Today's IdeaLab Asks: Can Art Stop Gentrification in Westwood?

Bobby LeFebre (left) is on the panel that will discuss using art to stop the gentrification of Denver's Westwood neighborhood.
Bobby LeFebre (left) is on the panel that will discuss using art to stop the gentrification of Denver's Westwood neighborhood. Welcome to the Northside
Artists have earned an unfortunate reputation as pioneers of gentrification; where they go, development usually follows. But can art also help solve the problem? That's the question on the table at IdeaLab: Westwood, an April 17 panel and conversation between artists, organizers and Westwood residents about the future of the westside neighborhood and how art can be used to fight economic displacement.

IdeaLab is being hosted by RISE Westwood, a neighborhood activist group, in collaboration with Confluence Denver, Creative Exchange and Re:Vision, with funding from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

Westwood is facing big changes that often lead to gentrification: The stretch of Morrison Road between Mississippi and Alameda avenues has been designated a Colorado creative district; new city funding targets the neighborhood; and housing prices are on the rise there.

Re:Vision's Joseph Teipel notes that art is no “silver bullet” for stopping predatory development. The organization, which has focused most of its energy on urban farming and food-justice projects, is using a grant from ArtPlace America to fund the launch of a community space, including an art gallery, on a 1.7-acre plot of land on Morrison Road. Re:Vision wants the space to serve as a resource for artists who already live in the neighborhood; the building will house a commercial kitchen, classrooms for workshops, art studios and a fitness center.

Teipel acknowledges that there's some risk in opening such a space, pointing to Denver's Art District on Santa Fe, which he says contributed to the gentrification of the Lincoln Park and La Alma neighborhoods and the displacement of Latino residents. "It’s a double-edged sword," he says of arts projects in the Westwood neighborhood. "On the one hand, it's benefiting the community, but it's also attracting outsiders."

While other galleries focus on commercially successful artists, Re:Vision takes a different tack. The artists who will have studio and exhibition space in the Westwood project will largely be people from the neighborhood, says Teipel. The space will help them build economic resources they need to ensure that they can pay for their housing and stay in Westwood.

How all of this works will be up for discussion at IdeaLab: Westwood. "This idea of coming back to community ownership is huge," Teipel notes.  "We have folks in the neighborhood who have incredible skills. They’re not who you’d think about as traditional artists. They’re largely folks of color, and they’re not doing fine art or what is considered fine art. We want the artist studios and gallery to serve the artists in the neighborhood right now and give them a way to earn more income from their art. As opposed to being a hobby or a one-off project, we want to create a space where they can start earning some more income."

Conversations about arts and gentrification in Denver are hardly limited to Westwood; they've burned through the broader creative communities in recent years, as galleries have been priced out of arts districts and shuttered for good or relocated into the suburbs, and arts studios and DIY spaces have been shut down by the city over safety concerns.

"It seems like a very good time to start having these conversations and to start working on actual events and community feedback, both about gentrification and, in particular, the role art plays in honestly adding to gentrification, and the role of art as a place-keeping tool for the community that’s already there," says JoAnna Cintron of Re:Vision. 

Artists from outside the neighborhood have indicated on social media that they will be attending the event. While Cintron says their participation is welcome, the focus of this IdeaLab project isn't on the city as a whole, but the future of this particular neighborhood and its long-term residents.

Councilman Paul Lopez will make opening remarks. Denver artists Bobby LeFebre and Santiago Jaramillo, who has painted many of the murals along Morrison Road, will participate on the panel, along with Amelia Duran from the Detroit arts organization Garage Cultural. After the panel, the audience will break up into small groups — each comprising a sampling of the people in attendance, from neighbors to artists, activists and nonprofit leaders — to discuss how to effectively use art as a tool for organizing against the gentrification of Westwood.

"We don’t know what’s going to come out of it," says Cintron, adding that she hopes the input of the community will help Re:Vision figure out the future of its project.

Will the discussion be fruitful? "Obviously, there is no guarantee," she concludes. "Obviously."

IdeaLab: Westwood starts at 5 p.m. Tuesday, April 17, at RISE Westwood, 3738 West Morrison Road. Food, child care and English-Spanish translation will be provided; register for the free event at Eventbrite.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris