Story of West Colfax
West Colfax has been home to various Denver communities from the late-nineteenth century, and since that time has seen its fortunes wax and wane. Bounded by Federal Boulevard (east), Sheridan Street (west), West 17th and 19th Avenue (north), and 10th Avenue and Dry Creek in the Lakewood Dry Gulch (south), West Colfax is contiguous with several other West Denver neighborhoods, including Villa Park, Barnum (East and West), Sloan Lake, and Sun Valley.
But contemporary West Colfax is less defined by its boundaries than its namesake street, and the relationship between a residential neighborhood and a hard-luck commercial stretch of America’s longest street. Originally known as Golden Road for its connection of Golden and Denver, Colfax was renamed in 1896 for Schuyler Colfax, vice-president to President Ulysses S. Grant. Today, Colfax is a 26-mile-long strip that extends from Aurora in the east, west to the mountains through Denver, Lakewood, and Golden, Colorado. Charles Linn, writing in Architectural Record, compares a contemporary view along the length of Colfax as “a bit like looking at a gigantic core sample. One can almost view the complete history of this Rocky Mountain city along its length and see how it has prospered, declined, and, in some cases, has been renewed.”
Colfax long served as a route for travel and trade through Denver. Westward travelers used the Golden Road as a way to the mountains, meeting wagons of hay and other agricultural goods destined for Denver. Travelers traversed a section of the Front Range with few residents, save for a handful of grand residences, shanties, and farms. But in the late-nineteenth century, new arrivals began to settle and establish homes and business in the vacant lands west of the South Platte River, including the small residential development of gracious Victorian homes first established in 1891 by developer Ralph Voorhees, and later known the Stuart Street historic district. By 1892, a street railroad crossed the Larimer Street bridge, and thereafter extended to Sheridan Avenue, spurring the creation of new residential neighborhoods in West Denver and business development along a western span of Colfax Avenue. In 1891, one group of interested citizens succeeded in establishing Colfax as a town distinct from Denver. Another group, largely associated with business interests along Golden Road and desirous of annexation by Denver, seceded and established themselves as Brooklyn in 1892, a town just nine blocks in length, and two-and-a-half blocks wide. Brooklyn, as Westside historian Ida Libert Uchill has observed, would have “a short past, six months of hectic present, and absolutely no future.” Within a year the division was reconciled, and the West Colfax neighborhood was incorporated into the city of Denver in 1897.
With the turn of the century, West Colfax and other Westside neighborhoods were fast becoming the heart of a vibrant, working-class community. With immigrants from the eastern United States, as well as more recent arrivals from central and eastern Europe, the neighborhood of modest homes and small businesses was a distinctly Jewish community, although one observers found quite unlike others in the crowded urban neighborhoods of the eastern United States. But by the 1950s, West Colfax’s Jewish community had begun to disperse throughout the city. In 2000, Gertrude Hyman, owner of the Lake Steam Baths, a fixture of West Colfax community life since its construction in 1927, recalled the remove of Jewish families and their dispersion throughout metropolitan Denver, and characterized it as an exodus. Nevertheless, the family-owned and operated baths endures. And a strong community exists around the Congregation Zera Abraham synagogue, along with other significant institutions of Jewish Denver, such as Yeshiva Toras Chaim and Beth Jacob High School.
In the early post-World War II era, Colfax was a vital East-to-West avenue, especially for those intent on a mountain vacation or recreation. Much of Colfax became a seat of hotels and motels, restaurants, and entertainment spots, where travelers and residents alike might rest, eat, and be entertained. Development of Colfax seen in the 1930s, when the street was designated U.S. Highway 40, paled in comparison to the boom in construction during the 1940s, including a spate of motels, restaurants, and clubs from the 4400 block of Colfax through Lakewood. But with this new, automobile-oriented face to Colfax Avenue, several of the causes for its subsequent decline were put in place. Colfax was widened, and widened again, and again, to accommodate increased automobile traffic, and boulevards were lost to new lanes of traffic. Businesses were oriented to those who traveled by car, not those on foot from within a neighborhood. With the construction of the interstate system, travelers no longer used Colfax as means of passing through Denver to destinations east or west, and the short-lived golden age of Colfax Avenue passed. Unfortunate zoning, loss of trade, and a less-than-hospitable pedestrian environment further contributed to decline.
Much of the recent history of West Colfax has been concerned with a series of revitalization efforts, beginning in 1978 with a study of the street itself and means to create a more inviting environment. A succession of studies, general plans for development, and subsequent return to a need for study and revitalization efforts have marked the area for more than thirty years. To some in Denver’s West Colfax community, Lakewood’s efforts to revitalize its portion of the commercial strip have seemed more concerted and effective, and a contrast has been drawn with what is perceived as Denver’s relative neglect.
Today, West Colfax is identified by the Piton Foundation as one of the city’s at-risk neighborhoods, with residents who are younger, poorer, and less educated than those who reside in almost any other Denver neighborhood. According to the 2000 federal Census, some 70% of West Colfax residents are Hispanic; 20% are White; and the remainder are a mix of individuals who designate themselves as “other races” or Black. Some 40% of West Colfax residents are without a high school diploma, twice the city-wide rate of 20%, and just 10% of residents hold an undergraduate degree, one-fourth the rate of Denver’s population. But, as a recent study suggests, West Colfax is also neighborhood of diverse households -- poor, rich, and the degrees between -- who have decided to make it home, and one local publication recently designated it as a up-and-coming city neighborhood. Light rail construction, redevelopment of St. Anthony Central Hospital, a new library decades after the closure of the beloved Dickinson branch, and the neighborhood’s proximity to downtown jobs and amenities offer the prospect of renaissance.