Sunday, September 30, 2007

Remembering the Destruction of Denver’s Chinatown and Avoiding the Mistakes of the Past

Remarkably, today there is no evidence that Chinatown ever existed in what is now the Lower Downtown (or LoDo) Historic District—apart from a small plaque placed by Lower Downtown District, Inc., on the site of a building at 20th Street between Market and Blake []. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine that LoDo, with its high-priced condominiums, upscale boutiques, and gentrified neighborhoods, once housed a thriving working-class Chinese-American community.”

From “History of and Memory: The Story of Denver’s Chinatown,” William Wei in Western Voices: 125 Years of Colorado Writing, Colorado Historical Society, 2004

A View of the Rockies supports urban infill and redevelopment efforts in Denver and believes that making Denver a denser, more transit-oriented city will promote the metro area’s physical, economic, cultural, environmental and social well being. Of course these changes to the built environment need to made in a way that is respectful to the cultural, historical and architectural context of the neighborhoods in which they occur. As we promote and celebrate the exciting changes that are happening in Denver today, we should always keep in mind that we want to avoid the mistakes of the past by preserving historically and culturally important places.

Let’s also keep in mind that building and maintaining a unique “sense of place” and promoting cultural and demographic diversity are keys to making cities attractive places to live, work and visit. These benefits enrich the city for residents, keep people from moving out to the suburbs, attract young, creative knowledge workers who crave idiosyncratic urban environments, draw in tourists and convince business travelers to stay over for the weekend to explore the city.

When I visited Denver a few weeks ago I spent time researching the history of Denver’s Chinese population in Lower Downtown and also exploring the Five Points neighborhood, the historic, cultural and economic center of Denver’s African American Community (more on Five Points in a later blog entry).

Many cities have destroyed or damaged unique urban neighborhoods in the name of “blight removal,” “slum clearance” and “urban renewal.” These neighborhoods were disproportionately populated by minority and lower income communities. Examples include the Fillmore District in San Francisco and the Hill District in Pittsburgh, which were vibrant regional centers of African American life. In Denver, urban renewal impacted many neighborhoods and communities. In this blog I focus on Denver’s Chinese district in Lower Downtown, which was chauvinistically known as “Hop Alley.”

Figure 1: Map of the Chinese Community in Lower Downtown Denver

Figure 1 from Master’s Thesis of Gerald E. Rudolph at Denver Public Library.

This district was originally located between Wazee and Blake and 15th and 17th Streets (see area "A" in Figure 1 above) but around 1900, the Chinese settlement moved to the alley between Blake and Market between 20th and 21st Streets. (see area “E” in the Figure 1 above and Figures 2a-c below). Also visit ).

Figure 2a: The Alley where Denver’s Chinatown was located between Blake and Market looking from 20th Street toward 21st Street in 1929.

Figure 2b: Group of People in Alley Between Blake and Market Streets in 1920

Figure 2c: Denver's Chinatown in the Alley Between Market and Blake and 20th and 21st Streets.

Figures 2a-c from the Photography Collection of the Western History/Genealogy Department at Denver Public Library. Copyright © 1995-2007

The Chinese community began arriving in Denver in substantial numbers in approximately 1870 and worked in railroad construction, gold mining, clothes laundering and other occupations. From the beginning, the Chinese suffered from hostility and discrimination including an infamous race riot on October 31, 1880 where one laundry worker, Look Young, was lynched and tens of thousands of dollars of damage was done to Chinese-owned property. The local press engaged in yellow journalism, writing sensationalized stories about opium dens, Tong wars and other vices ascribed to the Chinese population.

Despite these injustices, Denver’s Chinese community persevered and developed a culturally unique micro-neighborhood in Lower Downtown Denver. Although the neighborhood’s population was never as large as San Francisco’s Chinatown (estimates of peak population range from 1,000 to 3,000 people), it was a vibrant, culturally and historically distinct district which made contributions to early Denver’s history, economy and culture.

According to Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps from Denver in the early 20th Century, Denver’s Chinatown contained residences, businesses, retail stores and other Chinese-owned properties. According to William Wei, as the Chinese population grew larger, the Chinatown district began to offer imported speciality Chinese products and provided a home for Chinese doctors, butchers, cooks, cigar makers and grocers, adding vibrancy and culture to Denver and bringing tourists to the city.

In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which prevented new Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. Over time this Act caused the Chinese population of Denver to decline. In 1940 many buildings in the near-empty Chinatown were razed “before the army of social betterment…under the orders of Lyle D. Webber, chief city building inspector,” (Denver Post, June 14, 1940, page 1) forcing the remaining Chinese population to disperse. According to The Denver Post, the condemned property, from 2021 to 2047 Market Street ,was owned by Chinese-American families up until the time the buildings were destroyed.

Figure 3: Headline from June 14th 1940 article in The Denver Post.

