I want to say something about gentrification in Dtown, y’all. But even as I write these first words, it becomes a time warp of my own experiences. I’ve been living and working, spending my time and money, in Denver communities for 25 years. I like to disappear, but Denver is my home town and I always return. I know the city well. Honestly, with the rise in the cost of living, I might drive down from my shack in the hills to be an Uber driver.
I’m gonna sell $50 culture tours for all the implants and make up crazy shit.
I came up in working class, small town America - south of the Mile High City. Castle Rock. My parents got addicted and in trouble in a bar called the Stage Coach and I wanted to run away to live in the city early on. I had never heard of gentrification, white flight, black migration, exclusionary zoning or urban economics, then.
We barely got Civil Rights in my High School. DC represent!
Source smiled on me though. My Dad introduced me to hip hop and jazz in his old blue Chevy when I was knee high to a grasshopper, because he had served with guys from Harlem in Vietnam. Then somewhere along the line I learned about how that particular music was in Denver too, in places where white folks weren’t supposed to go.
That’s about the time I realized my whiteness.
That revelation, the fact of segregation, has always made me feel angry. At who, I do not know.
Then I met a wide smilin’, charismatic, well-connected, black teenager from the place adults around me were calling Saudi-Aurora. (Fucked up. I knew it even then.) We were at a house party in high school, circa 1992. He came with a friend that had just moved to town and to this day I believe I got lucky. Nah, not like that. But it’s interesting the implications that had for us then.
We made out plenty of times, but contrary to racist beliefs and nasty rumors, we kept it pretty simple.
He is a friend to this day and he would know himself if he read this. And he, protective and trustworthy, is how I got in. He got me out of the sticks and into the parties and the 16 and up clubs. And once the chics who ran in those circles decided I was, I don’t know, down enough, they taught me how to dance. Like a spiderweb, I started to weave my Denver matrix.
Shakin’ my ass for more than a decade from South Broadway to Thornton.
Rock Island. Dead Beat. Grizzly Rose. The Fillmore. Vinyl. Herman’s. The Ogden. Synergy. The Bluebird. Polyesters. Mynt. Purple Martini. Funky Buddha. La Rumba. And all the glow stick, body painting raves in warehouses in between.
I paid for living, but mostly for partying, while I went to college at Metro State the first time around - slangin’ booze at Lodo’s Bar and Grill downtown just after Coors Field opened up. I counted a shit ton of one dollar bills and did too many drugs. I witnessed Denver’s bro culture grow up in that bar. Just like the muscles in their t-shirts. And I watched people who had lived in the surrounding areas their whole lives not be able to get past the door guys. I don’t know if I was aware of enough to know what that was at the time.
I don’t know if I cared.
When I got tired of short shorts and rum and cokes, I got lost in corporate America and abusive relationships for a length of time I cannot remember. All the while paying rent in a shitty apartment in Englewood.
I spent 2 years just after Y2K living at 24th and Stout across from one of the roughest parks in town. Once, my partner had a seizure on the living room carpet while I laid naked in the bed, and my first thought was that he had been shot through the window. It was a dangerous place to live, but I wanted to run a French restaurant and get culture schooled. So, I got what I could afford. Every time I see that building I am reminded that it was the first pad I landed on my own that had character - like a grungy London flat.
I met the artist in me, in that place. Taking photos of the old painted brick advertisements and playing with canvas.
Now I go to that block for NGO meetings in too-quickly built office buildings, without enough parking.
I spent almost six years in this city servin’ up sushi with misfits like me. The Hapa Group had a culture that encouraged making good money while pursuing other interests - from climbing to a graduate degree. I assume they still do. Hapa rose from a Jewish shoe salesman turned well-dressed restaurateur, building tattooed sushi joints with Japanese-Hawaiian foodies. Mostly Latinos and head-bangers in the back of the house, fit and good-looking in the front.
We had fun and cash. And we spent it.
Those Hapa boys have a good habit of showing up in neighborhoods right before they pop. Are they gentrifiers?
I started the healing years in an old Denver brick with a big garden and like-minded neighbors on the Southside, right about the time it became Historic Baker. I had insomnia during that time and saw ghosts when I walked those streets at night. I watched the first hipster coffee shop show up on S. Broadway asking 6 dollars for a small latte and I was bummed when my bike mechanic had to close.
But I found my altar on that corner.
I moved out of the country about the time Punch Bowl Social brought a million drunk people to the streets outside my bedroom window at closing time.
