It’s Santa Fe Drive Week — Denverite’s series on the city’s main drag for arts, Chicano culture and commerce

12 min. read
(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Santa Fe Drive: historic, diverse, artsy, big-boxy and industrial. It's both a Main Street and highway, connecting downtown Denver with the southwest suburbs and crossing through a variety of cityscapes along the way.

As we've taken to doing each summer, Denverite is spending a whole week bringing you stories from one of Denver's main drags. You'll find our stories on Santa Fe Drive on the site and in our newsletter each morning, as you'd expect, but you'll also find them compiled here in one All Things Santa Fe Drive guide.

We'll also be out at Renegade Brewing Co. for First Friday, chatting with passersby, hearing your stories and taking portraits from 6-8 p.m. And we'll be throwing a party with beer, snacks and art-making to cap off the week from 6-8:30 p.m. Aug. 8 at ReCreative Denver. Tickets are $15.

So, who's ready for some geographically themed content? Let's go.

Can you take me to Santa Fe?

By Andrew Kenney

"For a road from Santa Fe or anywhere to the south to have followed the alleged 'Santa Fe Drive' it would have had to cross scores of gullies, ravines, arroyos" before "it would have ended in the very sandy bed of the Cherry Creek," reads a 19th century article written by Simpson T. Sopris.

This was a hot topic of debate at the time, with Sopris referring derisively to "the 'pioneer'" of the 1880s. (Damn transplants.) By the way, this guy's dad was an original prospector and one of Denver's first mayors. They had a mountain named after them. They lived in west Denver, the young Sopris writes, when there was hardly a road.

And what was he so fired up about? Well, it was that Santa Fe name.

After decades of entertainment on Sante Fe Drive, the Aztlan Theatre faces its future

The Aztlan Theatre on Santa Fe Drive, Aug. 1, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Esteban L. Hernandez

Tim Correa more or less stumbled into owning the Aztlan Theatre. Or more accurately, he stumbled upon the pale facade of the Santa Fe Theater, as it was previously called, while driving across the street that shared its name one day in 1972. It would be months before he would get a chance to finally rename it.

An activist in the Chicano Movement in Denver occasionally involved with Corky Gonzales’ Crusade for Justice, Correa would end up christening the theater Aztlan, after the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, now reclaimed by Chicanos as their own ancestral home.

“Anglos ask what Aztlan means,” Correa said during an interview inside Timeo’s Theatre Bar, the gin joint next to the theater. “It’s a situation where Chicanos are free. It’s just like what Martin Luther King was talking about. It’s a mythical kind of thing, in a way. And I think there’s a city or pueblito that might be called Aztlan in Mexico.”

Denver Art Society is a space for artists to start out — and hang out

The Denver Art Society on Santa Fe Drive, July 31, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Allan Tellis

There are a quite a few galleries along Santa Fe Drive, but there aren’t many quite like the Denver Arts Society.

Denver Art Society’s gallery — dotted with imperfections like a slight warp in a wall or flicker in a light, filled with art in different mediums, a full music performance stage and a basement full of studios — stands out in the new Santa Fe landscape because of how they operate.

“We’re here for artists, by artists. No one is here to make money. We’re all volunteers to support local art and music,” board president Ilya Narizhnyy said.

Santa Fe Drive was once a hub for the Chicano movement, paving the way for arts and development

The West Side Recorder, May 1973.

By Kevin J. Beaty

Virginia Castro was never interested in politics before the plan to develop Denver’s Auraria campus started to pick up steam. The neighborhood that once sat in that little triangle of land was Denver’s oldest and had become dense with Latino families who in the late ’70s were suddenly facing the possibility that they’d be pushed out of their homes to make way for the project. It wasn’t long before Castro was swept up in a tidal wave of activism.

It was the beginning of a fight to preserve that community, which at the time was seen as inseparable from La Alma-Lincoln Park to the south. The ensuing struggle helped launch the Chicano movement in Denver, which expanded to take on many issues beyond displacement and became entrenched on Santa Fe Drive. Those activists made themselves known through civil disobedience, parades and art, exercised in the name of establishing their culture in a very public way. While Auraria was eventually scraped, they successfully made a home on the west side, for a time. Their efforts set the stage for the vibrant arts scene that exists today and helped make Santa Fe Drive desirable for the booming development that’s beginning to mature.

El Taco De Mexico has hardly changed since 1986, and no one is complaining

El Taco De Mexico, Santa Fe Drive, Aug. 6, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Ashley Dean

Lunchtime at El Taco De Mexico looks about the same as we approach 2020 as it did in the late 1980s.

I wasn’t there to see it, but I have it on good authority that it’s always been packed inside the restaurant on Santa Fe Drive and Seventh Avenue. Thirty people would pack in “like sardines,” on a good day, according to Sasha Zanabria, manager and daughter of owner Maria Luisa Zanabria. The only difference back then was the venue. El Taco De Mexico was just a trailer occupying the space that’s now the restaurant’s patio.

The food remains the same, as do some of the customers and much of the staff.

“There’s a lot of love at that restaurant and I think that’s really important,” Sasha Zanabria said. “The people who have been there a really long time, they love what they do, just seeing people there year after year. We have customers coming in and they don’t even need to order. We know what they want. That smallness that we have, that’s really good. The people that go there a lot, they see it.”

