Murals cover plywood that conceal the slow destruction of South Broadway’s small businesses

Business owners were already grappling with rising rent. Then coronavirus hit.
7 min. read
Awakening Boutique on Broadway is boarded up and muraled. April 2, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

It's April 1st, rent day, and Alicia Cardenas is cleaning her Broadway business to dispel some of her nervous energy.

"I woke up really in a panic," she said, dwelling on the monthly payment before she even opened her eyes.

Sol Tribe Tattoo & Body Piercing is dark inside. Cardenas boarded up her large, west-facing windows a week before everything in the neighborhood came to a screeching halt, a result of closures and stay-at-home orders related to the novel coronavirus. The wood she used is covered with black fabric and attached inside the glass. She wanted to conceal her panic, lest it become infectious.

But many more businesses followed suit in the weeks that followed. Now, storefronts up and down the commercial stretch are covered with wood. It's not a good sign for owners like Cardenas, who have already struggled to stay in this increasingly expensive area. While the city has put a moratorium on evictions for residents, there are no such protections for businesses.

Alicia Cardenas inside Sol Tribe Tattoo and Body Piercing on Broadway. April 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Sol Tribe Tattoo and Body Piercing on Broadway is boarded up from the inside. April 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Still, the boards that have covered windows here represent an opportunity.

Last week, Hope Tank owner Erika Righter started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to pay Cardenas' artists for murals covering the plywood shells on her business and others nearby.

"The goal was really to make it so people don't forget us," Righter said, "to make it something beautiful and put some cash in people's pockets."

Hope Tank on Broadway is boarded up but covered with paint and poems. April 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Hope Tank on Broadway is boarded up but covered with paint and poems. April 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Hope Tank's mural is more of a frame than a motif. It's become a place to post poetry, a suggestion by local writers Bobby LeFebre, Kerrie Joy and Suzi Q. Smith. (They're taking submissions, too, if you're interested.)

So far, she's raised $2,000. It means more art is on its way to the strip, and that Cardenas' otherwise out-of-work artists have a little relief.

"All of our rents are due," Righter said.

But the beauty and hope these murals bring to Broadway is also concealing deep fear of change.

Cardenas' business is all about getting close to people, she said, as her staff adorns customers with new ink. Even when business restrictions are lifted, she's not so sure people will be flocking back to public spaces quickly.

She's celebrating ten years on the block, but the cost to remain in her building has gone up every year. The "high gentrified prices" to stay put won't change, regardless of how much she earns in the coming months. She worries she'll give up all of her savings to make the payments and still be forced to close.

"I'm struggling hard today with this rent payment," she said. "If this goes on for two months, it will bankrupt me completely."

She said she's trying to work with her landlord on a six-month plan, some way to make wiggle room that will give her time to see how things go. The $7,500 grants offered by the city will only fully cover one month's payment for the space. Prices here range from $4,000 to $10,000 a month, and Cardenas is not interested in a loan.

"There's no business at the end of it all. There's just debt," she said.

Righter has been deemed the "Broadway mom" by other owners along the stretch. She's in close touch with a lot of the small-business owners, and she said many are worried. Twenty-five businesses on the four blocks surrounding Hope Tank are women-owned, she said, and many are run by single parents. She's not sure the district will look the same on the other end of this crisis.

"Plenty of businesses have been pushed out because of skyrocketing commercial rent," she said. And that was before the customers stopped coming. "A lot of people are deciding if they can continue."

Hope Tank has been able to morph into an online shop. In between taking care of her kids and her mother, who just broke a hip, Righter has been figuring out how to get new items in stock, set up an e-commerce website and make deliveries.

She's fairly confident the business will survive, though it may not be the same. She's in the running for a large grant to buy some laser engravers that will allow her to make custom products. She says Hope Tank may become a manufacturer instead of solely a retailer.

But the idea of leaving her spot on Broadway fills her with sadness: "It was already so painful to board it up."

Hope Tank on Broadway is boarded up. April 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Erika Righter in her Broadway shop, Hope Tank. April 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Righter and Cardenas would like to see the city do more to support ventures like theirs. While Righter said Denver's grants are nice, they don't fix the underlying issues that have become ever more apparent in this time of crisis.

"I want to see an overhaul of the rents," she said.

Righter said her city council representative, Jolon Clark, has not spoken with her about her concerns, and she's not happy about it. Clark didn't respond to Denverite's request to speak about it, either.

(Update: Councilman Clark responded)

But there may not be much room for action at the local level. The city can't dictate what landlords charge for their spaces, and owners across town have been forced to reckon with rising property taxes.

The threat of closure in the face of lost business is something activists across the state have begun to discuss on conference calls as social isolation sets in.

Lorena Garcia, who's running for Cory Gardner's seat in the senate, said she and other progressives want a nationwide fix. They're calling for universal basic income, and they want the federal government to shoulder the debt in order to spare people like Cardenas and Righter as they work through this difficult moment.

"We need to rely on the power of the treasury to pump a lot more money into our economy," she said. "We need to have an overall rent, mortgage and debt freeze."

Mutiny Information Cafe is boarded up and covered with paint on Broadway. April 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The White House is preparing to roll out a federal loan program for small businesses, even though folks like Cardenas are wary of more debt.

"Most of us are not interested in going back into a relationship with the Small Business Association," she said. "It's the last thing I want to do."

For now, uncertainty is consuming the shop owners of South Broadway. The art popping up on their boarded windows brings some levity to the situation, but that will only last so long.

"It's great, it's so great, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to what were up against," Cardenas said. "What's gonna really suck is when these boards have to stay up."

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