The Mayday Experiment: A Tiny House Inspires Big Conversations

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I love how this house, not yet a house but a structure, activates the neighborhood.

I have lived in Five Points for many, many years, and had my studio in its current location, a former chop-shop, for seven of them. In that time I've witnessed drive-bys, escapees from the juvie facility across the road and, most terrifying of all, rapidly encroaching gentrification. When I went away to grad school I sublet my studio for two years, with all of my belongings crammed into a closet; when I returned, my beloved neighbors, the grandmothers and gang-bangers, had given way to yoga-pants-wearing white ladies pushing baby carriages and hipsters walking very fancy dogs. I knew the writing was on the wall. See also: The Mayday Experiment: Tiny House, Big Plan

I knew, because I've been here before. As an artist, I'm always in the first wave whether I want to be or not: seeking out cheap space where I can live and work and integrate into a poor neighborhood, only to unwittingly spell its eventual demise as developers and house-flippers watch the every move of trend-setting artists.

Case in point: I opened the third gallery on Santa Fe Drive, ILK, with some friends back in 1996 after we graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver — which back then was a simple college while Santa Fe was a broken-down boulevard of light industrial shops and sad retail. I lasted there off and on until 2008, when my business, Capsule, was closed by a wealthy lady's need for a parking lot for her employees — who really didn't belong in an arts district in the first place. At the time, Capsule — which was almost more a beloved community center for artists than a real business — was finally enjoying its first quarter of profits after five years of my working for free. C'est la vie. And look at Santa Fe Drive now: pricey condos, event spaces and, yes, over sixty galleries and dozens of artist's studios with climbing rents.

At this point, it's clear to many of us that Denver is out of cheap neighborhoods where artists can live. And while people love to suggest a move to the suburbs when I loudly complain about this fact, the shift in lifestyle is a non-starter for me...driving to big-box stores versus walking to the bodega? Watching neighbors mow lawns across the street instead of sitting on the sidewalk talking to passersby? It's just not the same. Denver is my home and always has been.

So the tiny house is my sidestep. It's my way of not giving up on Denver while also expanding my options. It's my way of living everywhere at once. Are tiny houses the answer to gentrification? No, realistically speaking, probably not. You still have to park that house somewhere, and it remains to be seen how difficult that will become in my situation. Eventually I hope to buy a plot of land to put it on and then build up a mini eco-farm around it. Tiny houses are, however, a potential answer to homelessness, and given that my lifestyle as an artist makes that possibility a constant nagging in the back of my mind, it seems my wisest choice.

But even before my tiny house is able to house anyone, it's definitely a conversation starter.

So when it came time to finally put up the fourth wall this week, we were so excited, but we hadn't organized a work day. We couldn't do it with just three of us — me, my friend Philip Spangler and my intern, Nico Larsen — and seemingly all of my friends were on sudden vacations. A friend from high school, Ken Walters, had shown up to help, but we still needed another pair of hands — especially since one pair of hands needed to be assigned to the camera. Which is when Ron Babcock ambled across the street to find out what we were doing.

Babcock is a comedian who's driving around the country in a vintage Mercedes on tour; he'd stopped in Denver to do a show with the Grawlix. He had just wandered over out of curiosity, but before he knew it he'd been enlisted — and even went back across the street to get the friend he was staying with, Chris, a neighbor I hadn't met yet. Together we moved the walls from my studio floor out the garage door and into place.

And just as had happened when we raised the first three walls, curious passersby on their way to and from the light rail stopped to chat and ask questions; people yelled encouragement from passing cars and waved from bikes.

The tiny house is a uniter, not a divider. Already it is inspiring rich conversations. In this neighborhood, they often circle around the issue of gentrification, the changing face of Whittier and Five Points, the troubles with affordable housing. Our visitors range across demographics, from five-year-old black girls shouting "right on" at the news that the house is going to be off the grid (adorable!) to white hipsters on skateboards in skinny jeans, to Hispanic grandmothers pulling their groceries from the light rail. Each person who stops by has a story to tell about their housing woes, about feeling the pinch, about struggling to stay. The newcomers stop by, too, excited to meet the neighbors they don't realize they are displacing. Everyone is sweet, everyone is excited and many of them speak of wanting to build their own tiny houses.

