What do Little Saigon, Westwood and Sun Valley have in common? They are all essential pockets of culture in the fabric of Denver’s westside. Sun Valley is considered the most diverse neighborhood in Denver with over 30 different languages spoken in the small area. Westwood is a majority Latino neighborhood and Little Saigon is a stronghold of Denver’s Asian population.
What they also have in common is a history of under-investment and a current danger of potential displacement. With West Denver’s rapid growth and change, comes higher rents and less available space. The city describes Westwood as an “at-risk” neighborhood for displacement and the whole of Sun Valley is currently being redeveloped by the Denver Housing Authority and could potentially be involved with more development surrounding Empower Field.
Residents of West Denver neighborhoods feel they’ve been the forgotten portion of the city and now development is heading to their doorstops.
Now, they’re putting greater efforts into activating unused spaces to create festivals highlighting the neighborhood’s residents, businesses and culture. Hence the West Denver Rising Initiative and the subsequent Denver International Marketplaces series.
West Denver Rising is a collaboration between the Sun Valley neighborhood through the Sun Valley Kitchen + Community Center, Little Saigon, Westwood’s BuCu West Development Association, and the Denver Streets Partnership. The goal is to work together to ensure the neighborhoods stay authentic and remain a place for their respective heritages.
“They are equity communities that traditionally have been under-invested in and haven’t received as much attention from the city, but they are also these amazing multicultural neighborhoods that are such a value to the city,” said Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership.
Grants from the Colorado Health Foundation and CDOT helped fund all five events. That included the Lunar New Year Celebration, utilizing the parking lots of the Far East Center and the Asia Center, and the Sun Valley Rising Viaduct Night Market, which transformed the dark parking lot underneath the West Colfax Viaduct.
This past weekend closed out the Marketplace series with Westwood’s 12th annual Chile Fest along Morrison Road and the second annual Mid-Autumn Festival, also held in the Far East Center.
Unlike the Sun Valley Market, Chile Fest and the Mid-Autumn Fest were already established events.
But according to Mimi Luong, owner of the Far East Center on South Federal and Julie Casault, BuCu’s Director of Outreach, having extra helping hands makes throwing these events much easier.
“Our neighborhoods have been here for a long time but they haven’t been recognized much,” Luong said. “Now having this partnership, it gives us an extra boost where we can continuously host more events throughout the year with the same momentum and ideas. It makes people more aware of the Little Saigon District and it gives us a chance to share our culture, our traditions. Westwood is very diverse and so is Sun Valley and I feel like these events are saying,’Hey, things are happening over here.'”
Luong and her family have hosted various celebrations for Asian holidays for decades including Lunar New Year but these events have been on a smaller scale. Luong said she began working with Denver Streets Partnership when the organization was called Walk Denver. Once Luong connected with Locantore, she was able to expand Lunar New Year to the Asia Center further along South Federal. Locantore and DSP also helped jump-start the Mid-Autumn Fest in 2019.
The same goes for Chile Fest.
Westwood Chile Fest was founded back in 2010 by BuCu West, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting local businesses and cultural organizations along the Morrison corridor. Since its inception the event has gone from a single park party to a full on block party, utilizing a good chunk of Morrison.
Around 2017, BuCu began working with DSP to make Morrison Road a safer corridor and again, to utilize the street for more than just vehicle traffic. With the initiative, BuCu now has more organizations to help throw even more events along the corridor.
“In creating this initiative, instead of focusing on one street, we’re all using our different skills to support one another and hopefully drawing larger attention through the multi-sponsored events and shared media resources,” Casault said.
There’s also the shared talent. Casault said BuCu’s executive director Jose Esparza ensures that the Chile Fest is filled with Westwood vendors.
“He won’t even let people from outside get the contract,” Casault said.
That’s also West Denver Rising’s other purpose, to promote local businesses, whether they are still working ideas or have full blown brick and mortar locations. The initiative is giving local vendors an avenue, where at other non-community events, they may not be given the same opportunity.
“That’s the goal. To support small businesses, entrepreneurs and all types of vendors. Not just food and crafts but also photographers and people on the back ends,” said Lindsay Miller, the special-projects manager at Sun Valley Kitchen + Community Center. “I think that community aspect makes the events better. It’s not generic. When people come, they can feel the authenticity.”
Miller added at many of the westside events, folks will see the same vendors and that’s on purpose.
After a scorching heat wave, the weekend swept in a cool breeze and rain. That didn’t stop Denverites from showing up to both Chile Fest and the Mid-Autumn Fest, which were a few blocks apart.
“It’s beautiful, last year it was super duper hot and this year it’s teetering on fall,” said Diego Florez-Arroyo, Chile Fest’s MC. “Despite the weather people are here and that’s awesome. People are staying strong, they’re holding their seat, they brought their blanket, they brought their rain jacket. So that’s awesome community engagement to see.”
New to Chile Fest this year was the Salsa de Westwood Competition in partnership with Hecho en Westwood. Over 51 people signed up to show off their salsa-making skills. There was also the chile-eating contest. Casault said she searched far and wide for the spiciest peppers and once again Ean Tafoya, a current Denver mayoral candidate, won the competition.
Over at the Mid-Autumn Fest, folks braved the rain as well for Asian street-style food that included steamed buns filled with Chinese BBQ and bubble tea. The festival is similar to Thanksgiving, where people celebrate gathering the harvest, giving thanks and praying for a bountiful year. Luong started Denver’s festival in 2019 but it was on hiatus due to the pandemic. This year it was a two-day event.
Luong said the festival is also called the Moon or Mooncake Festival, so it’s only right that they had a mooncake-eating competition. A mooncake is a thick Asian pastry, typically filled with a sweet bean paste. Josh Chow downed a mooncake about the size of his head in about 10 minutes.
Q Arora and Krystal Bordner moved here from Austin about a year ago and the fest was their first taste of culture in the city. Arora heard about it online and was surprised by the turnout and the rich cultural aspects such as the Polyensian dancing.
“This was a lovely surprise in the city,” Bordner said.
Arora added, “We don’t really know where to find those pockets of diversity and things that are outside the scope of typical Denver like hipster parties but the range of food, dances. This could’ve not been a reality two years ago with COVID and we’re back booming. And the turnout speaks for itself. People are so excited about what these local small businesses have to offer.”
Trang Bulawa, one the MCs at the fest and board member of the Vietnamese Community of Colorado, said she was glad people turned out to support the culture on even if it was rainy and frigid.
“The collaboration is beautiful,” Bulawa said. “Yes, this is an Asian event but the fact that we have other non-Asian groups supporting us is huge. We’re a community, not just an Asian community, but every ethnicity, every race, every culture within the westside is supporting one another.”
The initiative is hoping as the collaboration continues to grow, so will the events in both size and frequency. Sun Valley is looking to make the night market under the viaduct a permanent yearly fixture. Morrison Road continues to be an active space, hosting events like the Frida Kahlo Celebration and Veggie Viernes. Casault said Chile Fest may one day become a two-day affair. Luong said she’d like to see the Far East Center and all of Denver host more night markets featuring local vendors similar to the markets in California and Japan.
It’s just another way to highlight local businesses and the diverse areas of Denver that some Denverites may not know about.
Rebecca Tauber contributed to this report.
Clarification: This article was updated to note that the Colorado Health Foundation also helped fund the events.