July/August 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 6

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Wheel Utopias: Denver’s Urban Transitions Seen by Bicycle

Lucy Dwight and Joshua Goode, University of Colorado-Denver

Photo Source: www.bcyclemediaroom.com

Who knew that bicycles were controversial? In 2010, Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes opposed efforts to implement a bike-sharing program in Denver, linking his opponent, then-mayor of Denver John Hickenlooper, with Denver’s membership in an international environmental initiative that Maes claimed was promoting the program as part of a “greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty.” Nonetheless, Denver’s bicycle-sharing program was implemented later that year (Denver Post 2010).

B-cycle of Denver was the first large-scale municipal bike sharing program in the country. It originated with the 2008 Democratic National Convention when volunteers and bike advocates used bicycles for transportation as part of an initiative to “green” the convention. After the convention, a partnership emerged to fund, plan, and implement bike-sharing in the city permanently. The first stations and bicycles in Denver were put in place for Earth Day 2010. Currently, there are more than 50 stations and more than 500 bikes are available throughout the city, and riders have logged over 400,000 miles on the bikes. Ultimately, organizers would like to provide 1,500 bikes at 150 stations throughout the metro Denver area (Denver Post 2012a).

B-cycle provides free use of bicycles for 30 minutes. Users place a credit-card deposit online or at a bike station, select a bicycle, and return it to any station in the system. If a rider uses the bike for longer than 30 minutes, they are charged until the bike is returned to a station. Users can check out and dock a bike as many times as they like (B-cycle 2012).

During the 2012 Annual Meeting in Denver, the Sociology Department at University of Colorado-Denver (CU) has organized two activities to highlight the B-Cycle program.

First, a regional spotlight session, titled Wheel Utopias: Bringing Bike Sharing to Denver,will describe the vision of the B-Cycle program and its public supporters; the synergy between city government, grassroots organizers, and corporate sponsors to implement the B-Cycle program; an analysis of neighborhood patterns of ridership; and challenges to the B-Cycle program’s efforts to broaden ridership to include low-income urban communities. Panelists will include Denver B-Cycle’s Executive Director, the Denver Director of Strategic Marketing, and a local expert in GIS analysis applied to urban populations. For more information, see the program schedule.

Second, the university’s Students of Sociology Club has coordinated with B-cycle to offer a guided bike tour of five central Denver neighborhoods. The tour will last about 90 minutes, including scheduled stops in each of the neighborhoods described below. The tour departs from the Colorado Convention Center on Sunday, August 19 at 10 am. Participants will be provided with a bicycle, helmet, and a printed copy of the route, and tour highlights. Participants may sign up at (www.asanet.org/AM2012/index.cfm).

In keeping with the theme of this year’s ASA Annual Meeting, Real Utopias, the bicycle tour focuses on central Denver locations that reflect historical efforts to enhance urban living, with varying degrees of success. Civic Center Park is an example of the early 20th century City Beautiful movement. Beginning in the mid-20th century, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) initiated urban redevelopment of blighted areas in the city core. Three of the five areas on the tour were targeted by DURA between 1959 and 1973—Blake Street, the Auraria neighborhood/campus, and Skyline. The Highlands neighborhood represents a long-standing ethnic enclave community that has experienced substantial gentrification recently.

Civic Center Park

No one influenced the design of central Denver more than Robert W. Speer, mayor from 1904 to 1912 and 1916 until his death in 1918. Speer was influenced by the City Beautiful movement promoted during the 1897 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Denver’s neighborhoods are filled with an extensive system of urban parks. Civic Center Park, opened in 1919, incorporates a number of neo-classical elements from its Greek open-air theater and Voorhies Memorial Colonnade, to its symmetrical gardens surrounded by civic institutions such as the Denver Art Museum and the Denver Central Library. The park is bookended by the gold-domed Colorado State Capitol and the Denver City and County Building (Civic Center Conservancy 2012). Civic Center Park is currently under consideration for National Historic Landmark status, a first for Denver.

