Visual Arts

The Mayday Experiment: As an Artist, I Am Both Gentrifier and Gentrified

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This role started early, in my first experience with warehouse living at what was dubbed the Light Emitting Devices building, thanks to the remains of a sign advertising an art show from before my time. This beautiful brick warehouse with a courtyard heart housed dozens of amazing artists -- Kurt Bauer, Karen Bozik, Jeffrey Keith and Michael Lustig amongst them -- and as a nineteen-year-old punk, I had no idea how lucky I was to be there. My boyfriend Johnny and I lived at the bottom of an elevator shaft, our bed where the motor was formerly housed and our pet rat in a concrete pit at the foot of it; the floor of the elevator formed our ceiling with hanging cables all around like an industrial canopy. We would often be awakened by developers walking through with our landlord, the late Jerry Ehrlich, who would barge in on us without notice. Despite talk of banding together to buy our home, no one had the financial wherewithal or organizational skills to make that happen, so we soon left, making way for the gay bathhouse and bar that would take our place, leaving behind the altered piano and the giant chair in the courtyard. A giant development is going up on that spot now, condos for all the newcomers to the neighborhood.

After a stint in a Capitol Hill apartment I found another warehouse at 26th & Larimer streets - now a hopping bar scene every night, but back then nothing but drunks, industrial spaces and repo men. By now I was 22, and having 2,000 square feet in a warehouse for a mere $400 a month seemed to be the way things were meant to be and always would be: empty and abandoned warehouses were plentiful in downtown then, and made great sites for urban spelunking and exploration. On weekends we dug cut leftovers out of the Blake Street Glass dumpsters and glued them to the bathroom floor amidst the broken tiles, and chipped crumbling plaster off of soft red brick walls. But soon news of the new baseball stadium brought rumbles of raised rents, and we hightailed it for Highland.

We didn't see it coming twenty years ago, but this was the beginning of the end of cheap space in Denver, and also the beginning of the constant chase for a home. Buildings were sold out from under us, leases were broken, thirty-day notices appeared out of the blue, again and again. No place lasted long, as Denver's real estate market began its inexorable climb. It became clear that ownership was the only path to stability, but my then-husband and I needed six years to clean up our credit and save enough to buy a place, during which time we watched property values climb higher and higher. When we were finally able to buy something, it was not quite what we'd hoped for but what we could afford, and we set about making it a home.

And home it was until last year, when our impending divorce forced us to sell. But since I am self-employed and Denver's real estate has continued to climb, I'm priced out. Hence, the tiny house: not only a bid to live more simply, but a bid to stay in my home: Denver.

Finding a space for a studio has been just as challenging over the years. The most heartbreaking loss to gentrification was my business, Capsule. In the same spot on Santa Fe where some friends and I had founded ILK after graduating from Metro, I spent five years growing my business, working eighty hours a week without pay until I was able to expand Capsule to comprise a 4,000 square foot space that did events on First Fridays for emerging artists, the gallery, twelve artist studios plus my own, and a 2,000 square-foot community screen-printing shop that was open to all. An early model of social entrepreneurship, after five years of blood, sweat and tears on a tiny budget Capsule was closed in its first profitable quarter when the building was purchased and torn down to make a parking lot. Sitting down with the new owner of my building, I was flabbergasted when she went on and on about being a "woman-owned business" -- could she not see that I was one, too, and that she was kicking me in the teeth on the ladder from the rungs above? But Capsule wasn't just a loss for me; it was a loss for all the artists who'd found opportunities, friendships and workspace there, and it was a sign of the times for Santa Fe Drive. The building was razed to make room for a parking lot: As the owner told me, you couldn't move into a "dangerous neighborhood" and make your employees walk three blocks!

Denver is the sixth-fastest growing metropolitan area in the country. From 2010 to 2012 alone, 34,000 new people moved here. That means there aren't enough places to live, and there aren't enough jobs. And Denver proper is out of cheap neighborhoods, as gentrification crawls up Welton into Five and sends its probing feelers into Globeville. But a big part of the reason people want to move here is culture, a culture that was built in large part by artists of all types, and a culture that will disappear when we're pushed out. Denver isn't the only town experiencing this phenomenon -- famously, David Byrneand Patti Smith have both come out with articles lamenting the real estate situation in New York -- but after years of attending Create Denver meetings, I had hoped we would all be better positioned to weather the growth.

Keep reading for more on how culture disappears as artists are pushed out.
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Lauri Lynnxe Murphy