Khadija Haynes was ready to pitch in for a $200 table on Friday night to enjoy some wings and jazz and show up for the Welton Street Cafe.
“It is especially important for me, as a multigenerational Black person in the city, to support Black establishments,” she said. While she tries to pass dollars onto any legacy local business that needs a hand, she said this one is different: “It is uniquely important that the community support it.”
The café is one of just a handful of Black-owned businesses left on the Five Points corridor, which was once known as “the Harlem of the West” and has long been the center of African-American life in Denver – due in part to a history of redlining and blatant segregation. This legacy, and the threat of displacement due to rising costs to live and work here, are reasons people like Haynes feel a responsibility to support the café as it enters a new phase.
The Dickerson family, owners of the longtime Five Points business, announced they were moving a block away last year. They’re planning to clear out of the space they’ve occupied for two decades, and they told Denver they needed help raising money to pay off some debts and ready the new spot for their soul food kitchen. Their Gofundme, titled “last man standing,” has collected $83,000 from about 1,500 people since it launched.
Now, the Dickersons and their supporters are throwing events to keep the money flowing. Norman Harris III, the organizer of the neighborhood’s annual Juneteenth Music Festival, is hoping to pull down $10,000 a night during events like the concert Friday at the Spangalang Brewery. He’s planning more fundraisers like it through the year on the first Friday of each month, a concert series he tried to kick off in 2020 before COVID made things complicated.
Friday night got the new campaign off to a good start. The brewery was packed with people happy to spend money supporting the Dickerson’s enterprise.
Jason Davis and Tarryn Montoya, who grew up in Denver and live within walking distance of the café, said they needed to show up.
“It’s important to us because it’s important to them,” Davis said. “They were here long before anybody, and the history of that is just very important to this neighborhood.”
They like the Dickersons’ fried chicken, catfish and okra. And, as longtime white residents, they have a sense of how things here have become precarious.
“I don’t want this neighborhood to get gentrified and push out all the people that have been here,” Montoya said.
This possibility was on the minds of many people who came to push dollars toward the business.
Gayle Leali, leader of the band that played Spangalang on Friday, said she felt strongly about doing her part.
“I’ve been a patron for several years, and it’s the best food and nicest staff,” she said. “I want to see the Welton Street Cafe thrive. They’ve struggled. They’ve been around for so long.”
Leali has a nuanced perspective on the changes that have taken root here. Some of these shifts can be OK.
“Gentrification can be positive because it can be inclusive,” she said.
That integration can be a good thing, but the silver lining disappears when the people who built a place can no longer afford to stay.
Haynes, who grew up in Denver, said she’s watched the city’s Black history get wiped away in the name of progress. Five Points became RiNo. Parts of Park Hill and the area north of City Park have turned chic.
“It smacks the face of history, and our country’s really good about that in so many ways,” she said.
While Haynes doesn’t see her support for Welton Street Cafe as an explicit act of resistance to these changes, she hopes her donations will help the Dickersons preserve Five Points’ threatened sense of place through their cooking.
The Dickersons have been overwhelmed by all this support.
Fathima Dickerson, who’s become a public face for her family’s business, was still busy running the cash register as people ate and danced at the brewery next door. She’s always busy, but she was juggling more than usual Friday night. Her family was in the kitchen cranking out meals for the event as she balanced KJ, the 3-year-old son of a family friend, on her hip.
Harris came in to tell her he wanted to introduce her to the crowd. She still needed to close the dining room for the night, but she’d make her way in there. She was grateful for everyone who showed up.
“I feel really just blessed to see the community support,” she said when she had a moment to breathe. “It just goes to show we left an impact or an impression on the people and on the community.”
Beyond fundraising, Harris has been working with the Dickersons to transform the café’s business model. They’ve already tried out brunch – and plan to do it again in a couple of weeks. When they move into their new location, the Dickersons plan to start breakfast service regularly and open a bar for extended evening business. Harris said the family has been game for changing things up, which gives him hope that they’ll make it through the transition.
“We continue to wrap our arms around our community institutions and find ways for them to survive,” he told us. “I’m excited for Welton Street 2.0. It’s gonna happen.”
In the last few years, a lot of Harris’ work has been about preserving the legacy of Black culture that might otherwise fade from the corridor. While he’s solely focused on the café right now, he said he’s feeling optimistic that a more general sense of place will survive here. This isn’t his first rodeo, and he believes lessons the community has learned through past heartbreaks will lead them to success.
“There’s been times when I walked around here feeling as if things were taken away from me or they didn’t work out the way I wanted to, initially. In the larger scale of things, that’s kind of life and you’ve gotta figure out how to overcome those things,” he said. “My family has experienced loss, in terms of having to sell a family property. But the lessons we take from that, how we move from those things, says a lot about us. So I’m very encouraged about what’s happening here in Five Points.”
Dickerson said she hopes the fundraisers will demonstrate a strong customer base that will allow her business to get a loan from a bank or the Small Business Administration. She and Harris both said there are still a lot of barriers for small enterprises to survive in this city, but they believe the outpouring of money and love from their community will help them get by.