As Denver continues to grow into a newer, bigger and more expensive city, local artists press on, creating art about the changes being seen and felt. Welcome to the Northside, a new web series debuting this Friday, March 31, at Su Teatro as part of the annual XicanIndie Film Fest, digs deep into the evolution of Denver's Northside — an area that's been re-christened with its first-colonized name of Highland (or "the Highlands," as it is colloquially known).
Welcome to the Northside began as a play created by poet and playwright Bobby LeFebre, first coming to life as a table read at Su Teatro in the spring of 2015. After connecting with filmmakers and fellow north Denverites Manuel Aragon and Alan Domínguez (whose documentary Clever will also be showing at the fest), the play morphed into a web series, one for which LeFebre says he has twenty episodes written so far.
In the show, LeFebre stars as Mikey Gonzales, a fourth-generation Northsider and new homeowner. Welcome to the Northside follows Gonzales through explorations of his old neighborhood's newfound "hipness." From affordable taquerías being replaced by expensive restaurants to blocks of quaint brick homes being scraped in favor of boxy, million-dollar units, Gonzales finds himself serving as both a curiosity to new residents and a default tour guide for transplants to his own ’hood.
In advance of the series' premiere at this weekend's film festival, Westword spoke with LeFebre, Domínguez and Aragon about Welcome to the Northside.
Westword: Can you talk about the origins of Welcome to the Northside?
Bobby LeFebre: It started as a play — we did a reading of that two years ago. As I was developing the play and we did the reading, the web series came to me to kind of piggyback off of the theater piece. It was a way to get the story and sentiment out to a wider audience. I adapted the themes of the play into the web series and made some changes to the characters. I have about twenty episodes written at this point, and we're moving full speed ahead with it. I'd like the play to come to life, too; I've made some changes to it as well. Right now I'm just trying to figure out the best way to purse that.
As a group, how did you come together to create Welcome to the Northside as a web series?
Aragon: Looking back to the night of the play's script reading, Alan and I were both there shooting some footage. We had started to brainstorm on another project. We were looking at doing a documentary piece on the gentrification of the Northside. As we were working to put that together, we met with Bobby in the fall of 2015; we talked about what if the play could be a film or something bigger.
I saw the play reading and loved it. Being a film guy, it reminded me of Spike Lee's early work, in terms of social commentary, characters and telling this neighborhood story. In my head, seeing the read-through felt like Do The Right Thing — it was a piece capturing a very specific moment in time. We talked about maybe doing a film, and a few months later, Bobby texted me, saying he had taken the material and started writing episodes. That's when all of these ideas the three of us had floating around out there merged into what we have today as Welcome to the Northside.
"Gentrification" is a broad and often almost ambiguous term; I've had countless conversations with folks around the city about this topic, and it seems to be something that gets danced around and not directly addressed. Welcome to the Northside goes there; it's pointed. The series is willing to talk about the changes in Denver in a humorous and satirical way, but also in a very serious and real way. When creating the series, what was the process for approaching gentrification in an effective way?
Domínguez: Mostly, it was to be pretty honest and directly reflect our own experiences. There are a lot of things that happen around gentrification, and there can be a willingness to talk about many of them, but there are some things that are under the covers that nobody likes to talk about. What we're trying to do with this project is be really honest in terms of the characters and the experiences they have and reflect our own experiences as much as we can. I think that's the way we participate in the conversation. People participate in many forms of activism, so to speak, and I think this is a way that the three of us can participate in the commentary.
LeFebre: I think that's been one of the most interesting conversations. When you're an artist or you're somebody who is in front of people, it automatically opens you up to scrutiny. That's fine, and it comes along with the territory. But this process has also taught me what the limitations of art are and that there are limitations in art. I think a lot of people brand me as an activist. In none of my personal, biographical information do I use that word. I know activists who are out there doing grassroots work every single day. Although I do view my work during the day as a social worker as activist work and social-justice work, I don't call myself an activist.
