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In Westwood, Art Ascends and Transcends

Downtown Denver from Morrison Road. Photo by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
 

In southwest Denver, Morrison Road is the spine of the newly certified Westwood Creative District. The neighborhood's Mexican-American heritage is shaping an organic approach to placemaking and revitalization.

Hang a left on Morrison Road, one of the few diagonal streets in Denver's dominant cardinal-direction street grid, and something feels different. It's like a portal to another world.

It's gritty, funky, eclectic. There are auto shops, taquerias, tumbleweeds, nightclubs and colorful street murals everywhere. To the northeast is a view of the skyscrapers downtown, to the southwest the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. There are a few new apartment buildings, but no chain restaurants or stores. It feels authentic. Real.

The neighborhood is also home to one of Colorado Creative Industries' newest Creative Districts. Located along Morrison Road between Alameda Avenue and Perry Street, the Westwood Creative District was officially certified in June 2017. It has gained momentum over the course of the last decade -- and remains a work in progress.

"We're lucky with Morrison Road, the fact it cuts right through the neighborhood," says José Esparza, executive director of BuCu West, the economic development nonprofit that's overseeing the district. "We just think of Morrison Road as a canvas and we have pretty good opportunities."

Esparza says improvements and streetscaping on Morrison Road and the development of the Westwood Neighborhood Plan paved the way for CCI certification. The neighborhood plan defined the stretch of Morrison from Alameda Avenue to Perry Street as an art district, with the core neighborhood and the entertainment district to the southwest. "That's our focus," says Esparza. "We feel we can grow it from here."

He says the grant that came with certification allowed BuCu West to hire Crystal O'Brien as art development coordinator at BuCu West. "Having someone run our art program is key," says Esparza.

Formerly with CHAC Gallery, O'Brien earned a reputation for her businesslike approach to elevating the arts. After starting with BuCu West in August 2017, she's made partnerships a priority. The fledgling district is working with Re:Vision International, Westwood Unidos, the Arts Students League of Denver, Denver Botanic Gardens and a wide range of artists and businesses.
Crystal O'Brien and Jose Esparza of BuCu West.


"It's pretty exciting being able to build something," says O'Brien. "You have to be really creative." She says she stretches funding by "starting little art fires all over the neighborhood."

Special events have helped drive the new vision for Morrison Road. "We've done a lot around Chile Fest," says O'Brien, noting that 30 artists participated in 2017. Other events have included a Frida Kahlo-themed celebration and metal art exhibits.

"We're starting to get a little buzz here," says O'Brien.

The art of struggle

Elected to Denver City Council in 2007, Paul López has advocated for Westwood ever since. He grew up a few blocks away from Morrison Road.

López is holding court from a table at Kahlo's, a colorful new Mexican restaurant on the street. His passion for the neighborhood is unmistakable.

"Everybody on this strip is an artist," he says with a grin. "You've got culinary art, visual art and us -- political art. The art of struggle."

Paul López represents Westwood on Denver City Council.

A lot of that struggle has involved Morrison Road. "Nobody really thought of it as a 'Main Street' until we came around," he says. "It was junkyards and a good shortcut to downtown Denver. That's such an injustice for the neighborhood."

López was inspired before his election to city council when he worked for Service Employees International Union (SEIU). "As a community organizer, a union organizer, I was all over the country: L.A., Texas, Chicago. I'm organizing in these neighborhoods like Little Village in Chicago, or you go to L.A. and Olvera Street. Why can't we do something like that here?"

It follows that López has pushed for investment on Morrison Road in his decade in office and seen recent projects improve the street's safety and aesthetics. "I consider Morrison Road to Westwood what the 16th Street Mall is to downtown Denver," he says. "This is the spine, the economic spine, of the west side."

Photo by Eric Peterson.

It's also an authentic and unique place in Denver's urban realm. "When you look down Morrison Road, you see this skyline, this gateway to the city," says López. "You think to yourself, 'Why aren't there trees lining Morrison Road? Why aren't there businesses? Why do we have to go to Belmar to do our shopping and have a night on the town? Why can't we stay here and do it?'"

