Curtis Park: Denver's First Streetcar Suburb

The neighborhood just to the northeast of downtown Denver, now called Curtis Park for the city park in its midst, is the creation of the city's first golden age, that time between 1870, when the railroad came to town, and 1893, when the Silver Crash brought a rude end to Denver's early prosperity. During that brief period, the rate of Denver's population growth was higher than that of any other city in the country. From a modest 4,759 in 1870, just twenty years later, in 1890, the city had 106,713 inhabitants. One historian has called it an "instant city."

Denver's incredible growth was matched by its optimism about the future. Already in 1871, just a year after the railroad arrived, the first streetcar line, equipped with horse-drawn cars, was laid out. Beginning at 7th and Larimer Streets, it eventually turned onto Champa at 16th and continued up that street until it reached 27th. At the time of its initial construction, the extension of the line along the still-unpaved Champa Street must have seemed like a shot in the dark, to serve little or no purpose unless it was to transport revelers out to Billy Wise's National Park, a resort at the end of the line where, east of the city limits, "suppers for private parties" and "the purest and best liquors" awaited. A reporter for the Rocky Mountain News wrote, in the streetcar line's first year of service, that a new suburb would surely arise along its path. He also noted, however, that the land it served was, in its present state, "remote and unvaluable."

But Denver's population explosion had created a housing boom that was about to sweep away any and all traces of Billy Wise's pleasure grounds. In 1879, when another reporter from the News rode the line all the way to its terminus at 27th and Champa, he found conditions along the line had changed dramatically. "The spirit of improvement," he wrote, "is unabated." Wherever he looked he noticed "substantial brick residences" being built. What he was witnessing was the amazing growth of the Curtis Park area.

By the time of Robinson's 1887 real estate maps, which show all the developed property in the city by that date, the majority of the houses between downtown and Downing Street, where Denver's original street grid comes to an end, had already been built. In a mere ten years or so, there had appeared on the arid, treeless prairie northeast of the original town settlement a superb collection of late nineteenth-century houses, rows of them one after another, on the closely platted streets.

The population that flowed into what has been called Denver's first streetcar suburb was fed by immigration from abroad and migration within the States. The newcomers arrived from Vermont and Virginia, Germany and Ireland. Many who came were adventurers, men drawn by the lure of a new territory to tame and settle, perhaps to grow rich in. The story of Vincent Markham may be taken as illustrative. When he died in his home at 2611 Stout in 1895, one of those who remembered him wrote, in the florid manner of the period, that he left Virginia because, "moved by the impulse ... that stirred his Norman ancestry to activity and adventure, he decided ... to seek his fortunes in the West, for ... he was possessed of ambition."

The young city that sprang up within sight of the mountains where gold had been discovered was too new, in too much of a hurry, to worry about living arrangements that noticed social and economic distinctions. An easy tolerance seems to have prevailed. To be sure, those who lived in Curtis Park appear to have been a fairly homogeneous group of western and northern European extraction; but there were considerable economic differences among them, still apparent in the houses they built, some large and lavish, others small and modest. Well-to-do railroad men lived in close proximity to blacksmiths, prosperous businessmen next door to bank clerks. Mrs. Josephine Brauch, who lived out her long life in the house at 2627 Champa where she was born, remembered another kind of tolerance. Her family was Irish Catholic, but her mother would not allow the children to play in their front yard on Saturday mornings in deference to the Jews who would be walking past on their way to the synagogue at Curtis and 24th.

Curtis Park's golden age lasted a scant twenty-some years; but even before the Silver Crash of 1893, an outmigration to Capitol Hill was well under way. Drawn by the allure of its social prestige, many of those who could afford to moved to the newer, more fashionable neighborhood. There were, of course, those among the prominent and prosperous who remained in their houses in the old neighborhood until their deaths. But even as they stayed put, the neighborhood began to change, to undergo that transformation that would allow it to survive, to serve new purposes, new migrations of people. By the teens and twenties of the new century, many of the houses of Curtis Park - perhaps most of them - had been divided up into small living units. What had been intended as single-family dwellings became boardinghouses where one rented a room or two, shared a bathroom down the hall, and perhaps a common eating area. The population of the neighborhood continued to reflect the same ethnic mix that first settled in the area, but it was now lower-middle-class, blue collar, in makeup.

