While Leviathans like bighorn sheep have no place in Denver, RiNo claims a permanent berth. This noun, though, stands for River North, a full-flavored industrial warehouse belt turned-art-district nestled on the South Platt River north of downtown. Bubbling with synergy, the creative sanctuary unveils a sensory romp anchored by rich shades of primary colors set against the perfumed and multi-hued backdrop of the folkloric Rockies.
Officially a part of the historic Five Points neighborhood, RiNo is a rich mosaic of murals towering inside and outside of buildings housing trendy bars and coffee shops, in alleyways, and from highway underpasses. Studios and galleries fill the framework. Interpretations, of course, are always left to the imagination.
One of the exterior brick walls at Black Shirt Brewing Company on Walnut Street is adorned with a larger-than-life mural of Johnny Cash in customary black shirt. That shade, the performer proclaimed, “is still my symbol of rebellion.”
RiNo’s heyday as a blue-collar mecca began early in the 20th-century, when businesses like foundries and pattern shops opened, according to information provided by RiNo Art District, a grassroots neighborhood group. By the late 1980s, industry began leaving, leaving the area with an assortment of vacant warehouses and a crumbling infrastructure. In time, in order to revive it, the group began the drive to link artists with various arts entities, converting forgotten warehouses into usable creative space and offering affordable rents. Today, as a state-certified district, its administrative footprint has expanded to include general improvement, business improvement, and a fundraising arm.
The Five Points area “had a reputation that was less than stellar,” explained Alison Salutz, director of community programs for Historic Denver, Inc., a non-profit that works to preserve old structures slated for demolition. Then “it was the first place in the city to grow when the downtown area became too congested.” In earlier generations, Five Points, was a haven for Black residents. “And because of its location near the railroad, they lived there.”
On a Friday at mid-afternoon, John Gaines was in an easy rhythm as he circled the neighborhood around Larimer and 35th Streets. Near an outdoor drinking and dancing club sporting an expansive chunk of artificial turf painted with football field lines and markings, the 37-year-old independent stock broker stopped to offer his impressions of RiNo. “There’s a lot of spirit. The art helps you stay present if you take it all in.”
From Sacred Heart Catholic Church, it’s a leisurely stroll to the heart of RiNo. The pastor of the longest continuously operating Catholic parish in Denver, Father Joe Lajoie, finds the neighborhood’s freewheeling, bohemian mood a never-ending source of inspiration. When he’s not saying Mass or lifting weights, he sets out in search of some quiet time. “And given the nature of my assignment,” he deadpans. “I force into my schedule going to a brewery and drinking beer.” His favorite spot, he notes, is Epic Brewery on Walnut Street, about four blocks from the parish. Since he considers himself an introvert who values down time, “I don’t want to go to an establishment,” he promised, “and spiritually hit on” other customers.
Reflections of growing up in Denver are chiseled in Kathy Deutsch’s brain. The Bethesda, MD, resident, 73, an official at the Department of Energy, remembered as a teenager, she was asked to model for a catalog published by May-D&F, a local department store where she worked. The shoot took place in Larimer Square on Larimer Street, the city’s oldest commercial block. It has since been restored and reborn as a trendy retail oasis. “I was peeking out” a second-floor window with another girl, she recalled, while the photographer shot images from the street below. “I remember holding onto the window jamb and leaning out.”
Over on Larimer, the action never seems to stop at Lekker Coffee and Watering Hole. Kara Finkelstein and her mother, Dawn Kaprelian, started the business four years ago. In that time, Milbery’s work has filled the fun and lent added energy to the experience. “We chose Pat because everything’s so bright and colorful,” she declared. “When you walk in, you just want to smile.”
Clearly, Finkelstein’s destiny was engraved in Colorado’s glittering night sky. By sheer coincidence, she recalled, she spent time volunteering at Care for Wild Rhino, an orphanage and sanctuary for rhinoceros in South Africa. (A grown male can weigh more than 7,000 pounds.) “That was really the inspiration” for opening a business in RiNo, she added. Keeping the public aware of the danger the rhinos face from poachers eager to sell horns for profit, Finkelstein explained that the store donates 10 percent of its annual profits to the orphanage, the largest of its kind in the world. “We also had one of the rhino zookeepers from the Denver Zoo come and speak.”