O, Barnum! An ode to Denver's least desirable neighborhood

Categories: Neighborhoods

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Front porch chillin': A favorite occupation of what I like to call "the Barnumployed."
If you happen to find yourself in Barnum and you don't live there, chances are you're lost. And not just because it's not a neighborhood that lends itself to being found -- find one of two streets that make their way down through the gulch, around the curve, back up the hill and over Highway 6 and you're there -- but mostly because, if you don't live in Barnum, there is absolutely no reason to be there. It has no charming homes, no streets of old-growth manicured cottonwoods or boutique businesses selling handmade soaps. It has no out-of-the-way neighborhood bars or local-centric, trendy restaurants. All it really has is street after street of tiny, squat apartment-sized homes -- most poorly maintained -- and the cheapest rent you can get any reasonable distance from the city. But I love it anyway.

The neighborhood is named after P.T. Barnum, the circus showman who once famously said, "There's a sucker born every minute" -- which is indeed a pretty bad-ass legacy, except that Barnum never actually lived in or anywhere near Barnum. That he once owned the land the neighborhood is on -- after another developer's dream of turning the land into a fabulous suburb for the wealthy failed, he bought it for a song, parsed it out into subdivisions and unloaded it -- is true, but any claim that he ever lived on or even close to the land is false. And the land never quite became that rich suburb, either.

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In fact, it sat mostly idle for decades longer, until during and after the second World War, when a now-defunct, war-related Denver Ordnance manufacturing plant moved in and tiny bungalows for the plant's workers cropped up like the weeds that now more or less stand in for lawns.

Because Barnum is and ever shall be a poor neighborhood. Unlike Highland or Sloan's Lake, its brethren neighborhoods to the north, Barnum will never gentrify; its streets are too unadorned and ugly, its houses too small and crappy. But that's the whole charm: As few as ten years ago, Highland and Barnum were demographically almost the same neighborhood. These days, because it had the potential to be charming, Highland is as white as a Prius with a Nader sticker on it, packed with storefronts that sell designer candles and whatnot.

Barnum, on the other hand, is exactly the same now as it was then. Conceived for the working class, it continues to cater to exactly that set, and it shows. Get rid of the cockroaches in your house and more will just move in; during the summer, they hang out on the corner like they're selling drugs. The alleys smell like trash to the point that they're nauseating to walk down, but take care when you're walking down the street, because when you live in a poor neighborhood, you apparently don't consistently need sidewalks (and what sidewalks there are are so bombed-out you might as well not bother).

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Over at Newlon Elementary, near the 'hood's western border at Sheridan Boulevard, a gang of fourth-graders are playing soccer on an undeniably depressing dirt field (because poor kids don't need grass), and will call for you to kick that ball back over the fence when it lands in a neighbor's yard across the street. On summer weekends, the pool down at Barnum Rec Center (which the city has deemed a "Splash Pad") is so full you'd think every kid in the neighborhood was in there, and after Labor Day, they get resourceful; up the block from my house on Lowell, two girls play tetherball with a ball tied to a parking sign for hours every day. In the other direction, a group of middle-schoolers haul a basketball hoop out to the curb daily and play two-on-two in the middle of Second Avenue. A few houses down from that, heads of kale struggle of the soil of the community garden, which occupies two lots in the middle of the block and seems to be maintained by somebody, even though nobody's ever in there.

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19 comments
BarnumSays
BarnumSays

Meh. I'm rather fond of Barnum. I've lived here for a few years and I find most of the neighborhood to be fairly charming. But I think your article is quite well-written and very interesting. http://welcometobarnum.blogspot.com/

Adee
Adee

I just recently moved into Barnum into a little home that My Great Grandfather built over 100 years ago, and has been kept in the family. Lots of wonderful stories and history.  It needs a lot of love and I have noticed the surrounding homes that were once finely kept as a child have lost their luster as well.  I have a lot of fond memories of the neighborhood and I have high hopes that people will take pride again.  It was nice to see that the Park and recreation center have been renovated, as well as the shops on Knox Ct.  Would be interested to know if their are any groups/committees that rejuvinate neighborhoods.

john d
john d

i used to live in highlands and moved to barnum a few years ago.  lo and behold, my old next door neighbor purchased a house on the same street not long after.  we both enjoy the non pretentious attitude, proximity to the city and an insanely affordable mortgage.  with light rail a few blocks up and more and more people moving to the city, barnum's cockroaches become more charming every day.  remember when people were buying bungalows in highlands for 80k a pop? i do. 

