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 [http://www.lodo.org/walking_tour/hopalleychineseriothtm.htm]. 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
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 http://www.denvergov.org/Portals/142/documents/BallparkSummary.pdf ).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.