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Class Struggles in Northwest Denver

July 12, 2007

The Sun Flower Market opened a 28,000 ft ² store yesterday on 38 Ave just west of Tennyson in Northwest Denver on the site of the old `Elitch Gardens’ amusement park. The latter had `sold out’ – literally and figuratively – to the mega-amusement park `Six Flags’ company. The park had moved out of the old location to a new one nearer downtown and the Platte River, leaving the old site to those endearing pirannas, local developers. A local institution had bit the dust.

According to an informal survey taken by Nancy and Molly (wife and daughter), Sun Flower Market expected an opening day crowd of 14,000. By 2 pm an employee told them that 12,000 had already shopped there suggesting they would exceed their target. Who knows how many people finally walked through the doors of this `kind-of’ health food store in our neighborhood before the lights were turned out at 10 pm. The next day (today) the place was still packed and I could hardly find a parking space to check the place out.

Who knows how long this love affair will last, but it could very well be permanent . Although few mentioned it, this opening was about more than a new health food store opening, it was about a community coming together and in a very short time mobilizing and defeating one of the biggest companies in the world – Walmart – in its unsuccessful bid to build a beachhead in this part of town.

A notch up from Safeway and the Kroger-owned King Soopers, the Sun Flower Market is a small chain, this being only its 12th store nationally. It is a smaller alternative source of good food than Whole Foods and what appears to soon be its wholly owned subsidiary, Wild Oats. Whole Foods was offered the space but rejected the offer on the grounds that the neighborhood – a largely middle class/working class constituency presently being yuppified – would not bring in enough income to merit the project. Rejected by Whole Foods, as developer Chuck Perry tells the tale, he accepted an offer from Walmart who seemed anxious to build on the same spot.

The prospect of having a Walmart in the neighborhood was both depressing and electrifying. Nancy and I – neither of whom are fans of Walmart because of poor wages and exploitative labor policies in Third World countries, especially China – were less than thrilled to have one near us in the neighborhood where we have lived for more than thirty years. NW Denver is one of the most Democratic-Party areas in the state, with a historic constituency of Irish, Italian and Chicano Catholics and what used to be, along E. Colfax, a center of the Jewish Community (although some of all of these constituencies have moved to the suburbs – the Italians and the Irish to the west and north, the Jews predominantly to the more prosperous southeast).

For all that, it is a relatively quiet neighborhood, not particularly politically active although in the distant past (the 1920s) it was nothing short of a battleground between the predominantly Protestant KKK and an emerging Italian-Irish-Chicano Catholic middle class. Some of the churches on near by Federal Blvd, especially those near the Woodbury Library were nothing less than KKK strongholds and key meeting places. But after Protestant fears subsided (only to find other peoples to fear later), the neighborhood quieted down. True, Jim Fowler and his friends, former Spanish Civil War Lincoln Brigade vets, one of whom could have doubled for Lenin, added a bit of local color, and long deceased Communist Party Chair Roberto Trujillo, lived here along with an active Mafia chapter centered around a local restaurant, Gaetanos (now owned by Denver’s mayor).

And then came Walmart.

Chuck Perry, the local developer, who bought the Elitches site and then developed it, is something of a local figure. I once saw him lobbying the-then new city councilman, Rich Garcia, at the latter’s victory celebration. He was determined to push the Walmart bid through the city council approval process and it appeared that Garcia was amenable to Perry’s pressure. But Garcia, who had defeated a local machine politician to win his seat, had enough doubts about the whole thing to call a constituent meeting to discuss and I believe, push the project through. There are other self-appointed community organizations, people specializing in extracting city funding, often realtor-developer related along with what I can only describe as middle class morality worms ( you know the people who like to turn their neighbors in to the city for minor code violations) that Walmart had worked and gotten support.

So Garcia called a meeting at nearby North High School to which good citizen/developer Perry was invited, along with a representative of the neighborhood muttawa, (committee for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice), a Walmart p.r man, to explain to us poor huddled, stoned and heavily lobbied masses why life would be so much better with a Walmart within our midst. Touching.

Nancy and I had to go to the meeting about which I had a sense of impending doom, nothing less. I had prepared a few insipid remarks about how Walmart didn’t need northwest Denver and northwest Denver didn’t need Walmart, did enough statistical research for an in depth 3-5 minute presentation and was trying to decide whether I should just blow my top or appear objective and professorial, if I could even get to the mike. In these crisis situations, truth be told, Nancy sheds all traces of fear and insecurity and becomes a far more formidable foe than myself, a natural born chicken who has to remind himself before the mirror every morning to `show a little courage’ about whatever.

All that changed when we entered the auditorium of North High School.

The room was packed to the gills. Did it seat 800 or a thousand? I don’t know. There were also people standing in the back and along the isles – a packed house. And here I never thought anything other than a Denver Bronco game (the stadium is in our neighborhood) could bring out so many of my neighbors. Virtually every last one of those people in the audience – all 600 or 800 or a thousand of them – were even more upset than Nancy or me; I mean completely and thoroughly pissed. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. This wasn’t a meeting, it was a full scale uprising. It’s like the whole neighborhood had just listened to the theme song of Les Mis `Do you hear the people sing, singing a song of angry men’ and then went on a full scale organizing binge the likes of which I hadn’t never seen.

What followed comes as close to a political wet dream come true as I have had in this mile high city, a town with perhaps the ugliest art museum (from the outside) in the country.

It was a civilized revolt of the masses.. Nobody, as I recall, threw chairs, bottles, beer and if there was an occasional curse, it was less than one would hear at a Rockies game. But one after another, people EVERYONE insisted on having their say: union grocery store workers from nearby Safeway, small shop keepers on Tennyson, people living in the area adjacent to the proposed Walmart site, teacher, single moms, kids – both Chicano and Anglo -, old ladies, ministers, imams, local drug dealers. It was enough to make any Marxist burst into tears of joy!

If Walmart didn’t have such a thoroughly awful labor record, I would have actually felt sorry for its representative. The developer Chuck Perry, did not have a good day. Hardly anyone believed a word he said. Not one to take criticism well, he did not give a particularly convincing showing. As for our new city councilman, Rich Garcia, at the outset of the meeting he supported Walmart’s bid. But he had the good sense to see his political future before him that night, and, being a flexible sort, had a change of heart. His announcement at the end of the meeting, that he would vote against the Walmart proposal might have been the most important sentence of his political career. The audience responded with a rousing cheer.

And then it was over.

Walmart licked its wounds, walked away and proceeded to build two other mega-stores within 5 miles of the old Elitch site, outside the city line though, the revolution subsided and the good people of Northwest Denver went back to their bars, parks and trying to decide what is the best Italian restaurant, who makes the best tamales and tortillas in the neighborhood, and what is the best non-chain coffee shop, the local political class, shaken by this show of mass independence over which they had no control, hesitantly came back to life, the local mutawwa waited a few weeks before snitching on their neighbors about code violations…

But there was still that one shining moment. Neither Walmart nor Northwest Denver will ever forget.

Welcome Sun Flower Market. All power to the people! (Isn’t that what the Black Panthers used to say?)

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