Mile High City: Racial and Ethnic Dynamics

Lucy Dwight
University of Colorado-Denver
CUSS Newsletter, Summer 2012, Vol. 24, No. 3

Denver, the Mile High City, is located where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains. Though the area was used as a hunting ground for Native Americans for thousands of years and explored by the Spanish as early as the 16th century, it was the discovery of gold in nearby Pikes Peak that lead to permanent settlement by fortune seekers in 1858. Denver quickly became a regional center due to the Colorado Gold Rush and other extractive booms and busts that continued for well over a century. Although experiencing a major economic downturn and loss of population in the 1980s as the regional oil and gas industry collapsed along with the savings and loan debacle, Denver today is the largest city in Colorado and the Mountain West ( 2012). Similar to other urban areas in the South and West, the greater Denver area has grown rapidly in the last few decades, increasing by 50% between 1990 and 2010, with more than 2.75 million residents in the metropolitan area today (Piton 2011). Denver’s core has grown rapidly as well, to over 600,000 residents, an increase of more than 25% since 1990, after experiencing several decades of population decline ( 2012).

Enduring Inequalities

Like most metropolitan areas, housing in Denver is residentially segregated by socio economic status, race and ethnicity. The degree of segregation of non Latino whites from non whites is characterized as moderate in Denver, with little change since 2000 (diversitydata 2012). Economic disparities are evident across the area. Median household income for the City and County of Denver is below the national average ($45,501 compared to $56,456 for the U.S. as a whole), and substantially lower than several of Denver’s suburban counties (e.g., suburban Douglas County’s median household income approaches $100,000) ( 2012). At the same time, household income inequality within the city core is estimated in the highest quintile of counties nationally (Bee 2012).

The modest decline in overall racial residential segregation in Denver noted above obscures very rapid changes in many of Denver’s neighborhoods. A number of centrally located Denver neighborhoods are gentrifying rapidly as young white professionals move in and black or Latino residents relocate to other areas of the central city or, increasingly, inner ring suburbs. Five Points just northeast of downtown illustrates these changes. Through the first half of the 20th century, this neighborhood was the only option for Denver’s African American population as housing covenants excluded blacks from other areas of the city. As opportunities for the black middle class expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, the neighborhood’s black population began to decline and the Latino population began to grow proportionally. By 2000, this neighborhood held roughly equal numbers of blacks and non Latino whites with a somewhat larger Latino population; no one racial/ethnic group held a majority. By 2010, however, the non Latino white population made more than 50% of the neighborhood population; the black population had dropped to only 15%. I took a group of students to tour this historically black area once known as the “Harlem of the West” several years ago. As we rode the light rail, an older African American gentleman asked where we were headed. When I replied that we were taking a walking tour of Five Points, he responded that the Five Points was no longer there.

The Highlands neighborhood exemplifies these trends as well. Just northwest of Downtown Denver, the Highlands dates to the 1870s and has been a destination of immigrants – Italians, Irish and Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century, Latinos more recently -for most of its history. Figure 1 shows changes in the ethnic composition of this neighborhood over the past four decades. By the 1970s, the Highlands held a majority of Hispanics. However, between 2000 and 2010, the Highlands transitioned from approximately 2/3 Latino to a majority (57.4%) of non Hispanic white residents. The total population of the neighborhood has dropped during this time from 10,353 to 8,429, primarily due to smaller household sizes among the non Hispanic population ( 2012).

Like many cities, Denver’s non white population is shifting out of the urban core. Within the city, neighborhoods further out from downtown have become increasingly non white. For instance, the Montbello area in northeast Denver has transitioned from a majority black neighborhood with a large non Latino white presence to a heavily Hispanic area, as shown in Figure 2.

Denver has long had concentrations of Asian Americans – primarily Chinese in the late 1800s, later Japanese Americans who settled in Denver after internment in southern Colorado during World War II, then Southeast Asians who immigrated here during the Vietnam War era (Wishart 2012). The city’s Asian American population is growing faster than any other racial/ethnic group but is still quite small (3. 4%) of the total ( 2012), and less concentrated residentially than other non white groups. Southeast Denver hosts a number of Asian owned markets and restaurants.

Central Denver is home to more than 8,000 Native American residents (Berschling 2008), proportionally higher than the national average at more than 2.5% ( 2012). Denver is located on land that was once primarily Ute territory, and the city was one of five areas designated for relocation of Native Americans as the federal government sought to weaken the reservation system in the 1950s. As the largest city for several hundred miles, Denver has also served as an urban destination for residents migrating from the Plains and Mountain West’s many reservations (denverindian 2012). Though recent data are not available on residential patterns for the Native American population of Denver, evidence in other cities suggest continuing housing market discrimination and residential segregation to some degree (Turner, et al 2012).

Beyond the uneven distribution of non whites in Denver, there are large disparities in socio economic statuses across most of these groups. Within the city, the average black and Native American child attends a school with a poverty rate above 50%; for the average Latino child, the poverty rate is greater than 60%. By comparison, the typical poverty rate in schools for Denver’s white children is about 25% (diversitydata 2012). These discrepancies in schools occur despite a system wide school choice program within the central city Denver Public School system.

Population patterns in greater metropolitan Denver mirror those in other metropolitan areas. The inner suburbs have become more diverse racially and ethnically. Suburban Adams County just north of Denver now has a higher proportion of Latinos than Denver’s core, and the total number of Latinos there is approaching that of the central city. The African American population is growing substantially in Arapahoe County, home to the large suburban community of Aurora, as the black population declines within the central city. Housing in many parts of central Denver is increasingly unaffordable for large segments of the population, while the metropolitan region has experienced unabated exurban sprawl with no natural barriers to limit growth in any direction except the mountains to the west (diversitydata 2012).

Wheel Utopias – Bicycle Tour of Central Denver Neighborhoods

The Highlands neighborhood described above is one of five central Denver neighborhoods that are part of a guided bicycle tour arranged by the Students of Sociology Club of the University of Colorado, Denver. In addition to the Highlands, the bike tour will include Denver’s Civic Center Park as an example of the City Beautiful movement along with three neighborhoods redeveloped by the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) in the 1960s and 1970s. The tour will provide a B cycle from Denver’s bike sharing program along with a helmet, water, and a printed copy of the route and tour highlights. The tour will take approximately 90 minutes, departing from the Colorado Convention Center on Sunday, August 19 at 10 a.m. CU Denver students will lead the tour, and students and faculty will support the ride. The registration fee is $12.50, and participants may sign up through the conference registration site at The tour will be limited to fifteen participants. More information on the tour can be found in the July/ August issue of Footnotes.


  • Bee, Adam. 2012. Household Income Inequality Within U.S. Counties: 2006 2010 . American Community Survey Briefs, U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Berschling, J.D., Buhlig, M., McEwen, D., McGuire, M., Romero, C.X., and Shimomu ra, M. 2008. The Health Status of Denver Report 2008 . City and County of Denver Department of Environmental Health and Denver Health and Hospital Authority Department of Public Health, November 2008.
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  • Piton Foundation. 2011. Regional Focus: As Hispanic Popu l a t i o n G r o w s , M e t r o C o u n t i e s Look More Like Denver . The Piton Foundation’s 2010 Census Project. Available at .
  • Turner MA, SL Ross, J Adams, B Bednarz, C Herbig, SJ Lee and K Ross. 2003. Discrimination in metropolitan housing markets: Phase 3 – Native Americans . US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Washington, DC.
  • Wishart, DJ (editor). Encyclopedia of the Great Plains . University of Nebraska Lincoln, available at

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