While the name Rhinoceropolis may not elicit more than a “what?” from most Denverites, the warehouse on Brighton Boulevard has left its mark on thousands of people who have passed through its doors over the past fourteen years.
Beginning in 2005, Rhino functioned as a free-form performance and live-work space, a place to see and hear art and music hard to find elsewhere. That is, until the winter of 2016. In the wake of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, the City of Denver, citing safety-code violations, shut down Rhinoceropolis and its sister venue, Glob, evicting the people who lived there. Many decried the city's actions as rash and destructive, accusing officials of making people homeless and destroying lives in the name of safety. I was part of efforts to work with the city to improve the fate of Denver's larger DIY community.
Despite being closed, Rhinoceropolis couldn’t be stopped. Tens of thousands of dollars – some from the city, others from Santa Fe-based art collective-turned-corporation Meow Wolf and longtime supporters and residents of the space – were poured into efforts to strip the warehouse to its skeleton and rebuild the venue to code. Lease-holders jumped hurdle after hurdle, trying to pass city inspections and permitting processes, while providing thousands of hours of unpaid labor. The efforts were a success, and in early 2019, Rhinoceropolis officially re-opened. Just like that, its concert calendar filled up, as did the exhibitions in its front-room gallery space.
“More than anything, I am trying to remember how things used to be,” artist Luke Thinnes says with a laugh, when asked about how the Rhinoceropolis of the past compares to its current iteration.
Thinnes grew up going to Rhino and playing shows there; he now books and operates many of the concerts. He’s been spending so much time supporting the venue’s function in its present form that he almost can’t remember what it used to be like. These days, he says, young folks still flock to the spot in search of something exciting and wild, while hardened DIYers continue to push creative boundaries and find solace in the space.
“The positive things I've seen have been many of same things I found to be positive about it before," says John Gross, a musician and longtime lease-holder who helped get the venue back up and running. "Here's young people from all over the place who discover Rhinoceropolis and get to meet people they may not otherwise meet, while getting exposed to cool art and music. I've had a lot of artists tell me that they had heard about Rhino, but had never had a chance to go before December 2016. Their idea of what it was like before is kind of like legend or stories they've heard from other people.”
Luckily, Rhino has been able to evolve. It has a club-competitive sound system, which still attracts artists from around the world. After changing the entire footprint of the space, Rhinoceropolis is equipped with two accessible bathrooms and an accessible exterior entrance. The front door, once on Brighton Boulevard, is now a back-alley entrance with a wheelchair-friendly ramp.
Ivy Lindstrom – who performs as DJ Horny Science – started going to Rhinoceropolis after its 2019 reopening. The 22-year-old was invited to Rhino by some friends who were going to see Denver band Horse Girl. Lindstrom says she found so much more than a cool show: She landed in a place that encouraged her to explore her own ideas as a music-maker. She also discovered a rare spot in Denver where her one-of-a-kind fashion wasn’t gawked at – it was admired.
“I really enjoyed how friendly everyone was,” recalls Lindstrom. “It seemed like people were pretty accepting of each other, and everyone really expressed themselves the way they wanted to. It was refreshing and nice to be around, especially in an area of Denver that seems to be very cookie-cutter. Everyone is, like, the same person."
The River North Art District, which has contributed mightily to the rapid gentrification of the once industrial part of town where the warehouse is located, is now widely known as RiNo – a homonym that longtime Rhino attendees scoff at.
In 2011, when musician and artist Katie Taylor moved into Rhinoceropolis, Brighton Boulevard was a dusty, industrial, working-class thoroughfare. Now the street's scarred with rows of pricey, prosaic housing complexes, tech offices and breweries.
“I moved into Rhino and paid $170 a month rent. I was like, 'Oh, shit. People live there?'” Taylor says of the first home she called her own. Like many, Taylor started going there as a teen. At Rhinoceropolis, she found an affordable – if legally precarious – home for a rotating cast of punks and art school kids.
While Denver housing prices have soared wildly, warehouse living is no longer an option. After Ghost Ship, the city doubled down on enforcing that the Rhino space could only legally exist as a venue.The result has been devastating for many artists. After losing their warehouse home, Taylor says, some artists moved out of Colorado altogether.
When Taylor first came to Rhino, she was unsure how DIY spaces operated, but she jumped in and started working the door. Eventually, she went from watching and working shows to exploring her own music. She became a regular performer at the space, a solo artist and prolific collaborator with many fellow Rhino inhabitants.
“Once I moved in, I ended up playing music every day,” says Taylor. “It was inspiring seeing all of these freaky acts weekly. It shaped me as a musician. In a way, I got lucky; I was thrown into this situation where all of the scenes were always around me, and I got to meet people. I made a lot of friends from different groups and different music scenes.”
Since Rhino's reopening, Taylor has been a staple performer. Her most recent incarnation is a project called Earth Control Pill, and she’s played more shows at Rhino in the past year than she did in the months before its 2016 closure.
“I’ve always felt like the mother-person at Rhino, someone who is really patient with things but would also regulate at shows,” says Taylor. “I try to help people feel safe and kick people out if they are making someone uncomfortable or just being an idiot. I think for just about anyone else who is not me, this would be stressful. I’ve just had a weird threshold of patience to be able to deal with it for years.”
DIY venues survive because of people like Taylor, who are willing to take on various roles. Running a venue takes a community, plenty of volunteers and donations. Rhino has set up a With Friends page, which is an ongoing crowdfunding site similar to Patreon. Supporters can make one-time or monthly donations there, as well as find information and buy tickets to upcoming shows.
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As 2019 comes to a close, Rhinoceropolis has proved that it can survive – and thrive – in Denver, regardless of skyrocketing rents and ever-diminishing opportunities for affordable, accessible art space.
“What has happened in this town over the last few years has made me feel like a place like Rhino is more important than ever; the city is so gentrified and expensive,” says Gross.
DJ Horny Science has advice for people wanting to learn more about the space: “It may seem like it is a very exclusive thing and you have to know people in order to be there, or it may seem a little scary or intimidating. But if you take a chance and go to Rhinoceropolis and hear new music and meet new people that you might never meet, I think you won't regret it whatsoever. I think you can come out with a brand-new perspective on the DIY scene.”