By the 1940s, as the older population began to leave the neighborhood, Mexican Americans started to move in, originally to rent, then to buy up, the houses of Curtis Park, now a half-century old. The changing ethnic mix is nicely illustrated by the story of the Glover family, who owned the house at 2663 Curtis in the 1930s and 1940s, and their foster sons, P.S. and Tony Arroyo, children of Mexican parentage. When the boys were orphaned, Mr. and Mrs. Glover took in the Arroyo brothers and raised them in their home on Curtis Street. P.S. Arroyo eventually married the daughter of the Glovers and subsequently inherited the Curtis Street house from her parents. His brother, Tony, bought the house two doors down, at 2639 Curtis. Both brothers continued to live in their Curtis Street homes until their recent deaths, by which time they had become prominent members in a now largely Hispanic community.

After the outbreak of World War II, large numbers of Japanese Americans also came to live in Curtis Park. There were already some Americans of Japanese descent in the area before the war, as witness the presence of a Japanese Methodist church in the house at 2801 Curtis in 1919, which subsequently bought the church building at 2501 California in 1935. The pastor of that church, the Reverend Seijiro Uemura, is credited with helping persuade Colorado governor Ralph Carr to invite Japanese Americans who had been forced into relocation centers to take refuge in Colorado. When Governor Carr agreed to welcome the West Coast evacuees, thousands came, primarily in 1942 and 1943, many of whom settled in Curtis Park. Most of those who had taken up residence in the neighborhood under difficult circumstances left it as soon as they could afford to do so. By the 1970s only a few Japanese Americans still remained.

Despite the stability brought to the neighborhood by both Mexican-American and Japanese-American residents, Curtis Park was clearly in decline by the 1960s and 1970s. A number of the houses were in disrepair, others boarded up. Sandra Dallas, in her 1971 book, Cherry Creek Gothic, said of the area that it lay in "a semislum trance" waiting to be torn down or discovered and saved. A number of houses had, in fact, already been demolished, replaced only by the vacant lots where they had once stood. Again, many who could do so left the area, wanting to put behind them the stigma of living in a run-down, inner-city neighborhood.

One day in 1975, Josie Cosio, born and raised in Curtis Park, was talking to her brother near the corner of Curtis and 29th Street when he looked over and saw people at the abandoned house across the way. He expressed surprise and asked Josie what in the world they were doing over there. When she told him they had bought the house and were moving in, he said in disbelief that Curtis Park was a neighborhood you moved out of, not into. By that time, he had himself moved away, but Josie has stayed to be among those who have held out a welcoming hand to newcomers to the neighborhood.

For there were newcomers. Fortunately, the old houses of Curtis Park, however faded and bedraggled, hadn't lost their ability to charm and attract yet another group of new residents who could look beyond the abandonment and disrepair that had come to characterize the neighborhood to see what gems Curtis Park still contained. In 1975 a good portion of the neighborhood received a district designation on the National Register of Historic Places, calling attention to the incredible fact that nearly 500 houses from the late nineteenth century were still standing in the shadow of downtown Denver. Since that time, slowly but not surely, the decline of the neighborhood, which might well have proved terminal, has been stemmed. A new migration into Curtis Park has begun, prompted this time, in the first place, by a love of its great old houses, and then by the diversity of the life within it, a diversity to match that of the architectural treasures it contains. For Curtis Park remains what it has always been: a neighborhood of peoples from different places, different backgrounds, who have tacitly agreed to at least tolerate, at best enjoy, the complexity of their rich communal life.

Introduction and following entries from Curtis Park, Denver's Oldest Neighborhood by William Allen West, 2002. It should be noted that the Auraria neighborhood is considered Denver's oldest neighborhood, which predates the city's establishment. Please see the Auraria Neighborhood Guide

(As of 2015, it is reported that most of the structures in Curtis Park have been designated as historic, thanks to the efforts of the Curtis Park Neighborhood Association. This author also learned that at one time, the entire area of Curtis Park was considered as part of Five Points, but that as gentrification took hold, the "Curtis Park" distinction was strengthened because of the negative associations some people had with Five Points in those days.)