How a Vital Denver Neighborhood is Maintaining Its Cultural History
A key preservation victory helps La Alma Lincoln Park sustain its individuality
The streets and houses of Denver’s La Alma Lincoln Park neighborhood have stories to tell—Cathy Prieto would know. A retired surgical technician, she has lived in the area for most of her life and still inhabits the beige 1885 Italianate cottage on Lipan Street that her parents bought with her father’s VA loan in 1969. Within these walls, she raised three children; cared for her aging parents; enjoyed countless family meals; and continues to tend to her 16 grandchildren, ages 3 to 30, who often visit.
These streets, Prieto says, have seen parties and marches, picnics and protests, and all the struggles and triumphs of working-class immigrants, strivers, and dreamers. In the 1960s and ’70s, La Alma Lincoln Park was the epicenter of the Chicano Movement in Denver, which fought against segregation, discrimination, and unequal education, among other issues. As a youngster, Prieto tagged along with her activist mom in marches. She walked out of school during the famous West High School Blowouts of 1969, championed civil rights as a Brown Beret, and volunteered to support children in early education programs. In La Alma, she recalls, neighbors cared for and celebrated one another. Sometimes they’d even bring their chairs out onto the sidewalk, play music, and dance right in the street.
Walk down Lipan today and you’ll likely feel the vibrant spirit of La Alma (“the soul” in Spanish). The attractive houses, many built before 1900, cluster close together like friends leaning in for a photo. Fences are slung low, inviting conversations. Many houses have porches that line up with each other so you can toss pleasantries between them. The verdant finery of mature trees shrouds the sidewalks, and sunflowers and hollyhocks grow in unruly mops from the yards. Nearby, historic murals adorn the local rec center and the human services nonprofit Denver Inner City Parish, celebrating Hispano, Chicano, Indigenous, and mestizo heritage in bold colors and strong motifs. This place feels alive, lived in, and loved.
Like many urban neighborhoods, La Alma Lincoln Park is full of powerful history but also struggles to maintain its cultural identity in the face of rapid growth and gentrification. Multiple cranes loom nearby. In recent years, developers have razed a couple of old dwellings. And rising home prices have displaced leaders, activists, artists, and others over time. Cathy Prieto receives multiple letters a week from people hoping to buy her house.
Luckily, in August of 2021, after a five-year grassroots effort, a group of residents secured a highly prized Historic Cultural District designation for La Alma Lincoln Park from the city of Denver. It is one of the first historic districts in the country celebrating the Chicano Movement and sets new precedents in historic preservation for the city. It’s also a meaningful step toward recognizing the locally and nationally significant contributions of Raza, mestizo, Hispano, Mexican American, Mexican, Latino, and Chicano residents. Neighbors hope it will also help longtime community members stay in their homes.
“We’re super excited about the designation,” says Larry Martinez, executive director of the Denver Inner City Parish. He was born in Denver and has worked in the district for 27 years. “Knowing that there will always be familiarity here, and that the murals and a lot of the cultural pieces that oftentimes go away with gentrification will be protected, is just a lot of peace of mind. It helps the community in terms of pride and continuing to have a stake in the neighborhood.”
The Historic Cultural District designation is the second of its kind in Denver, after the recognition of the historically Black Five Points Historic Cultural District in 2002. The grassroots effort for La Alma Lincoln Park sprouted in 2016, when a few residents in the neighborhood approached Historic Denver, a local preservation nonprofit, for funding and counsel. Part of the area had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 for its 19th-century architecture, but the recognition didn’t include history that had been unfolding right at that time—the Chicano Movement. Residents wanted to understand and document the history of the neighborhood and find out if there were ways to safeguard its character while preventing demolition and displacement. Funded by Historic Denver, the group hired a consultant, who dove into records, collected oral histories, and compiled 150 years of history into an even richer tapestry of stories than they had expected.
With Historic Denver’s support, the neighborhood association spread the word about the area’s intriguing history, distributed flyers, conducted surveys, and hosted public meetings about what to do. Over time, a consensus emerged: The community wanted to pursue recognition for the area’s historic and cultural value—but how?
