How a neighborhood survived

AFTER World War II, the residents of Denver's one black neighborhood found themselves so crowded in Five Points that they began moving eastward into adjoining white areas. It was assumed that white families would leave old neighborhoods and allow each block in turn to become black. Wrong.

The white middle-class professionals in Park Hill - a lovely east Denver neighborhood close to City Park, museums, and downtown - considered their homes too good to leave.

So on Sunday, May 6, 1956, ministers of seven all-white Park Hill Protestant churches issued concurrent sermons welcoming blacks into the community, for, they felt, hospitality must accompany integration.

And now Park Hill continues to be middle class and professional, with 50 percent of the households white, and 50 percent black.

A few months ago I received a magazine assignment to report on a middle-class black neighborhood. On the advice of a city councilman, I parked my car in the 2300 block of Monaco Street Parkway and began ringing doorbells.

The houses were imposingly big, mostly two-story brick, with mature, professional landscaping. But my black middle-class neighborhood was no good - for my magazine's purpose - because in between these black faces were just as many white ones.

Yet my name became known to Park Hill boosters, and I started receiving phone calls from both blacks and whites. ``Too bad about the magazine story,'' they said, ``but how about coming to a symposium? We're going to reminisce about how Park Hill survived in an `unfriendly racist world.' There will be refreshments....''

There were trays of frosted brownies, homemade cookies, M&M candies. There were also trays of 35-mm slides, a furiously-fast-forward, fast-backward, upside-down-picture affair produced by whites who bumbled through integration just as inexpertly, and now celebrate their neighborhood's victory.

The villains, everyone agrees, were the Realtors. In the 1950s, Article 34 of the National Association of Real Estate Boards' Code of Ethics said: ``A Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property, or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in the neighborhood.''

The heroes were those white people who refused to sell their homes in a panic (at one time there were 1,200 For Sale signs counted in a 100-block area of the 400-block neighborhood), and those black people who bravely moved in. (``It wasn't that we wanted to live next to white people,'' a black resident said. ``But that was the only way we could get our streets swept.'')

A white woman, asked how many black families live on her block today, had to stop and think, ``Six, seven, eight, nine, yes, probably nine, of 20 houses on both sides of the street.''

A minister's correspondence recalled the heated occasion when a white woman parishioner accused him of not baptizing a black child. The minister responded to the woman, in writing, that (a)the black child was there at the front of the church as a white child's sponsor; (b)the black child was Roman Catholic and already baptized; and (c)the black child's parents would have understandably been upset had the minister rebaptized the child.

Such humor glosses over much agony, of course, and today's memories are bittersweet. John and Gladys Noel Bates, the first black couple on Thrill Place, had been dismissed from their teaching jobs in a Mississippi school district after they filed a lawsuit because black teachers earned less than whites. For 11 years they struggled with low-paying jobs before finding teaching positions in Denver.

Then they moved into the all-white Park Hill neighborhood and sadly watched white neighbors leave, including the family next door whom they considered friends. But Mrs. Bates had a source of strength that white Park Hill couldn't share: a letter her father wrote in 1918 to his unborn children:

``...A structure will eventually fall that is built on a weak foundation,'' the letter said. ``Therefore, you should build a firm foundation. Be industrious, economical and have a bank account; love and cherish dignified labor; be honest and truthful in your everyday transactions and love your race and seek to elevate it in every way possible; let your associates be men and women of culture and refinement; never allow yourselves to be idle. Engage your spare moments in reading some interesting book or magazine....''

As a young girl, Mrs. Bates was made to sit at the dining room table, read her father's letter, and initial it. Several times she was brought to the table to re-read it. She raised her own children by these precepts, and when Denver experienced its peak of racial tension, the Bateses became known as Park Hill peacemakers.

No one denies that Denver continues to have racial problems. And Park Hill itself staged a ``Down with Dope'' march this summer, 600 blacks and whites walking the streets to protest drug dealers and abusers in their neighborhood.

Yet the Park Hill community considers itself - and is considered - a neighborhood success. A five-bedroom home that sold for $13,500 during the thick of the integration fray is today appraised at $122,000. The neighborhood's reputation is upscale, with whites continuing to buy.

Moreover, as the banking and political climate became more liberal, even the Realtors Code changed. It now reads: ``The Realtor shall not ... discriminate,'' and Park Hill residents had it posted on their symposium bulletin board.

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