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The past, present & future of La Raza Park

After decades of advocacy, the park officially received its name change to La Raza Park in the Sunnyside neighborhood. But the advocacy doesn’t stop there.

DENVER — In many communities, the local park acts as a heartbeat – creating memories for children, a meeting spot for friends and a place where history builds.

For Denver’s Sunnyside neighborhood, that’s La Raza Park, nestled between 38th and 39th avenues and off of Navajo and Osage Streets.

“La Raza is the center of this area – this north side area for community, for families. It has been for forever,” Esther Acosta said sitting at a park table with her husband Jay Alire. 

Both are from the area and have been advocates for the park for decades.

“But it also has the history of young people making a change during the movement where they wanted things better for themselves, better for their families,” she added.

After decades of advocacy, the park officially received its name change to La Raza Park, after it was originally called “Columbus Park” for years. But the advocacy for upkeep doesn’t stop there.

Credit: Tom Cole
La Raza Park

The Past

In 1931, the park was named Columbus Park after the famous Italian explorer.

Over the years, the neighborhood transitioned to hold a population where a majority of the neighbors were Latino.

And so at one time this was Mexican and Italian mixed. Then it became predominantly Chicano – Mexican,” said Arturo Rodriguez, known as “Bones” by friends and neighbors.

Rodriguez, a resident of Denver, has also been a longtime advocate for the park.

“To us it was more than a park,” he said.

At one point, a community pool at the park served as a spot to cool down, thriving with families and groups of friends.

"The swimming pool was where we hung out. We didn't have rec centers. We didn't have a lot of things. We had this park seasonally,” Rodriguez said. But once we empowered ourselves, we started getting involved in civic organizing and so forth.”

In the 70s and 80s, the park became a staple for Colorado’s Chicano movement.

“We had demands that we wanted. You know, we wanted the park change, we wanted jobs for youth and the neighborhood we wanted and upkeep of the park. You know, we wanted amenities that came with a public park.”

Several protests were held at the park over the years, especially during the 70s and 80s. Rodriguez recalled one particular story when they staged what they called a “swim-in.”

Other protests resulted in confrontations with police over the years.

As for the pool, neighbors say plumbing issues led to consistently high costs for maintenance, and in the early 80s it was decommissioned.

Credit: Denver Public Library/Luis de Leon
An old picture of advocates gathered at La Raza Park.

The present

Fast forward to this year, and the park finally received its long-desired name change after Denver City Council approved it in December.

In June, a celebration was held at the park.

A pyramid structure, known as a Kiosko, sits directly in the center of the park where community events occur, among other things.

On its ceiling are murals, but advocates would like to see more murals along its pillars to better tell the story of the park.

A basketball court sits on the right, with one fence along it next to the road. A playground sits on one corner, and picnic tables spread across the park.

But the advocacy for the park’s upkeep remains, and so does advocacy for a new pool.

"It looks better than it did a few years ago in terms of them maintaining it," Jay Alire said. "But I was looking around just the area here and it looks like it could do with a good sweeping, you know, and I'm not sure if Parks and Rec – they come out here on a on a regular basis and maintain it. You know, I know that we don't have a lot of the same services in the park that they do in south east Denver."

Credit: Luis de Leon
Jay Alire and Esther Acosta stand in front of the Kiosko at the La Raza Park.

On one side of the park sits Diane Medina’s home, where she’s been for more than 40 years.

"It'll always be a central resource," Medina said, sitting on her front porch overlooking the park’s basketball court and playground. "And then the pyramid people go there for different reasons and they have the dancers. They practice like probably tomorrow, Tuesday and Thursday. So you hear drumming for about four or five hours, you know, and then not so many kids like there used to be because I used to like to hear the kids playing at the playground."

Medina is one of the neighbors that has led the way for making sure the park is maintained.

From advocating for a newer playground, to building a fence next to the basketball court, and advocating for shade over some of the current picnic tables at the park.

"Upkeep is is essential, you know … making sure the grass is green, making sure the trees are cut, making sure there's color – there's flowers and stuff like that,” she said.

"I'm not saying that all the parks in the north side are kept up because some are not. But you can go a few blocks over here and a few blocks over there and you see that brand new playground. It's clean,” she added.

Credit: Luis de Leon
Diane Medina, a longtime neighbor of La Raza Park.

The future

According to a spokesperson for Denver Parks and Recreation (DPR), there are not currently plans for a new pool at La Raza Park.

Funding for capital projects at La Raza Park would be considered through DPR’s annual Capital Improvement Plan process, “which is competitive and considers several factors, including equity, conditions assessment, partnership and grant opportunities, City Council and community priorities, among other considerations,” a spokesperson said in an email.

However, La Raza Park has what’s called an “Elevate Denver Bond” project for a new playground to be funded at $350,000 in a future year.

A spokesperson for the City and County of Denver’s Department of Finance explained that the project is slated to begin design in 2022, and that timelines for construction will be had after the design process is underway.

"At this time, the project only includes replacing the playground. However, it is possible that additional improvements may be identified next year and added to the scope,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Credit: Luis de Leon
The Kiosko at La Raza Park.

Denver City Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval represents the district where La Raza park sits.

"It plays a vital role in a lot of the work and a lot of the community that Denver has in northwest Denver, and it will always be one of the pillars of the community. And it's so important to represent those whose shoulders we stand on.” Sandoval said.

While she says she’s open to the idea of a new pool in the future, she explained that it would be an expensive venture.

"Putting in a pool would be probably millions of dollars and it would probably have to come from either a general obligation bond or some type of other type of funding source," Sandoval said. "And right now, we don't have that in the general obligation bond. And I would love the idea. I just, once again, that's a lot of money and a lot of funding. And so we'd have to be creative. Could we come up with a public private partnership? Are there other people who could play a role in getting us – helping us with that money … and so making sure that that's what the community would like to see at that park."

Overall, advocates remain proud of the work that people did over the years to enact change, and hope more can happen in the future.

"So it's been it's been a very exciting, exciting journey to grow up here. And now at the age of 72, looking back and looking into the future, you know, we want to make sure that Denver recognizes this history," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez explained that there is also a push to mark the park as a civil rights designation and a national historic site.

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