Denver’s Next Great Art Districts

Just north of downtown Denver, a petite but peppy Georgia Amar owns and operates her fine art gallery and studio in Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe. Her husband, Jack D. Pappalardo, is an attorney who in his spare time has supported his spouse and other artists as president of the cultural corridor for more than a decade. In roughly that period, the community has grown from 17 galleries, museums and theaters to roughly 100 creative industry members.

“We’re really a leader nationally as far as creating an organically developed art district where nothing existed,” Pappalardo says. He explains that before Santa Fe, there was the Ballpark neighborhood, and before that, there was South Broadway. In each of those instances, artists found low-income, affordable space to work and live.

“They’d activate it, fix it up, use their energy and all of the sudden there’s a presence in the neighborhood,” Pappalardo says. “As soon as their leases expired, landlords raised rents and the art scene had to move elsewhere. Once the artists got priced out, the next stop was Santa Fe Drive.”

Its close proximity to downtown and affordability were the two main lures; however, the neighborhood was considered “risky,” Pappalardo says, hearkening back to boarded-up buildings, graffiti and a particular urban “ruggedness” that many deemed dangerous.

Nevertheless, artists migrated that direction. This time, many gallery owners bought properties instead of renting, which created “the desire to put effort in to fix up the neighborhood, because it would no longer be just a transient stop, but instead a destination,” Pappalardo says.

And today it’s just that. With awareness initiatives and improvements starting in 2003, came the reinvention of the area with creative placemaking.

Pappalardo attributes the thriving cultural district to “hard work from the ground up without any city planning support.” Sure, over the years, he and other stakeholders have worked collaboratively with Visit Denver, Colorado Creative Industries, the City and County of Denver, the State of Colorado and other official entities. But with countless independent contributors, real estate bets that paid off, and collective creative hustle — Santa Fe has become a national model of success in urban revitalization.

There are many case studies that indicate concentrated creativity in physical density and intellectual capital can boost economic development prospects. Thus, for public officials and city-builders, arts and cultural initiatives have become an attractive development strategy and profitable placemaking technique. The recognition and strengthening of a community’s artistic and cultural assets is a vital element of economic development.

Looking ahead, one might ask where Denver creatives plant themselves next? Though civic leaders may not have these areas on their radar just yet, “We’re discovering there are communities in the state that are coming in at a much higher level of advancement than some of the initial communities we certified” as creative districts starting in 2012,” says Margaret Hunt, director of public policy and creative districts at Colorado Creative Industries. “We continue to raise the bar so communities can live up to the designation and really be a destination that visitors know.”

With that in mind, we have a hunch these three pockets — Morrison Road in Westwood, South Broadway (south of I-25) and Globeville — have the potential, the grit and some of the infrastructural ingredients to emerge as artistic hot spots.  
Morrison Road, Westwood

“Westwood is a neighborhood that Morrison Road goes through and it has suffered a lot of different challenges,” says Denver City Council Member Paul Lopez, who was born and raised in the area and took office in 2007.

A portrait of the neighborhood would illustrate a predominantly young, Hispanic population. Up until the last few years, the neighborhood was a quintessential food desert, devoid of parks, had 35 percent of its residents beneath the poverty line and one of the city’s highest high school dropout rates. “The good thing about Westwood is that the hardworking families are very resilient,” says Lopez.

In May 2008, the 1.5-mile corridor between Sheridan Boulevard and Alameda Avenue was selected by the Denver Office of Economic Development to be a pilot for the city’s Neighborhood Marketplace Initiative, a program designed to sustainably strengthen business districts. The ideal future of the space would, to some, include multicultural businesses, a seasonal outdoor market and new retailers coexisting with the heavy auto-oriented industry presence and light industrial along the thoroughfare.

One of the longstanding issues in the community has been graffiti scribbled and scattered across surfaces throughout Westwood. “Since I took office, we have decreased vandalism incidents by 86 percent,” Lopez says. He calls public art “a symbol” of the neighborhood, and talks about a multi-part system to “beat them at their own game,” adding, “You’ve got to remove it, abate it, enforce it and you actually have some talent, so identify those individuals and places where you can create murals.”

In 2007, BuCu West Development Association organized a public art initiative that has aimed to replace graffiti with colorful artwork. The group’s Community Development Coordinator AnaClaudia Magalhaes says the initiative grew more impactful with the establishment of the District 3 Arts Community in 2013, cooperation between artists and businesses that resulted in several murals on privately owned walls.

When the community was surveyed on what activities or business enhancements would encourage Denverites to become more engaged with the Westwood corridor, 66 percent responded more arts, culture and entertainment would inspire increased visits to the area.

Championing his efforts, “Councilman Lopez has led the City District in advocating the resources and publicity simultaneously the community organizing it has led to the infrastructure improvements, art covered alleyways, public art installations, park improvements and other public investments,” says Jose Esparza, executive director of BuCu West.

“People for a long time have thought that this was a great place for tacos, and nothing else,” Lopez says. “We’d love to build a cultural district that is unique to Denver. Denver hasn’t done a great job of one, becoming a desegregated city, or two, celebrating its distinctive cultures and originality that we have to protect, really prop it up, revere it.”

The call to action requires stakeholders to get organized, participate and find resources to pull the pieces together.

