I’m two months into a job for denverite.com, an online-only news source for metropolitan Denver. For my hunger and housing beat, I’ve covered a community meeting about affordable housing at which a man bravely spoke of the anguish of losing his condo to foreclosure, hoping his experience could be a lesson to others. I’ve jotted down notes about seniors, struggling and proud, who won’t sign up for food benefits because they believe that would mean taking something away from younger people they believe are in greater need.
Which is to say I write about people’s sense of home, their place in the world, their identity.
On a single day, two stories I wrote received very different reactions.
First, a little Christmas tree was delivered to the office and placed on my desk.
A few hours later, an angry email landed in my queue.
The tree was from David. I had written about him almost by accident. I had been standing on a construction site interviewing a real estate agent about the feverish development in the Golden Triangle. I noticed activity next door in a tiny shop where a florist had recently closed down her business. I was sure the shop was destined to be bulldozed to make way for a sleek duplex. I went in expecting to encounter heavy equipment operators taking measurements. Instead I found David, who had managed the place for the florist. Now he and two partners – three partners if you count his shelter rescue mutt Henry – were going into business there. David and Henry were puttering around that afternoon preparing a Christmas tree sale. Later, the revived shop would offer house plants, gifts and stationery.
My story about David and Henry struck a chord with longtime neighborhood residents who were happy to see something familiar moving in. Their reaction warmed David’s heart and he gave me the credit.
The angry email, on the other hand, was prompted by a story to which I had devoted a lot of time and thought. My story had explored the bulldozing of a neighborhood to make way for the campus in downtown Denver shared by the Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver and University of Colorado Denver. I had a theory that understanding the ways the trauma of displacement affected the residents of the neighborhood known as Auraria could tell us a lot about the impact on people today who are being forced from their homes by gentrification and development.
One of the people I interviewed, Gregorio, was just 11 when his grandmother and hundreds of her neighbors were forced to leave Auraria, the neighborhood name that the campus adopted. Gregorio’s family had run an Auraria restaurant that became a multicultural hub and magnet for guests like Andres Segovia, Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. Gregorio has studied what happened to Auraria. What he saw as a child and learned as an adult has informed his work as an architect and urban planner who works with communities coping with change.
The email came from one of Gregorio’s cousins, Diane. She had worked at the restaurant. Her father, Gregorio’s uncle, had a more direct hand in running it than did Gregorio’s mother.
I did not mention Diane’s side of the family in my article. She insisted I had missed the “real” story. I called her and heard that she meant that I had missed her story. Gregorio’s pain was as real as hers, but only one of the stories of Auraria.
Though I suspect she would reject my armchair psychoanalysis, through her anger, Diane was trying to tell me that she felt written out of history. A hard blow on top of the indignities she and her relatives have suffered – losing their home and business, straining their connections to Denver and perhaps to one another. Sure, I would have preferred a congratulatory tree. But Diane gave me an honest reaction – one that confirmed my theory about the personal impact of sweeping policy decisions. Which is, after all, what I set out to describe in the story for which I interviewed Gregorio.
Shop owner David said of his little Golden Triangle building now shadowed by shiny new town homes: “I’ve spent more time here in the last 10 years than I had at home.” Like Diane he had made a personal investment in a place and been rewarded with a sense of identity. He was holding out against gentrification and getting a chance to deepen that connection. Diane and other Aurarians were unable to hold out against urban renewal.
Perhaps David’s and Diana’s reactions weren’t so different.
My beat is about people’s hopes and often their failures. I shouldn’t be surprised when they respond from the heart and the gut.