In the iPhone maps app, the tiny wedge-shaped green space on the west side of South Bryant Street just south of West Ellsworth Avenue still shows up as “Unnamed Bryant & Ellsworth Park.”
The roughly half-acre plot, dotted with trees and a single basketball hoop at the crest of an arc of blacktop, does have a name. On Nov. 7, with the City Council’s unanimous blessing, the park in the middle of west Denver’s Valverde neighborhood was officially christened Ulibarri Park.
It’s a name with a deep-rooted history in a neighborhood the city has deemed especially vulnerable to gentrification and economic displacement of long-time residents. The naming itself, in the works for years before the council voted to approve it, is part of a broader effort to honor the contributions of Denver residents of color and strengthen community identity in parts of the city that for decades were overlooked and neglected.
Signs — and online map updates — are still coming but the Ulibarri Park name honors Elaine and Fred Ulibarri, longtime Valverde residents who were active in the community, including at the height of the Chicano movement in Denver during the 1960s and ’70s. During that period of activism, leaders like Cesar Chavez and Denver’s own Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez made news for their work pushing for better working conditions and equitable treatment for Latinos in the U.S.
“They were just always helping people,” said Evon Lopez, one of Elaine and Fred Ulibarri’s seven children. “They would help Spanish-speaking neighbors fill out paperwork for food stamps, housing, whatever. When you grow up in a culture of being poor, you want to give back. That’s how we were raised.”
The tiny pocket park, which sits on a hill that overlooks downtown Denver, became a gathering place because it was somewhere Latinos could congregate without fear of being profiled or harassed by police in those days, according to Lopez.
“When people are prejudiced against you for the color of your skin, you go where you feel welcome,” she said. “And we felt welcome in this park.”
Her father, who grew up in west Denver before joining the U.S. Army and serving as a paratrooper in World War II, was no stranger to injustice. He came back from the war eager to take advantage of all the opportunities promised to G.I.s but found that he was locked out of jobs that paid well because he was not white.
Among her mother’s contributions to Valverde and Denver at large was co-founding Servicios de la Raza, a social services organization dedicated to growing and supporting a thriving Latino population in Colorado.
The park’s name goes beyond honoring the legacy of just one family in Valverde. For Lopez, her daughter, Adriana Lopez, now president of the Valverde Neighborhood Association, and supporters like District 7 City Councilman Jolon Clark, it’s a step forward in efforts to address years of unfair treatment of west Denver’s working-class, traditionally Latino neighborhoods.
“Names create pride, I think, a sense of belonging,” said Adriana Lopez, who bought and lives in her late grandmother’s house on Bryant Street just blocks from the park. “It’s not necessarily about just our family but a spoke on the wheel of putting Valverde on the map that’s kind of been forgotten for a really long time just in terms of general investments in the neighborhood in comparison to others across town.”
For Clark, naming the park closes the loop on a seven-year effort that started shortly after he was elected to his first term and noticed that his district has three parks listed as “unnamed” save for their cross streets.
“If your park doesn’t have a name then your park doesn’t get a sign. It’s the little things that highlight the long-term inequitable (treatment) and neglect some neighborhoods have experienced,” Clark said at the Nov. 7 hearing. “You shouldn’t have to fight to get what is owed.”
The city drafted a neighborhood plan for Valverde in 1991. That document called for naming the park at Bryant Street and Ellsworth Avenue. As city planner Valerie Herrera noted at the Nov. 7 hearing, it took the city 31 years to act on that recommendation.
Hererra is leading the city’s efforts to draft a new West Area Plan meant to guide the future of Valverde and surrounding neighborhoods for decades to come. The Lopez family is actively supporting that work despite Evon’s early misgivings it would only clear a path for developers to profit off of the neighborhood.
“Quality of life is the foundation of the West Area Plan,” Herrera said at the renaming hearing. “Environmental resiliency, cultural and historic preservation and most importantly regarding this initiative, creating a sense of place.”
There is another park to name in Valverde. Located at the corner of West Byers Place and South Pecos Street, it shows up on maps at Byers & Pecos Park.
Choosing a name that honors the neighborhood’s heritage there is especially important because the Byers name references Rocky Mountain News founder William Byers who defended the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. Byers’ name was stripped off a Denver Public Library branch building in West Denver last year. The library was renamed for John “Thunderbird Man” Emhoolah Jr., an advocate for the American Indian community and a descendant of survivors of the massacre.
Evon and Adriana Lopez will be supportive of that park naming effort but won’t take the lead. They hope their work to bring recognition to the Ulibarri name will inspire others in west Denver to tell the unheard stories of other unsung neighborhood heroes.
For now, they are waiting for signs for the park and planning for a celebration, likely this spring. There will be mariachi music, folklórico dancers and, of course, lots of food, Evon Lopez said. It’s the way her mom would have wanted it.
“Ulibarri means new village and that’s what we’re trying to build here,” she said.