My entire life has been spent in DIY, artist-built creative environments and collectives, from one of the first places I lived in my adult life, the Light Emitting Devices Warehouse at 21st and Lawrence streets, through myriad co-ops, storefronts and garages. These sanctuary spaces have been the hidden heart of every city, incubating artists and musicians and allowing them the liberty to take artistic risks and explore full creative freedom. Everywhere I’ve ever traveled, I’ve wound up at these kinds of places, at parties, at art shows or just hanging out and crashing for the night – and in each, even as a stranger, I was welcomed, whether in Philadelphia, Albuquerque, Brooklyn or Paris. Showing up with openness instantly makes one part of the tribe.
In the wake of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, it has been cringe-inducing to watch my community clumsily thrust into the spotlight by stumbling reporters attempting to explain something that seems an alien world to them. But worse than that has been the swift national crackdown, from our beloved Rhinoceropolis in Denver to the Bell Foundry in Baltimore, with a crushing knee-jerk reaction that threatens to destroy already fragile communities fighting for air in rapidly gentrifying markets. As we struggle to grapple with the meaning of this fire — the loss of friends, friends’ sudden losses of homes and workspaces, and the noose for artists’ survival tightening around already callused necks — we all see our place in this tragedy; we all fear for the fragile havens we’ve been able to carve out in a world that has too few places where our types fit, fully accepted and even celebrated by our peers.
In the wake of this horrifying tragedy, blame has been flying — from vilifying the artists to blaming the landlords to incredulously asking why the fire department hadn’t done anything sooner. But the fact is: The real blame lies with greed and the lack of affordable space, with gentrification, with the concept of Manifest Destiny and the lack of caring for who came before. The real villain is a culture that doesn’t value and support artists — or, really, even people.
“Not up to code” sounds dire, and in the case of a place like the Ghost Ship, the moniker of “death trap” turned out to be sadly true. But the vast majority of artist-run spaces aren’t anything like that, nor are they run unsafely. It’s a testament, in fact, to how very safely they're run that this is the first time such a tragedy has made the national news, despite fifty-plus years of continual existence by such spaces in cities worldwide. Keep in mind that some of this stuff that is not “up to code” could be happening in your own cozy homes, too: an extension cord that’s too long, a doorway that wasn’t built wide enough, solvents not properly stored in your garage. Any average homeowner could fail this inspection as easily as residents in a warehouse. The only difference is, the warehouse space might not be zoned for what it's being used for at the moment, which is more a decision based on economics than safety. But a structure is a structure is a structure: There are unsafe apartment buildings and homes all over this country. Warehouses aren’t unsafe for living simply by their very existence, though they often require modification to be comfortable. Getting these spaces up to code is out of reach for many of the artists inhabiting them, but a drop in the bucket in a city currently getting rich on building permits. Similarly, addressing zoning differences, though a complicated pain, is something that could be a simple fix — as opposed to punishing people who are doing their best.
Granted, artists are more likely to cobble together a MacGyvered structure – we are, after all, problem-solvers by nature. But let’s face it: Things are also cobbled together because that's what artists can afford. Without support, we DIY it, barter services and get by the best we can. If the choice is living in a cobbled-together, not-to-code warehouse or on the streets, what would you choose? Especially in a city that continues to violate the civil rights of the homeless, like Denver? Are people really safer forced suddenly onto the streets, in 10-degree weather, than they are in a warehouse that may have a few code violations? And in a city where one can barely afford a room in an apartment, how are we to afford studio space at the same time? Should we simply give up on our life’s work and resign ourselves to being baristas for the upper class? It is ironic, in a culture that values individualism and boot-strapping oneself to success, that these kinds of spaces should fall prey to any criticism: The letters of DIY stand for "Do It Yourself," and in a culture that doesn’t tend to help artists much at all, our resiliency and ingenuity should be the stuff of legend. One would think we’d be rewarded for our ingenuity, not punished for it.
The key for any artist’s survival is to keep expenses low – especially in a city like Denver, which is increasingly expensive. In part, this is what drove me to start building a tiny house in the first place, and since I’m an artist, making my dwelling an art project was an organic solution. But since artists and musicians need special spaces in which to create their work, and increasingly can’t afford both home and studio in a town that offers few options for both, the choice of living in a warehouse is as much out of desperation to continue your work and keep a roof over your head as it is a lifestyle choice. Living there defrays the expenses; especially for a venue or a gallery, this is crucial, since artists don’t pull in much money. It's also a tried-and-true business model that used to be the norm in America, in mom-and-pop shops everywhere. Just because your dream is bigger than your pocketbook, does it mean you have to give up? Or is it a testament to artists’ resourcefulness and dedication that we make whatever space we have access to work?