Like Alan said, this is an approach that we're taking, this is a medium that we're using to address an issue as creatives and as people who are concerned about their community. I also know that this platform and what we're doing has limits. We're not changing policy with what we're doing; we're not necessarily going to affect the way zoning changes do or do not happen; we're not talking about overlays in our districts.
"Gentrification" is a word that, lately, I just don't even like saying. It has become so generalized and broad and boring. Now I want to talk about relationships and real estate and power and control. I want to talk about those things and not have that word be the umbrella term that is so overused that people roll their eyes when they hear it. I want to show what gentrification looks like, what it tastes like, smells like, what it feels like through our project, because the conversations are trite and they're getting boring. I think there's not a lot of action around these issues from people in our communities, and even some of our civic leaders are comfortable enough with the conversation. Our city likes what is happening right now.
I think where the conversation stops a lot of the time is when the word "transplant" gets thrown around. Who or what benefits or loses out to gentrification and growth becomes a blame game. I know you can't choose your audience, but if you could, who ideally would you hope sees Welcome to the Northside? I know for me, as a white person, I would hope other white folks see it to maybe get some context as to why and how gentrification impacts rooted communities.
Aragon: What we're trying to tell is a story that is very specific to this group of Chicanos in Denver and what they are undergoing at this moment. If people beyond that group can watch it and understand it and learn from it, that's really great. But I think Hollywood and television gets lost a lot of times telling these majorly universal stories, especially when it comes to Latinos. The narrative of "the immigrant" is sort of the universally told Latino story.
We grew up in the Northside, we know Northsiders, and we want them to be able to see their struggle reflected on the screen; that's our first, major group we want to connect with. Then, anyone else who wants to come along for the ride can — but we can't guarantee that you won't feel upset by something that you see, or that (the web series) won't resonate. But we hope that you learn from it, whatever your feeling is.
LeFebre: The thing about comedy is that we're allowed the range to have fun. There's sort of a hyperbole in what we're doing, rooted in very real things. I remember asking at one point, like, is it too silly to continue to make caricatures of these new folks? Is it over-the-top and completely unbelievable? I was concerned that I was making these (white) people too scarecrow-like of characters where they didn't have any substance. But that's where the comedy comes in. We're turning the knob of hyperbole. It makes it funny while at the same time getting down to the message.
I don't think your depiction of white folks is that far off. I was in Five Points recently and was almost run over by one of those pedal bars. I mean, there's no greater definition of reckless whiteness quite like a mobile bar rolling through a historically black neighborhood bumping the Red Hot Chili Peppers' cover of "Love Rollercoaster."
Domínguez: [Laughs.] It's definitely a conversation that we have a lot with each other. Looking at this historically, I look at the characters the entertainment industry has put out of people of color for decades. That's particularly galling and even odd that we have to have this conversation sometimes. I can't imagine a bunch of Hollywood types back in the ’50s having a conversation about the portrayal of people of color. That conversation never took place.
Of course, things change and societies change, but it's ironic, and we're pretty aware of it. It's something we've talked about, making sure not to fall into the same pitfalls we complain about. At the same time, Bobby is totally right: Comedy gives us that latitude. When we're in the realm of comedy, we can step over that threshold, and that's where we want to be.
This first episode of Welcome to the Northside deals with real estate. When "gentrification" is too broad a term, I think real estate is one of the best ways to get conversation going about what is happening to neighborhoods that are being gentrified. The Northside is one of Denver's communities most impacted by real estate as a tool of gentrification. Can you talk about how you decided to approach it in the series?
LeFebre: It's interesting to be living here through it all and be watching the different levels of real estate change — from property values going up to property taxes going up, who is buying homes and who is selling homes, who is informed and who is not informed and who is from here to who is not from here when coming into the neighborhood. In our story, specifically, we don't see enough college-educated characters that look like us on TV, and yet we're out there. All three of us have had the privilege of going to college and staying in our neighborhood, so the story for us is autobiographical, in that we have the means — maybe by the skin of our teeth — to live in and purchase in the neighborhood.
