A river runs through it, this edgy, industrial area of Denver known as RiNo Art District. The hipster, mash-up name derives from the more formal moniker “River North,” a nod to the South Platte meandering through the district enfolding four neighborhoods: Five Points, Cole, Globeville and Elyria-Swansea.
The RiNo Art District has decidedly put the area on the state’s art map.
“We’re leading the pack in Colorado, if not the nation,” says Tracy Weil, RiNo Art District’s co-founder, creative director and president.
“Our tagline is ‘Where art is made,’ and we have a high concentration of studio spaces. People love to see how artists work. It’s a draw that makes us popular and creates tourism for us. Tourists create energy, so it’s a really cool vibe with a lot of cool startup businesses here. It’s a funky feeling people enjoy,” he says.
At least 200 exterior murals enliven the diverse district. The outdoor art ranges from unknown street artists to commissioned works by international artists to one by Shepard Fairey, who designed the iconic 2008 “Hope” campaign poster for Barack Obama when he was running for his first term as president.
“We have more than 150,000 square feet of murals,” Weil says. “It’s a way to bring the inside outside, and the murals let people know they’re in an art district.”
The murals are relatively new, yet Weil emphasizes that the area is historic. The originally independent towns and vintage neighborhoods date to the 1800s.
“It’s super important to say that RiNo is not a new neighborhood. That was never the intention,” says Weil. “RiNo is one of the industrial corridors of Denver, and our intention was and is to pull together artists residing and working here.”
The nonprofit art district launched in 2005 with an $8,000 annual operating budget that expanded to its current $3.3 million cumulative annual operating budget. The grassroots movement began with eight creative locations, two galleries and about 25 artists. Now the district includes 22 galleries, more than 190 studio spaces, and 450-plus artists working, living or exhibiting there.
“Community is power,” Weil says. “The art district is a way of banding together as a group of stakeholders and property owners and business people. We were, early on, a registered neighborhood organization, which was a way to get information on development and liquor licenses.”
Booze is another draw to the RiNo Art District.
“We have a high concentration of independent liquid libations: 23 breweries, three distilleries, two wineries and an organization called Drink RiNo,” Weil says.
The district is home to restaurants to please any palate. Visitors also can duck into a pool hall, a jazz club, a yoga class, or view short films projected onto buildings during Side Stories Colorado. Three new hotels are rumored to join the RiNo mix soon. Pura Vida, one of Denver’s most chic gyms, plans a second location in the new World Trade Center slated to open in 2020. Weil says a billion dollars in development was scheduled for 2018 to 2019.
RiNo’s emergence is both industrial and playful. A residential complex features a swimming pool made from shipping containers. Bike paths depict a rhinoceros pedaling a bicycle. Even crosswalks are painted like urban throw rugs in colorful stripes. An artful light installation adds color and animation beneath a dark viaduct. And a pop-up park includes a dog park. Pedestrian bridges span the river and railroad tracks, and the elevated walkways offer panoramic views of the snowcapped peaks of Colorado’s Front Range.
Yet, RiNo, still a gritty part of the city, also has rumbling railroad tracks and littered riverbeds, junkyards and dilapidated buildings with broken windows. There’s some razor wire and plenty of graffiti that is not art but vandalism. For a moment, one could mistake the location for East Los Angeles, until looking up to see Long’s Peak looming in the distance. When North Denver’s odiferous industries included stockyards, packing plants and smelters, Weil says, “This was the most polluted Zip Code in America. It’s still up there.”
The commissioned murals frequently get tagged by envious vandals: “This is the street talking to the street,” says Weil, who shuns the word “gentrification” to describe the development of RiNo.
“The word ‘empowerment’ sums us up better,” Weil says. “We’re empowering our own growth.”
As industries move out and other industries move in, the development values not only art, but also heart. “Affordable housing for artists is our biggest part, in my book,” says Weil. “We can’t have an arts district without artists, so we’re working on more housing.”
RiNo Art District also is home to many people who are homeless but find refuge at the Salvation Army or in the tiny house village. The section known as Taxi features a food incubator called Comal where immigrant and refugee women use space and equipment to prepare foods for their home-based businesses or the on-site restaurant.
RiNo continues to emerge, and plans call for more and improved public spaces. The city of Denver spent $30 million to improve Brighton Boulevard with sidewalks, new roadways and cycle tracks. RiNo’s special districts will add signage, lighting and landscaping. Denver Parks and Recreation Department will lease abandoned buildings along the river for $1 per year so the RiNo Art District can add a performing arts center. Denver Public Library will open a “new library” where patrons can check out power tools or use a 3-D printer. A commercial kitchen will help entrepreneurial cooks jumpstart food businesses.
And as homage to the river where the Queen City set her first roots and from which Denver continues to grow, construction is underway on a promenade along the South Platte. To boost air quality and urban wildlife habitat, the city and RiNo will plant 400 trees in the district.
Before co-founding the RiNo Art District, Weil bought his property, just a stone’s throw from the river, in the year 2000. An artist whose murals evoke Dr. Seuss, Weil regularly spots geese, ducks and herons on the river; raccoons, foxes and coyotes along the banks; and, overhead, golden and bald eagles, as well as other birds. His parcel of land holds his studio, gallery, living quarters and also a greenhouse where he grows from seed 6,000 heirloom tomato plants to sell each spring.
As for Weil’s future goals and objectives for the flourishing RiNo Art District, he says, “Right now, less is more. We already have a lot going on.”
RiNo Art District
3501 Wazee St., Suite 109
Denver, CO 80216
In Zeppelin Station, the parking garage offers three hours of free parking, and the RiNo-Made Store sells artwork and crafts from the district. The free RiNo Art District Field Guide available at most galleries in the district includes comprehensive information on neighborhood history and current arts, businesses and services. For details on First Fridays with art openings, live music and other vibrant events, visit rinoartdistrict.org. For details on RiNo bars, breweries and wineries and the free circulator providing transportation between them, visit drinkrino.com. For details on RiNo murals, log on to crushwalls.org. Watch the poetic video “RiNo Art District - Where Art Is Made” on YouTube.
Colleen Smith, a longtime contributor to Colorado Expression and many other publications, won the 2018 Screenplay Contest sponsored by Women in Film and Media Colorado (WIFMCO) and the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media. She also received a 2018 Haven Foundation Grant for freelance artists.
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