"Time, wondrous time / Gave me the blues and then purple-pink skies," wrote the poet Taylor Swift. A wildfire-smoke-tinged sunrise over Cheesman Park in Denver on August 14, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Cheesman Park is in danger of becoming an elitist haven. What started as part of the city’s response to the pandemic has instead turned one of its storied regional parks into an amenity for the mostly white, middle- and upper-middle-class residents living in the adjacent neighborhoods.

It’s a textbook example of how well-intentioned public policy often has unintended, and unfortunate consequences.

Most of the roads in Cheesman Park were closed to vehicles in spring of 2020. It was a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic and the perceived need for socially distanced recreational and exercise space, usable only by pedestrians and bicyclists. Only the north drive was left open for vehicles, largely because it also is an RTD bus route.

Brad Cameron and Caroline Schomp

The dictionary definition of “elite” (the root word for “elitism”) is: “… a socially superior group; a powerful minority group.” For the relative handful of nearby residents, less noise and traffic that come with fewer people using the park is a distinct benefit.  But compare that to the many who live farther away.

While some in the adjacent neighborhoods were thrilled with closing the park’s roads, there also was quite a bit of alarm, since closing most of Cheesman’s circular road resulted in eliminating every parking space in the park — more than 100 — including the only handicapped-accessible parking lot. Cheesman Park  — designed to be a regional park, accessible to all Denver citizens  — became a quiet, neighborhood park overnight.

The intention of a regional park is to provide green space for a much wider group of people. In order for them to use and appreciate the park, they often must come in automobiles. Without parking places in the park to accommodate these visitors, they either don’t visit Cheesman, or they are forced to park their cars in adjacent neighborhoods and walk in.  

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Alas, Cheesman Park is located within some of the most densely populated areas of Denver, where on-street parking is challenging and often non-existent.

During busy times last summer  — especially on warm-weather weekends, when neighborhood parking was already tight  — it was almost impossible to find parking places in Cheesman’s adjacent neighborhoods. People took to dropping off picnic coolers, chairs, blankets and volleyball nets on Cheesman’s north circle and then driving blocks away to find parking. Not surprisingly, nearby residents reported a marked decrease in the park’s use.

Then a new narrative began to evolve: Road closures in Cheesman should not be just a response to COVID-19. It became an opportunity to advance a “car-free parks” agenda. Pressure to continue the Cheesman Park road closures — perhaps making them permanent  — ramped up.

Denver’s Department of Parks and Recreation responded with an online survey to plumb the public sentiment. It wasn’t clear who responded, or where they lived, but it was reported that 80% of the respondents “liked” the idea of continuing Cheesman Park’s automobile and parking ban.  

Regardless, restricting access to the public at large by closing Cheesman Park to vehicles is inherently elitist. It favors those who live within walking and biking distance and disadvantages those who live farther away. It turns this historic regional park, with its 80 acres of green space, into a neighborhood-only amenity. And while it may reduce vehicular use, it also limits park use to a select few.

That is not what the designer of the park intended. It was built from an original 1902 design by Reinhard Schuetze, one of Denver’s premier park designers, specifically to accommodate motor vehicles. Use of Cheesman’s circular drive for parking by park users is a time-honored tradition and detracts little from the park’s ambiance.

When the pandemic has ended, and life returns to a more normal existence, then Cheesman Park should be re-opened to its historic condition. If it is not, then the smell of elitism will hang in the air. 

Brad Cameron and Caroline Schomp have lived near Cheesman Park for decades and enjoy it frequently year-round. Cameron is the president of Neighbors for Greater Capitol Hill, and Schomp is a board member of the organization.

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