Denver activist aims to spark Black cultural renaissance
DENVER (AP) — Longtime Denver artist, musician and activist Jeff Campbell wants to ignite a Black cultural renaissance in his former neighborhood: Five Points.
Is that still possible?
Take a trip down Welton Street. The neighborhood was once the heart of “Black Denver” and historically dubbed “the Harlem of the West.” Much like Harlem, Five Points has been the site of massive developments, and many old-timers — unable to keep up with and rising property taxes and rent increases — have been moving away for decades.
Sure, there’s plenty of glowing nostalgia from city brass about the touring jazz culture that once took root there. Those sugar-coated tributes too often neglect that the culture was born from Denver’s long legacy of racism and segregation. The history is brutal: Whites-only downtown hotels refused to allow legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to stay in their establishments, so they boarded — and played late-night gigs — in Five Points instead.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, much of the area’s Black culture has been forgotten. City boosters pay virtually no homage to the rise of late-’90s and early-’00s hip-hop in the area when Campbell, who made national waves rapping under the name Apostle, built the Hip-Hop Coalition and inspired a generation of young artists. Even longtime resident and cultural maven Ashara Ekundayo, a local legend behind the spoken-word series Cafe Nuba, found a new home in Oakland, where she opened the Ashara Ekundayo Gallery, several years back.
There are still some signs of Black culture in Five Points: activist and media producer Jeff Fard maintains Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center on Welton; the Welton Street Cafe — though endangered by the pandemic — continues to dish out soul food; and the Five Points Jazz Festival brings live music to a part of town where jazz is now largely dead.
As for current artists: Many who grew up in Five Points live far from the neighborhood. Jam bands, New York-style bagels and craft breweries comprise the Welton Street culture more than long shuttered jazz spots like the Rainbow Room and the Rossonian.
The questions Campbell will have to face as he tries to bring new life to the neighborhood’s Black culture: Can he find space in the neighborhood that won’t be redeveloped into apartments and condos? And if so, who’s left to participate and who can he draw back and how?
Part of Campbell’s strategy for sparking this Five Points Black renaissance is to drum up support to buy a Denver landmark: the four-story brick building at 2900 Welton Street.
There he wants to create a co-working space for BIPOC-led media, arts and culture groups, space for media workshops and a newsroom for his activist project From Allies to Abolitionists and his Emancipation Theater Company.
His vision echoes the recent history of the building, where multiple nonprofit media projects have set-up shop over the past thirty years.
— The history of the Five Points Media Center
The building at 2900 Welton Street was built in 1921; for years, it housed the Honey Bread Bakery. By the early 1990s, the building had been abandoned along with much of Welton Street.
Then in ’92, a group of media activists bought the building and moved in, dubbing it the Five Points Media Center. The space housed huge dreams. Women and people of color, long excluded from corporate media, would finally have a dedicated place in Denver to receive training in journalism. The neighborhood, often forgotten or misrepresented by Denver’s media outlets, could take control of its own story and build power through telecommunications and radio.
Within two years, Jazz station KUVO and PBS12 had moved into the building, along with Denver Community Television — better known as DCTV.
The Five Points Media Center has had a good run. But in 2005, City Council — disheartened by the financials of DCTV — decided to turn off juice to the organization, and public access eventually moved across town under new leadership through Denver Open Media.
In the years since, national progressive television network Free Speech TV moved into the Five Points Media Center. By 2020, KUVO — which merged with Rocky Mountain PBS in 2013 — moved to new Buell Community Media Center. And with COVID-19, the Five Points Media Center’s tenants were largely working from home. Even the parts of the building that weren’t technically vacant have been largely empty.
— What’s the future of the building and will Channel 12 stay there?
The second floor of the building, where KUVO once lived, has been up for sale for a couple of years with no buyers. PBS12, which occupies the first floor, is uncertain about its future direction. The channel is going through a big transformation, welcoming new CEO, Kristen Blessman, the former president of the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce.
— Should the station stay or go?
“It’s a grand old building,” says board vice-chair Kim Carver. “It’s in a wonderful part of town. We really like it. There’s a lot of options.”
“We don’t have any plans, honestly,” adds PBS12 stalwart, Vice-President of Station Operations Mark Seewald. “There is no indication from anybody that we’re planning to move. There’s no indication from anybody that we’re planning to sell. We’re looking at exploring some different options. We’re in the option-exploring stage right now.”
Though PBS12 is uncertain about the future of the building — which is ominously described as “Five Points Media Center Condos” in city filings, suggesting it could turn into yet another high-density housing project on Welton Street — Campbell’s vision is clear: Turn the center into a hub for Denver’s Black cultural revival.
— But is Campbell dream actually achievable?
“I wouldn’t say this is either pie in the sky or anything solid,” says Seewald. “It’s somewhere in between.”
Campbell himself can’t afford to live in Five Points anymore. In 2016, he left his apartment above Coffee at the Point, where he had been living since 2008. The percentage of the neighborhood’s residents that were Black had been dropping but in 2012 after Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, he recalls, the neighborhood’s character rapidly shifted.
From 2010 to 2020, Five Points’ Black population decreased from 16 percent to 10 percent, according to U.S. Census data.
“I watched the gentrification happen,” he says. “When Amendment 64 passed, I watched it exponentially accelerate — accelerate times ten… The entire vibe of the community completely changed. I began to feel alienated in my own community, where other tenants that lived in the building now — white tenants — wouldn’t hold the door open for me. Even having a key fob, they would ask me: ‘Do you live here?’”
Now, he lives in Glendale, where he’s learning to appreciate rugby and the local team, the Merlins.
“I would much rather be back in the Points,” he says.
Taking over the Five Points Media Center, which he plans to call, “The Renaissance,” would be a homecoming of sorts.
— Here’s how Campbell plans to pull off the acquisition.
Raising money to purchase the building isn’t going to be easy.
Campbell has received a small amount of funding from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation to pay for a business plan. He’s contracted with a business consultant, an attorney and a realtor to try to figure out how to buy the building.
They’ve already filed a letter of intent to purchase the second floor from its owner, Rocky Mountain PBS, he says, noting that floor will cost around $2 million. Once the new PBS12 CEO gets her footing, he hopes he can secure the rest of the building within eighteen months for $8.5 million.
“The KUVO floor is ready to roll,” he says. “But the whole building could possibly come online in eighteen months. That’s what we’re shooting for.”
He’s posted about his aspirations on Facebook, attracting encouragement from a who’s-who from Denver’s Black cultural scene, including Fard, who runs a regular interview show from Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center just down the street, and DJ and filmmaker Musa Bailey, the former co-owner of the hip-hop art-bar Cold Crush.
If things work out, Campbell imagines there will be plenty of organizations willing to rent spaces to create media using some of the tools previous businesses have left behind: green screens, mixing boards and more.
“All of the equipment is just sitting there,” Campbell says. “It’s turnkey. It’s literally: Turn the lights on, turn on the mixer, turn on the mics and cut a podcast right now.”
The revenue from tenants would pay to support youth educational programming and perhaps a media-artist residency. All those projects sharing space and tapping into the history and technology still in the building would form a creative incubator — and revitalize Black culture in the neighborhood.
“It’s like hip-hop,” Campbell says. “It’s old technology that people for the most part skip over and discard — or knock the walls down and turn it into something else…
“We can find new ways of using that infrastructure — that old-school, large infrastructure — to do some real creative, interesting things in collaboration with other creatives,” he continues. “The potential is endless if we just imagine what it can be rather than discard old buildings or old technologies or old approaches.”