But he wants to do it organically, with existing residents participating in the neighborhood's rise. "Westwood's been Mexican-American for a very long time. Why can't we make this a cultural district? The most unique thing about this area is the culture."

López recites a Cesar Chavez quote: "Preservation of one's own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures."

"That's kind of our mantra here," he says. "We want people to see the cultural beauty in our neighborhood and that it's our greatest asset. We're portrayed as criminals or, on the nightly news, something Trump likes to say about us. What about our own story we can tell? And this is part of it, this beautiful neighborhood."

Past & future

Morrison Road was first graded in 1899 as County Road 8, connecting Denver and Morrison when there was little in between. A Great Depression shantytown that mushroomed in size in the 1940s, Westwood was annexed by the City and County of Denver in 1947.

"Denver had a zoning code; Westwood didn't," says López. "So when you look at the housing stock, it's quite different from the rest of Denver. It's very cheaply built, not zoned right, just this odd collection. That does not mean our community is not worth anything, that those houses aren't worth anything, that those properties aren't worth anything. Everything we've struggled for for generations is invested in these homes, invested in these properties and this neighborhood. That's what makes it so sacred for us."

Photos by Eric Peterson.

About 30 percent of Westwood families live in poverty, versus 5 percent metro-wide, and the neighborhood has been plagued by a "lack of infrastructure and a lack of political representation," López says. "This is true for a lot of neighborhoods on the west side, not just Westwood. That river, people looked at it like the Rio Grande. We resent that historic misrepresentation: These are folks who are hardworking, pay taxes and invest in their properties. It may not be brick bungalows and cute, charming houses and Craftsman homes that exist in other parts of Denver, but they are people's homes and they are Denver properties. We have to make sure those sidewalks are built, too. We have to make sure those streets are also paved. For the longest time we've gone without, and Morrison Road has been the epitome of that without."

The 2017 General Obligation (GO) Bond on the November ballot includes several projects in Westwood, including a major upgrade for Morrison Road.

"The last time the bond went through, it didn't have much for Westwood," says López of the 2007 GO Bond. "That really upset me and I was very outspoken about it. We got left out. . . . What it did was perpetuate the inequity for another decade."

This time around, López was more than prepared to push for a major investment in the neighborhood. The "Mercado Lineal" project involves a $12.2 million reconstruction of Morrison Road. If the bond measure passes, it will fund a reconstruction of about a mile of the 1.5-mile corridor on either side of the newly rebuilt and streetscaped core, upgrading infrastructure, creating plazas and pocket parks and adding numerous pedestrian enhancements. Safety and walkability are priorities, as Morrison Road notably lacks stoplights with pedestrian crossings. The GO Bond also includes funding for a new recreation center on Morrison Road.

The vision of Mercado Lineal on Morrison Road. Rendering courtesy Studio CPG.

"God willing, the bond is approved, and that's the largest single investment in Westwood and Morrison Road that I know of," says López. "It's long overdue and it's absolutely just, especially socially. There's a difference between equality and equity, and equity is catching up, giving people the opportunity to enjoy the same freedoms others do."

Street art centro

Westwood is one of the most heavily muraled neighborhoods in Denver. "What it did was spur this muralism, not just here, but in Denver," says López. "Guess where it came from? Right here."

Stroll the sidewalk outside Kahlo's and you'll see three colorful nichos -- altar-like boxes colorfully decorated with icons of spirituality and pop culture -- that BuCu West commissioned in partnership with Denver Botanic Gardens. Kahlo's itself is covered in murals, including a wall depicting labor activist Cesar Chavez planting an idea.

Across the street, the Westwood Food Cooperative is clad in purple zigzags. The adjacent auto shop has Mesoamerican-inspired robots, and a garage at the end of the next block sports a larger-than-life Jimi Hendrix. Up and down Morrison Road, brick walls, trash cans and electric boxes have been adorned with all kinds of imagery.

Murals abound in Westwood.

BuCu West has funded murals in Westwood since 2009, initially "as a tool to combat graffiti," says Esparza. But it's since taken on a life of its own. "Now it's an expression of the community."

