The Mayday Experiment: As an Artist, I Am Both Gentrifier and Gentrified
Denver, back in the day.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy
I have lived and worked in over thirty spaces in Denver. Most of them have been in Five Points, City Park and Northside if you're old school, Highland if you're new. But notably, I was also involved in founding the third gallery on Santa Fe Drive back when it was a vaguely industrial strip filled with dilapidated storefronts, soon to be the home of the nascent "Olde Towne Santa Fe Arts District". I have very rarely moved of my own accord; rather, I was forced out when buildings were sold to make condos, lofts or parking lots, to make room for all the new people who wanted to be close to the arts without realizing that their proximity destroys the very communities they seek to be near. In my senior year of undergrad at what was then Metro State, I moved three times, and had the almost attained goal of cum laude snatched out of my grasp as I struggled to manage both moving and senioritis.
As an artist, I am both gentrifier and gentrified, and it has never been a comfortable place to be. See also: The Mayday Experiment -- for a Tiny House, (Almost) Everything Must Go
This role started early, in my first experience with warehouse living at what was dubbed the Light Emitting Devices building, thanks to the remains of a sign advertising an art show from before my time. This beautiful brick warehouse with a courtyard heart housed dozens of amazing artists -- Kurt Bauer, Karen Bozik, Jeffrey Keith and Michael Lustig amongst them -- and as a nineteen-year-old punk, I had no idea how lucky I was to be there. My boyfriend Johnny and I lived at the bottom of an elevator shaft, our bed where the motor was formerly housed and our pet rat in a concrete pit at the foot of it; the floor of the elevator formed our ceiling with hanging cables all around like an industrial canopy. We would often be awakened by developers walking through with our landlord, the late Jerry Ehrlich, who would barge in on us without notice. Despite talk of banding together to buy our home, no one had the financial wherewithal or organizational skills to make that happen, so we soon left, making way for the gay bathhouse and bar that would take our place, leaving behind the altered piano and the giant chair in the courtyard. A giant development is going up on that spot now, condos for all the newcomers to the neighborhood.
After a stint in a Capitol Hill apartment I found another warehouse at 26th & Larimer streets - now a hopping bar scene every night, but back then nothing but drunks, industrial spaces and repo men. By now I was 22, and having 2,000 square feet in a warehouse for a mere $400 a month seemed to be the way things were meant to be and always would be: empty and abandoned warehouses were plentiful in downtown then, and made great sites for urban spelunking and exploration. On weekends we dug cut leftovers out of the Blake Street Glass dumpsters and glued them to the bathroom floor amidst the broken tiles, and chipped crumbling plaster off of soft red brick walls. But soon news of the new baseball stadium brought rumbles of raised rents, and we hightailed it for Highland.
We didn't see it coming twenty years ago, but this was the beginning of the end of cheap space in Denver, and also the beginning of the constant chase for a home. Buildings were sold out from under us, leases were broken, thirty-day notices appeared out of the blue, again and again. No place lasted long, as Denver's real estate market began its inexorable climb. It became clear that ownership was the only path to stability, but my then-husband and I needed six years to clean up our credit and save enough to buy a place, during which time we watched property values climb higher and higher. When we were finally able to buy something, it was not quite what we'd hoped for but what we could afford, and we set about making it a home.
And home it was until last year, when our impending divorce forced us to sell. But since I am self-employed and Denver's real estate has continued to climb, I'm priced out. Hence, the tiny house: not only a bid to live more simply, but a bid to stay in my home: Denver.
Capsule, gone but not forgotten.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy
Finding a space for a studio has been just as challenging over the years. The most heartbreaking loss to gentrification was my business, Capsule. In the same spot on Santa Fe where some friends and I had founded ILK after graduating from Metro, I spent five years growing my business, working eighty hours a week without pay until I was able to expand Capsule to comprise a 4,000 square foot space that did events on First Fridays for emerging artists, the gallery, twelve artist studios plus my own, and a 2,000 square-foot community screen-printing shop that was open to all. An early model of social entrepreneurship, after five years of blood, sweat and tears on a tiny budget Capsule was closed in its first profitable quarter when the building was purchased and torn down to make a parking lot. Sitting down with the new owner of my building, I was flabbergasted when she went on and on about being a "woman-owned business" -- could she not see that I was one, too, and that she was kicking me in the teeth on the ladder from the rungs above? But Capsule wasn't just a loss for me; it was a loss for all the artists who'd found opportunities, friendships and workspace there, and it was a sign of the times for Santa Fe Drive. The building was razed to make room for a parking lot: As the owner told me, you couldn't move into a "dangerous neighborhood" and make your employees walk three blocks!
