Visionary urban planner and community activist James Rojas recalls growing up in the suburbs of East Los Angeles where gangs notoriously had a presence. He remembers the significance of his front yard, which he described as a miniature plaza where families and neighbors gathered to celebrate birthdays, milestones, and form strong social bonds. “For Latinos, that’s where they moved to try to survive,” Rojas said, adding, “How people use a space is really important.”
The L.A.-based Rojas made a special visit to CU Denver’s City Center on June 2 for a conversation led by Chancellor Michelle Marks and Regent Nolbert Chavez, with about 30 faculty, staff, and community members, including displaced Aurarians and descendants of displaced Aurarians, in attendance.
Rojas’ visit took place during an instrumental time at CU Denver, as the university gears up to celebrate its 50th anniversary and embarks on an initiative to preserve and renovate historic homes along Ninth Street—led by Chavez in partnership with AHEC and the community—to honor the people and communities who called Auraria home before the city of Denver embarked on an urban project to create the tri-institutional campus that would bring public higher education to the city for the first time but would displace and disperse hundreds of families in the process. The Ninth Street initiative builds on the three decade-plus Displaced Aurarian Scholarship and last year’s expansion of the scholarship, in which CU Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver), and the Community College of Denver (CCD) extended eligibility to include all direct descendants of Aurarians who lived in the neighborhood from 1955 to 1973. In addition, in May, HB 1393, a bill to provide additional funding for the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship, was passed by the Colorado House and Senate and is now on the Governor’s desk for consideration.
The intimate discussion explored the importance of CU Denver’s role in preserving the community’s history while helping to shape its future. “We are honoring the past and the promises made; the present in how we utilize the homes, which are the living memory of those who lived there; and the future in how we imagine what that space can be like,” Nolbert said. “We want to take an authentic, community-driven approach.”
Rojas, who received his master’s in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, served in the Peace Corps and has globetrotted to study cities, shared his philosophy and how he approaches community engagement. As a child, he recalled, his dad took him places and told him detailed stories, embedding in him the experiences of his parents and grandparents. “I got my first planning job, and it was boring,” Rojas said. “I didn’t want to just feel a place, I wanted to know a place.”
Today, Rojas is nationally known for his multidisciplinary, arts-based approach to urban planning and his “Latino Urbanism” concept, which embeds Latino traditions and beliefs, such as fences, porches, murals, shrines, and other structural changes, into public and private spaces. When asked what words of advice he would give CU Denver as it embarks on the Ninth Street initiative, Rojas said: “Have people build their favorite memory—talk about it and physically recreate it. You want to pull that story forward so the place has meaning based on memory, not just on a blank slate.” When asked specifically about Ninth Street, Rojas said, “It’s like a monument. It’s a very powerful space.”
In attendance was Milo Marquez, director of the Latino Action Council, whose mission is to empower Colorado’s Latinos through leadership development, advocacy, and policy research. He commented on the importance of reconnecting former Auraria neighbors. “Once they are displaced and dispersed, we lose that history and culture,” Marquez said.
Attendee Frances Torres lived at 1033 9th St. and went to elementary school at St. Cajetan’s, an iconic pink church built in 1926 that was once a place of worship for the Auraria neighborhood. She recalled how the different places of worship—St. Cajetan’s, St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church, and the Saint Dominic Catholic Parish—shaped the community. “The meaning and the importance of our culture, of walking from church to school, that resulted in me feeling OK about the homeless people, OK that some people were in a different situation than I … I think that made a whole lot of difference in our neighborhood,” said Torres, whose son used the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship to help fund his education at CU Denver. She said her hope for CU Denver as it embarks on its Ninth Street initiative is to “continue speaking to the community, because we were there, we witnessed it.”
CU Denver plans to do just that. In addition, units across campus will play a vital role in the planning process, Chavez said. This fall, for example, the College of Architecture and Planning will host a studio course specifically on Ninth Street. “Everyone has ideas, but we need to talk about what the community wants first. That is the most important thing,” Chavez said. “If you start off on the wrong foot, you never get back on track. We want to be thoughtful, engaging, and inclusive.”