It might be a part of the city of Denver, but Westwood’s residents consider their neighborhood more of a small town.
When Jose Esparza first came to Westwood, he was a Michigan transplant who was going door-to-door to collect public surveys about a new park that was coming to the area.
“Not being from Denver, not knowing the neighborhood, it was cool to see the way people welcomed you into their home right away,” Esparza said.
He is now the executive director of BuCuWest, a development organization aimed at bolstering the Morrison Road corridor that dissects the Westwood neighborhood, which is officially bordered by West Alameda Avenue to the north, South Sheridan Boulevard to the west, West Mississippi Avenue to the south, and South Federal Boulevard to the east.
The historically Latino neighborhood remains more than 80% Hispanic, though like many Denver neighborhoods, longtime residents are afraid of being priced out of a city that is rapidly becoming more expensive everywhere. As of 2016, about a third of Westwood’s population was below the poverty line.
At the same time, new families are also moving in, enticed by the relatively affordable real estate and sense of community in a place where 40% of the residents are under 18.
“When we purchased our house, we kinda thought this would be a starter house,” said resident Nicole LeSavoy, “but after getting to know the community, our neighbors, I don’t want to raise my kids anywhere else.”
This story is part of our weekly 9Neighborhoods series. Join us on the 9NEWS Instagram starting at noon on Friday for a photo tour of Westwood. Have recommendations for a neighborhood or town we should check out next? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A changing corridor awash in color
Westwood doesn’t look like any other neighborhood in Denver. Driving down Morrison Road, many of the businesses are brightly-colored. Multiple murals add pop to the street, which has a unique view of the Denver skyline in the distance.
BuCuWest has even taken it upon itself to decorate the trash cans on the sidewalk.
Santiago Jaramillo’s family has lived in Westwood for three generations. He’s a well-known artist in Denver, and contributed to some of the street art in the neighborhood.
“I think one of our neighborhood’s challenges is … bringing more focus on the cultural, artistic traditions that we have going on here,” Jaramillo said. “So I think getting people who have lived here for a really long time with the changes, that’s one of our goals.”
Morrison Road has become another art district. Arturo Garcia, who lived in Westwood when he was younger, moved away, and now is back, said he’s glad to see his community become a haven for creatives.
“Westwood is becoming a place where people feel safe and people feel happier because of what’s going on, the murals that are popping up, the murals that are going up everywhere,” Garcia said. “I’m thrilled to do something for my community that I owe so much to.”
Changes are coming to the community. A new recreation center is slated to open, and a community food co-op is filling some of the gaps left by the area’s former food desert status.
When Cuatro Vientos Park opened in the Westwood neighborhood back in 2014, it was the first community park to be built in 30 years. It is in a space once occupied by a run-down mobile home park and bar.
The Denver Police Department recently got a nearly $1 million federal grant to reduce crime in the Westwood neighborhood, which in the past has struggled with gang and drug violence.
Efforts are also underway to make Morrison Road -- Westwood's de facto main street -- more pedestrian and biker friendly. It's good news for longtime resident and bike shop owner Thomas Padilla.
"I've lived in the Westwood neighborhood all my life, in three different places," he said. "So in 57 years, I've been here, and I've seen the changes, everything around me, just going crazy."
He said in recent years the neighborhood has gotten safer. Tagging on the walls has been replaced with actual street art.
"Especially going down Morrison Road, every time you see more art, it makes you feel better, it makes you feel better than coming along here and seeing graffiti," Padilla said. "Most of the art is actually pretty nice."
It's worth mentioning that his business is right next to the "Westwood Wings" -- which look similar to a Taylor Swift-inspired mural in Nashville that became a huge tourist attraction.
Garcia and Jaramillo concede that the progress in the neighborhood won't all be positive.
"Sadly it's going to force some people out, which I hate seeing, but that's been going on everywhere, so I hope that the authorities that are responsible to look after the citizens and the people that live here will do something," Garcia said.
Jaramillo summed up his biggest concern about the future of the neighborhood in one word.
"Gentrification," he said.
"But I think that what we're doing is so unique we have enough influence to keep things around here the same," Jaramillo said.
A food destination
Garcia's work as an artist has brought him all over the world, but he said he hasn't had a tamale as delicious as the ones he's found on Morrison and Sheridan.
"The food that is available here is only comparable to that of Mexico," Garcia said. "There's also a lot of food that is native of this area. I tasted green chile for the first time in Colorado, and it's delicious."
LeSavoy said she also loves the food in the area, from the taco trucks to the authentic Mexican restaurants -- such as Kahlo's -- that line Morrison.
But for her, one of her main memories involves what she sees whenever she takes her kids to the park.
"My son is obsessed with the paleteros," she said. "Any time we go to the park, I always just have to bring a couple dollars."
The food heritage of the Westwood neighborhood will be on full display this weekend, during the ninth annual Westwood Chile Fest.
The free event takes place along Morrison Road, and includes food, art, music and dancing. It includes everything from a pepper-eating contest to a farmer's market to food trucks to live music, and will last from noon to 7 p.m.
You can find more information here: https://www.bucuwestchilefest.com/
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