For the characters, we wanted to show that side as well. We wanted to show the conflict that exists within our own community. One of the main characters is a real-estate agent, and later on in the series there's going to be a conflict with her showing homes in her own neighborhood and having interactions with people that make her question what she's doing. It's that conversation that we're trying to show, the conflict that exists when you are one of a few people in your family who have gone to college. There's a certain disconnect, even with that, where you're fighting to be relatable to people you've grown up with, because you've been exposed to different things. But, yeah, real estate is really at the core of this.
Aragon: For Alan, Bobby and myself, it is something that we all really struggled with — part of the bigger piece isn't just the real estate. It's our community, the Northside. We knew the people who lived in those homes at times. We looked out for each other and took care of each other, and now we're starting to see this shift where community doesn't feel like community. I see my white neighbors daily, I say hello to them, and very rarely do they say hello back.
We talked to a guy at Artopia who was a Chicano real-estate agent. His view was, "Well, if they don't want us there, why shouldn't we make some money at their expense?" Every now and then, we hear that view, and for us, well, I'll go back to the conversation about activism. We think of activism as like leading profound marches. We see that in our community. Personally, being a college-educated Latino and owning a house in the now "Highlands" — that is an act of activism. We're reminding people that we were here and that it wasn't always just breweries and bros.
Domínguez: One of the great ironies to me is, when our parents were moving into the neighborhood, they were trying to scrape together enough to buy homes. My father is from northern New Mexico, and of course the job prospects in the ’60s there were nil. When he came to Denver, he saw it as being able to participate in the so-called American Dream, to own his own home.
Now, when people are moving out and having to move out — really, when you see gentrification discussed among new arrivals, I have heard people say on multiple occasions, "Why are these people so worried about their houses? It's just a thing." I'm thinking, thirty years ago, a house wasn't "a thing." My dad was a poor Mexican trying to afford a house. He does whatever it takes to do it, and now he's supposed to be detached from that?
I find the irony, well, if I didn't laugh, I'd cry. What was once a step up, a place where he raised his family, is supposed to just feel like "a thing"? I think that's ridiculous. Every time I have that conversation, it doesn't get easier to hear.
There is so much wealth tied up in land ownership, and that, historically, has been to the benefit of white people. It's easy to blow off someone else's connection to their home that they own as just "a thing" when you're white and historically have had centuries of upward mobility.
Domínguez: It's certainly the only thing that working-class people have that increases in value; it's often the only investment, so to speak, that a lot of people have. Of course there are emotional attachments to that — it's human nature. I don't think it is necessarily healthy to define yourself by only those things, but, I mean, to be attached isn't a bad thing.
LeFebre: Another thing we've done with this series is literally just observed. We're all keen observers of our neighborhood and our blocks and our district. Everything from attending neighborhood meetings to using nextdoor.com — not as a resource but as a research tool — I mean, we're created storylines just on things we've overheard at the grocery store. I was at a Registered Neighborhood Organization meeting last week in Sunnyside. There's this monstrous project that they are trying to build by the light rail; it's set to go from three stories to eight stories. The people who are pro-development and on the extreme end are saying exactly the opposite of what we're saying. They are excited about the new bike lanes, and who cares about the two houses on the corner that need to be torn down?
Sometimes we're pulling language from what we're hearing directly around us for these episodes. It's rooted in experiences we've had. But that's what makes Welcome to the Northside fun, too — we have future episodes where one of those "we buy ugly houses" guys is confronted while putting up one of those signs. We have another episode where a new person is doing yarn-bombing graffiti on a stop sign, and there's conversation around that. These episodes are meant to be funny, but are also to show how the values of the neighborhood have changed.
Catch the premiere of the first three episodes of Welcome to the Northside this Friday, March 31, at the XicanIndie Film Fest. An opening reception starts at 6 p.m.; the screening and a talkback session with creators starts at 7 p.m. Advance tickets are $10, or $5 with the code NORTHSIDE, and can be purchased online via Su Teatro or by calling 303-296-0219. The XicanIndie Film Festival runs from March 30 to April 2 at Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center, 721 Santa Fe Drive.