The Flood

An MSU Denver student helps a lost community reclaim its history

By Mindy Sink

Publish Date: April 19, 2013

Dee Elliott
 Dee Elliott. Photo: Evan Semón

Nearly 50 years ago Denver had its own version of Hurricane Katrina and the Lower Ninth Ward — and very few people know about it.

MSU Denver sophomore Domonic “Dee” Elliott aims to change that. She is retracing the history of Denver’s Jerome Park neighborhood and the flood that wiped it out, and reconnecting residents who’ve been displaced for half a century.

Following days of torrential rain, the South Platte River topped its banks on June 16, 1965, spreading out for half a mile or more through Denver’s downtown corridor, inundating neighborhoods and industrial areas and leaving mud, debris and more than $500 million in damages in the flood’s wake.

“The flood [swept] trains off the tracks, completely covered homes, one person was killed, and miles and miles of homes and businesses were demolished,” says Elliott, who is documenting Jerome Park’s transformation from thriving community to industrial park in a research project, “The Case of Jerome Park: Displacement, Redevelopment, and Reunion. Reconstructing a Neighborhood Community Fifty Years After the Big Flood.”

Jerome Park in 1965 was a bustling, low-income Hispanic community along the South Platte River just south of where the Auraria Campus sits today. Many of the homes still used outhouses and had backyard farms with animals “for feeding and eating,” Elliott says.

“Jerome Park was like an urban village. Even though the residents were poor, they had tight connections and lots of pride,” says MSU Denver sociology Professor Linda Mariposa Marangia, whose spouse, Dan Martinez, is a former Jerome Park resident.

But, developers had set their sights on the Jerome Park area for its convenient access to transportation with proximity to the new Interstate 25 on its flank. “The neighborhood was earmarked by developers for commerce and industry, and there was an attempt to buy the residents out with bottom-dollar offerings,” explains Marangia, Elliott’s research adviser. “When the Platte River flood of 1965 devastated their homes, the government moved them out without adequate reparation to continue [their] lives in another location.”

“The Denver Urban Renewal Authority utilized eminent domain against the residents of the area,” Elliott explains. “Basically, they were outsmarted by the government, in my opinion.”

Schools, homes, churches and businesses were tangible symbols — now lost — of culture, history and bonds shared by Jerome Park residents, says Elliott, who has organized a reunion of former Jerome Park residents.

“I want to tell the story of these people,” she says. “I want to explain urban planning and educate the government and communities about situations like this so we can do better in the future as far as handling disasters.

“We need to do a better job of helping [victims] of these natural disasters to heal and assisting them with rebuilding,” Elliott adds. “A lot of what was lost in that flood were traditions and values. The residents lost a sense of who they were.”