DENVER, Colorado — When communities work to improve run-down neighborhoods, they often rely on architects’ drawings and written documents to describe the changes they propose to residents.
But a non-profit organization uses one-day facelifts to show the public a full-scale, working model of planned improvements for neglected streets with big upgrade potential.
That's how an older, mostly unoccupied commercial district near downtown Denver, Colorado, came to life for a day on a recent Saturday.
A street musician strummed his guitar as people walked, biked and pushed baby strollers down 25th Avenue in Jefferson Park. A crowd enjoyed lunch in a flower-filled outdoor patio that had been an empty stretch of sidewalk the day before. One of the empty storefronts became a bike rental shop. Another was a restaurant for the day.
Benches, trees and flowers were brought in for what looked like a street festival, but there was a more serious objective, as Denver Mayor Michael Hancock told the crowd.
"Thank you for what you’re doing to make our city great, to create more livable communities, more livable, living streets, and to help make Jefferson Park a better block," he said.
Better Block Project
The inspiration for the transformation came from a national program called the Better Block Project
The program promotes urban redevelopment by helping local activists demonstrate how a renovated marketplace and beautified cityscape can attract crowds and create a vibrant social and economic atmosphere.
Volunteers can spend months getting ready for the short-term transformations.
"Two weeks ago, these spaces were empty, and by empty, I mean rats and pigeons and you name it. And today it’s [an] art gallery and a bike shop and restaurants," said architect Gosia Kung, who heads up a citizen group called Walk Denver, part of the coalition working to revitalize the city’s urban neighborhoods.
The event was designed to help people realize just how exciting this neighborhood could be.
"This is a kind of low-budget way to create this environment without having to ask for a million-dollar national grant," Kung said.
Exploring the possibilities
To encourage people to spend the day exploring the possibilities of a revitalized block, organizers invited food trucks to roll in for the day, and set up sidewalk tables where diners could sit and relax.
One popular food truck offered a selection of tacos. Another served pizza, baked in a wood fired oven.
The festive atmosphere appealed to local business owners, like Francisco Bustamente, who runs a corner grocery. "I like this project. I like the party," he said.
Women dressed in traditional, rainbow colored skirts danced in front of Bustamente’s Mexican market, while his family served up slices of fresh mango at an outdoor booth.
Mary Mackey, who has run an art studio here for two decades, also liked the day’s party atmosphere, but said most American communities are so spread out that people still have to drive to get anywhere worth getting to.
"It’d be nice to get out of our cars and be able to bike and walk more places, but we’re just not that dense of a population like in Europe, so it’s a little more difficult," she said.
A better block
Mackey has seen better times. Although she’d like to see the improvements that would attract more customers, she worries that might raise her rent and wonders whether the neighborhood is truly ready for a better block.
"The trees, yeah. Benches, I don’t think they’d last very long," Mackey said. "They’d either get graffitied [vandalized] or stolen."
But Susan Shephard, who represents Jefferson Park on the Denver City Council, believes it’s time to improve the neighborhood.
“It’s heart-breaking to look around and see 60 percent of these storefronts vacant on a regular basis," she said. " And I got here today, and I am so excited. Because it’s vibrant here, and there are people and folks are walking around and talking to each other. This is exactly what a real living street is.”
According to Gosia Kung, there’s more work ahead to get full neighborhood approval for these changes.
"We’re working with local business owners on establishing a local improvement district to raise funds, to raise support and make these changes permanent," Kung said.
The changes along 25th Avenue were temporary. By the following Monday, the flower boxes again stood empty on a largely lifeless street. But Kung hopes the excitement created in one day will lead to lasting change on 25th Avenue, and on other streets in the city.