This past Sunday, visitors to La Raza Park in the north Denver neighborhood of Sunnyside were met with an unusual sight: a wall of "Fix ’N' Flip" and real-estate investment signs surrounded by placards that proclaimed, "Warning! Gentrification in process."
The installation, which was set up on one side of the park's central pyramid structure, was created by local resident (and Westword Colorado Creative) Bobby LeFebre to coincide with Sunday's Stompin' Ground Games event, which LeFebre co-curated with Warm Cookies of the Revolution.
The catch was that all of the Fix ’N' Flip signs are real; LeFebre has been collecting them from throughout north Denver for months. In a conversation with Westword, the activist, writer and social worker explained how such real-estate ventures have been harming his community, and how he's been subtly sabotaging their efforts.
Westword: What inspired you to create the installation?
LeFebre: For the last couple of months, I have been pulling every “We Buy Ugly Houses,” “Investment Properties Available” and “Fix 'N' Flip” sign I come across in my neighborhood. In the short time I have been pulling them, in north Denver alone, I have collected over fifty. I started stockpiling them with the intention of creating some sort of visual art piece. I am primarily a writer and a performer, but I began envisioning ways I could manipulate the signs into something visually interesting.
Initially, I imagined it would be a street art piece that I would install somewhere in my neighborhood, but as a co-curator of the Stompin' Ground Games' La Raza Park event, I figured the event/environment was a good place to utilize the signs as a conversation-starter. Who knows — I still might install it somewhere in the neighborhood, too.
The “Fix ’N' Flip” signs that litter the neighborhood are widespread. They are almost over-stimulating, and I wanted to encompass that feeling in the piece. The installation also highlighted the extreme juxtaposition between new large, boxy, “fugly” homes that are popping up next to smaller, traditional bungalows, Tudors and ranch-style homes. I fabricated houses out of moving boxes and tried to keep them to scale.
How severe is gentrification in north Denver?
In a survey of north Denver residents taken by Councilman Rafael Espinoza, “building development out of scale with the neighborhood” was the top neighborhood concern. To make it more interesting, using census data, I added statistics onto the cardboard homes to quantify how gentrification has actually affected north Denver over the last sixteen years. Conversations about gentrification are necessary, but are quickly becoming trite and boring. Until we systematically address the root issues of racial, economic and social inequities, we are going to continue to spin in circles. I wanted to utilize data to accompany the emotion that often dominates conversations about gentrification. When social scientists attempt to measure gentrification, they use a series of factors: increase in average household income, increase in college degrees, increase in median house sale price and increase of white people moving into neighborhoods over a certain period of time. The statistics are staggering. In different North Denver neighborhoods:
- the average household income has increased by 125 percent
- the increase in college degrees has increased 154 percent
- median home sales prices have increased 131 percent
- the increase in the white population has increased 178 percent
How do so-called "Fix ’N' Flip" companies affect north Denver's neighborhoods?
The most important issue in our city right now is affordable housing. There is large-scale gentrification happening not only in north Denver neighborhoods, but all across the city. Housing values are reaching record highs, inventory has never been lower, and everyone who has a stake in the real-estate game is trying to capitalize on these trends. Fine. I get it. It’s the American way. But there is another side to that story. Denver is slowly but surely becoming a playground for the rich. This jarring disruption leads to a loss of culture, architecture, spirit and identity. I love my community. I am invested in retaining the integrity and memory of everything that made and still makes north Denver great. Real-estate investors like the “Fix ’N' Flip” folks don’t give a shit about the neighborhood. They don’t give a shit about who they screw over to obtain properties at 55 cents on the dollar. They don’t give a shit about who they sell properties to as long as they make their money. They are in business to maximize their profit. I understand that. However, when their business is built upon shady tactics and imposes upon the places we live, we should be able to critique the process.
I am not saying that all these investors are scumbags, but they are all interested in the same thing: profit, not people. In all the research I have done and all of the conversations I have had with friends in the real-estate business, nothing has led me to believe these bandit-sign-littering folks are good for the neighborhood. They prey upon people, directly or indirectly, that may be in a financial bind. People facing foreclosure and people who may not completely understand the current market value of their properties are prime targets. Even a home that is dilapidated and crumbling in north Denver has surely seen an increase in value and equity since the last time it was officially appraised. Although it may be harder to sell a property in disrepair or with significant structural issues, etc., in this market, sellers have options. What is even more concerning is the way the "We Buy Houses" types brand and message their services. They often operate under the guise of a savior. C’mon! There is no way in hell these people are going to offer homeowners market value for their homes! I pulled a sign this morning that read, “3/1 Ranch $85k cash. Fixer upper. Owner desperate.” How can you have faith in a business that advertises like that? To top it off, their bullshit signs are ugly. They’re aesthetically wack. They evidence no sort of professional integrity; they’re handwritten and look like trash. A lot of these companies are national and have headquarters out of state. They don’t know anything about the neighborhoods they are operating in. So to answer your question, these companies personify everything wrong with the opportunistic nature of commodifying neighborhoods.
Were you worried about what might happen if the companies discovered that you took their signs?
Not at all. In fact, I couldn’t care less. Technically, they aren’t even supposed to be putting these signs up. According to Denver Zoning Code:
“Real estate signs must be placed on private property. No signs may be placed in the public right-of-way. This includes tree lawn, median strips, highway entrance and exit ramps, traffic signs and posts, as well as utility poles.”
I don’t give a shit what they have to say. I consider these signs vandalism. I am abating their vandalism.
What do you think more Denver citizens should know about issues affecting north Denver?
The issues affecting north Denver are the same issues affecting all of Denver. Pay attention and get involved in the conversation. We need to start thinking more communally. In a culture and society that encourages and rewards individuality, we must actively work to unlearn selfishness if we wish to arrive at a place where we can be more compassionate and inclusive. Things are not all bad in the Northside. The heart of north Denver is still there if you look for it, but you have to know where it resides. The spirit of the neighborhood lives in the woman who cuts her elderly neighbor’s lawn, the mechanic who knows all of his customers by name, in the smell of Mexican pan dulce baking, in the Chicano handshake, in the prayer at Mount Carmel Church. Our neighborhood is a prideful one; it always has been. And no matter how much it changes, it will always be home.