Plans under way to redevelop Five Points’ rich jazz and African American history

U.S. Senator Mark Udall, Councilwoman Carla Madison tour historic neighborhood

By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Planners of a major revitalization project in the Five Points neighborhood in Denver hosted U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and Denver City Councilwoman Carla Madison for a briefing and tour of the neighborhood on Saturday.

Wil Alston, executive director of the Five Points Business District, led the walking tour up Welton Street and to the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library. Alston said Udall is the first of several leaders who will be briefed on the project as the group seeks funding.

“Typically the way these grants work, they want to know you have support from your senators and congressional delegation,” Alston said.

Five Points Business District Director Wil Alston, U.S. Senator Mark Udall and Denver District 8 City Councilwoman Carla Madison in front of the old Rossonian Hotel.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Most details of the project — including costs — will not be publicly released until a public meeting is held July 8. The location of the meeting is yet to be determined but Alston confirmed it would take place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Developers said the goal of the project is to invoke Five Points’ rich jazz and African American history as a way to attract tourists. The project would improve the infrastructure on portions of Welton and Washington streets and restore the Rossonian Hotel, which once served as the rhythmic heartbeat for jazz music in Denver in the 1930s, '40s and '50s with such jazz greats as Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong all playing there.

“Through redevelopment, the Five Points Business District hopes to restore the area to its place as an entertainment, art, and cultural destination that honors Denver’s African-American history while strengthening the local economy,” Udall said.

Udall, a Democrat from Eldorado Springs, said Five Points could count on his support for the project.

“This was very helpful,” he said following the briefing. “If I’m asked [about the project] I will say, ‘I absolutely know about the project and absolutely we are going to help.’”

Alston said many pieces of the revitalization project are still being put into place including a community advisory team, which is now being formed. The team will include representatives from surrounding neighborhoods, business leaders, property owners and “some of the thinkers in the area who have a good grasp on how you get a community like ours to take its rightful place in the city as a critical asset,” Alston said.

Five Points Plaza owner Claudia Jordan talks with Sen. Udall about the historic area.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman
Blair Caldwell Library Security Guard James Everett greets Senator Udall below a mural depicting the civil rights struggle of Black Americans painted by Yvonne Muinde.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“The most critical piece is getting the advisory team seated and working,” Alston said. “This will serve as the community’s voice weighing in on this process — so it’s important we get that piece up and running.”

The prospect of improving Five Points has been boosted by two local initiatives: the Denver Neighborhood Marketplace Initiative and the state’s Sustainable Main Streets Initiative. The Main Street initiative was awarded to Five Points and three other communities across the state in April. The initiative was created through an executive order by Gov. Bill Ritter. Both initiatives have helped developers in Five Points gain access to more resources through private partners and state agencies, Alston said.

“It’s opened up a whole new world for us,” Alston said. “We’ve met with some foundations that we needed to get attention from and some state agencies which have helped us.”

At New Look Barbers on Welton Street, proprietor Dee C. McGee, center, listens as Sen. Udall and customer Gary Flowers converse.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman
Civil Technology Inc’s senior associate James Ellis with photographs of black pioneers Dr. Ernest McClain and Samuel Cary in the Blair Caldwell Library's Western Legacy Display.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

During the briefing, Alston said Five Points would depend on funding from private donors and public entities like the federal government, the state and the City of Denver.

Udall suggested that the neighborhood host a grant workshop and contact several of his staffers who specialize in grants.

“I was glad to offer my advice on obtaining federal funding for the project, and I look forward to continuing to work with the neighborhood to see their plans become reality,” the senator said.

Blair Caldwell Library Director Terry Nelson chats with Sen. Udall and Alston near a photo of Negro Baseball All-Star pitchers Bob Griffith and Chester Brewer.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman
Senator Udall examines a photograph of Samuel Cary, the first African American licensed to practice law in Colorado. Cary was admitted to the Colorado Bar in 1919.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

James Ellis, senior associate with Civil Technologies Inc., a minority-owned firm charged with working on the project, said this is the first time in decades a master plan to revitalize the area has been formed.

“Everybody just believes in what we’re doing,” Ellis said while standing in front of the Five Points Business District Office at 2444 Washington Street — an area that Ellis said was the most blighted stretch in Denver just 20 years ago. “Literally for 50 years it’s been a wasteland. We have the opportunity to lift the weight of 50 years and we’re hopeful (Five Points) will become the next place to be in Denver.

“It’s a compelling story — the history of this area. Part of the history is finding buried treasure,” he said. The Five Points name comes from the five-way intersection at Welton Street, 27th Street, 26th Avenue and Washington Street, northeast of downtown Denver.

The group first stopped at the shuttered Rossonian Hotel and then the Five Points Plaza where Colorado’s senior senator met with property owner Claudia Jordan.

The tour continued past a pink, purple and blue painted mural plastered on the Tubman Hilliard Global Academy depicting a saxophone player.

Wil Alston leads the parade up Welton Street, with Paul Sample, Senator Udall and Carla Madison and staff members in tow.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman
Senator Udall studies a correspondence on former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb’s desk, on display in Blair Caldwell Library’s Western Legacy Exhibit.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Inside the New Look Barbers shop at 2825 Welton Street, Udall met and took photos with owner Dee McGee, 77, and patron Gary Flowers, 55. When asked by Udall how business has been, McGee replied that it has been up and down but mostly consistent over the 36 years he’s owned the shop.

“I’ll be voting for you again,” Flowers, a political-science college graduate told Udall before he left.

The tour concluded at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library where Udall visited the “Who’s on First? The History of Negro League Baseball” exhibit on the second floor and several exhibits on the third floor.

For Madison, the tour was a reminder of the potential in Five Points, an area she represents on city council.

“I’m supportive of just about all efforts to try to bring in some new businesses, help revitalize some of these older buildings so that we can bring five points to life,” she said. “It’s incredible to me that we have this great little asset that’s a couple blocks from downtown and it has just had such a hard time developing.”