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Art renaissance in Curtis Park

The former Temple Emanuel, BMH and Beth Joseph synagogue at 24th and Curtis Streets is in rough shape today, but Curtis Park activists hope to transform the landmark into a community center focusing on the performing arts.


Nestled in its urban corner in the shadows of downtown skyscrapers, Curtis Park is an old neighborhood whose Victorian homes and shady streets have seen much of the ebb and flow of Denver’s history.

When it was first developed, only a few years after Denver itself came into existence, Curtis Park was a fashionable upper-middle class neighborhood.

Many Jews came here in the early days, buying homes and erecting synagogues.

Still later, the area became a haven for Denver’s growing African American community, which left its own unique ethnic and cultural stamp on the neighborhood.

By the mid-20th century — like many aging inner city areas — Curtis Park had fallen considerably. Crime rates went up, property values went down and vacancy rates went up.

The area became home for people with low or fixed incomes, including many who were homeless. Buildings and homes grew neglected or were abandoned outright. The once prospering neighborhood had been reduced to a largely forgotten slum.

By the time the millennium rolled around, however, things started to change yet again.

Young, upwardly mobile types decided it was fun and funky to live in the inner city, close by the hustle and bustle and energy of downtown.

They began to live in once-lovely old homes in serious need of restoration, and to work in long disused commercial buildings that lacked modern conveniences but had character and atmosphere aplenty.

In their determined quest to “gentrify” old Curtis Park, these new residents drove the property values — and the rents — dramatically up. Many of the low income people who had lived there for decades suddenly found themselves priced out of their own neighborhood.

Some left for other parts of town.

Some found refuge in low income apartments, interspersed by city mandate amidst the high or middle income apartments and condos that began popping up once market values justified development.

Some remained homeless, finding whatever shelter they could within a dramatically changed environment.

This is basically where Curtis Park stands in 2013 — a neighborhood on the cusp of change, once an exclusive haunt of the have-nots, about to become a haven of the haves, but with many have-nots still around.

It’s not necessarily a comfortable reality for either party, and, on the surface at least, hardly a recipe for social harmony.

Enter a number of dedicated neighborhood activists with a different recipe for Curtis Park’s new reality — something called art.

The most visible arts institution in Curtis Park today is RedLine, a five-year-old nonprofit venture that aspires not only to help the neighborhood’s disadvantaged but to bring its diverse populations together by providing common ground inspired by art.

Founded in 2008 by Denver Jewish multimedia artist and philanthropist Laura Merage, RedLine doesn’t fit into the sophisticated and exclusive cliché of the typical art museum or gallery.

Its name RedLine refers to the red line that one might find on a measuring gauge or instrument — the red line beyond which one is advised to go no further. RedLine’s objective is to do precisely that: Go further.

In its literature, RedLine refers to itself as an “urban laboratory.”

“It was Laura Merage’s vision to create a space where art, education and community could converge,” says PJ D’Amico, RedLine’s executive director.

“It was her lived experience that artists, particularly emerging artists, didn’t have the studio space to really dedicate themselves to their vocation so she wanted to create a residency where emerging artists could take their work seriously.

“But also,” D’Amico adds, “to create a space where the public could engage in art in a way that was more accessible to everyone.”

RedLine is, in a physical sense, hard to define. It is a nexus of studios, galleries, workshops and educational programs.

It is ensconced in a cavernous former vacuum cleaner warehouse with 22,000 square feet of space, 6,000 of which is devoted to gallery use. There are more than 20 artists currently using studio space there, through its artists-in-residence program.

Its location at 24th and Arapahoe, in the heart of Curtis Park, is exactly where Merage wanted it to be, D’Amico says.

“She decided to put it in a community that is sort of at the fault lines of gentrification, where folks with wealth and folks who are not wealthy and in need could have access.

“The mission is to really be an intersection where art can be a creative catalyst for these conversations.”

The community in question actually bears multiple identities. Some call it by its traditional name of Curtis Park. Others refer to it more precisely as Arapahoe Square, or more generally as Five Points. Still others prefer to call it RiNo, after the River North Arts District in which it lies.

All of the names are OK by D’Amico.

“We’re sort of in a no-man’s land,” he says with a smile, “and we actually like that.”

As a “catalyst in the transformation of this neighborhood,” RedLine is acutely aware that a great deal of financial capital is being pumped into today’s Curtis Park.

“Our role is to be thoughtful in helping figure out how some of this capital can become cultural capital, where we can maintain space that serves the public good,” D’Amico says.

The challenge is not that the neighborhood’s low income residents are being physically forced out. Subsidized housing programs will help provide shelter for many of them, and D’Amico points out that Curtis Park has the highest rate of per capita affordable housing in Denver.

“The question is, are we going to basically fence them out of the neighborhood or are we going to create spaces they can come into?

“How do they integrate? How do we provide points of entry for them to participate in the public commons?”

D’Amico, with a background in non-profit community organizing efforts, is not an artist himself but lays claim to being a lover of art.

“Laura said, ‘We don’t want a typical art leader, we want somebody who appreciates art who can connect us to the people in the community,” D’Amico says

That community connection is central to RedLine’s reason for existence.

In addition to helping neighborhood artists — by providing affordable working space for those for whom art is their primary income — the organization reaches out to the community in multiple ways.

