In Westwood, Staking a Claim for Identity Through Art. Can It Survive the Changes to Come?

Looking to balance history and culture with development, leaders in Denver's Westwood neighborhood have given artists a seat at the decision-making table.

On the distinctively urban diagonal Morrison Road, the pieces for Mercado Lineal are coming into place.


Quite a bit happened in the surrounding Westwood neighborhood in 2017. The November passage of Denver's latest General Obligation Bond included funding for the reconstruction of Morrison Road. Earlier in the year, Colorado Creative Industries certified the Westwood Creative District. And ArtPlace America awarded a $350,000 grant to Re:Vision International to develop an arts center, makerspace and outdoor plaza at its RISE Westwood complex.


Along the way, Westwood's artists have helped shape the vision that's now becoming reality. And that's by design.


"What we're trying to do is put artists in decision-making positions," says Jose Esparza, executive director of BuCu West, a Westwood economic development nonprofit.

ArtPlace America awarded a $350,000 grant to Re:Vision International to develop an arts center, makerspace and outdoor plaza at its RISE Westwood complex.


Case in point: A third-generation resident of Westwood, artist Santiago Jaramillo has served on the board of BuCu West for the last five years, and helped with the push for certification of the creative district and the ArtPlace grant. He also serves on the board of D3 Arts. Between all of his different hats, he attends several meetings every month.


Jaramillo is now developing a plan for public art at Re:Vision's plaza, with Aztec-inspired sculptures and murals he's completing through the summer of 2018.


He says his focus is on "how to keep Westwood Westwood." And that means art that emphasizes the neighborhood's diversity and Mexican, Vietnamese and African traditions at the plaza.

When Re:Vision acquired the 1.7-acre property in 2014, the plan was to open the Westwood Food Cooperative. The idea for the art center at RISE Westwood came about after Jaramillo started hosting events in one of the old warehouses at the former junkyard.


"Santiago is one of the main drivers for this project." says Eric Kornacki, Re:Vision's co-founder and director of impact. After an especially popular event celebrating iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, "We said, 'There's something there.'"


Opening the cooperative was taking longer than planned, so Kornacki "started putting feelers out to the community," he says. "There are no studios and galleries in Westwood. We realized this needed to be a focal point for this project."


A vision emerged: Convert the warehouse into an art center with five studios, a gallery, and a makerspace, and create a vibrant public plaza outdoors. The ArtPlace grant covers about a third of the $1 million budget, and Re:Vision is looking to raise the remaining $650,000 from local philanthropic donors. The target for groundbreaking is July 2018, and Kornacki says he hopes the project will be complete in early 2019.

BuCu West's Crystal O'Brien and Jose Esparza work to keep artists at the center of a changing neighborhood. All photos by Kara Pearson.


"If you look at the history of Westwood, it's kind of been a community without a voice," Kornacki notes. "There's been a lot of disinvestment. In the last 10 years, the neighborhood is starting to find its voice, and art is an important part of how the community can express itself."


Westwood "is the heart of Denver's Latino community and we want to keep it that way," says Kornacki. In that regard, Jaramillo's impact has been "incalculable," he adds. "He gives so much authenticity to what's taking place. He really has roots in Mesoamerican, Aztec and Mayan culture. His art has this historical context that a lot of people might have lost. That really grounds people about who they are and creates pride."

Jaramillo says he aims to "plant the seed" for the next generation of Westwood artists through his involvement in BuCu West and D3 Arts. He credits Crystal O'Brien, formerly of CHAC Gallery in Denver's Art District on Santa Fe and art development coordinator with BuCu West since 2017.


"Crystal did encourage me a lot when I first started showing at galleries," says Jaramillo. "I'm hoping I can be that for younger artists."


Another goal: "I'm trying to get the word out," says Jaramillo. "There's not a lot of artists in Westwood. There's a few. There are more artists that are from Westwood."

There are plans to transform Morrison Road into a community-centered Mercado Lineal. All photos by Kara Pearson.


Fertile ground


"We're still at the point where it's affordable to be here and work," says Esparza. "Artists are typically the ones who make an area cool and make an area interesting."


Esparza notes that BuCu West's push for murals began as an anti-graffiti initiative a decade ago, but it also helped local artists. "We were able to provide them with income," he says. Seven muralists recently completed works in the Westwood Creative District with funding from The Trust for Public Land, Denver Urban Arts Fund and BuCu West as part of the 2017 Westwood Chile Fest.

From there, neighborhood leaders have kept the arts front and center in Westwood. BuCu West officials made sure artists were being heard as part of the public outreach for the Mercado Lineal concept, which will turn the main street into a commercial strip and community-interaction space. "We constantly work with artists so we were able to get artists to our public meetings," says Esparza.


The dialogue fostered a design with public plazas for pop-up art galleries and events. "Creating public spaces gives us the ability to do some things that are unique to this neighborhood," says Esparza.


Artists bring a different perspective than planners and architects. "We look at surfaces differently," says Jaramillo. "We see the word through the different lens."


