‘I wanted the buildings to talk': Five Points audio tours bring history to life


DENVER — Denver’s Five Points neighborhood is steeped in history, culture and change. A yoga studio occupies what was once a mortuary owned by the sons of Frederick Douglass. Across the street from an RTD park-and-ride station, you’ll find the former home of Dr. Justina Ford, Colorado’s first Black female doctor who delivered thousands of babies, many of them in her house. 

The buildings — and the people — of Five Points have witnessed the evolution of this historically Black neighborhood. As people come and go, the buildings remain. If those walls could talk, what stories would they tell? Two new audio tours from the Denver Architecture Foundation strive to answer that question. 

The nonprofit released the tours, titled Five Points Fortitude, as the centerpiece of its annual Doors Open Denver event. Most years, Doors Open Denver showcases the city’s architecture through in-person tours and events. This year, the event was virtual. 

The self-paced audio tours are free to access and will be available in perpetuity. The two tours — a 13-stop tour for adults and an eight-stop tour designed for families — allow people to take in the information at their own pace, pausing and replaying as needed. The tour encourages people to take their time in the neighborhood and explore destinations that aren’t designated tour stops. 

Michael Hughes, DAF’s interim executive director, said the buildings often considered to be architecturally significant are grand, expensive and designed by white architects. By highlighting the architectural gems in Five Points, the foundation wants to take a step toward revising that narrative. 

“The buildings that are often praised or thought about as worthy of attention are buildings of great privilege,” Hughes said. “There's an awakening to really trying to understand the breadth of the community, the diversity of architectural styles, of historic context.” 

As one would expect from an architecture tour, each stop includes information about the building’s architectural style and history. But the tour also dives into the cultural history and personal stories of the building. 

To help tell those stories, DAF tapped filmmaker donnie l. betts. betts, who does not use capital letters in his name, produced, directed and co-wrote both tours. 

betts has established deep roots in the Five Points community, producing films that honor and preserve the history of the neighborhood and the experience of Black people in the West. 

“I wanted the buildings to talk. I'm not an architect, but I know how to tell a story,” betts said. “People who are walking and listening to this will have a chance to take in those stories and take in the beauty of the architecture at the same time.” 

The tour begins at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library and concludes at the Justina Ford House, now home to the Black American West Musuem. 

The tours give context to visitors who may not be familiar with Five Points’ history, but betts sees the potential for even longtime residents to discover more about their neighborhood. He said a friend of his was excited to bring her family on the tour, despite being from Five Points herself.

In the early 20th century, redlining policies served to segregate major cities across the country, including Denver. As a redlined community, Five Points became Denver’s first predominantly Black neighborhood. But, as betts pointed out, Five Points has always been a multi-ethnic neighborhood, home to Jewish, Hispanic and Japanese communities, to name a few. The audio tours tell this history.

“I want [listeners] to have appreciation of history and appreciation of the people who were there before, now and into the future,” betts said.

Five Points, historically dubbed the “Harlem of the West” for its booming jazz scene, is still attracting new residents interested in its diverse culture and history. But the wealth of many of these new residents is changing the dynamics of the neighborhood and creating concerns about gentrification in the area.

Hughes and betts both discussed the alienating feeling that gentrification creates for longtime residents who begin to feel like strangers in their own neighborhood. Hughes hopes the tour can spark conversations about preserving the neighborhood’s history as it continues to evolve.

“The tour gives you a chance to ask, what can we do to keep the things that we love about [the neighborhood] from disappearing as the economics change and people move in?” Hughes said.

As the people betts calls “new pioneers” arrive to discover what the neighborhood has to offer, he hopes they hold on to what makes Five Points what it is.

“I just hope they have that same energy and same kind of love for the community,” betts said. “I keep coming back to that word love, because I think that's what made Five Points different to begin with.”

Both Five Points Fortitude audio tours are available on the Denver Architecture Foundation’s website on the Audio Tours page.

Carly Rose is the journalism intern at Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at carlyrose@rmpbs.org.