Almost 50 years ago, Denver City Council annexed thousands of acres of open space in the far northeast side of Denver to create what would become the city’s largest neighborhood, with more than 30,000 residents. The goal was to create a “suburban community within the city” offering affordable and accessible housing for young families, military veterans, and urban professionals who didn’t wish to live in the heart of the city. The spectacular views of Mount Evans, Long’s Peak and the Continental Divide inspired developers to name the new neighborhood “Montbello” after the picturesque mountain region in the Italian Alps (the Italian word “Montbello” means literally “beautiful mountain”). Signs were erected at the main entryways to the neighborhood, which is bound on the east and west sides by Chambers and Peoria, and I-70 and 56th Avenue on the north and south; three simple words were displayed on each sign: “Dignity, Pride, Diversity.”
The signs still stand today, and are much like the neighborhood they introduce: weather-worn, yet solid, welcoming, and estimable.
Nestled in the middle of three of Denver’s fastest growing communities—Green Valley Ranch, Stapleton/Northfield, and DIA City—Montbello, at times, feels like a community forgotten by all who live outside of it. Often labeled as crime-ridden, Montbello actually has far fewer offenses per square mile, according to denvergov.org crime statistics, ranking 50 out of 75 when compared to other Denver neighborhoods including upscale Cherry Creek, Congress Park, Capitol Hill, and Cheesman Park.
Yet, despite its assets, Montbello remains “unfinished.” It falls short of realizing its original potential and lacks many of the requisites that any community should have so that its residents are afforded a high-quality of life—right where they live.
A Grassroots Approach for Community Change
In the summer of 2013, The Denver Foundation and Livewell Colorado provided a small grant and contracted with Richard Male & Associates to investigate issues facing Montbello. The purpose was to determine if there was enough stakeholder interest to address community issues. Several residents began meeting to discuss how to improve Montbello. These included James and Angelle Fouther, Chris Martinez, Terry Liggins, LaToya Petty, Silke Hansen, Aprilla Willis, Esteban Rivero, and Dom Barerra. The group became tagged the Montbello Organizing Committee (MOC). Later, funding from The Denver Foundation and Mile High Connects made it possible for the group to learn practical approaches for community organizing and leadership development and to hire community organizer, Mayra Gonzalez, to support MOC’s work. Other active community members have joined as well.
Through a series of community engagement events three issues were identified as priorities for 2015: Retail/Economic Development, Transportation, and Beautification. Task Teams comprised of and led by Montbello residents were created to address each issue. The teams meet twice a month on Thursdays at United Church of Montbello. New members are invited to join.
#1: Access to Quality Groceries
One of the most pressing issues is Montbello’s federal designation as a food desert, meaning there are no full-service grocery stores within a one-mile radius of residents. In March, MOC invited Mayor Michael Hancock and Paul Washington, Executive Director of the Office of Economic Development, to Montbello to discuss the food desert status. More than 150 residents and leaders attended the meeting where a series of requirements were put before the Mayor and his staff. First and foremost was the requirement that a sufficient number of full-service, high-quality grocery stores be available in the community. Mayor Hancock took up the challenge and assigned staff to work with MOC to attract full-service grocery stores to Montbello. Already meetings with several grocery stores are planned and short-term options for getting healthy food to residents will be implemented in the summer, such as fresh produce delivered to resident via Denver Food Rescue and a newly created farmer’s market.
#2: Pride through Beautification
In June, more than 100 volunteers from throughout the Metro Denver area joined Montbello neighbors in an effort to spruce up the community. Community celebrations, which are strong indicators of a healthy community, are in the works and include the Official 50th Celebration of Montbello, which will take place in 2016. The Beautification Task Team also hosted a “candidate’s forum” prior to the District 11 run-off election between Stacie Gilmore and Sean Bradley.
#3: Accessible, Affordable Transportation is a Must
The full effects of RTD’s FasTracks East-line build-out and projected cuts to key bus routes, coupled with recent RTD fare increases, have yet to be realized by the community. MOC’s Transportation Task Team is preparing to address what will likely be life-altering changes for many residents and businesses. The team is conducting several hundred interviews over the summer to determine potential impacts. Armed with data and the facts, Task Team members have forged partnerships with other community organizations such as 9to5 and Stapleton Foundation. Efforts to reach out to Montbello’s RTD Board Representative Barbara Deadwyler are underway.
Addressing community issues is not a short-term endeavor and effective leadership requires the ongoing activism of a corps of leaders. True community change comes through the combined energies of all community partners but must be driven by its residents—those who will be impacted most.
If you live, work, or volunteer in Montbello and wish to get involved with the Montbello Organizing Committee, email email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: Angelle Fouther is the Director of Communications for the Denver Foundation and has been a resident of Montbello for more than 12 years. She and her husband, Reverend Dr. James E. Fouther, Jr., pastor of United Church of Montbello, volunteer in service to the Montbello Organizing Committee on behalf of the community.