Denver is the sixth-fastest growing metropolitan area in the country. From 2010 to 2012 alone, 34,000 new people moved here. That means there aren't enough places to live, and there aren't enough jobs. And Denver proper is out of cheap neighborhoods, as gentrification crawls up Welton into Five and sends its probing feelers into Globeville. But a big part of the reason people want to move here is culture, a culture that was built in large part by artists of all types, and a culture that will disappear when we're pushed out. Denver isn't the only town experiencing this phenomenon -- famously, David Byrneand Patti Smith have both come out with articles lamenting the real estate situation in New York -- but after years of attending Create Denver meetings, I had hoped we would all be better positioned to weather the growth.
Artists are up against the wall in a gentrifying city.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy
Artists and creatives have fragile personal economies that require a careful balance of cheap living and time. But as Denver has grown, I have heard the stories again and again: Artists can't afford a studio any longer, artists have to move away for more hospitable climes, where a full-time job and a half aren't necessary for the barest level of survival. As a result, my community of friends is now a vast diaspora from coast-to-coast. Almost all artists -- especially in a place like Denver, where support is scarce - must rely on having a day job to survive. However, to be a successful artist is to have another full-time, self-directed job on top of that day job, working at what earns the money as well as what feeds the soul. It can be exhausting juggling this way, and as a result, sacrifices are constantly made, from the decision to have children or not to the limiting of one's social life. Having cheap space to work in is a key to this balancing act, a fact of which developers are unfortunately aware, so they "use" us to colonize neighborhoods, never giving us anything more than reduced rent until the area is "desirable," never intending for us to stay.
Whenever I am lamenting these facts - the destruction of neighborhoods I love, the fears that I will be pushed out completely - I am always told, "Well, there's always the suburbs." Not only do I not consider the suburbs an option, I don't even understand them as a lifestyle choice. No more walking to the bodega, no more hopping the light rail; only big-box stores and driving everywhere. And in the end, it isn't my community: I may as well move 2,000 miles away as move to Aurora. This is a thing that baffles me: People think that Denver is the goal, but it's the community that matters to me, and as downtown's denizens fracture further and further afield, the less it feels like home here.
At some point, we need to acknowledge as a culture that gentrification is an act of violence against poor communities, and usually a racially-tinged act of violence at that. It is class warfare, pure and simple. Many will argue that the gentrified neighborhoods are "improved" or "saved," but one can only think that if they see the neighborhoods as a blighted wasteland. Just like Columbus didn't "discover" America, hipsters didn't "discover" Williamsburg or Bushwick, and they certainly didn't "discover" Five Points. The people who see things as "improved" are people who didn't spend time in these places -- they maybe saw a boarded-up window or a kid in blue throwing gang signs and thought that wrote a whole stereotypical story for a community. They didn't see the grandmothers, the community gardens, the kids playing. They didn't see the stoop-sitting and the friendly waves across the street. They saw other and opportunity, a dangerous combination for any community.
So who benefits from these "improvements"? Developers bill twee brewpubs and flower shops as an "improvement," but for whom? For the people who'd lived here for 25 years who can't afford those restaurants thanks to the increase in the property taxes that came with them? The renters are inevitably pushed out, but even those who own can only enjoy the "improvements" by cashing out, so they aren't for them, either. They're for the white march of manifest destiny, the search for urban walkability and quaint architecture.
The real problem is that our only metric for measuring growth or "success" is money. We don't measure the broken families, the lost friendships, the falling grades, the economic strain, and the loss of support and community. If we did, we would find, as professor of Human Geography Loretta Lees points out, that the economic "benefit" is misleading. The question of "where the misplaced go" is rarely asked by people bargain-hunting for houses to flip or new neighborhoods to colonize. But while the common perception is that this leads to more "diverse" neighborhoods, the net result is actually an increased segregation, Lees says, as the gentrified areas become more homogenized both racially and economically.
When I returned to my Five Points studio in 2010 after two years in Ohio for grad school, I instantly noticed a marked change. My neighbors were gone -- the Vietnam vet with the beautiful garden across the street was nowhere to be seen, the grandmothers who'd nodded and smiled when passing were absent, there were fewer kids overall. In their place, a lot of ladies in yoga pants pushing strollers had appeared, fancier dogs abounded, and white dudes with beards and fixies proliferated.
I knew the writing was on the wall. I'm thankful that I've had eight years in this building and I will hold onto it with a death grip until my landlord decides to sell, but that no longer seems a distant inevitability. I can only hope it's after the tiny house is finished and I am comfortably living inside.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.