June 22, 2012

Why I Became An Activist. ~ Aquiles La Grave

Courtesy of Flickr/Create for Animal Rights

It must have been painfully clear to anyone watching television at home that I had no idea what to say.

My speech, so well thought-out and rehearsed several times over the past week, had completely evaporated from my mind.

The letters on the cue cards I held looked like undecipherable hieroglyphics.

Standing in front of the microphone, facing a throng of elected officials and assorted staff from my community, perched as they were atop a raised platform looking down upon me, I felt very, very small.

That’s when I knew that I had nothing.

My family and I came to Boulder County in the summer of 1996; any expectations we might have had that this would be a fresh and prosperous beginning were soon sapped.

The company which had recruited my father, which had been the single reason why we packed up our home in Venezuela, withdrew my sister and I from school and moved across three time zones to the Colorado Foothills, had decided to shutter its doors.

Within three weeks, the four of us where living huddled in a studio apartment; my mother and my sister took the bed, I slept on the sofa and my father, the floor.

This is how my family and I began our life in Boulder.

Eventually, my mother found work caring for a disabled woman and my father got a paper delivery route. College graduates with advanced degrees, the sad fact is that they had no history in the region, no connections, no references and no safety net. Over the next 16 years, my father would go on to become the CFO for a company in downtown Denver and my mother, a well-known and respected translator at NCAR in Boulder.

My sister and I pursued our love of literature: I attending Naropa and she CU, where she is due to receive her Doctorate.

With this in mind, I hope it’s clear how gratifying it was for my partner and I to sign on the dotted line, a little over 8 months ago, when we bought our home in Louisville. A $400,000 investment might not be much to some but when you have sweated for every inch gained over a decade and a half, it means a heck of a lot.

I moved to Old Town Louisville in 2001 and fell deeply in love with the quirky little downtown, full of small town character, which have made this foothill enclave renown.

We love our new home; it’s on a corner lot, flanked by six mature pines, with a welcoming open kitchen, homey den equipped with a fireplace and enough yard space for us to engage in some urban gardening. It is a quiet single family community full of kids, where on our first day we received three pies, two bottles of wine and countless ‘welcome neighbors’.

I knew that in this small neighborhood we had found  a community we could be a part of.

Not long after moving in, I began to hear rumblings that the empty store four blocks away, which until a year before had been a Safeway, would soon be redeveloped. Curious about what might be happening 600 feet from my front doorstep, I asked my neighbors.

No one knew. No one had heard of anything and we all agreed that it would be wonderful for the vacant space to be reinvigorated through investment. Reinvigoration, my neighbors and I would soon learn, comes in many shapes and sizes in Boulder County and the proposed redevelopment for the site from renown Boulder developer Jim Loftus, was nothing short of supersized.

My first reaction was disbelief—how could you fit over 250,000 feet of new development into what was a relatively small lot, consisting of a 20,000 foot grocery store and a parking lot?

My second reaction was confusion—how could such a proposed high-density residential development be put into a property zoned ‘community commercial’?

My third was how come none of my neighbors, who know when anyone moves in within an eight block radius of their house, have no idea that the largest residential redevelopment proposal in city history was moving through city hall?

Alarmed, I did what came natural.

If neither the city nor the developer were going to inform my community, I would do it myself.

I printed a flyer and walked around my neighborhood, hand-delivering it to my neighbors, so that they too would know what was happening.

I could not have imagined what followed next.

Within a few days, I received a call telling me that a city council member had taken my flyer to the city council meeting. Apparently, over five minutes, with prepared remarks which verged on ranting, the flyer was called an anonymous attack upon the reputation of the city, the staff and the proposal; the actions of the party responsible were labeled ‘below despicable’.

My response was to take responsibility and have a conversation with the council member. Within a few days my name was all over city hall; it was leaked to the developer and then to the press.

What followed was terror. Although my actions were well-intended, I suddenly found myself feeling exposed, vulnerable and terribly alone.

I had ruined everything.

After working so hard for so long to buy this house, with a deep longing to be a part of this community, it was clear to me that as far as members of the city council, city staff and community were concerned, I was and would remain, a pariah.

I would soon found out how wrong I was.

As the public process kicked in for the approval of this development, a strange thing happened. The people showed up. And with them came the largest mobilization in recent city history.

Suddenly, there were weekly meetings in packed conference rooms at the library, emails furiously making their way to-and-fro with ideas and well-researched speaking points.

My kitchen table became campaign headquarters with boxes of new flyers that residents distributed through more than one blizzard to their neighbors. Petitions were organized and through it all, in meeting after meeting at city hall, hundreds of my neighbors showed up.

Four months later, standing in front of the city council, facing the same public official who some months back had referred to my actions as ‘below despicable’, I found that I had lost my voice.

After a painful few seconds of uncomfortable fidgeting, I looked up intending to say, “I’m sorry I forgot what I had to say” but when I looked behind me, at the hundreds of neighbors, young and old, who literally had my back, I felt invigorated.

What I told my elected officials that night was not a rebuke of the presentation laid out by a planning staff, eager to see this proposal go through or the gaping holes in the arguments shared by the tailored findings that the developers highly paid consultants presented.

Rather, I told them what I had found around my bright yellow house in a corner lot in Louisville.

I had found a community of conscious and caring people…and in finding them, I had finally found my home.


Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Aquiles grew up splitting his time between South America, the US and Europe. He attended the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University and after publishing a couple of poetry books that didn’t sell Aquiles went on to start several successful businesses including Newmark Print, the regions most celebrated sustainable commercial printer and first (and so far as he knows only) carbon neutral print shop. He actively supports many local causes including the Colorado Music Festival (those guys are awesome!). Aquiles was recently appointed Louisville Commissioner for Historic Preservation on a three year term, and was voted President of the Louisville Revitalization Council a local public advocacy group this past weekend. He lives with his partner Deb, their two dogs, one cat, and a bun in the oven in downtown Louisville.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

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