Reinventing "Steel City" in Pueblo

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Photo by Mel Aman.

On the Arkansas River in southern Colorado, Pueblo's innovative and imaginative blueprint for a creative economy is reaping early rewards.

What does change in a city feel like -- in the early stages, when the potential is still mostly latent but coming into bloom?

That's the question of the moment in Pueblo, a former steel-mill town 110 miles south of Denver where the past is on constant display: Remnants of a mostly gone industry dot the downtown landscape like large-scale salvage art -- the foundations and rusty spires of old blast furnaces from abandoned plants.

But this city of 108,000 displays signs of new life, too. The Robert Rawlings Public Library, designed by Antoine Predock of Albuquerque, is an architectural marvel and a community pillar. The vibrant Riverwalk on the Arkansas River, with bike and walking paths, lots of green space and an amphitheater, has spawned a lively shopping and entertainment district on Union Avenue. On Santa Fe Avenue, the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center, built in 1972, is programmed with exhibits, performances and classes year-round.

Increasingly, the presence of creative forces -- and the fruits of a growing community of connected artists, musicians, designers, performers and entrepreneurs who live, work and create in Pueblo -- is impossible to ignore.

In 2014, the Pueblo Creative Corridor -- which runs contiguously along Union Avenue, Main Street and into the Mesa Junction neighborhood -- was designated a Colorado Certified Creative District, placing it among the second round of municipalities to be so named by Colorado Creative Industries (CCI). It's a happening place. On Central Plaza, huge cement Tiki heads double as plant holders. Stencil arts pop up on utility boxes, street medians. The Pueblo ARTery Alleyway Walking Tour, a trail of street art and murals, snakes through the city center, displaying works both whimsical and grand.

Like the other creative districts in the state, Pueblo is seen as a place where arts, culture and creative businesses provide intangible benefits like civic pride, a sense of place and a unique cultural identity. They also provide jobs and a meaningful boost to the local economy, which Pueblo needs. A full 30 creative businesses opened in the district the first full year following certification.

Folklorico connects Pueblo to its cultural heritage. Photo by Susan Fries.

"Traditionally and historically, the Pueblo economy was based on one manufacturer, the steel mill," says Susan Fries, executive director of the Pueblo Arts Alliance, a nonprofit organization that connects members to the city, local business and each other. "It's always a struggle to find the transition to something new in the economy. You have to find the right balance -- something that keeps our young adults invested. The creative industries have been identified as that tool. They're much more diversified, they're interesting and they're sexy."

Fries works with the City of Pueblo and the local urban renewal authority to keep the arts at the center of conversations about development and investment. Since the Alliance was formed 11 years ago, it's been an easy sell. "The business community, those folks are on board," she says.

CCI certification helped stabilize finances and generate "community buy-in," Fries adds. She says that earnings from creative industry businesses grew by more than a $8 million between 2012 and 2014, to more than $52 million. In 2014, the sector represented 2,574 jobs. "Our organization is always at the table. We're never an afterthought, because we can show that the creative industries increase both jobs and population in this area."

Creative infrastructure

Pueblo has a lot of things that creative types like. Its neighborhoods bear distinct cultural markings, many of which have been in place since waves of Italian and Eastern European immigrants made their way west for factory jobs in the early 1900s. The Latino influence is strong, (and so is the inventory of tasty taquerias and green chile joints). There are beautiful historic buildings and a quaint downtown, with a main street, a train depot, lampposts, architecturally interesting storefronts. Rarest of all in a rapidly expensive regional housing market, there are affordable places to live. Kiplinger recently named Pueblo the second most inexpensive city in the United States.

In 2015, after years of planning, fundraising and searching for the right location and deal, the Pueblo Arts Alliance opened Arts Alliance Studios, with working, gallery and retail space on Grand Avenue. Its 17 studios are all designed to be affordable, with common areas for collaboration. Fries' vision, which was informed by a needs assessment conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, was to attract both makers and buyers of art.

"One of the concerns of the Creative Districts is to consciously provide affordable space, in order to retain people who will work and remain active in the district," she says. "We've been working on this project for six years, knowing that we needed an anchor for creatives. No one in Pueblo is able to fill a building like this. We've had realtors knock at our door, asking, 'What's your magic formula?' It's years of hard work, having a great network, and understanding what the community needs."

Arts Alliance Studios has emerged as a hub for Pueblo's arts community. Photo by Mel Aman.

The Creative Districts certification was a key to opening Arts Alliance Studios, Fries adds. "We used the technical support for the planning of this building," she explains.

The building is now 95 percent occupied by 40 working artists and has become the hub of an arts scene that can be felt across the city, especially downtown. Every First Friday, when the Creative Corridor becomes an open air art festival, the building is abuzz with open studio shows, performances and live artmaking.

"The kind of actual material changes that the Alliance and Susan [Fries] have made, like finding studio space, have been been huge in centering the art community," says Anne Scott, a, Pueblo native and a multimedia artist who works out of one of the facility's studios. "It's given me different thoughts on collaboration and how to work with different people. I've had the chance to collaborate with a screenprinter, people who work with leather. I've found people I would never have known existed."

As hoped, the arts scene in Pueblo is attracting new people -- like Cristine Boyd, a well-known ceramic artist who moved from Denver in 2016 and now operates a studio and gallery in the Alliance building, drawn by the inexpensive rent and overall ease of life in Pueblo. The husband-and-wife team behind Formulary 55, a small-batch organic bath and body line, moved their base from Seattle to Pueblo in 2014.

