Bobby LeFebre is tired of hearing about "gentrification." It’s a word whose time has come and gone, he says, and today packs only a fraction of its original impact. “It’s an imperfect umbrella term that’s now so overused it doesn't mean anything anymore,” he explains.
Meaning isn't the only thing that's lost: Community is, too. Slot houses and boxy duplexes have replaced the humble brick bungalows of working-class Denver communities, like the old Northside where LeFebre grew up, leaving an aching sense of emptiness. You once walked down the street and said hello to your neighbors sitting on their front porches, but the new places, “don’t have a porch," he points out. "They have rooftop patios, and the people are looking down to say hello to me.”
In his play Northside, now on the main stage at Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center, LeFebre acknowledges that this sad trajectory has gone so far that it probably can’t be stopped in his old neighborhood — now referred to as "the Highlands" by upper-scale interlopers who have no sense of the area's recent history, much less its historic origin as Highland. Instead, he asks, “Where do we go from here?"
The story of Northside follows three sets of archetypal characters, all exploring options in local real estate, including two young couples, one white and one Latino, who are vying for the same property — a home owned by an aging Northside matriarch for decades. It’s a heartbreaking, triangular tale that borrows from the truth, informed by personal experience, if not completely autobiographical.
LeFebre, an actor, activist, spoken-word artist and social worker, began working on Northside as a personal challenge to write a play. First presented at Su Teatro as a staged reading in 2015, “it faded away," he says. "For a while I got tired of the topic and felt hit over the head by it. It got so cliché — everyone was talking about it, but there were no tangible ideas about how to fix it. I lost interest in the story.”
Last year, Su Teatro founder and executive artistic director Tony Garcia approached LeFebre about reviving the project, telling him that it was a story that still needed to be told. And LeFebre agreed: Having recently gone through bidding wars to buy a home in a changed Northside besieged by inflated real estate prices, he had new insights into his original story, with experiences that helped flesh out the script.
“I’m an observational learner," says the untrained playwright. "I observe keenly and acutely, learning along the way. It’s not going to be the story of north Denver — it would be impossible to do that. Instead, it’s telling a specially focused story, and I think a lot of people will relate to it. It’s about the power of privilege over relationships. It’s about greed, celebration, mourning. All these things marry at the intersection of the characters.
“It’s more of a conversation about who are the characters in the neighborhood," he continues, "and how they navigate problems. Who are the winners or losers, the different and the indifferent? What’s important to them? Is this a historical memory of nostalgia, or some sort of heirloom we’re entitled to?”
While there's no turning back the tide of Denver's current development, LeFebre still hopes for a happier ending.
“I think we didn't see it coming,” he acknowledges. “By the time it arrived, it was too late. There are very few places in the city I feel would be able to be ‘saved,’ preserved or rewired so the impact is not so huge so quickly. The architectural integrity is disappearing, along with the social fabric and sense of community. And this kind of thing always disproportionately affects communities of color, people who’ve been relegated to special parts of the city by discriminatory practices. It’s less an official or measurable thing than a thing rooted in racism."
Irony abounds, though. “How strange that the white flight occurred,” LeFebre notes, “and then they bought round-trip tickets for their kids, who are moving back in.”
To better understand the incoming surge of young white professionals to the Northside, LeFebre did some research. “I’d go into places like restaurants and bars to observe the new people moving in,” he says. “I would eavesdrop on them, and I would listen to the things they said. I wanted to understood who these folks are —what do they talk about?
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“I wanted first-person accounts of what a Friday or Saturday night might look like in Highland. What do they talk about up on the roof at Linger in LoHi, while they sip their $15 cocktails? Some of it was jarring. Some of it was boring or cliché — there were a lot of stereotypes.”
LeFebre’s goal was not to divide, however, but to exact some kind of understanding between these new neighbors in order to move on from the cultural clashes. “I tried to find the thread that would connect everybody,” he explains. “And it’s an innate human desire to belong somewhere. It’s the central theme of where do we belong and why?”
And what have we lost? “I love the idea of art breaking down barriers we impose on one another,” LeFebre says. “But this piece is written by the ’hood, for the ’hood, to celebrate a moment in time. It mourns the loss for those of us still here, asking, ‘How do we acclimate to what we’ve been given? How do we maintain our sense of agency — or is this just another round of colonization? How do we navigate class and cultural differences in real time?'”
Northside, written by Bobby LeFebre and directed by Su Teatro veteran Hugo Carbajal, has been extended through July 21 at Su Teatro, 721 Santa Fe Drive. For the schedule and tickets, $17 to $20, go to suteatro.org.