Outside a January 4 party celebrating the announcement that Meow Wolf will be coming to Denver, Wheelchair Sports Camp MC Kalyn Heffernan took District 9 City Councilman Albus Brooks to task, voicing her concerns about his role in the gentrification of Denver, the eviction and displacement of artists in his district, and the city’s failure to provide funds to help businesses and arts spaces become accessible to disabled people.
Above all, she says she asked: Why are you here? Nobody trusts you.
The bash was held at Mile High Station, which is right next to where a four-story, 90,000-square-foot building will be constructed; Meow Wolf Denver has already signed a twenty-year lease for the structure, which will include a 60,000-square-foot immersive installation, three times the size of the group's original House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe.
At the invite-only party, booze flowed. Scrappy artists and political bigwigs who don’t normally rub elbows did. People chattered optimistically, sharing cautious hope that Meow Wolf – which has been a major funder of DIY arts projects in Denver in 2017 and has given a big boost to Santa Fe's economy – will be a major boon for Denver’s creative economy.
Heffernan is a political hip-hop artist who made national headlines after she joined the disability-rights group ADAPT in shutting down Republican Senator Cory Gardner’s office this year, demanding that he vote against a GOP repeal of the Affordable Care Act. She has performed at Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, and has been in conversations with the group about improving accessibility, avoiding gentrification and creating an inclusive project in Denver. Named a Westword MasterMind in 2016, she's long been an outspoken — often poetically foul-mouthed and always uncompromising — critic of how Denver is growing at the expense of its longtime residents. And she's no fan of Brooks.
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When a friend noted that the council rep was at the party, she was irked. After all, Heffernan notes, Brooks penned the urban camping ban, which critics charge criminalizes homelessness. Heffernan says it also targets disabled people disproportionately: The majority of those experiencing homelessness also have a disability. Why should they be swept away instead of supported?
Over the past few years, Brooks's district had seen economic growth that's led to mass displacement of old-timers and the demolition of much of the historic African American community in Five Points, which is now lined with newfangled, big-box housing complexes. In that same neighborhood where black jazz legends once played and immigrants before them made a home, people now frequent trendy coffee shops and bluegrass, jam band and EDM concerts. The DIY arts spaces Rhinoceropolis and Glob, which were evicted by the city for safety-code violations after the Ghost Ship fire, were in his district. As Heffernan sees it, Brooks did nothing to advocate for those artists.
“Meow Wolf came in very well aware that we’re not okay with them gentrifying,” says Heffernan, who adds that she's supportive of the Santa Fe arts project and hopes to continue to find ways to collaborate with the team —people she describes as friends. But when she saw Brooks at the gathering, she had second thoughts.
“I think that by Albus Brooks showing up, that’s scary to me,” Heffernan says. “That’s where I’m like, ‘Wait a minute: What kind of party is this?'”
Brooks says that the Santa Fe group's announcement of a major facility in Denver makes for “a great day for creatives in this city, who in my mind really lured Meow Wolf to Denver. From our creative alternative artists to our creative musicians, that entrepreneurial spirit starting at Glob and Rhinoceropolis really made this happen. It’s super-cool.”
Both Glob and Rhinoceropolis received significant financial support from Meow Wolf to help bring their spaces up to code, but a year later, neither space has reopened, in part because of difficulty navigating the city's cumbersome zoning process. Despite the city offering some spaces conditional use permits while they come into compliance and $300,000 in funding for updates to buildings, Denver still isn't doing enough to protect artists, says Heffernan.
Heffernan says she chased Brooks down as he was leaving the party, shouting, “Wait, wait, wait!” Dressed in cowboy garb, he and Denver Community Planning and Development Executive Director Brad Buchanan stood in the cold and spoke with Heffernan for around twenty minutes.
"I cussed at them and told them my feelings in a very peaceful way," Heffernan says. They started cussing back, "kind of assimilating" to her rapper style, she recalls. "I’m glad we could talk like real fucking people for a second."
Heffernan brought up the displacement of artists. She talked about how the city needs to provide financial incentives to arts spaces and other businesses so that the financial burden of making a space accessible does not fall on already cash-strapped creatives and entrepreneurs. She reiterated her mistrust.
“Albus listened, which was interesting,” Heffernan says. “He didn’t talk over me. He was like, ‘I get it. We haven’t done enough.’”
“I thought it was an awesome conversation," Brooks says. "She was very cordial and cool and basically talked about the mistrust between the communities. She was basically inviting us to break down those walls, but it’s going to take time. I walked away super-encouraged.... I think a lot of people would go to social media and air their disagreement. She just told me to my face and invited me to share my perspective, which is what I think we have to do in this city.”
Brooks notes that Buchanan, who was unavailable for comment on this story, was the perfect person to have as part of the conversation. He’s been instrumental in the city’s creation of the Safe Occupancy Program, "a conditional building occupancy program for spaces that are currently operating without permits," as the city describes it. Attempting to convince DIY artists to come forward to apply to the program — which involves inspections that could lead to their eviction over safety concerns — has been a challenge for the city, although a handful of arts groups are currently going through the process.
At the party, Heffernan recalls Buchanan asking her: “How do we get people to trust us?’ That was his main thing. I looked at them both and said, ‘I don’t trust you at all. And if you want trust, you show up. And if you’re authentic about what you’re saying, you show up.'”
"I think there is a lot of mistrust on their part, and I think their mistrust is warranted," Brooks says of Denver's DIY artists. "We did not handle that well," he says of the evictions of Glob and Rhinoceropolis, "and the city did not handle that well. To make up for that, we changed our law for the safe-occupancy permit. We’re one of the only cities that does that now. I think the city learned a lot, and I think it could be the beginning of a good relationship and the beginnings of building trust. I’m excited about the future, and I’m excited to continue to provide opportunities."
"Not only do we welcome artists here, but we need them here to continue to make Denver what it is," Brooks continues. “I’d love to see Denver be a place where we curate art and artists. It’s a place where it’s alive and well.” Meow Wolf, he adds, "is the first big piece of the puzzle to help us be that city.”
But Heffernan doesn't think there's a chance that the city will regain the trust of residents of Rhinoceropolis and Glob who were kicked out of their homes and work spaces. Nor will the officials earn the trust of artists who saw their colleagues evicted, she adds.
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Heffernan offered to continue the dialogue and invited Brooks to reach out to her — particularly to discuss how the safe-occupancy plan might better fund DIY arts spaces that are trying to become accessible. “There’s no way these DIY low-budget places are going to have a budget at all to make something accessible,” Heffernan says. “There’s not a lot of incentives for places to be accessible, and that’s really shitty.”
Brooks says he's open to more conversation, adding that he left the party talking about the safe-occupancy plan and the arts scene and “looking for ways we can make it more accessible to the disabled community without making it a financial burden on those trying to make their spaces safe.” His plan: “‘Let’s figure this out."
Despite the sometimes-heated discussion at the party, Brooks considered the gathering a success. "For us to be an authentic city, we’ve got to come out of our silos," he explains. "I think grassroots and grasstops have to be connected. I really feel like Meow Wolf does that. They really connect. The fact that we’re all in the same space was pretty remarkable, and the fact that we had the conversation is even better."
Whether the conversation had any actual impact remains to be seen, Heffernan cautions. As for Brooks, she says, "We’re not going to stop heckling you until you start serving the fucking communities that you’re profiting from."