López says graffiti plagued the neighborhood when he took office a decade ago. "There was a lot of violence around the area," he says. "You had these rival tagging crews and a lot of young people getting caught up in it. It wasn't good for the community. You had people struggling to make ends meet having to go buy paint on a regular basis."

López says the mural movement's genesis was a mural on the fence of a decommissioned Xcel substation at Kentucky Avenue and Irving Street that was organized in concert with the Gang Rescue and Support Project. "We brought all these different crews together," says López. "We didn't bring in outsiders to do it -- these are folks who live in the neighborhood, in some cases the most prolific taggers in Denver."

It worked. "Nobody touched that mural," says López. "When they were tagged, they were fixed. People had their own street justice that they had to respect each other's murals."

Those first murals provided a model for the city's Urban Arts Fund, which has funded eight murals on Morrison Road. Six are complete, including a recent depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Custom Transmissions by Cal Duran.

López sees the art on the streets of Westwood as a reflection of the community that's inherently political. "Art has been a catalyst for social movements throughout history," he says. "Art transmits those ideas. It communicates beyond words. It's open to interpretation. It inspires spirit and invokes questions and invokes a conversation."

He points to another landmark public artwork in Westwood is Carlos Fresquez's 2009 sculpture, "Un Corrido Para La Gente” ("A Song For The People"), at the southwestern terminus of Morrison Road at Sheridan Boulevard.

The original concept, three flagpoles and a "Welcome to Denver" sign, "was boring and it was insanely expensive," says López. So the project was put out to bid and Fresquez won the project.

"I tried to create something that spoke to the neighborhood," says Fresquez, who's taught at Metro State University for more than 20 years. "My grandparents lived in the neighborhood, so I know it really well."

"Un Corrido Para La Gente" by Carlos Fresquez.

He had numerous inspirations for the pop-art assemblage that's now a gateway to Westwood. His grandfather played the guitar, for one, and the shovel, bike wheel and quinceanera crown were nods to the culture of Westwood.

Fresquez sees it as both a gateway to and a signifier of Westwood and Morrison Road. "It announces, 'What's in here?' It's a diagonal street, so it's a little more dynamic. It's a funky little neighborhood."

"I think there's a seed for it to grow," he says of the fledgling creative district. "They just need to nurture it and it could blossom into something wonderful."

"Artists are always in need of inexpensive studio space," he adds. "That's the perfect neighborhood for it."

Raw clay

Morrison Road's automotive-centric history makes for numerous service stations and garages ideal for repurpose as galleries and studios.

Artist Jef Hartman moved to Westwood from the Ballpark area four years ago. He found an affordable place on Morrison Road with enough room for him and his wife, Tia Janitsch-Hartman, and his dachshund, Cosmo, to live and work. His landlord hasn't upped the rent in four years.

As Tia installs umbrellas from the lost and found at her side job at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in the backyard fence as a guerrilla art project, Hartman calls the Westwood Creative District "a great idea," likening the neighborhood to RiNo before it boomed. "I would always find a place to live and work up there," says Hartman. But it got trickier, leading him to move southwest.

Guerrilla public art at Lost Stolen Cat.

He says the district is still in its early stages, noting, "It's not a place -- not yet anyway -- with enough foot traffic to support galleries. But Hartman is planning on hosting live "art battles" at his studio, dubbed Lost Stolen Cat Contemporary Art, but found it cost-prohibitive to open it as a commercial gallery.

Westwood offers many of the same benefits Hartman found in RiNo and Ballpark a decade ago. "The rent is cheap, you pay in cash, if something breaks down, you're on your own, but you can do anything you want -- and I like that," he says.

Hartman also likes the preponderance of street art, and contributed a mural of dragons battling skeletons on the side of his place. "It doesn't matter who you are, if you're the city councilman or a gangster, art is something people talk about, even if it's 'I hate that.'"

For his part, Councilman López loves the dialogue: He wants his constituents to have their voice heard. "We have so many artists in this community, artists in terms of the guy next door, artists you went to school with, the homeboy down the street," he says.

He points to Thomas Padilla of One Stop Bike Shop, who specializes in flashy cruisers and choppers, and makes robot sculptures out of old parts. "His bikes are the art," says López.

