Mayor Federico Peña inspired me as a young Denverite with his call to “Imagine a Great City.” Though I often dreamed of moving to New York, my mother’s three bouts with cancer and other familial obligations kept me here, so I decided long ago that if I couldn’t be in the place I loved, I would love the place I was in, as Stephen Stills advised. And as I tend to do with things I love, I loved Denver fiercely, giving it my all and opening galleries and businesses, curating projects, and getting involved with the community in ways big and small.
As I headed off to grad school with a fellowship and a truck full of too much junk in 2010, I didn’t really know if I’d be coming back. I thought I might, but many things in my life were up in the air, most important my marriage, and with my father’s death from Alzheimer’s not long before, I had a brief window of what felt like freedom. Would I return? Just in case, I sublet my studio so I could return to it (I had poured thousands of dollars and hours of work into making it a habitable workspace, and it was one of the hardest things to leave behind), filled the closets with my belongings, and left things open-ended…who knew what I would do in two years?
They were two years in which I missed Denver like a long-lost lover, pining for a glimpse of frost-peaked mountains and desperate for its legendary sunshine in Ohio’s oppressive cloak of deep gray in the winter. At the end of those two years, I knew I had three choices before me: stay in Ohio and continue on as an adjunct; head to New York, where my heart always longed to be; or head home, to Denver, whose pull was unmistakably strong. Complicating these choices were the impending doom of my broken marriage, which I still thought might work out, and my mother, who was aging and desperately wanted me around.
The next couple of years were confusing, as I cleaned out my house of fifteen years, negotiated a divorce and, in the middle of all that, started this project, the Mayday Experiment, while watching YouTube videos about the end of the world at a time when, indeed, my world felt like it was ending. I bounced back and forth to New York, compared sea-level rise maps to real estate, negotiated potential living arrangements with my Mom, and tried to figure out just what it was about Denver that made me want to stay while I fixed up our house and prepared it for sale. Had I known what was to come here, I would have held on to our house as desperately as I had held on to those memories of sunshine – if we had sold a year later, we would have netted $125,000 more — but more important, if we had found a way to keep it and still part company civilly, as we did, I would feel my roots here, where they belong.
Now, like many people, I feel constantly one step ahead of homelessness at all times as I struggle to finish my hedge against it – the tiny house – and constantly fear that every knock on the door is my landlord telling me he’s decided to sell. Being close to the light rail, I know my “location, location, location” is more than desirable, and as my neighborhood gentrifies around me, I fear it is only a matter of time. Luckily, my proximity to schools makes it illegal for my space to be used as a grow house for weed, or I may have lost it long ago, as so many artist friends have.
What makes a home? Is it the people? The architecture? The place? Is it the atmosphere of light and the way a dust mote hangs suspended in it? Is it the smell of the unique intersection of dog-food factory, rendering plant, the zoo and a large oil refinery, as can define my neighborhood depending on the direction of the wind? Is it the warm hugs and handshakes when you return, or the familiar faces you know by sight if not by name? Is it the seasonal treats you look forward to the way a kid anticipates Christmas, the green chiles roasting in cooling late summer air, or the first sopping, fuzzy bite of a mid-summer Palisade peach?
Or is it our stuff?
We have to admit that, as much as it is those other things, it is also our stuff. There's a popular hypothetical game we play: What one item would we grab in the event of a fire? What is absolutely necessary? What do we value most?
Refugees know this game as a horrifying reality: the hard choices between the family heirloom or the extra article of clothing thrown hastily into a suitcase or bag on the way out the door, if they are even lucky enough to be able to do that. At the Auschwitz Museum, a pile of suitcases and baskets is on display, marked in white with the names of their owners, never to be retrieved. To some degree, our belongings define us and ground us. We ask them to reflect our identity, we look to them for glimpses of beauty, we mark our surroundings with them in an attempt to create our own perfect worlds. In some cases, people even fall in love with belongings, quite literally: the paraphilia Objectum-Sexuality, or Objectophilia, has produced a marriage with both the Eiffel Tower and the Berlin Wall, whose lover Eija-Riitta Berliner-Mauer claims was “murdered” when it was torn down to unite Berlin again.
Which is part of what makes the City of Denver’s actions so very, very egregious when they target the most vulnerable in our population by stealing their possessions, the very things they need to survive, because the wealthy new residents in the area don’t want to look upon someone else’s so-called trash. Without invoking threadbare clichés, it’s safe to say that if you have nothing, your belongings are all potential treasure.
Last Tuesday, March 8, after posting warning signs some time before, the City of Denver punished our most vulnerable citizens by stealing their belongings. The city claimed that the property would be temporarily stored for thirty days, but many people present also saw a big trash truck fill up, with things indiscriminantly thrown into it from the sidewalk. This isn’t the first time this has happened: On December 3, the city seized Denver Homeless Out Loud’s tiny homes in Resurrection Village, and on a fairly regular basis, the camping ban has caused cops to seize tents, tarps and sleeping bags.
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Denver, is this what it means to be a “great city”? As Denver Homeless Out Loud points out on its website: “The urban camping ban is not only unjust, it is impossible. We do not have homes. We have to sleep somewhere.” And in a place with famously unpredictable weather as Denver has, how can we be so cruel as to prevent people with no place to go from covering themselves?
The people on the streets, fighting for survival, are citizens of this place, too. Denver, at this point, is violating their civil rights, seizing their belongings unfairly, asking them to “move along” when there is nowhere to move along to. And as Bree Davies pointed out: All eyes are on us. Especially as we’re now officially the “Best Place to Live in the U.S.”…but only for people who can afford the rent, apparently. Which doesn’t include many who truly have contributed to imagining a great city and, more than that, helping build it.
All of it leaves me wondering…how do they “love the place they’re in,” if the place they’re in doesn’t love them back? Do those of us who still love this city simply have Stockholm Syndrome, while we wait for our now abusive lover to kick us to the curb for the next influx of new citizens and even higher rents? What looks worse, Denver: tarps on street corners, or national news about the civil rights violations of the weakest members of our community?
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here or here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.