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Morrison Road cultural district could become Denver gem

Project is culmination of decades of Mexican-American roots in Westwood


"Who the heck want $9 tacos? Carrots don't belong in tacos ...," Denver City Councilmember Paul López quipped while talking about the cultural landscape of the city.

He was humorous, but he wasn't joking. López, a Mexican-American Denver native born and raised on the west side of the city - he's lived in the Westwood, Barnum and Valverde areas - has led the push to entrench Westwood's natural Mexican-American heritage as a cultural landmark that shows no sign of fading away.

"If you look around the country, other major cities, they have these enclaves, these beautiful cultural districts - Little Italy in New York, Chinatown in San Francisco," López said. "Denver has a lot to offer, and it's not just the 16th Street Mall."

López led the Denver City Council to approve a neighborhood plan - in which residents and businesses give input to the city on how they want their area to be developed - for Westwood, which included a proposal to make Morrison Road a cultural and commercial district.

That would involve more street art, a mix of retail stores that would reflect the Mexican-American culture of the area and using street spaces as a place for art and music, according to the plan. The last Westwood neighborhood plan was passed in 1986.

And although the city approved the new plan in July 2016, López said it's an extension of culture in Westwood that was decades in the making.

"The designation has been occurring naturally for decades with the population growth of Mexican-Americans in west Denver," López said. "The vision for Morrison Road (is) when you drive down the street, (you see) these murals, the boutiques, the fresh bread baking, little plazas that you can have coffee in, folks taking pictures with it before their quinceanera."

López said the district, which he said is informally called the Morrison Road Mercado district, would ideally have outdoor spaces with live music and street fairs. An official name has not yet been decided.

For López, the district comes in a long line of history for Mexican-Americans in Denver. Westwood is more than 80 percent Latino, according to 2014 Denver city data, and López said that's "not a secret."

"Think about Denver in the 1920s," López said. "Think about how until the 1970s, (there was) systematic racism, discrimination, that a lot of people faced in our city. And how you have a whole generation of people ... who don't speak Spanish because they were discouraged from speaking Spanish. People there who were denied loans started land-banking together. And they built a neighborhood.

"You want to invest in local businesses, and that's what they did."

A decade of work went into the plan, "and not only from people who identify themselves as Mexican-American," López said.

The process involved talking to businesses, residents and the neighborhood organization Westwood Unidos to gauge what the area wanted.

"It's a five-year commitment," said José Esparza, executive director of BuCu West, a Westwood nonprofit that supports development for businesses and cultural organizations. "There's $10,000 we match with a $10,000 grant that comes from the state."

Esparza said the plan involves a "streetscape plan" that involves building more scenic medians on Morrison Road and expanded sidewalks, as well as an atmosphere fit for businesses that are creative.

One business owner said there's been growth over the past two years in the area.

"The street changed; there are new apartments - it keeps growing," said Carlos Banvelos, one of the owners of Auto Express on Morrison Road. The shop's wall reads, "Cambio de Aceite," which means oil change.

López said some changes go back for years.

"We've been working to improve our neighborhood in west Denver through public art," López said. "We have a lot of graffiti walls, and it was such an eyesore to paint it gray. We worked with different artists and organizations to do murals on walls if we get permission from property owners. Over the last 10 years, you're really starting to see this pop up all over west Denver."

And for López, the solidifying of the culture goes beyond Morrison Road.

"It's reflected through (the) art, through the cuisine of the neighborhoods," he said. "You see these (yard) gates that are now iron and from Mexican culture. It doesn't necessarily need a formal designation, it just is what it is. And all we're doing is recognizing it."

López said gentrification is a citywide concern - especially in the north - but efforts like the plans for Morrison Road can be a part of combating that.

"How do you revitalize a neighborhood without gentrifying it?" López said. "It encourages local participation, local purchasing - it prioritizes people who are there."

López, who supported a similar push to make a traditionally Vietnamese area at the west end of Westwood into a business and cultural center - it became the Little Saigon Business District in 2014 - said it's all about continuing what's already happening the neighborhood.

"It's not as formal as you think it is," López said. "Just know that it happens naturally."


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