Years before Santa Fe Drive’s first First Friday, artists bought into Denver’s west side

First Friday on Santa Fe Drive, Aug. 3, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Ashley Dean

It’s a blustery but mercifully cool summer evening in Denver, and Santa Fe Drive is buzzing. Four blocks along the gallery-laden strip and its side streets have been fenced off and occupied by 15,000 people and dozens of food trucks for the biggest First Friday Art Walk of the year.

Every month, galleries on and around the stretch from Seventh to 11th avenues leave their doors open late for a neighborhood-wide reception. The event has been happening for more than a decade, drawing a growing and changing crowd in a growing and changing city. On its biggest night of the year, galleries were packed as people wandered, beverages in hand, from studios to food trucks to a live music stage.

“The First Friday Art Walk, on one hand, it’s not always a revenue generator for the businesses. However, it’s a really unpretentious foray into the art world if you’ve never stepped foot into a gallery,” Art District on Santa Fe President Amy Phare said. “Everyone is open, and it’s open to everyone. There’s highbrow art, there’s lowbrow art, there’s contemporary studios, there’s performance art. Whatever your price point and interest in art, there’s something for everyone.”

It’s been the Art District on Santa Fe’s best advertisement since before the district formally existed and it embodies much of what it’s about: accessibility and community.

The faces of August’s First Friday Art Walk

Nick Callaio and Diego Rodroguez in Denverite's portrait booth during First Friday at Renegade Brewing Company, Aug. 3, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Kevin J. Beaty

As part of our whirlwind week of reporting, Denverite set up shop at Renegade Brewing Co. to take portraits of everyone who would let us. Here’s a look at the faces we met.

Denver’s VFW Post 1 is more than a VFW and more than an art gallery

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1 on Santa Fe Drive, Aug. 8, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Ashley Dean

Inside the unassuming tan building at 841 Santa Fe Drive sits a piece of American history.

It’s the home of VFW Post 1, the first ever Veterans of Foreign Wars post, and the original charter hangs on the wall amongst art mostly made by local veterans. The building sits in the heart of the Art District on Santa Fe and formerly housed artists’ studios. When the VFW moved in, talk naturally turned to art.

“We had some members at the time who were telling us about the benefits of an art therapy — not even a formal art therapy program, but how art and veterans, they go hand in hand sometimes,” said John Keene, commander and executive director of VFW Post 1. “So we decided, ‘Why don’t we provide this space for veterans to display their art?'”

Once a land of warehouses, the southern end of Denver’s Santa Fe Drive is transforming

The Yard on Santa Fe Drive, Aug. 8, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Allan Tellis

The southern end of Denver’s Santa Fe Drive is transitioning from being a purely industrial area to a renaissance neighborhood with a little bit of everything for everybody. The area has long been a mix of residential housing and often vacant warehouse space, but a new influx of business interest is crafting a new era.

Let’s take a look at who’s moved in, bringing thirsty, hungry and artsy Denverites with them.

You asked, we answered.

Q: What is up with the Aztlan Theater? 

A: As you likely learned above, the Aztlan has had quite a past, and its future is up in the air.

Q: VFW Post 1, first VFW Post in nation, at 841 Santa Fe Drive. No open bar, we have an art gallery instead - amazing creative vets on Santa Fe. 

A: More on this one above, too.

Whatever you think of a VFW, that’s not us. We’re doing a lot of different things,” Commander John Keene said. “Our approach is that we let our members tell us what they want and, more importantly, the art program was started by members who are artists. We listen to our members and we also give them a pretty long leash. If they have an idea and want to bring it to the post, we’re pretty accommodating.”

Q: With the closing/moving of CHAC gallery has Santa Fe Drive gentrified? Word on the street is CHAC Gallery is closing, which is very sad news. Report if that is true, reason and if anything can be done. What is the city doing to maintain the Arts District? Rents are skyrocketing and galleries are having a hard time staying open.

A: CHAC ended up appearing in several of our Santa Fe Week stories. Kevin featured the gallery prominently in his piece on the Chicano movement and its roots on Santa Fe. It also made its way into my piece on the past, present and future of the Art District on Santa Fe and Allan's on businesses migrating south on the strip.

Q: I really enjoy the First Fridays on Santa Fe Dr. Would it be possible to have more of the Fridays where the traffic is blocked off?

A: Right now, the street is only blocked off for First Friday in August. Sources within the art district told us First Friday has gotten expensive for galleries and it's not clear if it really drives business. On the other hand, it's how the district got its start and still its best form of advertisement. (It's also a place where Kevin made some great portraits.)

Q: Is there potential for the city to remove a lane to make sidewalks wider and make traffic two-way so it’s safer to walk around? 

Based on conversations Kevin and I had with neighborhood groups and the art district, it's pretty unlikely. Art district president Amy Phare told me there was a proposal to reduce lanes of traffic and widen the sidewalks spearheaded by the business improvement district.

"To be completely honest with you, I don’t think the city would ever go for that. It’s a main thoroughfare into downtown," she said.

"I’ve heard people say 'thank god we didn’t get the GO bond' because we still have a genuine art district," she added. "It’s a fine line between neighborhood improvement and displacement. When you start doing things like widening the sidewalks and improving the street lighting, that attracts bigger developers and money. Those things can raise property value and make it difficult for people to continue to rent or pay their property taxes if they own."

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