This week, the Five Points Plaza at the corner of North Clarkson Street and East 26th Avenue was transformed into an outdoor mural gallery.
Abstract patterns, portraits of iconic figures central to Five Points history, and a hyperreal depiction of a trumpet, are some of the “framed” artworks that now hang on the brick walls of the Black-owned businesses that make up the plaza.
The works are part of the new Five Points Outdoor Mural Gallery, a series of eight murals funded by the Welton Street Renaissance Project. The Gallery, which will be unveiled in a ceremony at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, is the first step in the project, which is designed to bring art and music — and, organizers hope, more business — into the Welton Street corridor.
“We just want to highlight the original Five Points and bring some beauty to that. Bring some new life and some colors, so people can appreciate it,” said Robert Gray, the gallery’s curator and the founder of the Black Love Mural Festival, an all-Black mural festival that launched last year in Civic Center Park.
It’s long been a goal of Gray’s to expand BLMF into Five Points, so he’s excited to give some artists the chance to paint there. He said that when the RiNo Art District kicked off in 2005, a lot of traffic was diverted to that area. Gray said a large part of the attraction was RiNo’s very visible artwork.
“I would love for people of color to see more art, more street art, and just beautify their spaces,” Gray said. “So we can hopefully draw some traffic down there and support these local businesses.”
Each of the eight murals was designed by a different Black artist, including local artists like Moe Gram and Vincent Gordon. “Just” Giovannie Dixon, another local artist, designed a mural of his own, and also painted the hyperrealist “frames” that enclose all of the works.
“The main thing about this that’s just super exciting is that it’s all African-American muralists, and many of them from our community,” said Kwon Atlas, one of the Welton Street Renaissance Project founders. He said the idea behind the mural gallery was to support Black artists, whose work might in turn draw people into the area and into local Black-owned businesses.
The works will each have an NFT, so that the artists can continue to profit off them even after they one day fade or are painted over. Visitors to the area will eventually be able to engage with the art virtually on their phones by scanning a code next to the mural, which will direct them to an animated, augmented reality version of the artwork. They’ll be able to learn more about the art and the history represented in it.
The Welton Street Renaissance Project was born out of the Downtown Denver Partnership Leadership Program, an annual leadership development program in which a class of local professionals works together on one project to benefit the downtown area.
The class of 2020 was given the theme “play.” The initial plan was to come up with a project that would integrate play into the downtown area through interactive artwork. But the project evolved over time, first when the pandemic hit, and again last spring, after the murder of George Floyd.
“We decided to think about, OK, what’s a project that we can do that can both create experiences that are COVID-safe, in a sense,” Atlas said, “and also, experiences that are creating an initiative that actually benefit the African-American community after George Floyd?”
Atlas is a communications analyst in Mayor Michael Hancock’s office and an active resident of Five Points. He proposed the idea to focus the project on Five Points and, specifically, on the neighborhood’s rich history as the “The Harlem of the West.”
“The main thing that we’re doing is that we are connecting corporate sponsors with the community of Five Points, and providing opportunities to build public spaces and public art, particularly in ways that honor the history of jazz, as well as the history of African-American culture along the corridor,” Atlas said. “Given the long history of divestment and blight along this corridor, I really think it’s important to provide the members of Downtown Denver Partnership as well as general corporate sponsors opportunity to give back in a way that’s meaningful.”
Rob Anderson, a cohort member and an advisor at Cresa, a commercial real estate company, said the group bought into the idea right away.
“Anybody who lives in Denver knows that Five Points is an area that has seen decades of divestment and redlining,” Anderson said. “So the idea of focusing on that part of Denver really hit a nerve with a lot of us.”
He said the idea also fit well into the original theme of “play.” The new vision would celebrate a robust and vibrant period of music and art, one that was inherently playful.
Since the project’s conception, the group has decided to zoom in on the Welton Street corridor in particular, an area that still has a lot of Black-owned businesses and which Atlas said has been growing, even during the pandemic.
“Welton Street has a large concentration of minority- and women-owned businesses,” Atlas said. “Even though the demographics of the general area of Five Points have shifted dramatically over the last, you know, 60 years, it’s still the center and still has a lot of affiliation within the African-American community.”
When the class presented its idea in the fall of 2020, members did so with the caveat that their ideas for activations were not final and that they wouldn’t go forward without the blessing of the community.
