“Since the late 60s, West Colfax has descended from its neon-lit glory days into a stretch of road that was more known for danger than it was for glamour or fun.”
So begins Lakewood’s ArtLine audio tours around West Colfax, describing the shuttering of stores, “neighborhood dynamics” being ignored and the area becoming a “hotbed” of criminal activity.
“However, locals have not given up on West Colfax,” it continues, telling how the 40 West Arts District Hub, located in Lamar Station Plaza, has brought in galleries and stable businesses.
The Artline opened in 2018 thanks to a 2016 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that gives out grants to communities across the country for arts and arts education. According to Liz Black, executive director of the 40 West Arts District, the purpose of the ArtLine was to connect various elements of the corridor, like parks and local retailers, as well as to beautify the area. The audio tour aspect was completed in August of this year with three distinct tours for the ArtLine.
As I walked the line listening to them, I realized it led not only a tour of public art, but a tour of the city’s failure to help those who live on the street near the more than $100,000 spent on an art walk meant “to make this a happening place, once again, all while embracing the weird and wonderful history that brought us to where we are today,” as an audio tour describes.
And I’ve walked and talked on streets like this before: to those who couldn’t find a public bathroom in Miami, others in New York whose SNAP benefits were useless when you can’t cook on a sidewalk and now, Denver. For the last four years I’ve reported on homelessness, and this ArtLine pretends it doesn’t exist.
Before I even began walking the ArtLine, I went into the Burger King in Lamar Station Plaza, elaborated on in the audios as bringing in art and businesses, to use the restroom. I had to ask for a key. As I was leaving, a woman holding a bag who looked as if she might be homeless asked to use the restroom as well. She was told it was for customers only.
The discrimination of bathroom usage is a major problem for those experiencing homelessness in urban areas everywhere, but this started the impression for me that the ArtLine was ignoring other issues the area had.
“I encourage you to stop anywhere along the way to snag a bite to eat, grab a drink or check out any of the stores,” the audio says, as the tour itself becomes of the businesses within the plaza. “That is, after all, the kind of activity that the 40 West Arts District and other West Colfax champions want you to indulge in.”
The ArtLine itself, a green stripe through the center of the sidewalk, can’t even be called a metaphor for the city’s issues, for it literally was a winding path leading to evidence of homelessness and wealth disparities within Lakewood.
Following this metaphor come-to-life through the Art and Leisure Tour eventually leads to a private lot beside Mountair Park. On an old concrete foundation on the other side of the lot is a mural of a person smelling a flower, a kaleidoscope of geometric shapes makes up the subjects in pinks and yellows and blues.
“Titled ‘Take Time,’ this mural is an invitation to do just that. Stop, look at your surroundings, and enjoy the little things, smell the flowers — or in this case, maybe appreciate the art about smelling the flowers,” says the audio tour of the work by the artist Dos. “He painted the mural in 2018, inspired by enjoying time outdoors, an inspiration that echoed one of the main purposes behind the creation of the ArtLine itself.”
Beside the mural, in contrast, were a tent and three shopping carts. The mural, surely, was so inspirational, people chose to permanently enjoy the outdoors right beside it, to always be able to appreciate it.
The lot itself is surrounded by a barbed wire fence, but that too is adorned. Small iridescent tiles reflecting the sunlight in colors of teal and pink are attached across the whole fence. This piece is called “Healing Visualization,” by the artist Lauren Culbreth, and according to the ArtLine’s audio, it “offers a small glimpse of something wonderful.”
“I don’t understand why there’s still homeless people here,” said Marshall Moody, hailing from Texas but homeless in Lakewood for at least three years. “There’s so many empty buildings, and all new apartments coming up, too.”
Moody sat under a tree at Lamar Station Plaza, just feet from the sidewalk adorned with the ArtLine’s green metaphor. With him was Paul Johnson, 68, a lifelong native of Lakewood who’s recently back on the streets after being kicked out of public housing.
Moody and Johnson were familiar with Mountair Park, the art around it and the number of people staying there. Moody, exasperated, complained that no solution is ever given.