Part of that lens is about the logistics of creating art, adds Jaramillo, noting, "It really does take time." He prefers "quality over quantity," and paying artists more for their work on murals and other public art.

Artist Santiago Jaramillo and his work in Westwood helped to inspire a new vision for Re:Vision International's RISE Westwood complex.


Is there a model for the Westwood of the future? "We're hyper-aware of other art districts and art going up around the country, and what it means for economic development," answers Esparza. That doesn't mean he's looking to Austin or Los Angeles for ideas.


Rather, he says it's all about Westwood: "Support what's coming from the community and see where that takes us."


BuCu West's O'Brien says Westwood has a golden opportunity to attract a new generation of artists looking for affordable spaces. Same goes for aspiring gallerists. "We've worked with property owners," she says. "We ask, 'Have you considered bringing in a gallery or an arts studio?' That's where our niche is going to be: filling that need."


O'Brien sees lack of galleries as something of a Denver-wide problem, but she says it's especially severe in Westwood: Currently, there are no galleries on Morrison Road. Five years ago, Jaramillo had established one in Black Vulture Tattoo & Art Gallery, but he sold it in 2014 and the new owners subsequently moved it to a space off Federal Boulevard.


Events at the old Black Vulture location on Morrison Road brought a lot of energy to Westwood, says O'Brien. "I'm hoping we bring that back," she says. "It's going to take one person to say, 'I'm going to put a gallery here,' and it's going to start the momentum. We've done a lot, but we've got to move this train forward."


The question is not if, but when the proverbial train will arrive. "We all feel it," says O'Brien. "There's excitement brewing and things are happening. But I say it's happening so slow. They say, 'It's not -- it's happening so fast.’"


Conversation catalyst


BuCu West has opened its conference room to rotating exhibitions, starting with large works by Denver's Daniel Luna that are a critique of technology and its impact on modern life. "That's really about what art's about," says O'Brien. "It's about making an impact. It's started a lot of conversations."

As the neighborhood of Westwood has bloomed, so has its public art. All photos by Kara Pearson.


Echoes Esparza: "Just by having art, it's a catalyst for dialogue." He points to Carlos Fresquez's sculpture, "Un Corrido Para La Gente" ("A Song For The People"), at Morrison Road and Sheridan Boulevard. "It became the one piece that moved us in that direction. You learn a lot and you adapt, and you get the conversation started."


Tony Diego, a Wheat Ridge-based artist and educator, has been involved in several projects in Westwood for the last three years. Jaramillo recruited him to help with murals, and he's since worked with local youth to design a logo for the 2016 Westwood Chile Fest.


"The city is putting a lot more emphasis and funding into art projects, which is giving artists a voice," says Diego. That in itself, "will keep [Westwood] from getting sterile," he notes. "There are these new, shiny buildings going up. It's changing."


Art can provide a constant amid all of the change, says Diego. "Not only is it something we can relate to, but it's something they can be involved in. It's a connection to the community."


With Westwood being one of Denver's youngest neighborhoods, arts education is another connection. "There are quite a few [young artists]," says Diego. "There are some kids that are just there for the activity, but there are others that can move it forward a step or two."


Rachel Basye, executive director of the Art Students League of Denver, has been organizing arts workshops and classes at La Casita and other locations in Westwood. She says giving artists opportunities to teach and create public art will help maintain the neighborhood's culture. "We have put a strong stake in the ground that artists need to be paid for what they do," she explains.

Basye points to the IMAGINE 2020 plan as evidence of Denver's commitment to integrating arts into the planning process. "It's the city's commitment to making art accessible and ensuring there are seats for artists at the table," she says.


It's not exactly a new idea. Municipal planners started integrating public art and other creative concepts into their work in the late 1800s. The City Beautiful movement reflected the inclusion of artistic ideas and perspectives in modern city planning around the turn of the 20th century. A century later, it's just as important as ever.

Public art help Westwood understand its own identity. All photos by Kara Pearson.


But it's not all about colorful murals on Morrison Road. Basye says "private art -- seeing artists work" is just as important as public art.


And developing and maintaining an adequate stock of affordable housing is critical to preventing involuntary displacement in Westwood. "There are a lot of residents who have been there for generations," says Basye. "How can we ensure those residents benefit from what is happening there?"


She adds, "With all of the development activity in Westwood, it's just critical to have the community members talk about and recognize what they would like in the community, versus being told what their community needs."


Join the conversation on Westwood at IdeaLab on April 17!


Are you an engaged community member, artist, social entrepreneur or organizer? Do you love the Westwood neighborhood? Join us at RISE Westwood on April 17 for IdeaLab 2018. This is an opportunity to hear from exciting local and national organizers for a conversation about how art can be a catalyst for placemaking, connect to neighbors, and break out into groups for rapid prototyping to develop ideas on how art can be used as a grassroots strategy in Westwood to combat gentrification. IdeaLab is free and open to the public, and conducted in English and Spanish.
IdeaLab is organized by Confluence-Denver and Creative Exchange in partnership Re:Vision, and made possible through the generous support of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

To register, click here.


This story is part of a series sponsored by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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