“We do not have any interest in being a group of young professionals that comes into the community and says this should be one way, or that way, or the other way,” Anderson said. “So immediately, it became a project that was more about outreach and input from the community more than anything else.”
Class members also started gathering input from people in the community. They spoke to local business owners, to the Five Points Business Improvement District, to community leaders and politicians, and asked what they wanted to see in their neighborhood, in terms of investments and activations.
“I think there’s some truth, saying, ‘We want to raise money to build improvements in this community. How would you want that to work?’ And people are generally receptive to that question,” Anderson said. “It’s been an incredible experience, and the care that so many of the community members have for that area of the city is really astounding.”
One of the people the group interviewed was Fathima Dickerson, co-owner of the Welton Street Café.
She said that in March, the group asked her about the neighborhood and some things she’d like to see there. She said it was important to her to bring some uplifting artwork into the area. She said a lot of the murals representing Black community are created through the lens of death.
“When you think about murals, and especially murals for the Black community, those types of murals are filled with trauma and tragedy,” Dickerson said. “I was very vocal about making sure that this is celebratory, to kind of shift the narrative of what we represent as a community.”
Dickerson said this project is an opportunity to tell a different story. She said there’s a mural of her on 27th and Walnut by Jodie Herrera and Miles Toland, which, though not technically in Five Points, allows people to recognize a familiar face, a living person who represents the community.
“For me to be a waitress and have a mural, young Black girls are looking at me like, That’s my waitress!” she said. “That’s a career that’s achievable. I don’t have to be an astronaut. I don’t have to be a doctor. I can be whatever I am, whoever I am. We have to have those conversations so that our kids are valued and our kids have worth in whatever lane they work.”
Dickerson said she’s happy that the neighborhood is getting a facelift, but that she’ll continue to work to make sure the community is included in conversations about new developments in the neighborhood.
“There are things people can tell me about what Five Points is gonna be. But I’ll tell you what’s real about Five Points, because I’m the living history of Five Points,” she said. “If we leave out the players that have made this place and have sustained this place, when it comes to community, we’re going to change the people that really deserve to be here.”
She said that often, developers who come into the neighborhood overlook community members.
“It erases the culture. It erases the people completely,” she said. “The percentage of Black people that are here is so small. And so when you come into Welton Street Café, and when you come to Five Points, it’s supposed to be this community feel. People are supposed to know each other, you’re supposed to know your neighbors, you know? And so you start bringing in other stuff, it becomes disconnected.”
The mural gallery is the first project Welton Street Renaissance has completed.
The group plans to fund more public art in the future, as well as updated signage and other improvements. Next, members are turning their attention to Sonny Lawson Park, which in recent months has hosted First Fridays jazz performances. The goal is to build a permanent stage there so the park might eventually host regular, weekly or even daily performances. Anderson said they’re also talking about building a second stage in Five Points Plaza and connecting it to Cousins Plaza by installing speakers that would play music in between the two stages. And he said in a dream world, with enough funding, they’d design an experiential, interactive art installation in the area.
“Think you’re walking on the sidewalk, and you are stepping on lines. And as you’re stepping on them, there are speakers kind of hidden in the planter box next to you,” Anderson said. “So you’re creating this sort of jazz sound as you’re walking along. And then you actually are interacting with that kind of music while you’re learning about that kind of music. You’re going to see these murals and some of these musicians, and you’re engaging with that piece of Denver history.”
Dickerson said the new art might help generate interest in the area year round.
“I know this is the anniversary of Black Lives Matters. And you get a lot of people who come around only during crisis, only because it’s trending,” she said. “I think the message across the board, through the artwork, demonstrates that our lives matter every day.”
She said it goes deeper than just the artwork, though.
“Not only historically have people been trained to hate Black folks. Black people are trained to hate themselves, to hate each other, to hate everything Black to not value anything Black,” she said. “So for me to be working in a historically Black district, to come outside and to see Black artists using their talents to support this district. That speaks volumes. This is what we’re supposed to see. This is what Five Points is. Five Points never went anywhere. This is Five Points.”
The Five Points Outdoor Mural Gallery Unveiling will take place June 16 at 6 p.m. in The Five Points Plaza, 2736 Welton Street.