Today all that remains of Denver’s Chinatown neighborhood are memories and photographs. After the buildings which made up Chinatown were demolished, the alley between Blake and Market and 20 and 21st Streets, which was once the heart of the Chinese district, was filled in by the construction of warehouses and industrial buildings almost as if to permanently prevent the Chinese from ever returning to this location. Note, in the contemporary photograph in Figure 4 below, the alley is blocked by the large red brick "Public Storage" warehouse which was built across the right of way where the alley previously ran.

Figure 4: Contemporary Photograph looking from 20th Street toward 21st Street, where the Chinatown Alley Once Ran Between Market and Blake Streets.

The alley between Market and Blake Streets still exists between and 19th and 20th and 21st and 22nd Streets providing a hint as to what the alley would have looked like between 20th and 21st Streets if it was still in existence today. See Figures 5 and 6 below.

Figure 5: Contemporary View of Alley Between Market and Blake Streets Looking From 20th toward 19th Street.

Figure 6: Contemporary View of Alley Between Market and Blake Streets Looking From 21st Toward 22nd Street.

Ironically, today many of the lots which contained the buildings which made up the Chinatown district are vacant or underutilized as is demonstrated by the contemporary photograph (Figure 7) below of the block between Market and Blake and 20th and 21st Streets. We lost a unique historical and cultural neighborhood and more than 65 years later we still don’t even have much to show for it.

Figure 7: Contemporary View of Underutilized Property on Blake Street Street from 21st Street Looking Toward 20th Street Where Chinatown Buildings Once Stood.

If the neighborhood had been left architecturally intact, it is difficult to say if Denver’s Chinatown would have organically rejuvenated itself as new cohorts of immigrants arrived in Denver or would have dwindled out of existence? If the neighborhood had survived, imagine how much more interesting and vibrant LoDo would be with a thriving Chinese-American economic and cultural district located across Blake Street from Coors Field? Sadly we will never be able to conclusively answer those questions because the neighborhood was destroyed.

As we celebrate Halloween this year, let’s remember that it will be the 127th anniversary of Denver's infamous anti-Chinese riot and more than sixty-seven years since the physical buildings of Chinatown were destroyed. We can use these memories to guide us in future efforts to preserve and protect Denver's historically and cultural important neighborhoods as the city is redeveloped and reinvigorated.

The following sources were used in this blog entry: The Denver Post, “Denver ‘Chinatown’ Ordered Torn Down,” June 14, 1940,” and “Hop Alley, Tong War Now Dim Memories," April 26, 1949; The Chinese in Colorado, 1869 – 1911, Master’s Thesis of Gerald E. Rudolph at the University of Denver, August 1964; “History of and Memory: The Story of Denver’s Chinatown,” William Wei in Western Voices: 125 Years of Colorado Writing, Colorado Historical Society, 2004. Denver Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps from June 1912, updated 1925, Volume 2, Map 183 and 184. Denver Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from 1929, updated 1961, Volume 1, Map 183. Special thanks to Bruce Hanson, reference librarian in the Western History and Genealogy Department in the Denver Public Library main branch who helped me uncover many of these sources.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Relatively Low International Air Traffic at DIA: Part II

In my September July 13th and September 5th blog entries I discussed the fact that Denver International Airport (DIA) (the 5th busiest airport in the U.S.) “punches above Metro Denver’s population weight” (the 19th largest consolidated metropolitan statistical area (CMSA)) in the United States). However, in my September 5th entry I also pointed out that, domestically, DIA is the 4th busiest airport but for international passengers DIA “punches below Denver’s population weight” because it is only the 22nd busiest airport for international passenger originations. In this blog entry I explore the reasons underlying this dearth of international passengers at DIA.

To validate the data cited earlier on DIA international originations, I reviewed the U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of Tourism and Travel Industries ( ) data on overseas visitors to select U.S. cities. This data is based on the Survey of International Air Travelers (In-Flight Survey) Program and the Visitor Arrivals Program (I-94 Form). According to this data, Denver is the 28th most popular City in the U.S. for international visitors.

I theorize that there are four primary interrelated factors which drive metro areas’ international air traffic density:
1) the location of metro areas within the United States relative to international destinations;
2) the absolute number of U.S. metro area residents with ethnic ties to overseas destinations;
3) the amount of international business linkages between overseas destinations and U.S. metro areas;
4) the amount of tourism between domestic metro areas and overseas destinations.

One of the reasons Denver ranks so high for domestic air traffic is because it is centrally located in the western United States between the large cities of the west coast and the mid-west making it an ideal domestic air hub. However, from an international air traffic perspective, hub cities in the United States tend to be located on the U.S. coasts, closes to the international destinations they serve as a hub for. For example, New York is a large hub for transatlantic European flights, Los Angeles for transpacific destinations and Miami for flights to Latin America, the Caribbean and South America.