“We were worried we were going to lose a real interesting part of the city to development that was not necessarily friendly to the concept of identity,” says Fatima Hirji, an architectural designer and former resident who, along with her partner, Alyson Crabtree, was part of the original group that spearheaded the effort. “The issues of affordability and community resilience were critical...It’s striking that balance; that’s the tricky part.” Residents didn’t want the neighborhood to take on strict rules that could hamper their ability to improve and stay in their homes.
“Denver has experienced a lot of gentrification and displacement over the past 10 years. That was certainly a concern,” says Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver. She helped facilitate the community effort along with Shannon Stage, the organization’s manager of grants and preservation services. “How do we make sure that what’s special here [remains] and the people who live here continue to feel welcome and continue to feel it’s their neighborhood?”
Fortuitously, in 2019, the city of Denver adopted a set of new criteria for designating districts or landmarks. In addition to historical, geographical, and architectural significance, a potential historic district could apply with more weight given to its cultural significance. “It was an opportunity to recognize that what’s important here isn’t just the buildings,” says Levinsky. “It’s the culture that developed over time, the people, and the community.” That year, the neighborhood association officially decided to apply for the designation, which spurred another flurry of meetings, Zoom calls, emails, flyer distribution, community tours, and op-eds.
Part of what makes La Alma Lincoln Park unusual as a historic district is that its defined “period of significance” stretches over more than a century, from 1873 to 1980. Its human history stretches back much longer than that, for hundreds and probably thousands of years. Before European colonization, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Ute Mountain Ute, Comanche, Apache, and other groups built encampments here on this grassy plateau between the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, in accordance with the flow of seasons and game.
As newcomers filtered in during the 18th and 19th centuries, Native trails deepened with the footprints of trappers. In 1857, prospectors discovered gold near the river, and, within two years, some 30,000 eager fortune-seekers arrived. Routes through undulating grasslands soon became wagon trails and eventually city streets as newer settlers displaced Indigenous people.
La Alma Lincoln Park (then known as Lincoln Park) was one of the first residential neighborhoods in Denver, and still contains some of the city’s oldest houses. The beloved eponymous park, a swath of lawns and mature trees, was once the homestead of A.C. Hunt, who platted the area’s land and later became the territorial governor. After the railroad arrived in 1870, the neighborhood swelled.
Working-class immigrants of German, Italian, Irish, and Mexican heritage, as well as the descendants of Spanish settlers from southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, arrived to work in the train yards and flour mills. Over the following decades, these workers built single-story and two-story cottages in tidy rows, first in Italianate and then Queen Anne styles and eventually in styles such as Terrace, Dutch Revival, Classic Cottage, and Foursquare.
By the middle of the 20th century, Mexicans and other immigrants of Spanish and Latin American heritage streamed in, and the community became an incubator for leaders of the Chicano Movement. People were galvanized by the success of Cesar Chavez and his fight for labor rights, as well as poet and activist Corky Gonzales and his efforts to secure political and social justice for Chicanos. There was a palpable sense of solidarity and cultural power. “It was phenomenal, the camaraderie,” says Prieto. “Chicano people were so solid. It was something to see.”
In the ’60s and ’70s, the local park hosted protests and sprawling picnics with kids running to and fro. The swimming pool and amphitheater hummed with activity. Mutual aid organizations (mutualistas) and other community groups, such as the Denver Inner City Parish, West Side Action Center, and Su Teatro, were born and bloomed.
Up the street from Cathy Prieto’s house, Betty Benavidez, the first Latina elected to the Colorado legislature, lived in a brick bungalow with her husband, Waldo Benavidez, an activist and organizer. (Constituents used to say, “Nothing is ever done by just one person, except Betty.”) Farther up the street, Paul Martinez, the president of the local chapter of the American G.I. Forum, and his wife, Delfie Martinez, lived in a single-story 1886 Italianate cottage where they sheltered 36 people displaced by Denver’s infamous South Platte River Flood of 1965.
Like Prieto, many residents participated in the 1969 West High School Blowouts, when students walked out of the high school to the capitol to protest a teacher’s unaddressed racism and demand bilingual education and culturally inclusive curricula, inspiring thousands to join the movement for Chicano civil rights. As a reflection of the groundswell of activism, Emanuel Martínez, now an internationally acclaimed artist, started painting murals in the neighborhood, sparking a statewide Chicano mural movement that broadcast cultural pride and helped people reconnect with the value of their heritage.
