Neighbors protested for days outside ink! Coffee in Five Points, Denver, after a sign joked about gentrification. Mimi Madrid/CityLab

“Nothing says gentrification like being able to order a cortado,” declares a coffee-shop sign. Its neighbors frankly disagree.

Cortado is not just the way you order an overpriced espresso drink at your new favorite up-and-coming neighborhood coffee spot. Nope. In Spanish, cortado means to be cut.

“Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014,” read one side of the now-infamous sign posted in front of a ink! Coffee, a Denver-area chain, on November 22. The back said: “Nothing says gentrification like being able to order a cortado.”

Residents of the neighborhood of Five Points, where the ink! outlet is located, launched into action, posting photos of the sign online and calling for a boycott of the company. Those posts were picked up by local media and quickly went viral, with coverage in national publications like the Guardian and the New York Times. Someone sprayed graffiti on the building: WHITE COFFEE. Within four days organizers mobilized nearly 300 supporters for a protest outside the shop, and demonstrations continued through the weekend. On Monday morning, community members posted outside educating customers on what had happened. The shop stayed closed until Tuesday.

“I am embarrassed to say that I did not fully appreciate the very real and troubling issue of gentrification, and I want to sincerely apologize to those who understand firsthand the hardship and cultural consequences that gentrification has caused,” wrote Keith Herbert, the founder of ink! Coffee, on Facebook. The ad agency that created the signs apologized, too.

But locals are skeptical that the sentiment was an oversight. This has been a jump-off for organizers and community to engage, organize, and get vocal. “This was blatant and meant to be mean,” said Tim Marquez, a third-generation Eastsider, activist, and comedian. Marquez knows the marketing process for a business; he used to own a coffeehouse and comedy club in Denver’s Westside. At first he thought the ink! sign was a bad joke. Now he believes it was the furthest thing from it. “When you have multiple layers of staff, that means you have dozens of eyes that looked at this and said, ‘let’s do it,’” he said. “That tells me that that’s how they actually think,” he said—that gentrification is equivalent to improvement.

There’s nothing funny about the assumption that, like settlers or colonizers, gentrifiers are engaged in the best and highest use of a neighborhood. The rage from residents is about more than just the sign. Our discontent has festered and grown as we’ve witnessed cranes and construction paraphernalia strewn across streets the city once neglected—back when the people who lived on them were brown and black.

Five Points was once a black neighborhood. It was that way because of decades of redlining, concentrated public housing, and eventually white flight. But it used to bustle with black-owned businesses and jazz clubs that hosted greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole. In recent years, Five Points has seen a steady decline of black and Latino residents as high-rise condos, micro-breweries, yoga studios, art studios, and restaurants have proliferated. Denver is booming, and its communities of color are getting cut. In Five Points, the share of black residents has dwindled to less than 20 percent. Countywide, it’s less than 10 percent.

Other historically neglected communities, home to poor and working-class families, have felt the pain of gentrification masked as progress in their streets for years. I grew up in Barnum in Denver’s Westside and today live in Swansea, two neighborhoods experiencing a wave of public and private investments. Sometimes that means murals, road improvements, and new transit stops. But in neighborhoods that were for decades left without sidewalks, gutters, or streetlights, we know these changes are for newcomers, not for us. That’s most obvious when the names of our neighborhoods get cut. Five Points has become the “River North Art District,” AKA “RiNo.” La Alma is now “Lincoln Park.” The Northside has become “Highlands.”

Near my former high school in the Northside, a row of brick Victorian homes built over 120 years has been demolished and replaced by boxy high-rise condominiums selling for $600,000 per unit. In the Baker community, the LGBTQ nonprofit where I work used to shared a building with a corner store operated by a Vietnamese family for years. The landlord raised their rent and that corner vacancy has recently seen a pie store, a wedding gown boutique, and a coffee shop whiz by. In Westwood, families used to congregate for culture and healing at Grandmother’s House of Herbs and Cures; after the landlord raised the rent, the community oasis was replaced by an Allstate Insurance office.

In Sunnyside, I’ve stood with neighbors watching with deep sorrow the sandblasting of a historic mural depicting a conga player drumming for a beautiful woman above a field of chile peppers. Created by a local artist and young people in the community, the painting had been part of the local landscape for 25 years before it was erased by a developer who wanted to “restore” the building. “This has always been a transitional neighborhood,” he told the Denver Post in 2010, about other projects in the Northside. “The Italians, the Germans, the Mexicans—and now a wave of more affluent people. It’s the great thing about Highland, and I think we are gentrifying gracefully.”

The sign at ink! also implied that gentrification equals progress. But that is not the definition of gentrification: The term, coined by British urban sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964, describes the rapid displacement of the working class from a neighborhood and the erasure of the social character of the area. Like the places it describes, the word itself has since been co-opted.

Marquez equates gentrification to a party where strangers show up uninvited, but because you are a good host, you allow them to stay. The uninvited guests then change the theme of the gathering past recognition to the point where the original hosts start to leave. That’s when the uninvited guests invite a barrage of their own friends. “Now it’s their party, and you feel so uncomfortable that you leave,” Marquez said.

Uncomfortable is one word for it. “Disposable” is another.

Until recently, the downtown-adjacent neighborhoods of Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea had been stable communities of working-class, Latino homeowners. But rents have doubled, and home values have skyrocketed. The Colorado Department of Transportation is planning a $1.2 billion expansion of I-70, complete with a glittering green highway cap promising to “reconnect” the neighborhood. Houses have been bulldozed north of the highway, with more demolitions on the way. Owners have been offered pitifully low buyouts. The expansion is happening in conjunction with a suite of large-scale redevelopment projects. Now families are fleeing, some to poorer outskirts of Denver, others out of state. And as rents have increased, so have the number of homeless on the street. Affordable housing investments proposed so far are laughably small.

Gentrification is often invisible. But the disrespect in Denver is overt. Politicians, business owners, and developers have shared their disappointment in the ink! sign. Yet they ignore how they are complicit in the processes that allow it occur. They continue to support legislation that further criminalizes homelessness and poverty. They have much to learn from the residents who resist disrespectful language and practices.

Dedicated community groups have kept up the pressure against displacement attempts. Neighborhood leaders began a statewide coalition called Colorado Homes For All as a response to the local housing crisis. Plans for community-run land trusts have begun. Residents and community members are planning next steps for sustainable demands, protests and visions. Our communities are leaning into conversations of class and race and real community ownership instead of running from them. We envision an intergenerational effort to collect stories from our elders, families, and young people, to document our histories and define best practices for neighbors old and new.

The controversy over ink! Coffee will soon disappear. But the unrest and response is our own abiding sign to Denver’s powers-that-be: We’ve been kicked around one too many times. We are not backing down and we are not accepting the violence of gentrification in even the most insidious and silent forms. Consider our response a notice to businesses and politicians everywhere: You are here to serve our communities, too. We will organize and fight to keep you accountable. No disrespect is too small. Residents have been cortado for far too long.

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