Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
How Denver public art is being affected by gentrification
Denver is covered with murals and various pieces of that provide tourists and locals alike with great photo opportunities. They’re beautiful, colorful, and it takes obvious talent to create them. And while they make great additions to the aesthetic of the city, these murals are negatively affected by the influx of gentrification in Denver.
Gentrification has always been a hot topic in Denver politics. In a nutshell, gentrification is the upgrading of urban neighborhoods into high-value from low-value. But it goes deeper than that. It is also commonly associated with systemic racism due to gentrification mostly taking place in neighborhoods with a high population of racial minorities. The irony is that these are the same neighborhoods people of color were forced to move into due to redlining in the 20th century.
Gentrification has forced people of color out of their homes and has left entire families on the streets. It has wiped out communities that were once thriving and making Denver a culturally diverse place. Up close, gentrification is ugly and does more harm than good.
So how do murals factor in?
People have been participating in street art for a long time, with this even dating back to Ancient Greece. Contemporary graffiti, however, has been given a bad name. It is most commonly associated with hip-hop culture, which in turn is associated with black America. Graffiti has often been criminalized as vandalism.
But murals,on the other hand, are considered to be art. Most are done at a larger scale than graffiti and are characteristically tedious and intricate. Denver has used murals as an alternative to fully redoing the exterior of certain buildings due to zoning laws or public defiance. They are used to cover up the ugly parts, the things that city planners think no one wants to see.
But for so many people who have lived in these Denver neighborhoods their whole lives, it is disheartening to see the buildings that they once recognized being used as backdrops for someone’s Instagram clout photoshoot.
Even so, a lot of these murals are not done by local artists, but instead, by artists commissioned by business-owners. This creates a disconnect between the art and the location. The authenticity of the meaning can be called into question if the artist does not understand the neighborhood. For example, in a New York neighborhood, a 15-year-old mural dedicated to the murder of a young black male by a cop was covered up by a painting of a white girl catching a butterfly. This is one of the ways that street art can be used as gentrification propaganda.
The solution here is to stop thinking about neighborhoods as just a place where people live. Neighborhoods are living, growing things that foster community and intercultural relationships. Street art should be something created by the people who live on that street, not the people who want to capitalize off the aesthetic. Neighborhoods are not something gentrification advocates should be able to claim with a pretty painting of some flowers.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then let the people who have made their livelihoods in Denver decide what kind of beauty they want to see in their neighborhoods.