The Mayday Experiment: Aesthetics Versus Reality in New Denver

Aesthetics have been primary in my life as an artist, central to all I do and think about — whether I want them to be or not. It has always seemed impossible to separate form from function. And in a very real sense, the two are inseparable: No matter whether form follows function or vice versa, both are always present.

It’s one of the oldest human instincts to adorn, decorate and beautify our surroundings, dwellings and belongings, an impulse present in every culture, from our first smudges on cave walls.

And yet, as anyone who has remodeled a home has found, a choice in aesthetics can be expensive. Higher-quality materials or more front-end design time adds exponentially to the cost of building. A cheap grade of cabinetry or tiles is immediately apparent to the attentive eye – printed wood veneer will never be a true substitute for the texture of even, well-sanded wood grain; faux-aged tile repeats its pits and stains too regularly for a true antique. Yet “realness,” once the only option, is now the luxury choice compared to an endless variety of material simulacrum – fake wood floors, embossed vinyl tile and “woven” wallpaper imitating fabric.

In my lifetime, I have watched globalization stand pricing on its ear; a T-shirt, sewn by hand in a factory halfway around the world, is sold cheaper than you could buy the fabric and thread to make it, thanks in part to the law of supply and demand, combined with exploitation and lax labor laws. A ball of string – something you would think of as cheap, inexplicably costs as much as that T-shirt in some stores. At a friend’s house recently, we flipped through a 1975 Sears catalog, marveling that vacuums were $238 but would last forever, whereas now one could be had for half that and might make it two years, if you were lucky, with regular use.

Denver’s booming real estate market seems to follow a similarly twisted and confusing logic. In a town where affordable housing is desperately needed, within blocks of me there are three to four developments going up advertising expensive condos: $400K shacks built of cheaper materials than I would even allow myself to use in my tiny house despite their affordability. After all, glued-together oriented strand board (OSB), visible on every construction site in town, is sure to delaminate and become less structurally sound over time, but especially with the vibration of road travel. Most of these developments are as cheaply and quickly designed as they are built, leading to a homogenized modernization creeping over our town like a fast-growing slime mold, infecting residential pockets anyplace a developer can scrape a bungalow.

Derrick Velasquez brilliantly constructed "New Brutal", an installation from these ubiquitous materials for Cortney Lane Stell’s timely Black Cube Nomadic Museum at the Stanley Marketplace. A project that embraces the nomadicism that artists feel increasingly forced into and exploits it for better ends, in its first season Black Cube has traveled from Red Rocks to the Capitol and now to a former airplane hanger in Stapleton, in a journey from west to east that almost draws a line across the city by its landmarks. At the Stanley Marketplace, an example of local development that actually seems an organic part of its community as opposed to something that threatens to destroy it, a panel discussion entitled “The New Denver + New Brutal” took place last Thursday in the shadow of Velasquez’ off-kilter tower. Combining the oft-seen OSB, the Tyvek house wrap that your can’t drive two blocks without seeing (and which covers the tiny house still, though not for much longer) and pre-fab architectural ornamentation, the work was sited amidst construction, in a newly built and still constantly changing landscape.

While the panelists discussed the aesthetics of new architecture and unceasing construction zones, I found myself pondering how aesthetics can become a bully pulpit of taste and propriety in the hands of a community. And yet, despite the fact that some aesthetic is unavoidable, even accidentally, aesthetics can range from being a trap to a luxury. Though lights and plants hinted at a life inside its stacked cubes, these rooms were as inaccessible to viewers as even modest homes are to many residents of Denver these days.

On Facebook forums such as the popular Denver Fugly page, city-dwellers argue over everything from zoning codes to scrapes to pop-ups, with one member making it his mission to argue for lighting up the skyline more for Denver’s “branding” (a conversation that unbelievably inspired scoffing amongst the usual bros when the term “light pollution” was employed, a term they had never heard). But any time the issue of homelessness comes up, conversations turn explosive, with people typing angrily about entitlement, causes of homelessness and community impact, the latter largely focusing on how homelessness “looks.” So even need has an aesthetic, and people on the streets violate every unspoken covenant, with the focus remaining on the “blight” caused by trash piling up and people creating what shelter they can from cast-offs and blue tarps, as opposed to considering what it must feel like to inhabit the filtered blue light of that space, huddling for warmth minus any insulation. 

You could argue that aesthetics were behind Albus Brooks’s infamous camping ban – keep people on the streets moving, and out of sight, out of mind. Denver Homeless Out Loud activists have taken to wearing “Move Along to Where?” T-shirts and crafting a Homeless Bill of Rights that includes the Right to Rest in order to point out the illogical demands placed on anyone experiencing a loss of a place to live. Aesthetics seemed to be behind the argument from the Ballpark Neighborhood regarding the cruelly delayed opening of the Lawrence Street Community Center, a place for the homeless community to access showers, washing machines, work services and a much-needed place to be during the day. While the Ballpark Neighborhood Association filed a lawsuit comprised of technical violations, the message from many of its supporters was clearly not about zoning codes and space usage, but about how the streets surrounding the shelter “looked.” Disingenuously, some people argued that what was needed was more beds, so the community center was deemed “unnecessary.” Other opponents were more blatant with their hatred and cited drug abuse and rattled off stereotypes and assumptions. Surrounded by million- dollar lofts, who was the community of this neighborhood now: the stakeholders looking down from new development, or the people who inhabit the street corners and sidewalks? (After the lawsuit was thrown out, the center opened right before Thanksgiving.)

Recently one of my oldest and best friends visited from Southern Colorado, and on our drive down Larimer Street she gasped when we passed 22nd, witnessing the shantytown of human misery that has cropped up in the shadow of this building explosion. A lifetime Colorado native who grew up in Denver, she was shocked by the sight, and the changes from the last time she visited her family here less than a year ago. It’s undeniably difficult to now walk this block, a horrifying reminder of the flip side of growth. And yet, Park Avenue West is an egress point for commuters heading back to their warm suburban homes each day, with hundreds of cars passing through this growing tent city. Is this who we have become?
When I was in my early twenties, this block was my home, where I lived in an artist-inhabited warehouse, my bedroom bathed in red light from the “Jesus Saves” sign across the street. The homeless were here then, too, cohabiting our neighborhood peacefully, and served by the century-old Denver Rescue Mission to which that sign was attached. We often left food outside for them, and when they grew too rowdy discovered that a never-ending loop of the Jeopardy theme song would make the space outside our bedroom window a less desirable party-spot for the night. But it never seemed that they belonged there any less than we did: In fact, our existence in the warehouse, not zoned for living, was every bit as illegal as their existence on the street now with the camping ban.

I don’t possess the kind of heart that can see my fellow humans, down on their luck and struggling to survive in a town that grows crueler with each new million-dollar-condo, as a problem of “aesthetics.” While it’s impossible to like the look of the encampment surrounding the locked gates of what was once known as Eddie Maestas Park, the cause is far more loathsome to me than the end results. It’s time we followed in the footsteps of our neighbors to the west, Salt Lake City, and solved this problem in the most affordable and efficient way possible: by simply providing housing to people. Any solution for “cleaning up” the Ballpark Neighborhood that doesn't start with compassion has failed before it's even proposed; after all, the homelessness in this neighborhood long pre-dates the Ballpark Neighborhood Association, and without a solution, will long outlive it.  

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