Welcome to the Northside: New Web Series Tackles Gentrification in Denver

A new video series from poet Bobby LeFebre and filmmakers Alan Dominguez and Manuel Aragon aims to start a conversation about change in north Denver.
What do you do when your city is changing, fast, in ways that threaten your culture, your personal history, your sense of place?

For three creative friends born and bred in north Denver, where the past is scraped and flipped daily, the answer is: You make art that provokes and challenges as it entertains. And then you put it on YouTube.

Welcome to the Northside is a new web series from Bobby LeFebre, a Denver poet, social worker and playwright, and filmmakers Manuel Aragon and Alan Dominguez, all Latino artists who call north Denver home. The series, which premieres this weekend, is an often comic, sometimes tragic, response to a moment of rabid development and gentrification in one of Denver's oldest neighborhoods.

"The conversation [about gentrification] in this city is getting trite, it's getting cliche, and it can turn that way quickly when you don't have solutions. A lot of people feel very helpless," says LeFebre. "We're really trying to capture that conflict in a funny way. This art is one way to introduce it to people in a way that is a little different than just ranting in the street."

Rooted in realityA new video series from poet Bobby LeFebre and filmmakers Alan Dominguez and Manuel Aragon aims to start a conversation about growth and change in north Denver.

Welcome to the Northside stars LeFebre as Mikey Gonzales, a fourth-generation homeowner who's by turns baffled and semi-amused by the newcomers to the neighborhood. They're the occupants of the boxy, million-dollar condos that tower where historic single-family homes once stood, the customers at pricey restaurants that open as taquerias close. They're the transplants, and Mikey is their begrudging guide, a one-man welcome committee who isn't all that excited that they're there.

The new neighbors are equally baffled by Mikey, even as they try to befriend and impress him. In an early episode, Tim, relocated from the Bay Area to work in tech, listens excitedly as Mikey recounts a wild tale of a crossfire gang activity; Tim seems disappointed to discover that Mikey made it all up, just to mess with him. Tim is also disappointed to learn that Mikey would rather not join him at the local kombucha cafe; he's content to work on his Chevy Nova in the garage.

At three to ten minutes long, episodes of Welcome to the Northside are quick fictions: funny, sharp bursts, rooted in real life. Over the past decade, LeFebre, Aragon and Dominguez have seen families leave, businesses shutter and costs rise in one of Denver's oldest neighborhoods, once among its most diverse. The Northside that Mikey wanders, stunned and often pissed off, is a slightly exaggerated version of the real thing, where the Latino population has declined by nearly 40 percent over the past decade as housing costs have risen.

"I teach film production, and when I talk to my students, I'm amazed by how much it happens," says Dominguez. "Twice a week, there's something in the mail, or someone at the door talking about real estate: 'Did you know a house two blocks away sold for this much? Would you like to sell your home too?'

"This neighborhood used to represent the American dream," he continues. "You had families who could afford to come in, establish themselves, make a living. Now, due to forces beyond their control, they face very difficult decisions. Do they sell their house and try to find something somewhere further away? Do they just drive further to work every day from Thornton or somewhere?"

Welcome to the Northside grew out of a play LeFebre created. Around the same time, Aragon -- who had known LeFebre since their days as students at Horace Mann Middle School -- had begun mapping a documentary about gentrification with Dominguez.

"The town's not exactly filled with Latino filmmakers," Aragon says. "Alan and I would see each other around, at festivals. We started talking about the documentary, and what it could look like. It's kind of cool the way it evolved from this nascent phase into this next chapter."

As they wrote season one of Welcome to the Northside, ideas often came from simple observations as elements of culture gave way to such totems of "New Denver" as artisanal micro-markets, "taco" trucks, urban farming, tiny houses.

"Now, lots of people have chicken coops in their backyard, but when my dad thought of it, he was uncivilized, it was dirty, it was because of his 'background,'" says Dominguez. "But now it's kitschy. It's not dirty: It's cute."

"Whenever we see something funny or ridiculous, we're always just a text away," says Aragon. "We want to poke fun at what's really happening. So many of our random conversations come from things we see on Nextdoor" -- the online neighborhood bulletin board where people post yard sales, odd jobs as well as concerns. "There are so many posts: There's a male of color, a suspicious guy in the area. An older vehicle. Something that doesn't look right."

Activist art

LeFebre is one of the north Denver's most vocal culture warriors. He runs We Are North Denver, an active social media group, to advocate for neighbors and call out the often blatant racism that accompanies the area's growth.

"This work is kind of defining me in this moment, which is kind of cool but kind of annoying," LeFebre says. "People see me as that gentrification guy. I'm that guy. I'm becoming this authority on the topic. There are people who think I'm not doing enough, others who think I'm a villain. I get calls, like, 'They're knocking down a building! Why aren't you there?' And my response is, I'm an artist, I do a lot of things; this is is my way to have the conversation.

"The conversation includes people who are coming in with no historical context for this neighborhood," he adds. "I have sympathy for those people but, at the same time, they should have to assimilate. You should care."

Shot in north Denver with an all-local crew, Welcome to the Northside is produced by people of color, for whom opportunities in the Colorado film scene are limited. The imagined viewer, too, is a person of color: Latinos and African Americans are the first to be displaced as neighborhoods gentrify. Welcome to the Northside is made with this audience in mind.

"Boyle Heights in L.A., the Mission in San Francisco, it's happening all over the country in Latino and African-American neighborhoods," says Aragon. "When we think of who this show is for, we think of all of us who are struggling and grappling with change in a weirder way than the previous generation did.

"There's this idea of never going home," he continues, "but not because you left or changed. Because your home is no longer there."

"Our primary audience is people who can relate to what that history has been like, people in the neighborhood who have that experience directly," LeFebre adds. "We want to make them feel like there's a place to call home, even it's online. We want people who are lost to feel like they are home again, even it's just for three to five minutes."

The pilot episode of Welcome to the Northside will debut Sun. Sept. 26 at 5:30 pm at Sie FilmCenter, after a screening of Dominguez' full-length documentary, Clever. The full season will be released online in early 2017.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
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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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