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Boulders historic district proposal sparks reckoning with the city's displacement of early Black residents

City officials have been researching the history of the civic area, which includes Central Park and city hall, for a potential historic district designation. Relatively little is known about the Black residents who once lived there, but if designated, their history would be officially recognized through plaques and signage for the first time, according to officials.

By John Herrick, Boulder Reporting Lab

Before it became the Penfield Tate II Municipal Building, a public park and a parking lot, it was one of the city’s first Black residential neighborhoods.

In the early 1900s, more than a dozen Black residents lived along the Boulder Creek on a block west of Broadway, according to census data. They worked as a hotel cook, a section hand on the railroad that once passed through town, a laborer and a house cleaner, among other jobs.

But by the late 1920s, the neighborhood had largely disappeared. The city bought up homes or seized properties from residents who were delinquent on their taxes, according to county property records. It then demolished the homes and began building a public park along the creek.

This lesser-known history is now coming to light as the city considers designating this land — known as the civic area — as a historic district. City officials with the historic preservation program have been scouring public records and archives to better understand the history of this area, stretching roughly from Central Park to the Boulder Public Library.

What is evident from their research is that about a century ago, the City of Boulder was involved in displacing residents living along Boulder Creek. At the time, it was described as an effort to “clean up and beautify” the area, the Boulder Daily Camera reported in 1921. Now, for the first time, city officials are publicly reframing this moment in the city’s history as an instance of racial injustice. The extent of this acknowledgment may hinge on whether the civic area receives designation as a historic district.

“I see it as a really important opportunity to tell a more inclusive history of Boulder and to correct some of the really harmful narratives that have been perpetuated for over the last 100 years,” Marcy Gerwing, a principal planner with the historic preservation program, said of researching the area.

The city’s historical assessment of this area is a response to an application from local organizations to designate it as a historic district. The designation would create new procedural hurdles for redevelopment. It would also likely prompt the city to formally acknowledge historical accounts of the area’s Black community on bronze plaques and in city records. The Boulder City Council on April 11 is scheduled to decide whether to designate the civic area a historic district.

Originally, the effort to establish a historic district was, at least in part, to celebrate the existing public parks along Boulder Creek.

In 2022, Historic Boulder, Friends of the Teahouse, Friends of the Bandshell filed a request to make the area around the Bandshell a historic landmark. They wanted to honor the bold Art Deco architecture of the amphitheater and surrounding shaded greenspace. The parks in the area were designed with the help of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., a landscape architect recognized as an advocate for the preservation of natural areas, and later Saco DeBoer, a Dutch landscape architect.

However, the Boulder City Council and city officials suggested the application cover a larger area. The proposed boundary for the historic district now includes several buildings that are already landmarked — the Atrium Building, Boulder-Dushanbe Teahouse, the brick building currently occupied by the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and the Penfield Tate II Municipal Building — as well as Central Park and other greenspace along Boulder Creek. Unlike earlier proposals, no parking lots are included.

As part of the application process, city officials researched the area to better understand its historical significance. This included searching digitized microfilms of newspaper archives, U.S. census records and Boulder County property records.

Gerwing, the city’s project manager for the proposed historic district, said they decided to look more closely at the history of Black residents in the area after watching the 2022 documentary This is [Not] Who We Are. The film mentions the city’s efforts in the 1900s to clear out the residential neighborhood described as the “Jungle” to build a park. The civic area is also near the Goss-Grove neighborhood, which was also one of the city’s earliest Black communities.

In 1928, when the city was buying the last of the properties in what is now the civic area, the Boulder Daily Camera described the neighborhood as a “disgrace to the city and a gathering place of undesirable people.” It referred to the area as the “tramp quarters of Boulder,” with one section “used for dumping purposes for a number of years.” At least one resident was jailed for bootlegging during Prohibition.