Keep reading for more on the tiny house project.

Of course, as in any changing neighborhood, there are challenges here as well. The other day one of our neighbors informed us that someone had walked down the alley with our circular saw. Philip and Nico ran down the alley, and I jumped in the car and started driving around the 'hood. No sign of the thief. Over on 32nd, I approached an off-duty security guard waiting for the bus, an older man with a bemused look on his face. I asked him if he'd seen anyone walk by with a circular saw, and he said, "I've just been watching that situation over there," while nodding over my shoulder. I turned around, thanked him and walked towards the commotion. A group of people of all ages, races and nationalities were gathered around a man struggling in the gutter, apparently having a seizure.

According to his cousin, he'd taken off running for no reason, and dropped his phone and backpack in the street. The man struggled, his eyes unfocused, trying to stand, with bystanders soothing him and pushing his shoulders back down, dialing 911, informing curious new arrivals what was happening. We all murmured our concern and checked the time, wondering why it was taking so long for an ambulance or police officer to arrive. Philip caught up with me, along with a new neighborhood friend, Jersey, a sweet-faced guy wearing an enormous T-shirt and a doo-rag who had joined him in the hunt.

Realizing that there was plenty of help for the poor soul lying on the ground, we walked back over to the security guard to quiz him again, since Philip had a good idea that the guy who'd asked him for a cigarette and tried to sell him a bike pump earlier might be who we were looking for. As soon as we reached the bus stop, we saw him: a lean black man with a tattered plastic shopping bag that barely concealed our missing circular saw. He saw us, too, but didn't run, instead reaching out his hand, palm out, and trying to wave us off. We both ran across the street, expecting to need to sprint, but he didn't run.

Philip said, "Give me my saw, why did you take it?" and instead of directly handing it back, the man demanded five dollars. Philip quietly took the saw out of his hands, and I started scolding him as he turned and walked away. Up the street, there was still no ambulance. With our saw back in our hands, we circled around in the car, offering a ride to the hospital, but the seizure victim was on his feet, a bit dazed but defiant and clearly uncomfortable with the attention. Everyone shook their heads and grumbled about the lack of emergency services, with those of us who had been here a while nodding knowingly and the newcomers betraying themselves with their surprise.

But overwhelmingly, the experiences with the neighborhood have all been positive. The most common question has been whether or peaked profile is going to be Noah's Ark, but many also ask if we know about the new TV show about tiny houses (we haven't seen it; we've been far too busy building one).

The other day while catching up on e-mails in a rare moment of quiet, the doorbell rang. I answered with my usual suspicion in this neighborhood...bell-ringers are often looking for long-defunct businesses or simply curious about what this space is, never imagining it to be a home and studio. Monyett, a gorgeous woman my age with enviable braids, stood outside. She instantly came off as both warm and authoritative, and asked me about the tiny house. It took no time to realize I was talking to someone who knew a whole lot more than I did about tiny houses, with a lot of good, interesting ideas and opinions. I was transfixed.

Monyett works in Human Services and has a passion for tiny homes. She had a myriad of interesting ideas, from foldable tubs to sources of information about our terrible mold problem created by the recent rains. She's saving up money to build her own, and unlike me had plans and sketches already; in some ways, she was further in planning than we were, despite the structure that now exists. We chatted for over an hour, swapping ideas and resources and resolving to meet up for a drink to discuss more. A new friend.

Re-envisioning what home can be is exciting to everyone, it seems, though many of them agree on one thing: What I'm doing is crazy. The good kind of crazy, the kind that makes people wish they were doing it, too, but won't, because they know just how crazy it is. And at this point, I'm finding it hard to argue with them. I'm pretty much out of money, and when Philip heads to Chicago in two weeks as planned, it will just be me and a box on a trailer and a pile of wood; I'll spend the winter fundraising and planning and building on my own with friends, with the goal of taking off on May 1.

It's too late to turn back now. I'm all in.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, will be blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell.

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