Creativity is about breaking rules, to some degree…and the entire tiny-house movement was started as a way for people to create their own dwellings outside the norm that would be allowed by permitting (and in part, if people are honest, to skirt that permitting). Does that make tiny houses bad? No. Laws are pushed in new directions by people affected by those laws; accepting them as written is accepting the past as your norm, as opposed to building the world you want to see. Just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean we always need to continue to - that's the definition of innovation. Even now, there is more pushing to do for tiny houses. It is a great irony to me that I am legally building my house in Denver city limits, but to live in it where it is parked right now would have me breaking the law. Those laws are changing in municipalities like Walsenburg and Durango, but Denver is still not fully on board. However, I have confidence that the laws will change in our favor, if we continue to push for those changes.
Graffiti is another example of how artists skirting the law have pushed the city into new realms that are now sanctioned and embraced. For years, I fought to keep legal walls at my space on Santa Fe Drive — Capsule — and called the city each time its crews painted over art I had welcomed while ignoring the signed forms instructing city workers to leave the art alone. Fast-forward ten years or so, and graffiti as an art form is not only accepted, but has become city-sanctioned, with the Urban Arts Fund paying artists to beautify the Cherry Creek bike path and events like Colorado Crush shaping the visual direction of RiNo – which wouldn’t be what it is today without dozens of artist-run spaces, including Rhinoceropolis, paving the way.
I think many people grossly underestimate how important these spaces are to creating the culture of a city. DIY and artist-run spaces existed in Denver prior to a big commercial-gallery scene landing here, and they launched the careers of the majority of artists showing in Denver in commercial spaces now, in one way or another. (Plenty of bands got their start this way, too.) We are the dreamers who make new cities – not just the politicians and city planners. We envision the future and create it, and our efforts trickle up to the mainstream eventually after being polished in a million basements and ramshackle warehouses. Our creativity is necessary and vital for a healthy community and city. And I don’t see any developers complaining over the millions they have made on Brighton Boulevard, an area that was truly only inhabited by artists and industry for years — which of course is what made it sellable to the new residents venturing there in the first place. We are never compensated for this service, of course, only displaced.
These spaces have always existed. They truly represent freedom, in every sense of the word. They represent something other than the corporate culture that is fed to us for profit. They are the incubators of the future. People who praise the story of the famous Steves Jobs and Wozniak slaving away in their garages to build an empire should well understand the motivation of artists and musicians who create their own worlds inside warehouses and invite the community to enjoy it. Nothing good comes without risk, but let’s not overestimate what those risks are.
For years, many of us in this city's arts communities went to Create Denver meetings, filled out surveys, gave of our time and energy to try to shape the future…but really, what was done to save us? Ten years ago, I was screaming in meetings about impending gentrification, and people would cluster after these meetings to worriedly discuss the statuses of our spaces. No, we are not “on the brink of a real crisis,” as the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs stated in response to the Rhinoceropolis eviction. We are well past the brink and were sounding the alarm long before we headed toward the cliff…but no one listened.
What does Denver look like without art and artists? Would it be the thriving, creative, cultural center that attracts millennials by the droves that it has become? I think not. Denver’s success is tied to those who helped create it – the people that shaped the culture into something that was hip enough to attract people from the coasts. Lose us, and you lose the city’s vitality and personality. I’m not saying the developers and the city owe us – though, really, they kind of do – but that we are a resource that requires some investment and nurturing for the good of the entire community. Allowing the market to decide what kind of art we have in our city is good for no one but the blandest purveyors of lowest-common-denominator art that will appeal to anyone; there will be no innovation, no risk-taking and no new discoveries without a place for those things to happen, and they don’t happen at big institutions or commercial spaces.
As much as we have loved the DIY culture we have had here, the city has changed, and space after space has been forced out by gentrification, rising rents and now an unjust crackdown by a city that seems to enjoy going after its most vulnerable populations again and again. In one of the myriad conversations occurring on Facebook in public and private this week in the wake of this attack on our community, Sarah Slater pointed out that "we need to take this opportunity to change the narrative and demand more…DIY needs to evolve, along with the perception that artists need to live in poor conditions because they somehow deserve it.”
If Denver wants to be a big city, it's going to have to start acting like a big city. And big cities support the arts, because they understand that a city without them isn’t worth living in. That means supporting space for artists: we’ve been asking for it for ten years, and now it's time for us to start demanding it. The ArtSpaces RiNo project that Arts & Venues has been working on will be too little, too late to save any current residents of RiNo, and is nowhere close to enough for a state that ranks number one in arts engagement, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.
As opposed to working for options for future artists, we need to demand an emergency plan from the city right now, because we have been asking long enough. We’ve done our part to be good citizens and support the Mayor’s Office for many years; it’s time we received support in return. We cannot kick the can down the road on this any longer. The city’s inaction was bad enough, but this crackdown is downright shameful: After all, these spaces were inspected and signed off on by the Denver Fire Department in the past; why not work with people to make the required fixes rather than take the punitive approach? We should demand that Mayor Michael Hancock put together a commission to explore options for helping people stay in non-traditional spaces, as well as creating immediate options for affordable live/work space and an emergency fund for artists who are evicted.
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