According to Hunt, “an authentic, unique story” is one compelling qualification for state creative district certification. Moreover, with BuCu West, Hunt’s recommendation for a leadership organization to spearhead creative district efforts is, to some extent, fulfilled, though Esparza says a full-time dedicated person or team for the organization would help.

“Art in this area has been a catalyst for much of the change and I would credit the Morrison Road Local Maintenance District, my predecessor at BuCu West, and Councilman Lopez for their commitment to using art as a way to counter graffiti,” Esparza. “That transition from creating art for joy and then understanding there are ways you can contribute publicly to the community. There are so many examples of that here.”

Just as Santa Fe once carried fear-provoking associations, Lopez instructs visitors, “Don’t be afraid of us.”

South Broadway, Overland/Platt Park

Another of Hunt’s recommendations for businesses looking for creative district certification is to have a documented concentration of creatives — from businesses to galleries to maker shops to studios. Such a pocket can be found on Broadway, south of I-25 and the trendy Baker neighborhood.

“We moved into this location — 1487 S. Broadway — about four years ago. We were looking for space where we could fit a studio and gallery and where rents were less,” says Karen Mahoney, one of four partners in Brushstrokes Studio-Gallery. She recalls that when they moved their 14-year-old business from trendy Old South Gaylord Street, the stretch of road where they looked was just wrapping up years worth of street improvements. Echoing Pappalardo, Mahoney says South Broadway had a history as an artists’ haven decades ago.

Believing that “like attracts like,” Mahoney says several other artists have filled in open rental units in the area that also includes Denver’s Antique Row and the so-called “Green Mile,” a concentration of marijuana dispensaries.

Mahoney says marketing remains an important but sometimes challenging task in the neighborhood she calls, in some parts, “seedy.”

Still, other artist collectives are springing up such as Cabal Gallery  at 1875 S. Broadway  and Peter Durst Studio at 1571 S. Broadway.

“Any place feasibly has the opportunity to bolster their offer as a creative district, but they need the organizational capacity to support this, as well as a clear differentiated vision of what they are going to do that sets them apart from anyplace else,” says Jamie Licko, founder and president of Centro, a consulting service that began working with CCI and the city of Denver several years ago.

Mahoney says many of the creative businesses in the area keep to themselves for the time being, without picking up the First Friday trend. Until leadership emerges to provide planning and strategic direction, the likeminded community may remain below the radar.

RiNo charging north: Globeville

On the opposite side of the city, the RiNo Art District is made up of River North, Five Points, Globeville and Elryia/Swansea. Within these confines are a number of active studios, galleries and creative spaces.

“The movement of artists into the neighborhood probably started about 15 years ago, when space was very affordable,” says Hunt.  “They really embraced the agricultural history, the immigrant heritage, Denargo Market, so there’s this authentic unique story.”

With an eye for the potential in this portion of the city, developers have begun to impose their visions. In Globeville, one of the first projects took shape in 2000, as a former taxi dispatch company, was picked up by Denver developer Mickey Zeppelin, citing the river, the proximity to downtown and the history as reasons to settle in the area. He created TAXI, an arts- and startup-centric community and since, members of the creative economy have planted restaurants, fabrication facilities and galleries in the complex.

“One thing that I think certainly River North has that Santa Fe Drive does not are these deep pockets that are really excited to be involved in a project,” Pappalardo says.

However, this is not, at least yet, the case in Globeville.

While many early settlers of the neighborhood came from Eastern Europe to work in a now defunct smelter, the Globeville neighborhood today is mostly Latino.

“RiNo is a great example of artists moving into a neighborhood because it’s affordable, then it becomes hip and cool, becomes gentrified and artists can no longer afford it,” Hunt says. “It’s a driver for economic development.”

There are signs of a northward artistic drift in the area. In 2013, PlatteForum ArtLab commissioned the group’s first public art installation at Globeville’s Lincoln Street Underpass.

But does Globeville have what it takes to shine as its own destination within one of the largest, and of late, trendiest art districts in the state?

“I think the short answer is yes,” said Kelly Leid, former executive director of the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative and recently announced executive director of the National Western Center. He goes one step further and describes the region of the city as an “entertainment district.”

Leid says Globeville’s rich history is in need of being retained and celebrated. “People, including myself, crave authenticity,” he explains, and also outlines the city’s goal of maintaining affordability in the area. “We continue to have artists look at this part of the city because of its affordability.”

The fact that Denver’s RiNo Art District is one of 12 Colorado Certified Creative Districts provides hope, but not a guarantee. Pappalardo says “the disadvantage of a district like River North is it’s not as walkable . . . so they still have that obstacle to overcome.”

Nevertheless, planners remain hopeful that the Globeville portion of the district will pan out to be a successful creative and commercial driver.

Regardless of official titles or badges of approval, art and culture zones sprinkled throughout Denver are without question impacting the makeup of the communities and economy.

“More and more, we are seeing that people of all ages prefer an experiential offer over a straight commodity,” says Centro’s Licko. “Just because a district doesn’t have a designation doesn’t mean they aren’t a creative district. We want to see every district injecting art and culture into their offerings. The lasting impact of this working has been significant — not just for the arts, but for the city’s economic health as a whole.”

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

This story is part of a series on the impact of arts and the creative community in Denver. This partnership with Confluence Denver and Creative Exchange is underwritten by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

Bonfils Stanton