have to give people a sense of place and belonging,” Abarca said. “To have a cultural connection to the community is essential to the well-being of people but also beyond the culture is the physical buildings. What we’re used to, what we’re familiar with, people need familiarity, people need things that they can recognize that they can call their own.”

Residents filed the application in March, but it has been in the works in conjunction with Historic Denver for five years. There’s a bilingual virtual meeting at 11 a.m. Saturday to address questions and concerns about the changes. If all goes smoothly and City Council approves the application, the district could be formally established by late summer, joining the 56 other historic districts in the city.

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