Rhinoceropolis saved from extinction
At the ever-beating heart of the River North Arts District (RiNo), one venue holds an unparalleled reputation. Appropriately named Rhinoceropolis, this collective of artists, musicians, and other creative folk stands out in the living history of Denver. It might be easy to pass by the front doors without much notice, but inside the building is like a sensory buffet. Rhinoceropolis inhabits an old warehouse at the northern edge of Five Points, along with another venue called Glob. Both share a similar audience as well as physical space, standing resilient amidst the art galleries and breweries in heavily gentrified RiNo.
Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design (RMCAD) alumni Harry Walters and Jeremiah Teutsch, along with Milton Melvin “Buddy” Croissant III and Warren Bedell, founded Rhinoceropolis in 2005 after being inspired by their times at another DIY venue known as Monkey Mania, according to Tom Murphy of Westword. Shortly after, the police shut down Monkey Mania in early 2006. While the police would occasionally stop by Rhinoceropolis, the venue continued to operate unencumbered until late 2016.
In Oakland, California, a similar venue known as Ghost Ship tragically erupted in flames during a 2016 concert. That horrific event led to the deaths of 33 people and prompted cities around the country to shut down similar DIY spaces. Many of these locations more or less encouraged squatting, meaning people lived and paid rent against the regulations. In the case of Rhinoceropolis and Glob, the city shut down the venue because of code violations relating to fire safety and people living there while the building was not zoned for residential use.
Despite being forcibly closed, Luke Thinnes (also known as French Kettle Station) and others worked to open the venue again in early 2019. After setting up a GoFundMe page to raise money for the costs of renovating the building up to code, Rhino met their goal within three days. Even the city allocated thousands of dollars to assist in the effort, as well as Meow Wolf, an artist collective originally from Santa Fe with similar roots.
Gentrification remains a central issue to the identity of Rhinoceropolis, sitting at the epicenter of urban redevelopment in Denver. According to Jesse Dawson, a composer and engineer who got involved with Rhino almost from the start, fellow collaborators worked with the city to ensure their place in the community. While other sites were subject to legal issues, such as Monkey Mania and Blastomat (now known as Seventh Circle), city officials left Rhino alone for the most part. Dawson states that Rhinoceropolis “added artistic value and mystique,” so it held a significant role in the identity of a city defined by its art scenes and entrepreneurship. That seems to hold true, considering how the local government contributed to its revitalization.
Aside from concerts, Rhinoceropolis also hosts art exhibitions, installations, performance art, poetry readings, political meetings, fashion shows, and beyond. True to its DIY spirit, the people who make up the collective bring together all forms of expression. While some of the acts might come from other parts of the world, Rhinoceropolis preserves a uniquely Denver character.
Other venues, like Seventh Circle, serve a primarily punk and hardcore scene, while Rhino and Glob promote diverse ranges of style. Dawson describes it “like a nucleus or like a hub, like a think tank of all these different people of different ages and different backgrounds in life, different styles of music and art that they were making, and it was like a really good place for different disciplines to cross over.”
On January 25, Rhinoceropolis celebrated the anniversary of their resurrection with a night of local talent. Entering around the back alley, pulsating electronic beats led to a wooden deck built as part of the reconstruction. Many of the regulars chat and fuel up outside before the next act. SWAMPS opened the night with their entrancing ambient noise. Lanx Borealis brought a similar taste of synthetic noise, but with a witchy twist. Using a faux book modified with electronics, she would create sounds to accompany the hypnotic layering of loops. Rhino alum Prison Glue brought more techno-wizardry with a loud set of static noise. As the night went on, the space filled more and more with people, and the sounds continued well past midnight.
Although Denver continues to struggle with the consequences of gentrification, Rhinoceropolis stands strong and preserves its spirit. People living in Five Points and the River North Arts District have been forced to confront a changing neighborhood, with historic buildings torn down to make way for condominiums they cannot afford and the resulting whitewash of culture. Now living in Englewood, Dawson says “I’ve learned that if you just don’t have to worry about struggling to pay your bills, then you will want to contribute to society more, you know? If you can have affordable rent, afford your groceries, and everything else that you need…. you just feel like society values you more as a human.”
Rhino acknowledges the intersection of different social and political issues with art and music, providing a space for creative folks to be themselves and make the community more vibrant.
Rhinoceropolis can be found at the corner of Brighton Blvd. and 36th St. Upcoming events can be found at rhinoceropolis.org