DENVER — Once a month, the Art District on Santa Fe is the hottest place in Denver. Galleries fill with couples snaking their way around sculptures they can't afford and on the street, people line up at food trucks for elote, or something to take the chill out of the air. The neighborhood feels alive and vibrant.
After a while, some of those couples start thinking they can stretch for one of those paintings, after all. Most, though, just go home.
"I call First Friday the best cheap first date in the city," said Macy Dorf.
Dorf creates art and provides a space for it at Artists on Santa Fe. Decades ago, he was told the gallery would contribute to gentrification. These days, he's the one counting construction cranes (it was three, last he checked), and wondering how long his neighbors can make it.
"You see all that foot traffic? You see all those people coming along here? Oh sorry, they come one night a month," Dorf said.
In 2019, Dorf told Denver7 he had to raise rent for artists because of a jump in his property taxes. He's well aware that some might have chosen to sell instead.
"The saving grace is, I own this place. And as long as I'm able to pay the bills, the electrical, the lights, all of those things and the property tax, we could stay in business. How long are the rest of those places going to be able to survive? When landlords say, 'Hey, look, I got to raise the rent, my property tax went up, electricity is going up, gas is going up. The bills are coming in, and I got to pay.'"
Richard Dotson with Grace Gallery is more optimistic. That new high rise down the street? That's no threat to Dotson, it's an opportunity.
"Sales of art since the pandemic have actually gotten better," Dotson said. "That to me, obviously is going to be more apartments, which means there's more white walls in there, which means there's people looking for art. So that works for me."
That said, no one is denying there's room for improvement. Both Dorf and Dotson lamented the lack of parking. Dotson said the district could use a few more restaurants. Nadia MacKinnon, who opened Strawberry Mountain in January, couldn't agree more.
"I think we need something more than antiques and tattoos and expensive art," MacKinnon said. "I think the galleries help, especially like, Museo (Museo De Las Americas), like, that place is awesome. And that attracts a lot of great people."
She continued: "But I would love to see more eateries, maybe even other few bars, like, give me a good brunch spot. And like, what happened to Interstate Cafe? Bring that back, something like that, right? Bring in an ice cream shop, some things that are gonna allow people to come and hang out and stroll without feeling like there's just a couple of spots."
MacKinnon's store is a destination, at least for a niche crowd. Strawberry Mountain sells vintage clothes, boots, and trinkets. Some customers just happen upon the store, many though, seek it out.
"Thrifting is huge right now. People really are looking for a sustainable way to move forward and stay stylish. And so we're providing that and so people... honestly, like, when I asked them, like, 'Can you find us?' So, I Googled 'thrifting,' 'thrifting near me,' and we came up. Which is great."
Strawberry Mountain fits in with the neighborhood. It has a certain feel about it. Like the galleries, there's a degree of taste involved. Its owner is as affable as she is gritty, both good qualities to have when opening a small business during a pandemic.
Dorf has those qualities as well. When we came to his door on a Tuesday morning, his clothes were chalky white from throwing clay. He showed us around the place with pride, made sure we photographed work by the featured artist of the month. If he complained about construction, he did so as a fierce protector of the community he's given his life to.
"I make things. This is my studio. This is where I spend most of my time. And I'm not ready to give that part of my life up."