“We are physically contiguous with St. Francis Center, which is a day shelter for the homeless,” D’Amico says.

“We have a studio called Reach where homeless artists — we call them not-exactly-homeless artists, because nobody wants to be called homeless — are working here every day.”

Another program is Epic Arts, in partnership with nine Denver Public Schools, “where our professional artists take their practices into the classroom.

“They work alongside underserved schools that typically don’t have elaborate art programs to provide a creative outlet for the kids. They actually have exhibitions here in the space each year, where all of the families can come and showcase their children’s art.”

Another project is a young artists program, geared for youngsters two to five, to inculcate a love of the arts in the young by allowing them to work with accomplished adult artists.

RedLine artists also do frequent shows with students from area colleges and universities as well as the Denver School of the Arts.

“We do a lot of exhibitions that focus on key cultural issues,” D’Amico says.

“We just did an exhibition called ‘Not Exactly’ that took on the issues of homelessness. The whole space was dedicated for two months to serving as a forum.

“The year before that we did an exhibition called ‘Off The Beaten Path: Art, Women and Violence’ that focused on domestic violence.”

Merage, D’Amico and the RedLine board all have a say in the organization’s creative directions; its artists are also expected to help chart the course.

“Our reservoir of talent is the artists themselves,” D’Amico says. “We have 21 artists who have their studios here. I describe it as the sweat equity model, where they’re expected to give back, about 10 hours a month, in service to help us, in whatever form that is.”

Many of RedLine’s efforts go beyond its own studios, galleries and programs.

Since it sees itself as being an integral component of, and not just an organization within, its neighborhood, it takes its role as catalyst very seriously.

It helped transform a block formerly occupied by public housing structures into an “experimental farm” that is maintained not only by experienced urban farmers but by low income youth from the neighborhood and some of RedLine’s own artists.

Dubbed Sustainability Park and located only a block away from RedLine’s facility, the urban farm is a green oasis that fits in well with the organization’s vision of a healthier, more involved and interactive community.

It is communicating with the national organization ArtSpace to study the feasibility of providing affordable subsidized housing for artists in the Curtis Park area.

It also works closely with Wonderbound, a dance company formerly known as Ballet Nouveau, which moved into a building next to RedLine’s. They share the dancers’ view of integrating art into the communal fabric.

Another project, in which RedLine will likely be “a partner but not a principal driver,” may be the restoration of one of Curtis Park’s most visible landmarks, the once opulent but now derelict Temple Emanuel-BMH-Beth Joseph building at 24th and Curtis, just a block away from its own headquarters.

Built in 1882, when the area was a thriving Jewish district in Denver, the Moorish-Romanesque structure housed the three congregations at different periods, before becoming Golden Bell Press then a nightclub and various other things, before being vacated in the 1990s.

Although various development ideas for the building have come and gone, and although renovation costs are likely to be considerable, a “coalition of businesspeople who are interested in restoration” is close to finalizing the purchase of the structure from its longtime owner, Eugene Tepper, according to Denver real estate broker Patterson Benaro.

“It would be with an eye toward preserving the building,” says Benaro, who defines her role as acting a liaison between Tepper and the community.

She says the potential buyers are interested in turning the old synagogue into an arts and community center concentrating on the performing arts.

The building’s second floor former sanctuary space would make an excellent music and dance auditorium, Benaro adds.

Speaking recently to the IJN, owner Tepper acknowledged that he’d like to see the building become something that contributes to Curtis Park’s cultural renaissance, as opposed to offices or condos. “I’m willing to talk,” Tepper says. “I have several people who have expressed interest in it, and I’m practically giving it away.”

Tepper says he is offering the building, as is, for $250,000 and has turned down offers for considerably more from developers interested in commercial projects.

RedLine, which feels a natural affinity for another Curtis Park entity devoted to the arts, “has been integral in trying to work with the stakeholders to secure it and sustain it,” D’Amico says.

“It is our hope that it can also be a community asset. Our vision would be for it to be an arts complex as well, probably performance-based.”

Will it actually happen? Benaro is asked.

“At this moment, in real estatese, there is a sale pending,” she replies. “It sounds hopeful.”

Everything that RedLine does seems predicated on the belief that art is valuable not only for its aesthetic quality but for its transformative power.

“It’s how you view art,” D’Amico says. “I think art basically is a conceptual framework. You are what you see. The way that art becomes a change agent is that if you can conceptually render a new world, a new visual, then you can create conditions where that world is possible.”

D’Amico illustrates by explaining RedLine’s motivation in supporting the urban farm at Sustainability Park.

“We have youngsters in this neighborhood who are being raised on junk food,” he says. “So what you do is grow broccoli and cauliflower. You curate that young person’s interaction with that food and create an aesthetic relationship where all of a sudden it’s acceptable. ‘I can grow food and consume it in a different way.’”

While agriculture is seldom regarded as art, the dynamic that exists between the creation of a farm and the realization of its harvest is much the same as that between the creation of art and the epiphany that can result from that process.

Creating art — painting, sculpture, photography, whatever — requires ideas, and ideas can give birth to practical action.

“What you do is create ideas that invite people into seeing their world in a very new way,” D’Amico says, “especially for people who are not conspicuous consumers of art.

“Most people see art as decoration. You’re giving an opportunity for folks to change the way they see the world through their exposure to art.”

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor | ijnews@aol.com

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