TEDxRiNo: Why "Reimagine" a Neighborhood That Is Already Here?

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When I first stumbled across the TEDxRino website, I was confused... or maybe annoyed is a more realistic way to describe it. A friend had posted a video on Facebook that was essentially a slick commercial for the RiNo area in north Denver, starring a bunch of artists and people I knew. I couldn't figure out what, exactly, the commercial, er, video was for, but it led me to TEDxRiNo and a home page full of buzzwords like "reexamine," "reevaluate" and "rethink." The strongest of these words was "reimagine" — and it was repeated over and over again at last night's inaugural TEDxRiNo, an event whose point I am still trying to discern.

Initially, my reaction to discovering this "reimagining" TEDxRino talk planned for a neighborhood I know well was to rebel; from the website, it seemed like it would be a gathering of people talking about what was "wrong" with the area, when in fact it has done so much that is right for the arts. But the area's definitely changing; if you've driven down Brighton Boulevard — which is kind of the heart of RiNo — in the past year or so, you can see how different it looks compared to less than a half-decade ago. I'm not saying the expansive development of the thoroughfare is good or bad; it just looks and feels different. Over the past few weeks, I've been meeting with artists, musicians and others concerned about RiNo, and it's essentially been like taking conversations that had been happening on Facebook over the past year about Denver's changing cityscape and bringing them into the real world.

TEDx's theme of  "reimagining" this area worried many of us who care about RiNo and like the neighborhood because it's been a place to see and experience art. A place where it was once affordable to live, and no longer is — like so many neighborhoods in Denver. The residential parts of RiNo might not have been immediately visible to developers when they started aggressively building less-affordable living spaces there, but people were actually living there before, I swear. And artists were making art, and businesses were existing and functioning.

I ultimately decided that going to the TEDxRiNo event and actually seeing what it was all about would be more effective than just being vaguely annoyed. The $45 tickets were sold out, but I was able to get a press pass. And once I got inside, it looked like any other event of its kind: people wearing name tags and Colorado-formal attire wandering around with cans of wine as artists stationed throughout the bar made their art in real time. 
The remainder of the evening was filled with vague statements about the future. I sat through talk after talk by folks connected to the area; Denver developer Mickey Zeppelin seemed most relevant to the conversation, though his presentation was more of a shiny and hopeful reminiscing of a brighter time for RiNo that he was working on "bringing back." Then there were other speakers who didn't seem to have any reason for being there. A woman named Amanda Cavaleri discussed the need for connection between older and younger generations, and another speaker, Wendy Lu McGill, discussed eating bugs as an alternative source of protein. What this had to do with "reimagining" RiNo, I'm not really sure. 

There was more art interspersed between talks about literacy and "entrepreneurial pioneering"; local acts The ReMINDers played a nice set, as did Stelth Ulvang. Emcee Sam Pike also did a great job talking about the neighborhood between the ambiguous commentary about Denver being "the heart of non-coastal creativity" and other TEDx videos being played, including one involving creating less paper towel waste. I've watched many TED talks in my life, but I had never been to a TEDx gathering. Maybe they're all like this? A vague smattering of art and culture and information about random things? At TEDxRiNo, I felt like I was watching a commercial for a development that was coming soon — except the development is a city that already exists.

Leaving TEDxRiNo, I kind of had to laugh at myself: The event had not been the downfall of Denver, and there was nothing to protest here. It was just a bunch of people — like the startup tech-transplant guy next to me who mentioned that he went to Stanford in the five minutes he talked at me — excited about drinking wine out of a can and discussing, well, a lot of vague nothing. Am I still concerned about how the development of once-affordable areas of the city is pushing people out who don't all look the same and live in a higher income bracket than many artists/families/people I know? Absolutely. 

I think it would have been cool if everyone who bought a ticket for the TEDxRiNo dog-and-pony show took that $45 and spent it on local art instead. If we're going to "reimagine" anything that has to do with RiNo, it should be where we choose to spend our money. 

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies

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