Bordered roughly by the South Platte River to the northwest, Thirty-Eighth Street to the north, Downing Street to the east, Park Avenue and East Twentieth Avenue to the south, and Twentieth Street to the southwest, Five Points is a historic neighborhood near downtown Denver that was home to the city’s black community for much of the twentieth century. Originally developed as a streetcar suburb in the 1870s and 1880s, the area’s population shifted from European immigrants to African Americans over the next three decades, as whites moved to newer and better housing farther from downtown. The area was called the “Harlem of the West” and had a vibrant music scene until the 1960s, when the population declined and businesses suffered after new housing laws made it possible for middle-class blacks to find better housing elsewhere. Today the neighborhood—which includes Ballpark, River North, and Curtis Park—is bustling with development that has brought prosperity but also raised concerns about how best to preserve the area’s history and community.
“Five Points” refers to the five-way intersection of Welton Street, Washington Street, Twenty-Seventh Street, and East Twenty-Sixth Avenue. The name originated in 1881, when streetcar signs could not fit all the street names for the line’s terminus. The name stuck despite its association with eastern slums such as Five Points in New York City.
By that time, the neighborhood was already established. In 1868 Curtis Park had become the city’s first public park. Three years later, the area was connected to downtown by the Denver Horse Railroad Company. During a long boom period in the 1870s and 1880s, Curtis Park became the most desirable suburb in Denver. Nearby neighborhoods were home to a variety of commercial and industrial businesses and known for their diversity. Early residents were German, Irish, and Jewish. In 1882 Temple Emanuel, the city’s oldest Jewish congregation, built a large synagogue at the corner of Twenty-Fourth Avenue and Curtis Street.
Five Points, CO
Five Points started to change in the late 1880s and 1890s, as upper-class whites moved to new mansions in Capitol Hill and blacks began to move close to the rail yards where they worked along the South Platte River. In 1893 Denver Fire Station No. 3, located near the heart of the neighborhood, became the city’s first all-black fire station. Temple Emanuel relocated from Five Points to Capitol Hill, while the city’s two leading black churches—Shorter Community African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and Zion Baptist—moved into the neighborhood from locations closer to downtown.
Five Points became mostly black in the 1920s, when a housing boom made it possible for whites to move to new neighborhoods farther from downtown. Meanwhile, the Great Migration of the 1910s–20s brought an influx of new black residents to Denver. As whites moved to outlying neighborhoods, they practiced discriminatory housing policies designed to keep blacks segregated in Five Points. By 1929, about 5,500 of Denver’s black residents (more than 75 percent) were concentrated in the neighborhood.
Segregation meant crowded conditions and older housing, but it also made the area almost a city unto itself. It was so well known that mail could be addressed to “Five Points, CO” and be assured of its delivery. A vibrant black business community began to take shape, especially along Welton Street. The Baxter Hotel at the Five Points intersection, for example, was owned by and catered to whites when it opened in 1912, but in the late 1920s, it came under black management and was renamed the Rossonian after manager A.W.L. Ross.
Most blacks in Denver continued to work as railroad porters, waiters, or domestic servants, but Five Points was also home to a growing number of black professionals and office workers. Justina Ford, long the city’s only black woman physician, worked from 1902 to 1952 out of her home and office at 2335 Arapahoe Street. In 1919 Samuel Cary became the state’s first licensed black attorney and established his office in Five Points. The American Woodmen Insurance Company employed more black office workers than any other business in Denver.
Five Points experienced explosive growth during and after World War II, as its black population nearly doubled to at least 13,500 in 1950. The war was especially good for local businesses, with black soldiers stationed at nearby bases visiting the area’s shops, restaurants, and clubs.
Throughout this period, Five Points remained socially and culturally diverse. Justina Ford, for example, treated a mix of black, white, Korean, Japanese, Latino, and Hispanic patients during her fifty years in the neighborhood. But Five Points was most closely associated with black culture and became known as the “Harlem of the West.” Venues like the Casino Cabaret, Lil’s, and Benny Hooper’s Ex-Servicemen’s Club made Five Points the best place to hear jazz between the Midwest and the West Coast.