To clear out the area, the city first acquired properties. One property owner, Jennie Johnson, a Black widow born in Virginia who at one point ran a cleaning business out of her home, asked the city for $10,000 to buy her home, according to newspaper archives. The city paid her $750, property records show. The city paid a white woman who owned an adjacent property $1,000. Many other displaced people were likely renters, according to city officials.

The city then began hauling in dirt to level out the area, according to newspaper archives. The city partnered with Olmsted, the architect, to design a park from 9th Street to 17th Street, according to the city.
What happened to the former residents is unclear, according to city officials. If the Boulder City Council rejects the historic district designation on April 11, the city is unlikely to further research the history of the area in the near future, according to Gerwing.

Organizations like the NAACP Boulder County are supporting the historic district designation in part to learn more about the Black community that once existed in the area. They are also advocating for the city to include an area known as Block 11, the specific area where Black residents lived, within the district boundary.
“We want you to dig deeper,” Stuart Lord, the political action chair with the NAACP Boulder County, told the Landmarks Board during a meeting in February 2024. Lord told Boulder Reporting Lab that the NAACP Boulder County has not advocated for any other historic district in Boulder.

Designating the area as a historic district would come with tradeoffs.

The city is considering redeveloping areas of the civic area to support recreational activities and events, among other goals. In 2021, voters approved an extension of a sales tax, specifically promoted to enable the city to invest in renovations to the civic area.

If the area is designated a historic district, however, redevelopment projects would require approval from the city’s five-member volunteer Landmarks Board. If the board rejects a redevelopment proposal, the city council could override the decision, city officials said. Regardless of the outcome, the designation is likely to slow down redevelopment in the area.

Partially for this reason, in January 2024, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board informally voted against creating a historic district.

“When I look at this park, I don’t see a static place. I see a place that has changed with time, repeatedly,” Charles Brock, the chair of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, said during the meeting. “It has evolved constantly in response to the societal needs of the city. As the city has evolved, the park has evolved along with it.”

The application named the proposed district the “Civic Area Historic District.” But members of the city’s landmark’s board suggested a different name that acknowledges the history of displacement. One idea was the “Water Street Historic District.” Canyon Boulevard used to be called Water Street, presumably because the area frequently flooded prior to the construction of the Barker Dam in 1910.

The undecided name underscores a larger tension over how the city should portray the area’s history.
Some residents have said the city should honor the legacy of Olmsted, citing his contribution to creating a “beautiful, functional city,” according to letters to the city’s Landmarks Board. Some historians credit Olmsted’s work with mitigating flooding from Boulder Creek and making the Boulder Creek corridor accessible for recreation rather than industry.

“I think that the legacy should be one that is commemorated — celebration might be too strong a word because people were displaced,” Leonard Segel, an architect and the executive director of Historic Boulder, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “The fact that Boulder created this amenity for the larger population had foresight to it. And I think that the greater good was accomplished there.”

Chelsea Castellano, a local political organizer and member of the city’s Landmarks Board, was the only board member to vote against the creation of a district. Castellano said the designation could prevent redevelopment of the civic area. She also said she did not want to celebrate Olmsted, who promoted covenants in housing developments that excluded Black people, according to researchers.

“To me, it’s the same as erecting a confederate statue,” Castellano said. “Why would we create a historic district that is to celebrate this person who has done irrevocable harm to communities across the county?” She suggested the council could reject the historic district but request city staff to study the area’s Black history.
According to Gerwing of the city historic preservation program, historical designations are not always about celebrating history.

“It’s also about acknowledgement,” Gerwing said. “There are a lot of really interesting conversations to be had about these historical figures who both had negative views, and also their work resulted in positive things for the community.”

Still, recounting the story of the people who lived there is far more complicated than telling the history of the park. Residents have counted and measured the diameter of the trees in Central Park. And the city maintains written reports from Olmsted and renderings of the civic area. When it comes to the people, census records were written by hand and the newspaper archives do not appear to represent the views of the Black residents.
“How do you tell a history that has been erased?” Gerwing said. “Part of its history is that it was erased.”