Denver activist aims to spark black cultural renaissance

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DENVER (AP) – Longtime Denver artist, musician and activist Jeff Campbell wants to spark a black cultural renaissance in his old neighborhood: Five Points.

Is it still possible?

Take a walk down Welton Street. The neighborhood was once the heart of “Black Denver” and historically nicknamed “the Harlem of the West”. Much like Harlem, Five Points has been the scene of massive development, and many alumni – unable to keep up with and raise property taxes and rent increases – have been walking away for decades.

Of course, there’s a lot of booming nostalgia from the city’s brass bands about the touring jazz culture that once took hold there. These sugar-coated tributes too often overlook the fact that the culture grew out of Denver’s long legacy of racism and segregation. The story is brutal: White-only downtown hotels refused to allow legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to stay at their establishments, so they boarded – and performed late-night concerts – to Five Points instead.

Since the mid-19th century much of the region’s black culture has been forgotten. City boosters pay hardly any homage to the rise of late 90s and early 2000s hip-hop in the region when Campbell, who made waves nationwide by rapping as the Apostle, created the Hip-Hop Coalition and inspired a generation of young artists. Even longtime resident and cultural maven Ashara Ekundayo, a local legend behind the Cafe Nuba spoken word series, has found a new home in Oakland, where she opened the Ashara Ekundayo Gallery several years ago.

There are still some signs of black culture in Five Points: activist and media producer Jeff Fard maintains the Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center in Welton; the Welton Street Cafe – although threatened by the pandemic – continues to serve soul food; and the Five Points Jazz Festival brings live music to a part of town where jazz is now largely dead.

As for current artists: Many who grew up at Five Points live far from the neighborhood. Jam bands, New York-style bagels, and craft breweries make up the culture of Welton Street more than long-stranded jazz spots like the Rainbow Room and Rossonian.

The questions Campbell will face as he tries to breathe new life into the neighborhood’s black culture: Can he find a space in the neighborhood that won’t be redeveloped into apartments and condos? And if so, who is left to participate and who can they withdraw and how?

Part of Campbell’s strategy to spark this revival of Five Points Black is to mobilize support to buy a Denver landmark: the four-story brick building at 2900 Welton Street.

There, he wants to create a collaborative workspace for media, artistic and cultural groups led by BIPOC, a space for media workshops and a newsroom for his activist project From Allies to Abolitionists and his Emancipation Theater Company.

His vision echoes the recent history of the building, where multiple non-profit media projects have taken root over the past thirty years.

– The story of the Five Points Media Center

The building at 2900 Welton Street was constructed in 1921; for years it housed the Honey Bread bakery. By the early 1990s, the building had been abandoned along with much of Welton Street.

Then, in 1992, a group of media activists bought the building and moved into it, dubbing it the Five Points Media Center. The space was home to big dreams. Women and people of color, long excluded from corporate media, would finally have a dedicated place in Denver to receive journalism training. Denver’s often overlooked or misrepresented neighborhood could take control of its own history and develop its power through telecommunications and radio.

Within two years, jazz station KUVO and PBS12 had moved into the building, along with Denver Community Television, better known as DCTV.

The Five Points Media Center did a good run. But in 2005, city council – disheartened by DCTV’s finances – decided to turn off juice to the organization, and public access eventually moved across the city under new management through Denver Open Media.

In the years that followed, the progressive national television network Free Speech TV moved into the Five Points Media Center. In 2020, KUVO – which merged with Rocky Mountain PBS in 2013 – moved to the new Buell Community Media Center. And with COVID-19, tenants at the Five Points Media Center were largely working from home. Even parts of the building that were not technically vacant were largely empty.

– What is the future of the building and will channel 12 stay there?

The second floor of the building, where KUVO once lived, has been for sale for a few years without a buyer. PBS12, which occupies the first floor, is uncertain about its future direction. The chain is undergoing a transformation and is welcoming a new CEO, Kristen Blessman, former president of the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce.

– Should the station stay or leave?

“It’s a big old building,” says vice-chairperson Kim Carver. “It’s in a wonderful part of town. We really like it. There are a lot of options.

“We don’t have a plan, honestly,” adds Mark Seewald, PBS12 mainstay, the station’s vice president of operations. “There is no indication from anyone that we are planning to move. There is no indication of anyone we plan to sell. We plan to explore different options. We are currently in the options exploration stage.

Although PBS12 is uncertain about the future of the building – which is ominously described as “Five Points Media Center Condos” in city records, suggesting it could turn into another high density housing project. on Welton Street – Campbell’s vision is clear: center in a hub for Denver’s black cultural revival.

– But is Campbell’s dream really achievable?

“I wouldn’t say it’s pie in the sky or anything solid,” Seewald says. “It’s somewhere in between.”

Campbell himself can no longer afford to live at Five Points. In 2016, he moved out of his apartment above Coffee at the Point, where he had lived since 2008. The percentage of neighborhood residents who were black had declined, but in 2012, after Colorado legalized marijuana for the purpose. Recreational, he recalls, the character of the neighborhood quickly changed. .

From 2010 to 2020, the black population of Five Points declined by 16% to 10%, according to U.S. Census data.

“I’ve seen gentrification happen,” he says. “When Amendment 64 was passed I saw it accelerate exponentially – accelerate tenfold… The whole vibe of the community has completely changed. I started to feel alienated in my own community, where other tenants who lived in the building now – white tenants – wouldn’t leave the door open for me. Even with a key ring, they would ask me, ‘do you live here? “”

Now he lives in Glendale, where he is learning to appreciate rugby and the home side, the Merlins.

“I would much prefer to be back in Points,” he said.

Taking over the Five Points Media Center, which he plans to call “The Renaissance”, would be a kind of homecoming.

– Here’s how Campbell plans to complete the acquisition.

Raising the money to buy the building is not going to be easy.

Campbell received a small funding from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation to pay for a business plan. He contracted with a business consultant, lawyer and real estate agent to try to figure out how to buy the building.

They have already filed a letter of intent to purchase the second floor from its owner, Rocky Mountain PBS, he says, noting that this floor will cost around $ 2 million. Once PBS12’s new CEO gets a foothold, he hopes to be able to secure the rest of the building within eighteen months for $ 8.5 million.

“The KUVO floor is ready to roll,” he says. “But the whole building could possibly be commissioned in eighteen months. This is what we are aiming for.

He posted about his aspirations on Facebook, drawing encouragement from a who’s-who of Denver’s black cultural scene, including Fard, who runs a regular interview show from Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center just down the street, and DJ and filmmaker Musa Bailey, the former co-owner of hip-hop art bar Cold Crush.

If things work out, Campbell imagines there will be plenty of organizations willing to lease space to create media using some of the tools previous companies have left behind: green screens, mixers and more.

“All the equipment is there,” said Campbell. “It’s turnkey. It literally is: turn on the lights, turn on the mixer, turn on the mics, and mute a podcast right now.

The income from the tenants would be used to fund educational programs for young people and possibly a media artist residency. All of these projects sharing space and harnessing the history and technology still present in the building would form a creative incubator – and revitalize black culture in the neighborhood.

“It’s like hip-hop,” says Campbell. “It’s old technology that most people ignore and throw away – or tear down the walls and do something else with it…

“We can find new ways to use this infrastructure – this great old-fashioned infrastructure – to do really creative and interesting things in collaboration with other creatives,” he continues. “The potential is endless if we just imagine what it can be rather than throwing away the old buildings or the old technology or the old approaches. “


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