Johnpavalko
Johnpavalko

I grew up at 2nd and Yates and also attended newlon. We left when the gangsta behind us was hit in the head with a brick and killed (and were robbed, and someone tried to break in to the garage at 2 in the morning, etc). I don't really have a lot of fond memories, but that was the hood I grew up in. The hood my parents bought their first house in. The hood that made me tough (you should have seen my moms face when i came home from school and told her the kids started calling me a honkey), so thanks Barnum. I think.

Andrea Merida
Andrea Merida

Mr. Otte, thanks for the article, but I'm compelled to defend Newlon Elementary.  As the school board member for the area, I need to point out that this year, Newlon is a "green" school, or in other words, it meets academic expectations of progress.  Also, thanks to the voters, the bond will cover a new playground sometime in 2012.  I understand that you wanted to show Barnum in a certain light, but I think it's also important to point out how smart Newlon's kids are and how supportive their parents are to their success.  Thank you.

Maeslaura23
Maeslaura23

I grew up in Barnum & although I have seen the neighborhood decline over the past several years, I must say that I have many cherished memories of my life growing up there. Regardless of peoples living situations & conditions I really think there are more important things we must all keep in mind & that should be what we ALL have within us. The point being that people from middle, to low class, & some in poverty are trying to make the best out of life that they can. My family wasn't as well off as many of our neighbors but I was brought up NOT TO JUDGE & to cherish what we DID HAVE. No one should be to blame for the poor condition of the streets, side walks or playing grounds/fields for the kids, except for the City. Many of the homes are rented so it's up to the landlords to improve the conditions of their properties & the homes that do look decent & in good condition are owned. As for what cultures live there shouldn't make a difference because it is not 1 specific cultures fault either. I truly believe it is the poor condition of our economy to blame for the deteriorating neighbor"HOODS" & "WHO" they attract to live in them & how well maintained they are. All I have left to say is that I think I learned very many important things during my time growing up in Barnum & I will ALWAYS hold a special place in my heart for "My neighborhood", no matter how poorly others may THINK of it because what is seen on the outside shouldn't matter, it's what's seen WITHIN.         

Don
Don

Hey Pendejo, It's obvious that you are missing something here. I never had a cockroach in my house ever. If you have them it's not Barnum's fault. Get off your lazy ass and spread a little boric acid. Kills em right off. And then keep your house clean cochino. Barnum has a rich cultural heritage that includes not only a Hispanic and Asian influence but also a pretty healthy Eastern European population. We worked hard to get rid of that adult book store, it was a neighborhood disgrace. I don't know what street you live on but my street has very nicely manicured lawns, gorgeous 100 year old trees, and some of the most beautiful architecture in the whole city. Barnum park is one of the most popular parks in Denver. It draws people from all over the city seeking it's lush green lawns and views that make Inspiration Point cringe with jealousy. Ever been around Barnum on the 4th of July? The rich cultural heritage we share is in plain view for all to see. The Hispanic, Asian, and Eastern European people who live in this area take pride in thier heritage, and it is obvious by the diverse nature of the businesses that line Federal Blvd. And EVERYBODY comes to this side of town for Mexican Food, chile by the bushel, delicious Vietnamese baked goods and the best Mexican markets in the whole city. It's easy to go into a neighborhood and point out the bad things that exist. But you really have to have a soul to understand and enjoy this wonderfully diverse and culturally rich neighborhood. So I guess it's probably beyond your comprehension. You talk like you are part of the Barnum neighborhood, but you really don't have a clue. It's all right there in front of you but you are too blind or too pretentious to see it. Barnum is more than just a neighborhood, it's an attitude, a mindset that a shallow minded person like you will never be able to fully appreciate. So...live among us if you want. Make fun of us if you must. But just know that YOU will never really be part of our culture. I could explain why but I'm afraid it would be lost on the likes of you.