Additionally, cities with large absolute numbers of ethnic residents with strong ties back to ancestral homelands have a ready made demand for direct international flights and are likely to have high international flight densities. The City of Denver which is a reasonable proxy for the Metro Denver area as a whole, has the 24th highest percent of foreign born population among U.S. cities. See Table 1 below.

Given that the Denver Metro Area is the 19th largest area in overall population, Denver does not have a large absolute number of foreign born residents driving demand for international flights compared to larger metro areas with higher percentages of foreign born populations.

Table 1: Large Cities Ranked by Percent of Foreign-Born Population in 2002


Another key factor in driving international air traffic to U.S. metro areas is international business linkages between overseas destinations and U.S. metro areas. For example, New York City’s status as a global financial capital clearly drives demand for international air flights to and from New York. One possible proxy for measuring international business linkages is the size and number of multi-national corporations with headquarters located in an area. The State of Colorado is ranked 13th highest among the states in terms of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the state (most of the Fortune 500 companies in Colorado are in the Denver Metro Area).

Table 2: States Ranked by Number of Fortune 500 Headquarters in 2007

(Source: )

Although I have not found good hard data on Denver’s ranking as an international tourist destination compared to other U.S. metro areas, some broad conclusions can be drawn. With its ski industry and year round alpine recreation amenities, Metro Denver and Colorado have a substantial tourism industry. However, Metro Denver is not as big a draw as coastal metro areas in states like California, New York, Florida, and Massachusetts.

Given, Denver’s land locked geographic position in the Western United States, its relatively low absolute number of foreign born residents compared to larger cities and other factors cited above, it is not too surprising that Denver has a relatively low density of international air traffic. There is probably not a “magic bullet” for Denver to rapidly increase the number of international destinations that are served by DIA. Instead, over time, as the Denver economy grows and develops additional international linkages I predict there will be a slow but steady incremental gain in international air traffic ultimately resulting in direct international flights between Denver and the Pacific Rim and additional cities around the world.

If I am missing any of the key reasons for DIA’s relatively low international flight density please send me a comment or email.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Global Credit Squeeze and Metro Denver Real Estate Development

I am doing a short blog entry this week because I am headed to Denver tomorrow for a visit with family and friends and to spend time enjoying the Denver Metro area and exploring new developments around the region. This should give me lots of new material for future blog entries.

I am very excited about my visit to Metro Denver but wish I had a more optimistic blog topic than the one I am thinking about today: Will the global credit squeeze derail any of the large privately financed development projects underway in Metro Denver?

Today’s Rocky Mountain News reports that German lender HypoVerinsbank has pulled its $175 million construction loan for Spire ( , the 41-story residential condominium tower, in downtown Denver. (,1299,DRMN_414_5694959,00.html ). This news story made me very nervous.

According to the Spire development team, they believe they will be able to find a new lending partner and the loss of this financing will not impact the tower’s construction which has already begun. I hope they are right on both accounts.

Ultimately this incident raises the question: Is this an isolated occurrence or the first in a series of adverse consequences stemming from global capital market corrections which will impact locally in Colorado? Only time will tell but, as a Denver booster, I am hoping it is the former. Denver is poised to make important strides in improving the quality of its downtown built environment through private capital investments and it would be a huge shame if momentum was lost due to forces beyond local control. A View of the Rockies will be paying close attention to this issue in the coming weeks and months.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Relatively Low International Air Traffic at DIA

Denver International Airport (DIA) was the 5th busiest airport in the United States in 2006 based on the number of passengers on non-stop flight segments originating in Denver per data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (

Total Passengers on Non-Stop Flights in 2006

by Originating U.S. Airport

However, as I have flown in and out of Denver over the years, I have always noticed how relatively few international flights DIA has compared to other large airports in the United States. According to the DIA website 18 international cities can be reached from DIA via non-stop flights including London, England, Frankfurt and Munich, Germany and numerous cities in Canada and Mexico. (see for the complete list). The Munich flight was just launched in March of 2007. Denver is working to initiate direct flight services to Tokyo and Beijing in Asia.

When you look at the BTS data, it turns out that although Denver is the 5th busiest overall airport in the United States and the 4th busiest airport in terms of originating domestic non-stop passengers, it is only the 22nd busiest airport in the United States in terms of originating passengers on international flights.

Domestic Passengers on Non-Stop Flights in 2006

by Originating U.S. Airport

International Passengers on Non-Stop Flights in 2006

by Originating U.S. Airport

Per the two tables immediately above, there is clearly a large drop off from being the 4th busiest airport in terms of domestic non-stop passengers to being only 22nd busiest for international passengers. This large disparity between international and domestic air traffic densities at DIA merits analysis and discussion which I plan to provide in a future blog entry.