“Police show up to tell you to leave, but don’t have an answer as to where we can go,” he said. Even at places offering showers, meals and clothes in Lakewood, such as Main Street Ministries or The Action Center, no one has a solution, he said: “I’ve been going to all three for three years, and still no one has an answer for where to go.”
Within Lakewood there are no shelters to stay in, the closest being in Denver proper. But it doesn’t matter to Moody; he pointed again to the empty buildings and new apartment buildings and asked, why pay for a shelter building when the city could just buy homes.
“The vision for the ArtLine was to really create a physical connector to a lot of the different elements that lie along this corridor,” Black said, mentioning the parks, local retailers, the arts district and West Colfax itself. The more that residents and visitors go to these neighborhoods and connect with them, the more “robust” the local community can become, she continued.
Though the original grant description for the ArtLine said, partially, that the ArtLine would “reflect the unique context, voice, and culture of the socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood located along historic West Colfax Avenue and the new W Line light rail in Lakewood, Colorado.”
If the reflection was meant to be ironic, they succeeded with literal flying colors.
“We’re not trying to necessarily reflect the plight of the neighborhoods through the art; we want the art to be uplifting and to envelop the community, and to really be sparks of pop and joy and light in the local neighborhoods, and really inspire folks and beautify,” said Black, when asked how that reflection showed in the art.
In general, she said, the neighborhoods around the ArtLine are “statistically some of the poorest communities in the city of Lakewood, and they’re also statistically lacking in traditional public and free amenities like art installations and open spaces and even sidewalks.”
The art reflected the “unique context, voice and culture of the socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood,” as the grant description said, seemingly by being literally next to it and shiny.
Similar to the green line leading to disparity, the tour pushes past irony to the literal in its descriptions, calling one of the three audio tours on the ArtLine the “Grit and Glitter Tour.”
“Find out more about what makes the West Colfax corridor upscale and underbelly, high class and low brow, glitter and grit in this tour that takes you to Aviation Park and through a busy section of the 40 West Arts District.”
According to Black, it’s an “older phrase that we’ve used for many, many years along Colfax.” She said that public perception of Colfax, “long before we had this real growth in our unhoused community,” was “kind of gritty, for a lack of a better word.”
This tour begins, coincidentally, where Moody and Johnson sat under a tree.
The Arts District has tried to embrace “all of the character and flavor” along Colfax, Black said, “with all of its variety and all of its substance, without shying away from that conversation.”
Black said she believes that “we can both have public art installations … make spaces feel more vibrant for both residents and visitors and acknowledge that we have an issue with the unhoused that is bigger than just the city of Lakewood, or our corridor.”
Black made pains to point out how Colfax is not alone in its issues of homelessness.
When asked where the line was, though — between embracing the character and flavor of Colfax, while not intending to focus on the plight of the neighborhoods — Black suggested referring those questions to Lakewood City Planner Alexis Moore, and Lakewood-West Colfax Business Improvement District Director William Marino instead.
“At the art district we are keenly aware of the unhoused issue in our corridor, and as a tiny nonprofit, have less of an ability to control that as, say, the folks at city of Lakewood and business improvement district who are doing a lot on this issue,” she said.
The group can’t be expected to solve homelessness, as that’s not its purpose. Moore even elaborated that “several unhoused community members helped paint community ground murals on the route,” and Marino said they want to be “part of the solution.” But those unhoused community members were probably sleeping on the street that same night.
Moody and Johnson, who were experiencing this issue firsthand, were no longer near the ArtLine later that evening; as they elaborated, the police often tell them to move along in these areas.
After all, it might not be, as the audio tour states, “the kind of activity that the 40 West Arts District and other West Colfax champions want you to indulge in.”
Andrew Fraieli is a reporter for the Jeffco Transcript, covering Lakewood, Wheat Ridge and Jefferson County. Since 2018, he has been editor-in-chief of The Homeless Voice, a quarterly street newspaper distributed across Florida.
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