The most important jazz club in Five Points was the Rossonian Lounge. Top black musicians who visited Denver often stayed at the Rossonian Hotel because white hotels turned them away, and they often played at the hotel’s first-floor lounge between concerts at larger venues downtown or late at night after returning to the hotel. Over the years the lounge hosted a long list of distinguished musicians, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a cluster of major changes fundamentally transformed Five Points. In 1957 Denver passed a Fair Housing Act, and the state Supreme Court struck down racially restrictive covenants and bans on interracial marriage. Seven years later, the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 reinforced and expanded the new social opportunities available to minorities in Denver and across the country.
These advances improved the lives of blacks, who could now move to newer housing in better neighborhoods, but they hollowed out older black neighborhoods like Five Points, where few remained if they could afford to move elsewhere. The area lost half its population from 1950 to 1970. As people moved away, businesses closed their doors. Even famed music venues like the Rossonian Lounge and the Ex-Servicemen’s Club shut down. By 1990, the area’s population, which had hit a high of 25,000 in 1950, was down to just 8,000. During these years, the neighborhood was roughly 40 percent Latino.
Many older buildings in Five Points were torn down from the 1960s to the 1980s in the name of urban renewal or to make way for parking lots. Whole blocks were cleared to build housing projects such as Curtis Park Homes and Arapahoe Courts. In 1984 Justina Ford’s former home and office had to be moved to a new location on California Street, where it reopened as the Black American West Museum, in order to save it from demolition.
Even during this period of declining population and demolition, Five Points remained a hub of activity for the city’s black community. The annual Juneteenth celebration on June 19, which started in Denver in the 1950s and marks the day in 1865 when Texas slaves learned they were free, hit its peak in the 1980s. In 1981 Shorter AME Church moved to a new location north of City Park, but Zion Baptist Church remained just a few blocks from the Five Points intersection. The old Shorter AME Church building at the triangular corner of Park Avenue West and Washington Street was reused by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, which was founded in 1970 and has grown into one of the city’s most important arts organizations.
In the late twentieth century, the city of Denver invested redevelopment money into Five Points to attract residents and businesses. Ultimately, the neighborhood’s fortunes turned around in the 1990s thanks to a combination of city projects, overflow from the revitalization of the nearby Lower Downtown (LoDo) neighborhood, and a booming development market in Denver. In 1994 the first light rail line in Denver (now known as the D Line) opened along Welton Street, and in 1995 Coors Field opened at the corner of Twentieth and Blake Streets, on the boundary between LoDo and Five Points. These projects and others like them helped drive development northeast from LoDo into Ballpark, River North, Curtis Park, and other parts of the larger Five Points neighborhood.
Growing interest in Five Points developments helped generate greater recognition of the area’s historical importance. In 1995 the Rossonian Hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2002 the Welton Street commercial corridor was listed as a Denver historic cultural district (renamed the Five Points Historic Cultural District in 2015). In 2003 the Denver Public Library opened a new branch, the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, on Welton Street. It contains collections and exhibitions focused on black history in Colorado and the West.
New development surged in Five Points in the early 2000s, as hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the area. New buildings and redevelopments popped up along Welton Street, including a proposed project that would add a new structure behind the Rossonian and turn the complex into a mixed-use development with a hotel, restaurants, a jazz club, and ground-floor retail. In 2015 local magazine 5280 declared that Five Points had finally “arrived.” Within Five Points, the River North area became a hip enclave resembling New York’s Williamsburg, with old warehouses and industrial buildings full of new breweries, bars, restaurants, art galleries, and expensive apartments.
Gentrification poses challenges to the character of Five Points as housing prices and property taxes increase. In 2010 whites outnumbered blacks and Latinos in the neighborhood, and the median price of a house soared 31 percent from 2009 to 2013. For now, longstanding local institutions like Zion Baptist Church, popular community celebrations like Juneteenth and the Five Points Jazz Festival, and the adaptive reuse of historic buildings continue to keep the rapidly changing neighborhood connected to its past.