O'Brien at BuC West has witnessed a similar phenomenon in her first months on the job. "Within the neighborhood, we're going to find people who are artists who are already here," she says. "Artists are just coming out of the woodwork. . . . It's like art in unexpected places."

Adds Esparza: "We have a welder, we have a bronze pourer, things you wouldn't expect. . . . The fact that so many industrial-type businesses exist is a challenge -- how do we work with them -- and an opportunity as well."

It's all tied into the strategy of boosting existing residents. "We want to utilize what we have," notes O'Brien.
One Stop Bike Shop on Morrison Road.


That includes Westwood's "unique food scene," says Esparza. When he's not advocating for BuCu West, he's head of the Kitchen Network on Morrison Road, a kitchen commissary and bottling facility that's helped incubate more than 100 businesses.

It's analogous to the idea of the Westwood Creative District: a platform that serves as a rising tide for the community. Esparza describes it as a "big push of a community that wants to have a Main Street, it's not a developer coming and and building it. It's very organic."

Echoes López: "People driving by say, 'Morrison Road has changed. That's really cool what's going on over there.' I say, 'Just wait and see how much it's going to change, and for the better.' A lot of people get that confused with gentrification. There's a difference here. This is actually led by the community. This isn't a run to the bank with developers."

Not that the future Westwood Creative District won't involve private investment: "There's a lot of gaps on Morrison Road. There's a lot of empty spaces. There's a lot of new build to be had, and that's been the challenge."

López envisions galleries, shops, breweries and restaurants popping up in both new buildings and adaptive reuse projects. "But we want to really encourage local ownership," he says.
Urban grit and vibrant colors are found in equal measure in Westwood.


But much of the infrastructure for change is already there in the existing architecture and streetscape. "You can't manufacture this. You can't replicate this. It's raw clay, it's grit and I love it. It's who we are," says López.

He adds, "You need some anchors to really create the investment."

Westwood rising

One anchor that's currently germinating: Re:Vision International's Westwood Food Cooperative. Located in the heart of the district and slated to open in 2019, "It's a big focus for us," says Esparza.

Eric Kornacki founded Re:Vision in 2007 to promote home gardens and cultivate urban farms in Westwood. In 2011, he opened an office on Morrison Road, then acquired an unkempt industrial property for the 12,000-square-foot cooperative with the help of a grant from the Denver Office of Economic Development. After clearing out hundreds of tons of junk, the vision is starting to take shape.


"We think Westwood is under the radar and we'd love to see more resources come into the community," says Kornacki. "We look at art as placemaking. We think it can help define this place and actually prevent some of the gentrification and involuntary displacement you see in other neighborhoods."

Case in point: Re:Vision is a finalist for a placemaking grant from ArtPlace America. "We want to create a public plaza at the heart of the property that uplifts the neighborhood's Mesoamerican roots," says Kornacki.

His ultimate vision for the property is RISE Westwood (an acronym for "resilient, inclusive and sustainable economy"), encompassing the plaza and the food cooperative as well as an art center and makerspace in an old warehouse if Re:Vision gets the ArtPlace grant. Winners will be announced before the end of 2017.

With all of the potential development, gentrification is a concern, but Kornacki has been partnering with a number of likeminded organizations to mitigate involuntary displacement.

Charleen Ramirez-Mares fears just that. As the principal of La Academia in La Alma/Lincoln Park, she's seen the impact of rising rents around Denver's Art District on Santa Fe. She's also been involved with D3 Arts and her husband, Jose, created the niches on Morrison Road and other public works of art in Westwood.

One of Jose Mares' nichos on Morrison Road."When gentrification rears its ugly head, the whole neighborhood changes," says Ramirez-Mares. "There's a lot of old families [in Westwood] who are really proud of their neighborhood. They deserve to see the change and improvement . . . not people who are coming in from the outside. That's how progress happens."

Back at Kahlo's, owner Noë Bermudez stops by the table to greet López. A longtime resident of west Denver, Bermudez opened Tarasco's on Federal Boulevard in 2005 before opening Kahlo's on Morrison Road in early 2017.

"I want to be part of the change on Morrison Road," he says. "It's going to be a very cool neighborhood. . . . It's not about money. It's about being part of the change."