Ripe for opportunities

Daniel Levinson was born in Durango and lived in Denver and New York before moving to Pueblo in late 2015. In Denver, Levinson was involved with the nascent gallery scene in RiNo, including the Wazee Union collective on upper Larimer Street. In New York, he lived in Brooklyn and earned a MFA from Pratt Institute. He and his wife moved back to be closer to his wife's ailing parent; they're staying for the high quality of life and opportunities in the cultural scene.

"It's sort of the classic big fish, little pond scenario," says Levinson, a painter and visual artist who serves as the part-time associate director of the Pueblo Arts Alliance. "I feel like my ability to have a presence and an influence is so much greater in Pueblo than it was in New York, or even Denver. Pueblo is ripe for opportunities. There's not as much bureaucracy or barriers. Here, I can talk to members of city council by walking right into their office. From a creative point of view, that's exciting, because it makes it possible to do all sorts of projects."

Pueblo artist Daniel Levinson sees Pueblo as a place where artists have a voice.

Locals say there's more to do and more to be a part of in Pueblo these days -- and more of a sense of ownership. Street murals are less likely to be tagged or messed with. Art is showing up all over the place, not just in galleries or museums, but on the walls of cafes, restaurants and city buildings.

"Maybe it's because I'm now an adult, but it feels like Pueblo is standing up for itself a little more, starting to want to get rid of the stigma that it has had in the past, that it's not worth anything," says Anne Scott. "I see Pueblo finding its voice, and people here wanting to take some pride in it. At least, that's the kind of community that I've seen here in the arts.

"The right group of people are here having effects on each other," she adds. "It's been interesting to see over the past few years how people are learning how to be neighbors with art, and how it's getting them to start thinking and talking about about how we address some of our problems in our city. The arts are helping to bring happiness and interest to the community."

Many old redbricks in the Pueblo Creative Corridor are seeing new life. Photo by Mel Aman.

Photos by Mel Aman and Susan Fries of the Pueblo Arts Alliance.

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.
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Q&A with Cynthia Ramu, Pueblo Levee Mural Project
Q&A with Cynthia Ramu, Pueblo Levee Mural Project
More than 25 years after she first got involved with the Pueblo Levee Mural Project, as a young painter and recent graduate of the Arts Institute of Denver, Cynthia Ramu is the unofficial "mom" of the mural, which now covers more than 2.8 miles of concrete on either side of the Arkansas River and holds a Guinness record as the world's largest outdoor gallery.  

A full-time, public-school art teacher, Ramu has helped hundreds of artists create more than 36 murals on the levee, many of them more than 100 feet tall. Now, bit by bit, slab by slab, the murals are being dismantled and removed as engineers upgrade the levee system and the Riverwalk. The lower half of those that remain are submerged beneath a rising water line. Ramu is leading a community effort to preserve, and remember, Pueblo's most famous work of public art.

Confluence Denver: Was the Pueblo Levee Mural a conscious effort, or did it just grow into this massive project?

Cynthia Ramu: The whole reason it started was to give a voice to the artists. The walls were getting tagged anyway. There were bunch of college kids from the university, called the Tee Hee group. They painted a fish on a wall at two in the morning, got hassled by the cops. Before long, somebody put a tub around the fish, and it grew from there. Around 1978, a visiting artist named Dave Roberts figured out how to make it more of an official thing, how to get permits. The state had just started a paint recycling program, and Dave was good at getting paint donated. He'd bring all the paint from Southern Colorado every Cinco de Mayo and have a big paintathon with the community. It was a big party.

CD: What does the levee mural mean to Pueblo?

CR: It's the heart of Pueblo. People have come from all over the world to look at the murals. It's been international, global. It's the self-expression over the past 30-something years, a giant piece of art that has evolved over time. It's been a way for people to be part of the river. Without the river, there would be no Pueblo. Of all the things I thought would happen, this was not one of them.

CD: Has it been mainly the work of "artists," or has it been everyone?

CR: It's been everyone. People who painted because they wanted to memorialize someone to someone else wanting to share an idea of a vision. It inspired Pueblo to be more creative, and it's been a vehicle to celebrate arts in Pueblo. There's been a lot of collaboration. Very few of the paintings are the work of just one person.

CD: Did you have a passion for large-scale public art when you first got involved?

CR: I had never seen anything like it. I was afraid of heights, actually, terrified of them. I'm not even five feet tall. When I first saw the images, I was like, 'Wow. That's crazy.' But when I went out there and realized the scale, it was just such a challenge. I wanted to create structures and illusions on the walls. It was an open invitation to create, and I kept stumbling across people who wanted to paint out there.

CD: Do you feel like you're racing against time, trying to preserve the mural?

CR: The mural is coming down in phases but, over time, it will all be removed. I was very lucky that a lot of the early documentation of what the wall looked like was passed on to me. Right now, my first priority is preservation. Once it's gone, it's gone. Unfortunately, it was not deemed a historical landmark. In hindsight, it probably could have been. The best thing to do now is try to save it piece by piece.

CD: Are you optimistic some of the murals will be saved?

CR: We have a slab we're trying to save. The contractors cut it out over an eight-hour period; it must have cost a fortune. They were out there with diamond blades cutting through rebar and 10 inches of concrete. It weighed 10 tons. It really said a lot to the community that they were willing to attempt it. It also said, if this works out, maybe some other pieces could be saved.

CD: Do you think there will be another project like this one?

CR: Time is moving forward and coming at us. We want to be a part of creating a path for the future, for making things better. I've had a lot of people who have asked me to shut up and move over, but there has to be a voice for the artists in the future. There are a lot of muralists in Pueblo now doing buildings and other public stuff. They need to be part of what happens with that wall in the future. I own a house right across the levee, look at it every day. I bring people to that river every day.