The City of Denver has begun to uproot an arts community already mourning the loss of 36 friends and creative comrades who died in Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire. Evictions started on December 8, when the Denver Fire Department raided DIY gathering places Rhinoceropolis and Glob, throwing eleven of my friends to the curb, in the name of “safety,” on a subzero night.
Six months before, Rhinoceropolis had passed a fire inspection. The day the city booted my friends out of their home, they were offered nothing but forms to fill out in the way of concrete housing. Had we not showed up to offer them our couches and floors, they would have been on the same streets where the police were sweeping away sleeping homeless people and taking their blankets. (After incurring a threat from the American Civil Liberties Union, Mayor Michael Hancock asked the police to stop taking people's blankets while waking them up, tearing down their camps and confiscating their other belongings.)
Following the shuttering of Rhinoceropolis and Glob, the city went into crackdown mode. Safety officials closed at least three of our sacred DIY spaces. Now, we commune covertly.
Last week, standing around a fire pit at a house show, fellow musicians, artists and I spoke of all the times we had been in spaces like Ghost Ship. Sure, rickety staircases and floor-to-ceiling installations made of flammable materials are part of our world. But the Ghost Ship fire doesn't weigh on our conscience. The tragedy serves as a wake-up call; we cannot ignore our own mortality.
It's hard for people who have never been to a DIY venue to understand that while some of our places are similar to Ghost Ship, not all are. We operate our spaces in different ways. There is neither a coordinating body dictating how groups should run their venues nor a shared document mandating how DIY spaces should be outfitted and operated.
Some venues are safer than others. Those of us who have been living and creating in these now-condemned spaces really do crave safety. But it's safer for us to have a home and a space to work, even when we can't afford to bring it up to code, than to face homelessness.
Denver's booming economy makes the evictions all the more painful. Artists are among many people being pressured out of gentrifying Denver to make room for monied newcomers. No matter how deep our roots may be in the Mile High City, we look around and see cranes towering over Denver's skyline; construction sites on every block; bulldozers waiting to uproot us.
After Ghost Ship, the media shined an unwelcome spotlight on our spaces. This was the first time many people realized we exist. People who have never been to a show, much less lived in a warehouse full of art projects, assumed our spaces were "death traps" when they heard evictions had begun.
The fact is that the operators of many of Denver's DIY spots, including Rhinoceropolis and Glob, had passed previous Fire Department inspections; most venues were operating with landlords who knew about their tenants' artistic and musical activities and were fully aware that people were living on the premises.
When it comes to "safety," operators say Rhinoceropolis and Glob had been visited by the cops less than a dozen times over a decade. Hundreds of concerts, art shows and performances had taken place without incident. I doubt any bar in dreadful LoDo is as safe as our beloved DIY hubs.
These “unsafe” spaces of ours have been saving our lives for decades. When traditional venues aren't a welcoming place for you or your art, the DIY world is there. When you want to book your first show and your band only has three songs, the DIY world is there. Almost a decade ago, I co-founded Titwrench, an experimental music and art festival operating with the explicit intent of showcasing queerfolk, womenfolk and other unrepresented and marginalized artists. When we needed a venue, our DIY community was there.
Rhinoceropolis and Glob residents knew their collective time was limited prior to the post-Ghost Ship raid. The 3500 block of Brighton Boulevard that the sister venues call home was sold last year. An incoming development will be rolled out slowly, and Rhinoceropolis and Glob will be demolished as part of the last phase of that project. How long my friends still have in their home and venue is uncertain.
Just two houses south, construction equipment and massive dirt pits remind the DIY community what's to come, that old Denver is under constant attack from new Denver, that old Denver is close to extinction.
See, old Denver used to love artists – or at least tolerate us. We could rent homes, warehouses and storefronts. We could live communally, creating art from the ground up with little money but lots of mind power and time.
Now, our lives as artists are threatened by the reactionary enforcement of zoning and fire codes after the Ghost Ship fire and a downright classist rental and housing market.
Despite it all, we have each other's back. In the wake of the Ghost Ship fire, even as we cried, we organized to help the victims. Artists and musicians at Glob and Rhinoceropolis were planning a benefit show in the days before they were evicted; now the community is raising money for them and many other spaces that have been shut down.
As I donated another $5 to yet another online collection plate for yet another DIY space unfairly shuttered only to leave artists displaced, I wondered: How many benefits and crowdfunding campaigns can we give money to before we run out?
Artists should not have to worry about how to support their friends or pay rent or see the doctor in a city with an arts economy that generated $1.8 billion in 2015 with an economic impact of $512.8 million.
We want a part of this thriving billion-dollar arts economy. But how can we aim for that when we can't even afford housing, and when we do find a place to live, the city evicts us?
Some of my friends were paying $100 a month to live at Rhinoceropolis. Now, with them living on our couches and floors, a community already stuck below the poverty line is trying to save itself.
We need homes. Instead, we're pushed out of affordable spaces like Rhinoceropolis and Glob and are constantly reminded that thanks to the urban-camping ban, it is illegal to be without a home, even if you can't afford one.
We watch as Denver moves at a painfully slow pace addressing the housing crisis with a Band-Aid. This year, Denver approved a plan to usher in $150 million for new affordable housing units over ten years — 6,000 units in total over a decade. This is not enough to quell the current crisis, in which 21,000 households applied for a mere 300 Section 8 housing vouchers for 2017.
In the same city, we’re watching “luxury living” spaces be constructed at lightning speed. Denver is creating homes for the folks who don’t live here yet as those of us who have called the city home since before the latest economic boom go without affordable housing options.
We don't want luxury. We just want a place to live.
This is what it comes down to: As Denver artists, we'd prefer to live in our city we love. But in order for us to live, we need the city to be affordable, and we need to be able to create, practice, perform and gather in our spaces without fear of raids.
Can this work? I'm pretty sure it can, because prior to December 2016, that's exactly what we were doing.
Denver, this city is our home. Stop kicking us out.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.