In recent years, Civic Center Park has hosted a number of public events even as it has battled a reputation for drug-dealing and homelessness. For example, this summer, food trucks will converge most Tuesdays and Thursdays. Occupy Denver has maintained a presence there periodically, though Denver recently enacted a camping ban throughout the city that has upset protestors and homeless advocates alike (Simmons 2012).

Blake Street

In 1956, the Rocky Mountain News declared the Blake Street neighborhood “Denver’s worst slum.” At that time, less than one-third of the homes had indoor toilet facilities and most were wedged between industrial plants and warehouses. Beginning in 1959, DURA began acquiring and clearing both residential and commercial properties while the City’s Public Works and State Highway departments worked to improve traffic flow, repave streets, and install curbs and gutters. Urban renewal efforts included expansion of St. Charles Park to provide a greater buffer between the expanded industrial zone and neighborhoods to the southeast. DURA’s redevelopment efforts along Blake were completed in 1973 (DURA 2008).


Auraria derives from the Latin term aurum, or gold, and reflects the fascination with gold found near the junction of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. This area in central Denver was established in 1858 by the Russell brothers as a mining town. During the mid-19th century, the neighborhood was home to Central and Eastern European immigrants (DURA 2008). The oldest synagogue in the Denver area, now a museum, is located in the area. By the 1920s, the population was almost exclusively Latino.

In 1965, the South Platte River flooded, putting much of Auraria underwater. An evaluation of the damaged neighborhood led city officials to consider an urban redevelopment project to house three institutions of higher learning—Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State University, and the University of Colorado Denver. Father Peter Garcia of St. Cajetan’s Catholic Church and angry residents formed the Auraria Residents’ Organization to resist the displacement of neighborhood families, but this effort ultimately failed (DURA 2008). As part of negotiations, displaced residents, their children, and grandchildren are eligible for free tuition at any of the Auraria institutions for up to eight semesters.

Auraria campus construction was completed in 1976.  Buildings that were preserved included the Tivoli Brewery (now the Auraria campus student union), Immanuel Episcopal Church, St. Elizabeth’s, and St. Cajetan’s churches, as well as the Ninth Street Historic District


In the mid-1960s, this downtown area was known as Denver’s skid row, with aging and obsolete infrastructure as well as vacant and abandoned buildings. In addition to more than 700 businesses, the area was home to some 1,600 individuals and 95 families when it was targeted for redevelopment. Nearly all of the residents were considered disadvantaged, often jobless and in poor health. The redevelopment effort transformed downtown Denver through construction of commercial, residential and public spaces, including the 16th Street Mall, Skyline Park, Writer Square, and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

In 1963, Denver resident Dana Crawford formed Larimer Square Associates, which successfully prevented the demolition of the 1400 block of Larimer Street by DURA. Crawford pioneered the redevelopment of Larimer Square throughout the coming years, creating a lively shopping area from the neglected and abandoned buildings of Denver’s original main street. Larimer Square became Denver’s first historic district in 1971.


The Highlands neighborhood is located just across the South Platte River from downtown. It was first incorporated in 1875 as a wealthy ‘suburb’ to the city with its own municipality but merged with the city of Denver in 1896. By this time, the Highlands had transitioned to an immigrant-dominated area with Irish, German, English and a bit later, Italian enclaves forming. The Highlands continued as an immigrant destination throughout the 20th century, becoming predominantly Latino, particularly Mexican-American, by the latter half of the century. Within the past couple of decades, however, the attractive housing stock and proximity to downtown have contributed to rapid gentrification by non-Latino white professional residents. According to 2010 Census data, the Highlands population is now more than 57 percent non-Latino white, higher than Denver as a whole. The Latino population in 2010 was estimated at just over 37 percent. This marks a remarkable change from 2000 when the Highlands held a population that was over 66 percent Latino and less than 30 percent white (Piton 2012).  


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