Bree Davies
Bree Davies

The people at Mi Puebla rule, not to mention the produce and fresh, not-white-people-approved unbleached meats. I'd take that place over a pretentious and sanitized Whole Foods any day.  I am aware that I am the more than typical white person, in my Uggs and my Subaru, but this neighborhood I've recently been welcomed into reminds me of Virginia Village, the neighborhood I grew up in, before it was gentrified. Shout out to Barnum, and the incredible Park Villa city skyline view from the hill at 8th and Knox! 

Cory Casciato
Cory Casciato

That's my hood! My street is actually quite nice, but a couple streets over things can get ... ramshackle, let's say. But I'm with you Otte, wouldn't leave it for anything (even if I didn't have a mortgage). 

Cosun_russ
Cosun_russ

The line "Prius with a Nader sticker on it", has to be the stupidest line I've ever read by a professional journalist.

Cat Howl
Cat Howl

I have lived in Barnum for 13 years.  It's all you said it is, with some blocks looking better than others.  Not speaking Spanish has not helped my getting to know my neighbors.  Poor Barnum Rec. Center is in need of city money and attention, but it serves a need in our neighborhood, especially for seniors and kids.  It's all we have. I wanted to mention how much better the market is at 1st & Knox Court than it was before.  And the employees there are very nice to non-Spanish speaking customers!  It has been an experience living in the Barnum area, or as I refer to it, the "west side", where time seems to have forgotten us.

Tiffany Fitzgerald
Tiffany Fitzgerald

You forgot the green chile stands -- People I know, who live in Cherry Creek, have to drive to Barnum to get them.

DenverLibGal
DenverLibGal

@john d  Yea! I grew up in Arvada, but both of my parents grew up in what is now the Highlands, AND WHAT A JOKE IT IS today. You'd be lucky to find a cute, old home in that neighborhood for less than $300k. It's really a shame. 

Mrssanchez1960
Mrssanchez1960

i live here in this neighborhood and am proud to live here no regreats we may not be rich and not poor were rich with what we have andrea is a gods sent to us in the barum and westwood area.

Darth Garfunkel
Darth Garfunkel

Decline? I didn't grow up in Barnum but purchased a home there back in the early 2000's. As far as I can tell the neighborhood is getting BETTER. Some sketchy stuff went down my first few years living there but it's actually become a quite peaceful and quiet neighborhood. There is a lot of charm and character that you don't see in more trendy or affluent parts of town. And we're close enough to downtown to ride a bike there.

Speaking of bikes I've seen more beards, sleeves and fixies in the neighborhood in the past 3 months than the past 9 years combined. Hipster influx?

Alisha Marquez
Alisha Marquez

Hey Don,

I live in Barnum, too. 2nd and King. Guess what? The sidewalks are crap, I have cockroaches every summer (even though I've used everything under the sun and an exterminator to get rid of them), and I have never seen anything, from stores to restaurants, to indicate an Eastern European population. As for your other comments, might I suggest you read the damn article? The author calls it "an ode" (look it up, dude), and makes some of the same points you do--including the 4th, the food, the culture. My point is this article is not "pretentious" or "shallow." I thought it was beautiful and sweet. And, I don't know what street you're living on, but this author captures the portrait I experience, too. Oh, and not like it matters, but I'm not a "pendejo." I get so sick of "my people" lashing out at any person who has an opinion not in line with their own by using racial epithets. It's no different than the white racists, man. Doesn't take a white person to see that our streets and sidewalks are neglected and our neighborhood, although charming, is poor. That should piss you off, not that someone recognized it. Write the city of Denver and call them pretentious assholes, because then you would actually be standing for something that matters.

Sincerely,Alisha

Poodlecatz
Poodlecatz

I live in Boulder and have been spending time with my friend and his adorable tabby cat at Barnum for about 3 years now. At first I was afraid, it seemed their were always spooky lookn guys walking around everywhere. Either it has changed or I am more comfortable with the area. I would love to buy a home there because it is close to the light rail,Sloan's Lake, and what I feel is the most BEAUTIFUL city view of any park. So many wonderful amenities surround Barnum without the big price tag. I want to feel safe but growing up in rural Nebraska and then to sickeningly perfect Boulder I have been isolated but in desperate want for something more real and affordable! I am hoping someone can ease my mind that it is ok for my white self to buy in Barnum.

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