“I’m originally from Kansas City in an area that’s a lot like Globeville. A lot of Croatian, Serbian, Polish and Belgian. I’m the only one in my family who lives in Colorado, courtesy of Uncle Sam. When I first moved to Globeville, I worked construction and then got on at Wilson Meatpacking.” Both construction and meatpacking were seasonal and when Zapien left Wilson, he went to work as a paralegal for the Model Cities Program (part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty Program). The program gave participants a crash course in “Poverty Law,” which Zapien used to battle a proposed rendering plant (PepCol) along Washington. The application for the plant was denied and led to the health department’s regulation of industry odors. “That had never been done before,” Zapien remarked.
In 1974, Zapien was appointed by Joe Shoemaker, Chairman of the Platte River Development Committee (PRDC), to work with committee members to revitalize the polluted waterway. Without city funds and no legal authority, Zapien used his persuasive methods to get polluters (including the city of Denver) to not only cease dumping, but to clean up their immediate area. In 1976, the PRDC became The Greenway Foundation and its 100 miles of riverside trails and parks are a testament to the early efforts of the organization.
In 1975, Zapien and Globeville neighbors battled the Denver Planning Board’s goal of letting the neighborhood “evolve” into an industrial area. Zapien is remembered for inviting the Board to a meeting in the community, then presenting a meat cleaver to them for “carving up Globeville.” The Board withdrew the plan in 1977.
Zapien’s theatrical antics have garnered some criticism, but his unorthodox methods have also produced results, including the defeat of a proposed medical incinerator, the removal of an unwanted homeless shelter, and increased voter registration.
Residents of Globeville, Elyria and Swansea (GES) trust Zapien to stand up for them. And so he does. As the only Voting Community Member of the 13-member board of the National Western’s Center, Zapien remarked, “This is the best chance our neighborhoods have in moving forward and we are all excited for the educational, cultural and economic opportunities this campus will bring our community.” The communities are counting on Zapien, and by whatever tactics are necessary, he will be their voice.
John Zapien, Photo ® Mary Lou Egan