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Essay: A neighborhood portrait

"The diversity is the beauty of my humble neighborhood, where Cinco de Mayo celebrations can stop traffic for days." Photo: Matt Suby

In my neighborhood, the Blessed Virgin lives in a bathtub.

I live in Sunnyside, a northwest Denver neighborhood bounded on the south and north by West 38th Avenue and I-70 and on the east and west by Inca Street and Federal Boulevard.

Once, my neighborhood was home to small farms and orchards, which provided produce to a burgeoning frontier Denver. Once, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was mostly white, back when the Denver middle class moved across the South Platte River to escape the prostitute- and gambler- and drinker- and sinner-infested surrounds of Larimer Street and the hubbub of downtown. Once, it was a suburb — long before urban planners classified it as part of the inner city.

Once, my neighborhood was known as the “Little Italy” of the Queen City. Today, roughly 72 percent of Sunnyside residents are Hispanic, though an increasing number of young, white professionals, like me, are discovering Sunnyside’s charms.

Sunnyside is a mix of delicacies, and my block is no exception. An elderly Italian-American man lives in a bungalow on the corner across the street. He’s been there for more than 50 years and grows his own tomatoes. Next door to me is an Italian-American couple that has been in the neighborhood since before World War II. At Christmas, they treat their neighbors to fresh, homemade pizzelle that taste of tradition. Our neighbors just to the south are immigrant laborers from Mexico who grow corn in their front yard and play basketball in the back.

Just a block away I can buy fresh, homemade tortillas, 12 for a dollar, and a little further along are tamales made fresh by a raven-haired woman whose roundness implies that she enjoys the tamales, too. Or, I can stop off at a nearby Italian deli that for decades has perfected a hot sausage that is almost a staple hereabouts.

It’s not uncommon in Sunnyside to see big, well-kept pickup trucks with tinted windows, proudly emblazoned with decals: “Chihuahua” or the Mexican flag or Our Lady of Guadalupe encircled by rays of shimmering light. And, in my neighborhood, you can still find tidy little statues of The Lady enshrined in an upended bathtub, or in a birdbath or in a window.

On the hottest days of summer, Sunnyside is serenaded by the handbells of palateros as they push their carts of ice cream and frozen fruit bars through the neighborhood. The men pushing these little carts seem always to be dressed modestly in long pants and pinch-toed cowboy boots. Their wives come along later, pushing carts laden with roasted corn, chicharones and other treats for sale.

The diversity is the beauty of my humble neighborhood, where Cinqo de Mayo celebrations can stop traffic for days and Columbus Day is still an Official Big Deal.

Some of our friends and family think my husband and I traded down when we moved into our run-down, modest-sized Victorian when Sunnyside was still known as gang territory. We moved from an exquisite, large home on a park in a posh neighborhood.

But there, neighbors didn’t talk over the garden fence, and nobody sang along to mariachi music while they painted their house, and nobody played football in the street, and no one sat on their front porch soaking up the still of a fall evening, and no one threw a block party or helped a neighbor get raccoons out of the attic.

I’ve watched my friends flee to the suburbs — chasing better schools, bigger shops and nicer, newer homes with attached garages and maybe a view.

They don’t know what they’re missing.

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