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A Vision for Westwood

Art is a potential catalyst for community empowerment in Westwood.

The neighborhood is up for a $500,000 creative placemaking grant.

Eric Kornacki is exectutive director of Re:Vision.

Re:Vision helped educate locals on backyard farms, or "promotoras."

In 2015, 390 families pulled 45,000 pounds of produce from Westwood's promotoras.

Re:Vision got started in southwest Denver's Westwood neighborhood with urban agriculture initiatives aimed at quenching one of the city's driest food deserts. Now the nonprofit has moved into creative placemaking to plant the seeds for an art district.
On the first truly hot day of early summer, Santiago Jaramillo crouches on a sidewalk on Morrison Road, close to the ground, paintbrush in hand. He wears a straw hat to shield his eyes from the sun blazing overhead; from the brim, bold, black lines and colorful patterns snake down his neck and shoulders, all the way to his knuckles. Wiping sweat, he rolls white paint over the rectangular base of a grey utility box.

"It's hard to paint on these things," Jaramillo says, going over a bumpy spot flecked with bits of gravel. "Utility boxes have lots of dirt. They're dusty. They're kind of a pain, actually."

Jaramillo, 42, is a well-connected Denver artist whose paintings grace canvases and walls around the city, especially here in Westwood, the west Denver neighborhood where Jaramillo was born and raised. He's got a couple of murals around the corner at STRIVE Preparatory School, large-scale mashups that combine indigenous images, pop culture and splashes of color to showcase his skills as a modern portrait artist and designer. Lately, though, he's been focused on smaller spaces, like these dusty utility boxes that line several blocks in either direction.

The neighborhood is up for a $500,000 creative placemaking grant.Jaramillo is a founder of District 3, a collective that has led efforts to support artists in this often overlooked neighborhood. With support from the BuCu West Development Association, District 3 artists have helped to transform the busy street. Light poles, trash cans, windows bear stencil art and poetry. Midcentury block buildings -- some rounded to fit the angled lots along Morrison Road, one of the city's few diagonal thoroughfares -- are covered with images of flowers, saints, skulls. Jaramillo knows all of the artists who painted them.

"We have a lot of talent here," he says, noting that Westwood has been home to generations of Latino artists, from taggers to traditionalists, including painter Carlos Vasquez. "A lot of us here, we didn't have anywhere else to find out about stuff. We just taught each other by doing it. It's just been a part of this community for a long time."

Planting, painting & placemaking

Concentrated south of Alameda Avenue between Federal and Sheridan boulevards, Westwood is home to about 16,000 people -- 82 percent of whom are Latino, some non-English speaking immigrants from Mexico. The neighborhood has one of the city's lowest median incomes as well as its highest density; the area's small, single-family homes are often shared by five or six people. Most billboards and business signs in this neighborhood are in Spanish. It's a Denver many never see or think about. But things are changing in Westwood, as they are everywhere in the city. New businesses, new housing developments are coming in. And the arts scene is on the radar.

"We want to make this an official arts district," Jaramillo says. "We want to get more businesses involved, to build an artists space with studios, a gallery, a shop, a tattoo parlor. We can do it, with some money and some time."

Westwood may soon have an opportunity to dive further into its roots as an artistic hub -- and to use the arts as a tool to empower and connect residents. Earlier this month, local community organization Re:Vision was named one of 80 finalists in ArtPlace America's National Creative Placemaking Fund contest, chosen from more than 1,300 applicants across the country. If it makes the next cut, Re:Vision will receive up to $500,000 to invest in art-centric community development, much of it at the hands of artists like Jaramillo and his District 3 partners, who were "placemaking" before the term became a buzzword in cultural policy and funding circles.

In 2015, 390 families pulled 45,000 pounds of produce from Westwood's promotoras."They were very supportive of how we're using art to link community assets," says Eric Kornacki, Re:Vision's executive director. "For example, we're using art as wayfinding, to signal a safe passage between a new local park and the elementary school. So, it's murals and mosaics that enliven the space, but they also help young people move safely around the neighborhood and connect to their neighbors."

Until recently, plants -- not paintings -- have been Re:Vision's focus. Formed in 2007, Re:Vision uses urban gardening as a framework to stimulate a hyper-local economy, develop leaders and connect neighbors to one another. In 2015, 390 families pulled 45,000 pounds of produce from gardens that now fill front yards and once-empty lots. Eventually, Re:Vision posits, the gardens -- and a community-owned grocery store still in the planning stages -- will increase both health and economic sustainability in Westwood.

Building community empowerment

Like those gardens, art is an organic force that Re:Vision and its partners, including Westwood Unidos, have begun consciously harvesting to coalesce the community (which is trying out a new name: the Mercado District). The murals that now line Friendship Alley, which once functioned as a dumping ground for the city's detritus, are partly created and maintained by residents. Soon, crosswalks will bear original works by local painters. And next month, Re:Vision will break ground on a two-acre public space that will host performances, social events, classes, weekend markets and exhibitions tailored to the local community.

"We heard over and over that what the community needs is a place to gather, to be social, get to know one another," Kornacki says. "People in this community can be very isolated. Almost invisible. I can't tell you the number of times I've seen it happen, when people do come together for the first time, they realize that they share a family member or a friend in Mexico. The community needs a place where that kind of thing can happen all the time. Art is going to be a huge part of that."

Kornacki says an ArtPlace grant would serve as a kind of prophylactic against gentrification in one of Denver's only remaining affordable neighborhoods. Art, like gardening, brings people together, which builds relationships and networks, and that helps amplify the collective voice of vulnerable communities in a moments of tremendous growth and change. Developers have already come sniffing around, Kornacki says. He points to a row of townhomes that was recently purchased by an owner who plans to raise rents. Across the street, there's a new State Farm Insurance office in what used to be a holistic health clinic. Its walls used to be painted with bright colors. Now, they're beige.

"In the time since we started a community-owned food system here, in 2009, I've seen the level of interest in this community surge. It's a huge blitz," he says. "One of the challenges is: How do we build community empowerment at the same time the neighborhood is becoming more attractive to people and developers? We know we have to work quickly."

For Santiago Jaramillo, change in Westwood is welcome -- so long as it's led by those who are already there. Especially artists.

"I've been here my whole life, I see that things are getting better," he says. "And that's good. There are a lot of people here who do really good work. They should be seen."

Photos by Jess Kornacki.

Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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