Carla Madison could have chosen a different place to meet. A more obvious location might have been St. Mark's or Fluid or any of the numerous other coffee shops closer to where she lives in City Park West. City Council District 8, her district, encompasses new luxury high-rises in the central business district and Uptown to the south, and lower-income apartments and housing projects in Swansea and northeast Park Hill to the north. But she decided to meet at Blackberries, in the heart of Five Points, in the heart of historical black Denver, which says something.
In appearance, Madison leans more toward a freaky arts teacher than an exemplar of municipal officialdom. Her orange scooter matches the color of her hair, which would match her bright-orange Karmann Ghia convertible, had she chosen to drive it today. But it is late morning and warm out, so why waste the gas? A regular at the Burning Man Festival throughout the '90s, Madison founded the popular City Park Festival of the Arts in 2000, which today is mostly run by her husband, artist Paul Weiss. The two of them can be often spotted at art and theater openings around town or eating at some of their favorite local restaurants, since they rarely cook. Scooter propped on the sidewalk, Madison buys a cup of ice cream from Blackberries and sits outside, looking across the street at the empty storefront where she is locating her new office.
The business district just north of downtown has a venerable history as the city's focal point for African-American arts, culture, business and political power. Ever since District 8 was carved out in the 1950s, the city council seat has been helmed by high-profile black politicians, from Elvin Caldwell to King Trimble to Hiawatha Davis. Elbra Wedgeworth was the first black female to hold the position until term limits prompted her to take a job with Denver Health.
Though Madison has downplayed the role of race in the election, a white woman representing this district underscores what everybody already knew: District 8 is changing rapidly. Middle-class black families have moved to newer homes in Aurora or Green Valley Ranch. Neighborhoods like Cole and Whittier are now overwhelmingly Latino. Meanwhile, younger, college-educated whites seeking more affordable homes in proximity to downtown are moving steadily northward, followed by a steady creep of high-end loft construction. But sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same — particularly in the Five Points area. That may explain Madison's broad coalition of unexpected bedfellows — activists who haven't seen eye to eye on any issue except the councilwoman — that helped her beat out Sharon Bailey in a run-off election.
Madison has put the revitalization of Five Points and Welton Street near the top of her agenda. Previous projects intended to bring Five Points back to its former glory, such as the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library and light rail, have had less than stellar impact. Welton still contains vacant buildings and a hodgepodge of struggling shops. The problem, says Madison, has nothing to do with consumer demand; the problem is that the majority of the commercial buildings are owned by a handful of longtime property owners who are not willing to sell.
"I'm just afraid some of these guys are going to die and a bunch of stuff is going to come up at once and maybe land in the wrong hands and completely change the face of what's going to go on here," she says. "If it would turn over little by little, like this place coming in, the theater coming in, another Rossonian Hotel, then you can see it evolve, rather than a developer coming in and changing a whole block."
Madison wants to meet with developers — with any luck, she says, black developers — to come up with proposals to convince property owners like Charles Cousins, who holds the deed on the Roxy Theater and more than thirty other properties, that loosening their grip might be in everyone's interest. If unsuccessful, she may consider looking into a way to pressure the owners by enacting a vacancy tax or strengthening building codes. "If we make it economically uncomfortable for them to just sit on their buildings, maybe they'll turn it around," she explains.
But with empty lots being replaced by upscale duplexes, housing prices continue to leap. Even Madison, who bought her home in 1991 for less than $70,000, says her neighborhood would be unaffordable for her today.
Growing up, Madison lived in both Edgewater and Golden. After graduation from high school, she earned a degree in physical geography from University of Colorado at Boulder and worked as a forest firefighter and cartographer for the government. In the '80s she owned a small hot-air balloon company that did trips across the Front Range. This eventually led her to the notoriously chaotic set of the 1984 David Lynch film Dune, where she helped operate a special-effects balloon made to look like one of Frank Herbert's massive sci-fi worms. During one particularly explosive shot, her boyfriend at the time took a spill off a rock outcropping and injured his back. Madison took interest in his physical therapy and, after earning her license, returned to Denver and began specializing in medical massage for theater groups and rock bands. This meant getting her hands on the sought-after skin of rockers such as Lou Reed, Eddie Vedder, Alanis Morissette and Keanu Reeves, when the actor was touring with his short-lived band Dog Star ("Rubbed the Right Way," January 15, 1998). Madison continues to massage, even as a city council member. Right now she's on call to give rubdowns for the troupe performing The Little Mermaid at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
Being so in touch with the arts constituency has spurred Madison to put the issue of alcohol consumption at gallery openings at the top of her platform. For many artists, the ability to drink a beer at events like the wildly popular First Friday artwalk is a human right on par with the First Amendment. But, as Madison confirms, "for a gallery owner to just pour a glass of wine for a patron looking at art, technically that's illegal." And the same is true for artists or performers who want to throw small events in their rented warehouse or studio spaces: Serving booze at a public event without a license can get you busted. There is little Madison can do to relax the rules, since Denver only enforces the state's liquor laws, but she hopes to work with legislators to create a special art-house alcohol designation.
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What she can do actively right now is encourage artists to set up shop in Five Points. Her theory is that if boosters of the area could animate the block, they could use the appearance of enterprise as a bargaining chip to push some of the property owners to sell. "We could go to them and say, 'People are wanting to buy here. People want to do things. You're holding it up,'" Madison says. "Right now, we can't do that."
But any discussion about Five Points is tugged by the undercurrent of race. As the first non-black councilperson for District 8, Madison has to be careful that her efforts to enliven the strip by bringing in new owners aren't interpreted as an attempt to whitewash the area. She would like to see preference given to black business owners and artists as redevelopment occurs. "It's my intention to continue the African-American culture here," she says. "I would like to see it become the African-American center of the city."
But if demographic trends continue, how many black patrons in the area will be left to serve? Long before gentrification moved onto the horizon, Five Points was undone as the region's African-American heart by desegregation and integration. Which is also one of the reasons it's possible for the city council's "black seat" to be held by an artsy white woman on an orange scooter.
Madison straps on her helmet and zips off down Welton, looking more official already.