I’m still trying to pay the loan I took out to open a social justice, community-minded yoga studio at 37th and Franklin - not much more than a few years ago. A grimy turn if the century theatre space in the same building as the old-west bar and brothel; Jack Kerouac’s Denver, 70 years later. That neglected building was owned for decades by a white woman, who was also an opportunist and arguably a slum lord. That place had tragedy and spirit seeping out of the brick.
My apartment and enormous 100-year-old claw foot tub were in the back. It was a strange time.
We were a cool motley crew practicing at the Franklin Street Center - culture seekers and talk back yogis. I got my 15 minutes of fame when my work landed on Westword’s front-page and I sacrificed much to serve in that old, haunted space. But it couldn’t last. There were plenty of signs. Mostly betrayal and not enough dough. It was the first I felt gentrification pushing folks out.
Still, I fell in love learning from kids on that block.
Now a shi-shi marketing firm holds down that whole building and my guess is they don’t sit on the stoop when the school across the street lets out in the afternoon.
And so, present day. I focus on supporting young people in the toughest neighborhoods in Dtown. Globeville. Swansea. Cole. Whittier. Colfax. And the not-yet gentrifying Westside. And it is tough, I mean that. We are educators with grit - you can’t do it if you haven’t seen some things go down. It’s the hardest most rewarding work - getting tools to kids that the system ignores. Maybe most importantly in a gentrifying city.
It means my newest Denver experience is a tattooed yogini from Flint, a shy and curious Jewish chic from the policy making east coast, and a passionate Latina from the Northside who spits organizational strategy and Aztec blessings.
I’m the white founder playing Robin Hood to put resources back in, during a time like this. It’s tricky.
Every Tuesday night I teach black-lit basement yoga in the part of the grid where this coffee shop got in trouble for their distasteful sign. The building has a great little dungeon for working with the senses. Dtown has lots of basements like that. And mostly, it’s the friends I have made over twenty-five years who come and go to practice. I can’t believe that’s gentrification.
And yet, when we left the studio last night, my girlfriend and I ran smack into a white guy in a preppy suit, piss drunk and pissin’ on the sidewalk.
Yooooo! Watch the Sketchers, Chad.
Maybe I am the original Denver gentrifier. But I also think the Cracker Jack boxes that developers are building all over the damn place are gross. And I think the politicians that are taking their money are, well, gross-er. The ruthlessness Denver has shown to our homeless population when we have sky rocketing rents and freezing temps breaks my fucking heart. But I see folks working hard to make it right, as always in Dtown.
Who have we become, Great City of the Plains?
Is it about what a person puts in? What you contribute?
Or is it about what’s being taken away?
Is it rich people?
Is it development?
Is it entitlement?
Is it homogeny? (This is the one that has me twisted.)
Is it white folks?
Is it booze?
Is it individualism, i.e. I only give a fuck about me?
Is it the dumbing down of culture?
Is it all of those things?
I can’t answer any of those questions, but here’s what I do know.
I fell in love with open-mic poetry at Mercury Cafe when I was still a teenager. My favorite date has been City O and the art museum for as long as I’ve been dating. I spent years at Cervantes, in love with a percussionist and deepening my CD collection. And I’m so glad those spots are still around.
I had my first card reading and chai tea at Gypsy House, in that bad-ass basement. I do believe the most I have sweated in this life has been dancing at Rock Bar and Cold Crush after I stopped going to clubs in heels. KRS-One in low-cut Levi’s and Adidas, y’all. It hurts me that those places are gone. Among so many others.
I never went into ink! Because I always chose to give my money to Crema across the street. That place has been tits since it opened. Who wants a copy and paste cappuccino, when you can get that slow brew and the best quiche in town?
We needed a good bagel joint so I vote Rosenberg’s (even after that creepy fire) can stay, but we best keep spending coin at Beet Box. Meadowlark has been putting out good food for a bit now, and they sell well selected local art – so make sure you visit when you go to get your craft beer on. And there are miraculous, authentic local healers all over those north-west neighborhoods, y’all.
Do yourself a favor.
Support Brother Jeff. And if you live in Denver Central and don’t know who that is, do your homework. This last bit is for you.
Don’t forget to mention the artist when you post Denver street art all over your Instagram. And don’t piss on the sidewalk. If you’re dropping down on a house, don’t scrape, renovate. And when you see a protest on the street, do the work and own your role. Open your wallet in local shops and give a fuck when one closes down.
If you’ve got the money to live in Dtown, spend it on the culture that came up here. Otherwise, you best be creating something worthy with that cash. Trust me, the fine people of Denver, not the newcomers, but the ones who have been around, they are judging you.
And they should. They are the bricks, the foundation and the character of this city.
Pay some respect. It's that easy.