'Happily Gentrifying'? Denver Coffee Shop Strikes a Raw Nerve

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DENVER — The sign outside ink Coffee was supposed to be a joke: "Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014," read the sidewalk board, displayed in a rapidly changing part of Denver once full of black and Latino families.

The joke did not last long.

A picture of the sign that was shared on social media last week soon had current and former residents of the neighborhood up in arms, pointing out that the downside of gentrification — displacement — was anything but funny.

The cafe's owner, a self-described ski bum from Aspen, Colorado, issued a swift apology, but the anger did not abate. Soon someone smashed a shop window and scrawled graffiti across the storefront. Activists organized a protest march. Mayor Michael Hancock was quoted calling the sign "very insensitive and disrespectful."

And a flippant sidewalk board had grown from an ill-conceived advertisement into a full-fledged symbol of the pain and anger that have accompanied urban transformations from Brooklyn, New York, to San Francisco.

"It was like someone punched me in the heart," said Alizah Wright, 38, a medical biller who grew up around the neighborhood, known as Five Points, a few blocks from the coffee shop. She can no longer afford to live in the area.

"They weren't just poking at Five Points," Wright said. "They're making light of something that affects communities of color all over the world."

For a generation, gentrification has been the inexact, politically charged shorthand for the way modest workaday neighborhoods change when new, more affluent residents start to move in. It connotes both the improvements — like new stores, safer sidewalks and more successful schools — and the excruciating shifts like the dislocation of entire blocks of longtime residents, often minorities, to make room for redevelopment.

Ink Coffee is the kind of business that is often a marker of gentrification — one that caters to a clientele with money to spend on fancy coffee. It began in the 1990s near Aspen, after its founder, Keith Herbert, traveled to Italy to study coffee making, and has grown to a chain of 16 stores. According to Herbert's website, Ink serves "socially conscious coffee" and "meticulously roasts every bean on a small batch roaster, by hand, five days a week."

Five Points, a few blocks north of the state capitol, is a historically black neighborhood that was once so full of jazz musicians that it was called the Harlem of the West.

Today, a portion of Five Points has been rebranded River North (RiNo, for those in the know) and has become fashionable with young professionals. The area has come to symbolize rapid growth and redevelopment in Denver, much as the Williamsburg neighborhood became the face of transformation in Brooklyn.

On the industrial side of the neighborhood, the streets that are not already lined with new breweries, cannabis shops and condominiums are alive with cranes and jackhammers. On the adjacent residential streets, many longtime residents, including most of Wright's childhood neighbors, have been priced out of their bungalows.

A thousand families a month are moving to Denver these days, and the exploding demand for housing has pushed up rents and property values. The median price of a single-family home has doubled in the last five years, to about $450,000. That price is beyond the reach of about half the city's residents, according to researchers at Harvard University.

Though the city's population is overwhelmingly white, it has a black mayor and a black City Council president. Community organizers have been calling on city officials to take a more aggressive approach to creating and protecting affordable housing, pointing out that minority residents are more likely to be displaced by rising rents.

Ink's sidewalk sign, created for the coffee shop by an advertising agency, appeared just before Thanksgiving on a retail strip full of new bars and boutiques. The message on the back extended the theme, and for some, rubbed salt in the wound: "Nothing says gentrification like being able to order a cortado."

A Denver writer named Ru Johnson spotted the board and posted a photo on Twitter, where it prompted immediate outrage. One person observed that "a pro-gentrification sign to a black person is like hanging a `Whites Only' sign."

Responding to the online tempest, Herbert acknowledged on Twitter that the cafe had blundered: "Hmmm. We clearly drank too much of our own product and lost sight of what makes our community great."

He then followed up: "I have used the last 24 hours to listen to your perspectives and to better educate myself on gentrification. I am embarrassed to say that I did not fully appreciate the very real and troubling issue of gentrification, and I want to sincerely apologize."

After that, he went mostly silent, and did not respond to inquiries from The New York Times. But by then the damage, it seems, had been done.

Tay Anderson, a 19-year-old who had recently run for a seat on the Denver school board, organized a rally and a boycott of the cafe. On Saturday, the sidewalk outside the shop was crowded with protesters, some with small children perched on their shoulders. Men and women carried posters: "Gentrification = Urban Colonialism." "Black Lives Matter. White Coffee Doesn't." "Eat the Rich."

David Griego, 40, a tow-truck driver, said he used to have his own place, but he had to give it up and move into his mother's basement after the rent more than doubled. He held up a placard depicting a crying child with the words, "Gentrification is no joke."

"This is not about a sign," Lisa Calderon, co-chairwoman of the Colorado Latino Forum, told the crowd. "This is not about the ignorant owners. The sign is symbolic of what is going on with our neighborhood."

Brunchers exiting a new upscale food court on the street passed the protesters by.

Bobby LeFebre, 35, an artist, broke into a poem:

Denver, where have you gone?

Last night we walked your streets in search of you.

Bounced around like a schizophrenic firecracker,

Handing out missing persons fliers that bore your image.

Across the street, at a coffee shop called Crema, Osha Groetz, 39, had noticed the protest. While her husband researched the dispute on his phone, Groetz said they were opening a business of their own in the neighborhood soon — a cold-pressed juice and organic-food cafe.

"We started coming down here to Denver a couple years ago," she said, "and then stumbled into RiNo four months ago, and I was like, `Oh my God, this like Brooklyn when I loved Brooklyn!' So I really see a lot of potential."

As for the Ink sign, "I don't think it's funny at all," she said. "It's one thing to come into a neighborhood and become part of it. But it's another thing to want to squash it."

Outside, the rally was wrapping up, and a local developer, Leland Kritt, 63, stopped to see what all the commotion was about. "We could call `gentrification' another word for `progress,'" he said, eyeing the last few participants.

"Ink Coffee, they obviously have been targeted," he went on. "It's an insignificant event that has blown up — a mountain out of a molehill."


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