La Alma Lincoln Park (LALP) is not only one of Denver’s oldest residential neighborhoods, with a rare concentration of homes built before 1890, but it was also at the heart of Denver’s Chicano Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The neighborhood demonstrates the close connection between place and people, made tangible by the surviving structures set close together, diverse in their architectural styles yet maintaining a consistent pattern for 150 years, all drawn together by the central role of the public park in the neighborhood’s core, today also named La Alma Lincoln Park.
Since 2017 Historic Denver has been working closely with LALP residents through one of our Action Fund projects. Neighborhood representatives applied to Historic Denver for funds and technical assistance to document the neighborhood’s history and buildings, and to seek strategies to protect and honor the unique historic context and cultural heritage of the neighborhood. This work is now culminating in a proposal for a new Cultural Historic District in the neighborhood’s northern blocks along Lipan, Mariposa, and parts of Kalamath between 10th and 14th. A group of current and former residents is leading the effort, with support from Historic Denver.
The land was first home to the Apache, Ute, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Arapahoe peoples. The area, near the Cherry Creek and the South Platte River, was along migratory paths and groups set up seasonal encampments regularly; however, due to the floodplain, there was no permanent settlement in the immediate area until the beginnings of Denver and the town of Auraria. In the 1870s, Alexander Cameron Hunt (referred to as A. C. Hunt or Governor Hunt) was among the most prominent and earliest of the area’s permanent residents. Hunt homesteaded what became the future park, known as Lincoln Park for its first century, which became a central focal point as the neighborhood grew with residential properties constructed to the north, south, and large industrial development to the west of the park.
The neighborhood was built around key industries including the railroad (Denver & Rio Grande/Burnham Yards), flour mill (Mullen and Davis Four Mill), and other manufacturing industries. The neighborhood’s earliest residents, many who were German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Mexican immigrants, were employed by the nearby industries, which were within walking distance of their homes. A tightknit community developed, along with a strong sense of belonging to the neighborhood. Many of the homes in the proposed district date to this early period, with more than half constructed by 1900.
By the mid-twentieth century, due to new waves of in-migration, LALP had a large population of Latinos, Hispanos, and Mexican American residents and homeowners, including many who became influential leaders of the Chicano Movement. Denver was at the forefront of the national Chicano Movement, inspired by many residents of this neighborhood. Numerous leaders and activists recall their youth in the neighborhood and time spent in or near the Park. The Movement represents the convergence of independent issues: land rights, labor rights, long-term discrimination, opposition to the Vietnam war, civil rights as embodied in the Civil Rights Movement, cultural identity, lack of equity in education, and the inadequacy of the dominant political institutions to represent or address Chicano/a issues.
LALP homes, along with the federal housing projects that are no longer extant, were safe havens where Movement organizers and supporters lived, worked and gathered. The Movement was fostered in part through voluntary social service groups (many known as mutualistas) to assist Chicano/a families and help organize individuals and groups to be involved in the Movement.
One of the greatest concerns that galvanized the Movement was equity in education. The ongoing unequal access to facilities, the lack of bilingual programs, and disrespect for cultural heritage in public education programs sparked the blow out at Denver’s West High School in the spring of 1969. West High students and students from other Denver junior high and high schools gathered at West and marched through the neighborhood to Lincoln Park over several days. These marches, along with other events and activities, made Lincoln Park historically important ground for Chicanos/as rights in Denver (Leonard Vigil interview, 2 Sept 2017), and further made the La Alma Lincoln Park neighborhood an incubator for the Chicano Movement. The blow outs are also connected to Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales who was involved with the Neighborhood Youth Corps, which gathered in various locations in the proposed district. He launched the Crusade for Justice in 1966, which helped fortify the Chicano Movement locally and nationally.
Another significant sign of the Movement’s connection to the neighborhood is through the murals that exist on both public and private buildings. Artist Emanuel Martinez is a key figure in the creation of these murals and in developing the Chicano/a Mural Movement in Denver. One of the Chicano Murals that still exists is on the LALP recreation center titled “La Alma,” designed by Martinez in 1978.
Most of the residences in the district are single-story cottages in modest versions of the Italianate and Queen Anne architectural styles constructed between 1879 and 1889. Among other modest styles seen throughout LALP are the Terrace (usually two to six units), Dutch Revival, Foursquare, Bungalow, Victorian Cottage, and Classic Cottage residences. The vernacular homes were not built by recognized architects, but often reflect careful craftsmanship and popular architectural styles of their time in a simplified manner.
During the early part of the 20th century and increasing in the 1930s, Mexican American, Hispano and Latino families moved into LALP in growing numbers. As new residents and families purchased or rented the older homes, they began to adapt the homes to meet their needs. Common adaptations include enclosing porches and adding dormers in order to create more living space. The classic iron fences enclosing the small front yards throughout the district were either maintained or replaced with more readily available material, such as chain link. Many of these changes reflect the ideals and economies of the people that altered them and took place as the Chicano Movement began to swell in the neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s. Maintaining the aging homes as safe spaces for families, for gatherings, and for mutualistas, along with the highly important front porch and front lawn areas, was a key ingredient to the strong sense of shared community.
The 1975 National Register for Historic Places nomination for The Westside Neighborhood, including the proposed local district boundary, noted “Such clear evidence of how many Americans once lived provides us with a memory by which to judge the present and serves to put the outstanding mansions and public buildings that occasionally are preserved into context which is more accurate historically.” Nearly fifty years later, we can add to this context the story of this place, which is now layered with meaning by the generations that have called La Alma Lincoln Park home.
Community members anticipate submitting the application for the proposed district in early Spring, and if successfully approved by Denver City Council after the public process, the district will become the first to be designated using the city’s new cultural heritage criteria in the Denver Landmark Ordinance. The research and application were prepared by Fairhill & Co., with additional drafting by Tanya Mote and Shannon Stage. The neighborhood team has spent significant time conducting outreach regarding this project, including hosting walking tours and several community meetings hosted by the city’s Landmark team to shape the current proposal and create custom design-guidelines that will support owners in preserving the layered built environment. Former Councilman Paul Lopez and current Councilwoman Jamie Torres have been engaged throughout the process.
As the proposal moves through the City of Denver process in early 2021 there will be several opportunities to learn more and provide input, including a meeting explaining the details of the proposal later this Spring. Please check back for updates about when these presentations and meetings will occur.