An Obscene Debate
In 1954, observing the massive Hispanic influx to the West Colfax neighborhood, Denver Public Library (DPL) closed its branch at West Conejos Place and Hooker Street. On the heels of this, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) targeted the area for its inaugural urban renewal project. The result was to destroy the commercial heart of the area at the intersection of West Colfax Avenue and Federal Boulevard for a cloverleaf. The adjacent section, rebuilt in the name of urban renewal, never lived up to its promise. Ever more poverty-stricken residents were in the area, complete with housing projects. Local retail died out, including in the DURA-sponsored Avondale Shopping Center.
Even so, middle-class sections of the West Colfax neighborhood remained in place. Among the more vibrant parts of the corridor was St. Anthony’s Hospital. Rather than seeking to retain it as a major employer and landmark, the city did nothing to keep it in the city when the medical center recently committed itself to a new home in the suburbs. On the contrary, developers have drooled over the possibility of the complete redevelopment of West Colfax as a yuppie neighborhood. Toward this end, they have emphasized light rail as a means of linking the section to the central business district. Included are proposals to destroy existing housing projects.
A new branch library has been part of the effort to reshape the area. While marketed as a beacon of literacy, it is yet another land development ploy. It has been situated on the failed site of the Avondale Shopping Center. Poor engineering and design have led to major cost overruns on the project. The library commission has committed itself to the effort even while it has struggled to keep branch libraries open elsewhere.
As a measure of its thorough mendacity, DPL has recently hung signs by its branches thanking voters for raising taxes last November to allow the expansion of library hours. A library tax was not on the ballot. The question of funding of the library is a political decision. In particular, the John Hickenlooper administration readily cut the library budget as a superfluous cost because of financial pressures. Meanwhile, the library has continued to place its resources in public relations gimmicks while increasingly disposing of books.
Typical of the inability of DPL to enlighten citizens about the community’s heritage was a special display at its Western History Department in 2009 on Chicano militant Corky Gonzales. Far from noting the man’s extremely complex and controversial career and why many, especially in the Hispanic community, came to hate him intently, it glossed over controversy. This is not surprising, given the way that, for some years, the Denver Post and other voices of the establishment have sought to paint Gonzales as the embodiment of Latino Denver.
These media outlets have particularly treated Gonzales’ daughter, Nita, as virtually an dynastic heir of a man who once described himself as “an agitator and a troublemaker. That’s my reputation and that is what I’m going to be.” Back in the 1990s, Nita was markedly a recipient of money and support from liberal oil heiress Swanee Hunt in her efforts to gain a place on the school board. A major reason Nita Gonzales failed in her bid was because members of the Hispanic community did not vote for her, some having extremely bad memories of the machine and thug-like actions associated with Corky Gonzales.
Now, Nita Gonzales has proposed naming the new land development West Colfax library for her father. The usual suspects, led by John Hickenlooper and Susan Barnes-Gelt, have signed on. Their endorsement of the naming shows that Gonzales was no real rebel with an alternative vision and program; on the contrary, he was actually a cynical political operative who sought to get what he could out of the system—that is why the establishment so heralds him.
Ignoring how much Gonzales very much accepted the basic premises of capitalism, the police have reacted with hysteria to the proposed name of the library. Members of the force are still extremely angry about the events of March 17, 1973, when, shortly after midnight, a jaywalker escaped captivity at Gonzales’ Crusade for Justice headquarters at 16th Avenue and Downing Street. This was such a calamity that soon more than 200 officers were on the scene. An explosion ripped through part of a Crusade apartment building amidst a police fusillade during the confrontation. By this time, a police officer had killed a supporter of the Crusade, and many of its backers were shot or injured in addition to some police officers being badly hurt in the standoff.
In the wake of the affair, the city immediately ordered the demolition of parts of the damaged apartment building, assuring that there would be no investigation of the exact cause of the blast. It took a jury 30 seconds to acquit the prime culprit in the event. Eventually, the city paid the Crusade a considerable sum to settle a lawsuit over the events of March 17, 1973. Gonzales’ Chicano critics charged he and his family pocketed the money, treating the Crusade for Justice as a private business enterprise rather than a central part of Chicano Denver.
Conservatives have joined with the police in opposing naming the library for Gonzales. Besides making no mention of the continuing maladministration of the library, missing is the larger issue of the way city policies have repeatedly harmed those living along West Colfax. The entire controversy is typical bad political theater where sideshows are emphasized to assure that the drama, the plot, the nature of power, the character of the library, and the destiny of the area are ignored in favor of minutiae treasured only by those who see nothing of substance while being firmly anchored to the status quo.
The hoopla over the new light rail line came shortly after Mile High Connects, a feel-good nonprofit group which supports light rail, issued a report on the achievements of the T-REX line along I-25. Alas, it observed, the transit connection has failed to link riders to affordable housing, good jobs, and educational opportunities. Missing is any perspective of why this is the case.
Light rail is not an alternative form of transportation to the automobile. On the contrary, it is its accessory. Light rail is a highway overload device whereby more people can commute greater distances while businesses have to provide less space for parking. This basic fact is unmentionable because it would force a consideration about the essential nature of growth and sprawl. It would further highlight the intimate links between real estate speculators and light rail enthusiasts. Were Mile High Connects to raise this point, it might actually do something to defend bus riders and those who find “progress” is once more threatening their homes and the West Colfax community in the hideous miasma of the debate over the Corky Gonzales Library.