La Alma Lincoln Park’s period of historical significance made it tricky to fit into standard ways of thinking about preservation designations, so they got creative. With the help of Historic Denver, loads of community input, and countless volunteer hours, they provided the city’s Landmark Preservation staff with historic and cultural background. The Landmark Preservation team devised a set of custom design guidelines that is more inclusive and representative of the heart of La Alma Lincoln Park than the city’s standard guidelines.
Many of the structures within the district are layered with augmentations and additions. For example, some residents plastered stucco over the original brick exteriors or replaced original windows with vinyl versions. In a more traditional historic district, those structures might be seen as having less integrity, but here, they’re part of the district’s unique patina. The custom design guidelines allow for future changes that reflect the diversity and creativity of the community. Homeowners are generally allowed to use a wide variety of exterior and fence materials, for instance, but the guidelines still protect character through setbacks and restrictions on demolitions.
The district’s proponents hope that the designation will not only honor the neighborhood’s history but also help slow the tide of displacement, destruction, and gentrification, even though a couple of houses were lost during the process and replaced with contemporary structures. Historic recognition is not a silver bullet, but in Denver, it makes homeowners eligible for tax credits of 20 to 25 percent toward home repair.
“I feel very confident in the process; it’s been really inspirational,” says Ean Thomas Tafoya, Colorado state director for the conservation nonprofit GreenLatinos, and a trustee for Historic Denver. He supported the grassroots effort by giving community tours, speaking in front of Denver’s City Council and Landmark Preservation Commission, and writing op-eds. “Both old-school community members and Latinos in general from the surrounding community have jumped in and supported this. And I have been pleasantly surprised by how people who live here now really respect what our heritage is about and want to be a part of protecting it, too.”
One challenge the group faced, however, was how to specifically honor and preserve La Alma Lincoln Park’s public murals. On the south side of the Denver Inner City Parish, a work painted by Nick Vigil in the 1990s showcases Indigenous resilience as well as the value of education and of mestizo identity, featuring motifs of a Mesoamerican pyramid, Puebloan structure, volcano, tipi, and butte. Across the street, a wall of La Alma Recreation Center features Emanuel Martínez’s towering 1978 mural titled La Alma/The Soul, which celebrates mestizo, Chicano, Hispano, European, and Indigenous ancestry and includes symbols such as an eagle and a butterfly.
“I think of these murals as kind of grounding us,” says Lucha Martínez de Luna, the daughter of Emanuel Martínez; associate curator of Hispano, Latino and Chicano History and Culture at History Colorado; and director of the O'na Tök archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico. “We have a legitimate right to be here, just like everybody else. That’s what these murals celebrate, our history and our deep ties to this land.”
While the new designation doesn’t specifically protect the murals, structures that are owned by nonprofits or civic institutions within the district are now eligible to apply for restoration grants through the Colorado State Historical Fund. Martínez de Luna also cofounded and directs the Chicano/a Murals of Colorado Project, an organization devoted to protecting and promoting these public works of art throughout the state. She is working to secure grants for preservation. For many, including Tafoya, the murals are empowering reminders of heritage that is often overlooked in textbooks and a tangible way for residents and nonresidents to recognize their ties to the neighborhood and each other.
“For me, this place is part of who I am, especially because my parents were so active in the movement and they did sacrifice a lot,” says Martínez de Luna, who spent two years of her childhood in La Alma Lincoln Park but now lives in Golden, Colorado. “To be able to be recognized for the social justice activism that they did is so important. We rarely are recognized for those sacrifices. I come into these communities and it feels like home to me.”
Cathy Prieto’s parents, who bought the house on Lipan Street, are no longer alive, but she knows they would have been ecstatic about the community’s recent recognition. “Now, with this happening, hopefully we can recognize everybody. Hopefully our stories can be told,” she says. That’s why she always came back to live here even after brief stints away: the memories, from walking down the street and knowing everyone like family to the famous Cinco de Mayo celebrations every year.
“I talk to my grandkids and this is the only house they’ve ever known,” says Prieto. “This is Great Grandma’s house and Grandma’s house, and all the aunties and uncles grew up here. They respect that. They want to come and sit here in the backyard or on the porch and tell stories and eat—and we just have a good old time. They tell me, ‘Grandma, we’re so glad you got to keep the house.’”
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