Denver's Harlem of the West legacy endures amid change

RUSSELL CONTRERAS
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In this Sept. 17, 2016 photo, a monument to the now closed jazz club at the Rossonian Hotel informs visitors of the once celebrated spot in Denver's Five Points neighborhood that played host to Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong in Denver, Colo. The neighborhood is where Count Basie and Miles Davis also performed and novelist Jack Kerouac wrote part of "On The Road." The historic black neighborhood is facing gentrification with new breweries and coffee shops near buildings that once housed jazz clubs and consequential black-owned businesses. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

DENVER (AP) — The neighborhood was once called "The Harlem of the West." It's a place where Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis performed to packed rooms not far from the snowcapped Rocky Mountains. For years, the area served as a haven for black residents who couldn't find housing elsewhere in the American West.

But the historic black neighborhood of Denver's Five Points now faces the encroachment of gentrification with new breweries and coffee shops near the buildings that once housed jazz clubs and black-owned businesses.

Still, visitors can experience the character and history of Five Points despite the changes and fears that the community's African-American identity may be endangered.

Five Points is located on the northeast side of Downtown Denver. Its name comes from an intersection of streets and a streetcar stop.

The area became a hot spot in the 1920s for black families who were kept out of other Denver neighborhoods. Black-owned tailor shops, restaurants, jazz clubs, voting rights headquarters and real estate companies dotted the streets of Five Points, creating one of the most vibrant African-American communities west of the Mississippi River.

But as the 1960s civil rights movement made it easier for black performers, writers and entrepreneurs to work and live outside African-American communities, neighborhoods around the country like Five Points began to fade.

Today, a simple drive or rail ride can take you to the heart of Five Points from Downtown Denver. Visitors can start at Sonny Lawson Park and walk around the softball field where the white writer Jack Kerouac famously worked on "On The Road" and tried to capture the spirit of the bebop movement as he saw it in Five Points. As in Kerouac's Beatnik era, homeless campers still rest next to the softball field, and some are eager to tell you Kerouac legends that have been passed down for generations.

The Black American West Museum, 3091 California St., tells little-known stories of black cowboys, miners and other early African-American settlers in the West. The museum's hours are limited (Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.) but its artifacts and photos are worth seeking out.

On Welton Street, visitors can stop by the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library where genealogy groups gather to investigate family history. The library has an art/exhibit gallery and a reference collection that covers a variety of African-American topics. It also serves as a community gathering place.

Down the street, one can stroll to the Roxy Theatre and Cervantes Masterpiece & the Other Side music venues. They once hosted jazz legends but now showcase hip hop. In a sign of the times, between the historic venues sits the Denver Kush Club, a recreational marijuana shop (it's legal in Colorado).

Across the street sits the now-closed jazz club at the Rossonian Hotel, where Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong performed. A poster of Holiday and information about the Rossonian's history hangs on the building's brick exterior.

Throughout Five Points are markers with black and white photos letting visitors know the significance of each location. You will learn how Leroy Smith, a Pullman porter, brought back the latest rhythm and blues records to Five Points and created a novelty store that sold albums and sporting goods. He became a promoter who represented the likes of Count Basie and Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali.

You also will learn how Pullman porters formed a union hall and got involved in the civil rights movement. Wellington Webb Jr., the son of one of those Pullman porters, would eventually become Denver's first black mayor.

"We had it all," reads another marker showing photographs of thriving businesses and Ford Model Ts. Other markers describe the area's first black lawyer and how residents navigated segregation.

Denver's Five Points isn't the only historically black enclave changed by population shifts and revitalization. In New York, neighborhoods like Harlem and Brooklyn's Fort Greene have lost black residents as rents have risen. Seminal black-owned landmarks, like Harlem's Lenox Lounge, have shuttered. Activists in Houston's Freeman's Town have worked to prevent brick streets laid by former slaves from being uprooted despite development pressures.

On the other hand, some of Five Points' new businesses are opening in storefronts that have long sat empty, and they're making an effort to recognize the neighborhood's roots.

The 715 Club, founded by the son of a Pullman porter at the corner of Welton and 26th, had been closed for years before a 2016 reopening. "We are a neighborhood bar in the heart of 5 Points trying to preserve a piece of Welton history," the new owners say on their Facebook page.

Austin Wiley helped open Spangalang Brewery in a former Five Points DMV office in 2015. Wiley and the brewery's other owners opted to reflect Five Points' history with a jazz theme. The brewery's name, Spangalang, for example, is the term used to describe the bread-and-butter jazz cymbal rhythm. Beer names like "Birth of the Cool" and "Hop Colossus" are homages to Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins.

"It's the right thing to do," Wiley said. "We are coming into this neighborhood, and we have to be respectful."

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/russell-contreras .