His restaurant's name is a nod to Frida Kahlo, says Bermudez, with a mural of activist Cesar Chavez. "Kahlo represents a little bit of Mexican culture, and Chavez was a fighter. She was a fighter, too," he says. "It's a good way to show who we are at this location."

Adds López: "It feels good to have a neighborhood now. It feels good to watch it grow. . . . Long story short, it's taken us 10 years of organizing, advocacy work, from concepts to renderings to community meetings. It's just good, old-fashioned community organizing."

He remembers the push to name Castro Elementary School in Westwood after late Denver activist Richard Castro in the 1990s.

"When we were able to have that win and say, 'One of our own has a school named after them,' that's a big deal to a kid who's 13 years old and has been called every racial epithet under the sun," he says. "I used to feel ashamed to be who I was. I felt like an outcast. To see that was a level of dignity I'd never realized as a kid."

It follows that López has other ideas for the street that transcend asphalt and concrete. "This one day will be Cesar Chavez Boulevard," he says. "We believe in the very same principles that he fought for: principles of social justice, principles of nonviolence."

"It's who we are. We are not a third party to American history, we are American history," López continues. "You have a whole neighborhood [Stapleton] named after a Klan leader. It's time for our part of history to be told."

He expects the project to transform Morrison Road into Mercado Lineal will take about 10 years, give or take. "In 20 years, I want folks to walk down Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Westwood with their heads held high, knowing how beautiful their culture is and somebody with their last name can have a street named after them."
Santiago Jaramillo at a mural-in-progress.


Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn except where otherwise noted.

Graphic design by Matt Megyesi.

This story is part of a series about Colorado's Certified Creative Districts. Support for this series is provided by Colorado Creative Industries.
Q&A: Santiago Jaramillo, co-founder of D3 Arts
Q&A: Santiago Jaramillo, co-founder of D3 Arts

Santiago Jaramillo is a prominent Westwood artist and a member of the board at BuCu West. He's the muralist behind numerous works of street art on Morrison Road and elsewhere in Denver, the co-founder of D3 Arts and one of the visionaries who has propelled the Westwood Creative District from concept to reality.

 

Confluence Denver: What's your background? How long have you been in Westwood?

 

Santiago Jaramillo: I was born and raised here. I'm actually the third generation of my family that's lived here. My grandfather came from Mexico and moved here in the '50s. I've been here my whole life.

 

My art, I'm self-taught. I started painting when I was about 12 and I started doing it professionally 10 to 15 years ago. I do cultural stuff, Aztec, Native American things, tattoo-style art, abstract murals. I make Aztec drums, too. We take a tree trunk and hollow it out.

 

CD: What was your original vision for D3 Arts? How has it evolved?

 

SJ: The old director of BuCu West, Anne Lane, and Mandy Medrano actually came up with the idea for a creative arts district. They knew I lived here and that I was an artist. Mandy approached me and said, 'We want to do some stuff on Morrison Road, maybe some classes.' That's when the discussion of doing something creative in Westwood started, because nothing like that had ever been done before.

 

Then it just grew. Then Jose [Esparza] came on with BuCu and we started making a bigger push. I had my tattoo shop and gallery down there off of Lowell, and we would do a lot of events. Part of it for me was to prove we could actually get something going here in Westwood.

 

CD: What do you think of the potential for the Westwood Creative District?

 

SJ: We're really positive about it. It gives us validity and something to work for. It's like, 'Hey, we got this, we better do something with it.' So it's both a push and a huge achievement for me and Jose and Crystal and Julie at BuCu West. It's exciting to have this opportunity.

 

CD: What's the Morrison Road off the future look like in your vision?

 

SJ: Obviously, a lot of galleries. We're really fighting to get a skate park. For me, that's one of the biggest influences of why I started getting into art, through skateboarding. Skateboarding has so much art involved with it, it's like a part of skateboarding.

 

We also want to keep it unique to Westwood, because Westwood is Mexican-American, so we want to have it be at once modern and traditional as well as really cultural. And not just Mexican culture, but have a lot of different cultures represented in Westwood. But hopefully, it'll be unique, not just to Denver, but everywhere.