//Akiala I, the face behind the Buy Back the Block fundraiser on GoFundMe. Photo by Doug Hrdlicka | firstname.lastname@example.org
Art is at the vanguard of revolution. Similarly, it is at the vanguard of gentrification. The two are fated to dance for eternity, weaving and sculpting the future of boroughs by taking its breath or giving it back.
Five Points is no stranger to such ebbs and flows of prosperity and despair. For a century, gentrification would cut into the community, affecting school districts, outlying residences and restricting the flow of wealth.
Back in August, Akiala I created a GoFundMe called Buy Back the Block and asked people to donate money to purchase the first building she wants to take back. The fundraiser is an attempt to fight gentrification in the historically Black neighborhood by buying it back, block by block. Thus far, she’s raised just under $39,000 of the $50,000 goal.
This first building will double as an artist marketplace and an institution to educate. Artists will rent space in a storefront and have the opportunity to learn how to advance their business through guest artists. Akiala also plans to involve Five Points youth in learning art and business, helping to carve a path where wealth, education and ownership can flow through the community.
“Representation really does matter for the youth to see that … ‘oh I can be an artist, I can be an engineer, I can be whatever I want to be. I don’t have to go down this path that the media tells me that I am,’” Akiala said.
A place for the youth to feel supported is an important institution for Akiala. Growing up she had such places that stood as beacons for Black people in Five Points, like Brother Jeff’s Community Center.
“There would be elders and babies running around and there are not too many spaces, I feel, that you can go to experience that now, where there is multi-generations happening,” Akiala said. “And there is something really magical that happens in those spaces.”
That magic extends to the businesses that line the street, too. When Akiala walks into Welton Street Café she is always greeted and asked how her mother is doing. It is a rapport that takes generations to grow.
Another shop Akiala recalls as being a staple part of the community is Akenta Express. The African goods and apothecary is symbolic of the rich Black community and the roots of their culture.
“When you walk in there it’s like an instant reminder of who you are,” Akiala said.
The working title of Akiala’s building is Vibe Palace. It is modeled similarly to how a traditional market operates, with a few tweaks. Artists rent space in the building for a month to sell their items and are set up with opportunities to learn branding and marketing. It is not just a launching pad, though. With all the people involved it will be an incubator for ideas.
“I want it to be a, most importantly, domino effect of successful people. People who feel like they have a place to turn their ideas into a reality,” Akiala said.
Buying back Welton Street is a large order, and many of the buildings are only offering leases. But Akiala understands that the reality of the project is to build community and inspire people of all generations to wield power through numbers.
But the community is resilient and has maintained the rich culture it built off the art it produced during the Jim Crow era. The borough now teems with murals depicting the community’s culture. Its buildings still hymn the tunes of legendary musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie.
Gentrification has long been a dooming presence and is overtly pricing out the generations of people who made it a hub for music, art and community. Some residents, however, have risen to the occasion and amassed community members to contribute to the preservation of Five Points. That is precisely what Akiala set out to do.
“I’ve seen the city change a lot, I’ve seen Welton Street change a lot, and knowing the history of Welton Street and seeing how it’s changed due to gentrification, just, you know, just puts some fire in my heart,” Akiala said.
Five Points began as a majority white neighborhood in the late 1800s but shifted to a majority Black following the roaring ’20s. It quickly became a jazz port that connected the Midwest to the West Coast. It was during that time Five Points was dubbed the Harlem of the West.
Clubs, bars and hotels lined Welton Street, each hosting musical acts. But on the southwest corner of the intersection where the borough gets its name, stands the centerpiece of Five Points music, the Rossonian Hotel. It’s said that Duke Ellington once spent an entire summer there.
The hotel championed Black art and music and gave life to a majority Black neighborhood that was otherwise immersed in racist America before the civil rights movement.
“It was one of the first and only places that African Americans could come and build their own community, a thriving community and feel safe,” Akiala said.
After 1960, though, the hotel would falter and exchange hands many times before becoming a historical building.
Akiala’s initiative with the Buy Back the Block fundraiser is rooted in the same idea held by a once vibrant Rossonian Hotel, and through community effort, it could once again become a community-owned and inspired part of Denver.
“I think that, in itself, it’s just beautiful for people to, during that time, feel like they had a home and they could actually express their creativity or what they are really passionate about and for people to see that,” Akiala said.