IdeaLab Report: Firing Up the Community, Finding Ways to Protect Cultural Identity as Denver Evolves

IdeaLab was meant to generate ideas for a new community center in Westwood, but it was also a chance for a neighborhood to remind itself who it is and how it might shape its future.
One thing is clear about Denver’s Westwood neighborhood, it won’t lose its identity without a fight. And that was obvious at IdeaLab: Westwood, a community gathering and planning session held April 17.

IdeaLab was meant to help its host, Rise:Westwood, come up with ideas about how to transform its building into a community center for the area and how art can be used to move the neighborhood forward.

But, for context, the event got off to a rousing start with speakers talking about how the area is rapidly gentrifying, and pledging to take a stand so that the evolution won’t make it unaffordable or displace current residents, more than 80 percent of them Latino, who now call it home.

At IdeaLab, eight groups came up with suggestion on how to transform Rise:Westwood into an art-filled community center. All photos by Ray Mark Rinaldi

If the present population doesn’t manage the ongoing changes, “Westwood won’t be Westwood 10 or 15 years from now,” said Eric Kornacki, director of impact for  Re:Vision, the nonprofit, community develop organization working to empower local residents.

Part of the solution is to represent the neighborhood’s present identity thorough public art and to nourish the artists already in its midst. Westwood has challenges — creating better sidewalks and parks, making sure healthy food gets to families who don’t live near a major grocery store, fighting one of Denver’s highest poverty rates — and some of them are being addressed, at least partially. The city has pledged more than $12 million in infrastructure upgrades and local organizations are pushing through building projects, big and small, meant to bring quality housing and recreation to the area. Private investors, who see a diamond in the rough, are turning the old junkyards along Morrison Road, the main corridor, into contemporary, commercial enterprises.

But if residents don’t assert their cultural identity at the same time, local leaders feel it could lose the things that make it unique.

Santiago Jaramillo, who has created numerous murals in Westwood, was a featured speaker.

Denver City Councilman Paul López, who addressed IdeaLab, believes part of the answer to that comes through the murals going up along the main roads, many full of imagery that references Latino heritage. He’s working on an effort to rename Morrison Road in honor of civil rights activist Cesar Chavez and envisions a thoroughfare where art and commerce mix.

“When you go up and down Cesar chavez and you see this art,” he said, visualizing the future. “It tells the story of this neighborhood.”

What should a community center look like? Groups suggested everything from public plazas to shared kitchens.

The goal isn’t “placemaking” — a buzz word in urban development circles that implies creating spaces that help physically center a community around common concerns and needs — as much as it might be “placekeeping,” according to local poet and activist Bobby LeFebre, who spoke at the event. He laid out facts and figures demonstrating how another neighborhood with a significant Latino population, North Denver, had changed over the last 20 years, resulting in fewer minority residents and exorbitant housing prices.

The takeaway is that Westwood, still early in the gentrification process, could do better job. “The people living there need to be the ones that benefit from any change,” he said.

One good example of using art as a catalyst for neighborhood awareness came from guest speaker Amelia Duran, an organizer at Garage Cultural, located in Detroit, one of the nation’s most disadvantaged cities. Garage Cultural has used public art projects to unite local voices and then harnessed their energy to create strategies for economic development.

“Creating public art was really important for us because we didn’t have a lot of things that were aesthetically pleasing,” said Duran.“ We viewed this work as necessary because people needed something to be proud of.”

Necessary work is already being done in Westwood and it will get a boost, thanks to a $350,000 grant recently awarded by  ArtPlace America to Re:Vision to develop its Rise:Westwood building into an arts center, maker space and outdoor plaza.

Poet and activist Bobby LeFebre told the crowd "placemaking" should be changed to "placekeeping.".

What will that look like exactly? And how should Re:Vision shape the building to reflect the particular needs of Westwood? Attendees at IdealLab were asked to make suggestions breaking up into eight groups, each huddled around a table and outfitted with glue, poster paper, and other crafty odds and ends.

The brainstormed ideas, refined them, modeled them, bounced them off one another and then presented them for the entire crowd.

The groups suggested everything from community gardens to play areas for children, libraries, technology stations, and marketplaces where local vendors could sell goods to their neighbors.

One group suggested incorporating a plaza to celebrate occasions such as Cinco de Mayo.  Another suggested creating a center that emanates out to the surrounding streets by hosting monthly pop-ups events at nearby locations, emphasizing the “resources of community members and the expertise of individuals,” as group spokesperson Chandi Aldena put it.

Another group suggested organizing the center around an interpretation of a Native American medicine wheel focusing on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness.

Yet another envisioned the center as a “multigenerational facility centered around cooking and recipes,” as its spokesperson Rob Lovell put it, so that people could share food and culture and pass recipes to one another and their children, the next generation Westwood inhabitants.

And every group included art of some kind — studios for artists, stages for mariachis and dancers, and walls with rotating murals. There was plenty for Re:Vision to consider.

Guest speaker Amelia Duran, an organizer at Garage Cultura in Detroit, said her organization succeeded by energizing the community through public art projects. "We viewed this work as necessary because people needed something to be proud of."

There was also a sense among the groups who labored hard, vetted each other honestly, and presented with verve that the task at hand was important, more than an empty exercise in creating a rec center or a playground. All of the ideas were tied together by an effort to reflect the real, and current, identity of Westwood and the things that could keep it vibrant, no matter how much the city, and their own streets, change.

“This is about resistance,” Korncki reminded the crowd. “This is about survival for the neighborhood.“

IdeaLab was organized by Confluence Denver, Creative Exchange and Re:Vision, and is financially supported by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.
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