Moving Away but Leaving a Legacy – Denis de Verteuil
When you think of some of the initiatives that have happened in Columbus over the past few years – Design:ROLLS, How We Roll, Bike OSU, Pinchflat, and more – it’s hard not to think of Denis de Verteuil. He grew up in Columbus, and while his life’s path has recently taken him to Brooklyn, many of the ideas and programs he worked on in Columbus continue on.
“I like to tell people that I sit at the table of making cities,” he says.
Born at the OSU Medical Center, de Verteuil spent his infant years in Clintonville, and his childhood – or as he says, his “mischief-making years” in Powell.
“It was these critical years that helped shape my personality and humor,” he says. “I can thank my family but also my best friend Steve Kirk for instilling a truly massive sense of humor that accompanied our genius/incredibly stupid ideas.”
de Verteuil would return to Ohio State as a young adult, receiving a Bachelor of Science in Architecture in 2009. During those years, his art and design skills grew, along with an understanding of how built environments were designed. An opportunity to study abroad in Rome, Italy gave him the realization of the impact a city’s built environment has on its inhabitants’ happiness.
“It was in Rome that I saw how a city with almost 3,000 years of history really compared against Columbus, my home,” he says. “I became fascinated with its beautiful architecture steeped in history and tradition, as well as the way the city was designed and laid out. Rome communicated a place that people cared about and wanted to live in, a city for people and for living. From that moment, I realized that I wanted to work toward shaping our world to focus around people and how to make their lives better through design.”
He found much beauty and happiness from walking and biking. A deeper analysis led him to conclude that how we moved ourselves directly affected our happiness.
“Columbus, like most younger American cites, was and still is designed around the automobile,” he says. “Some basic concepts when you design around the automobile are that, you have streets that are the wrong proportion and don’t accommodate the pedestrian, land-uses that are segregated and far apart, and people living very far away from where they work and shop. My first step to change how cities are designed was to remove my dependence on the automobile and I took up cycling. I started commuting by bike since 2008 when I worked downtown —and have been biking ever since.”
After graduating, de Verteuil was unsure if architecture was the field he should go directly into and he took some time off.
He had heard about Bike & Build, a group that organizes cross-country bicycle trips which benefit affordable housing groups, and thought it would be a great fit for him. He signed up to participate in the Boston, MA to Santa Barbara, CA ride in 2009 and then went on to lead a second trip from Portsmouth, NH to Vancouver, BC in 2010.
“It was during these two trips that I was empowered to make change,” he says. “I went back to school to get my Masters of City and Regional Planning because I felt that this was where I could help impact the world with my talents.”
After college, many of his friends looked to other cities to begin their careers. Not de Verteuil.
“I began to recognize my passion for community building and trying to make a difference in my own city,” says de Verteuil. “I was lucky enough to learn that Columbus was a perfect city, in size and in openness, to try my ideas.”
He spent 6-7 years inside the Knowlton School of Architecture and he credits that experience with shaping his life and perspective.
“From there I gained experience in architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and design, business, construction, community organizing, and event planning,” he says. “Some may say I ended up becoming a jack-of-all-trades.”
All of that experience came into play when he met a guy named Blake Compton. The two crossed paths in 2008 while waving Crew flags.
“I was immediately drawn to his natural ability to lead a group of people with optimism and inclusion,” says Compton. “We became friends quickly after first meeting and I regularly looked to him as the standard for being an ardent hardcore Crew fan.”
Compton credits de Verteuil with helping him find direction for his life in late 2010.
“Denis was there for me when I was in a dark place,” he says. “He gave me an optimistic perspective that provided me with enough push to work harder for what I wanted going into 2011.”
Compton went to work with de Verteuil over winter break doing painting jobs and the two bonded over more than just the Crew. Compton desired to revive Compton Construction, LLC, his family’s construction company, and it was de Verteuil’s visionary qualities and optimistic spirit that laid the groundwork to bring it back.
“From day one, I knew he had a bigger vision for the direction of the company and it aligned with my goals and ambitions,” says Compton. “When Denis joined me as partner in 2013, he allowed me to focus on building the business while he built the vision. While I steadied our process and opportunity pipeline in 2013 he was busy building a brand that focused on our ‘why’ and helped build a brand that has carried Compton well into 2016 if not beyond. He had a vision and, alongside the rest of our team, put in the work to make it happen.”
Meredith Joy of Yay Bikes! loved working with de Verteuil because of his work ethic and huge cheerleader personality. The two worked closely together in 2011 to develop the How We Roll program, a collaborative effort between OSU and Yay Bikes! to educate students on riding their bike safely in the city.
“Denis literally developed from nothing what has become the very essence of Yay Bikes!’ education programming—i.e., Big Columbus Love–type bicycle tours that happen to educate people about bike law and proper lane positioning,” says Joy. “What we offer has evolved a bit since his time, but I really credit him with starting us off in the right direction.”
“How We Roll was a huge opportunity to help spread cycling safety knowledge in a fun format that we called ‘edutainment’,” says de Verteuil. “We gave free bike tours of Columbus that connected the local sights and flavors to create a tour that showed students how to ride their bikes in the city.”
Joy feels that what this initiative evolved into has been a massive contribution to our local bike community, adding “I think our education programming rivals that of any other bike organization in the country.”
That wasn’t the only area the bike community felt the impact of de Verteuil’s can-do attitude.
“I started Design:ROLLS back in 2012 as a way to bring organized bike tours of Columbus to the public,” he says.
Another study-abroad opportunity took him to Germany to study climate change issues and he took a bike tour of Berlin.
“The whole time I was on this bike tour I was thinking, ‘I could totally do this in Columbus,'” he says.
Upon returning, he discussed the idea with friends at the Center for Architecture and Design and created a similarly styled bike tour that connected Columbus’ design and architectural sights – Design:ROLLS.
“The idea was to show people why they should care about our buildings and our city by telling them the history and stories about each project through an immersive and experiential bike tour,” he says. “Once you know the story and the meaning, you are more likely to care about it and associate its meaning with your life, thus instilling pride and ownership over our city, instead of always interacting with these passive objects that means nothing to you.”
But it would be his involvement with Pinchflat, an initiative to positively impact the art and bike communities, that would continue to stir up a lot of good memories for him.
Jessie Boettcher initiated the first Pinchflat in 2011 along with Yay Bikes!, Jeremy Slagle of Slagle Design, and Fulcrum Creatives.
“Denis submitted a poster for the first Pinchflat, was involved as a volunteer in 2012, and he and I led the planning team together in 2013,” says Boettcher. “He contributed a huge amount of energy, momentum, and partnerships with both individuals and businesses.”
“I believed that the event brought a lot to the city by showcasing our local and impressive creative talent through a fun community event,” says de Verteuil.
“Denis really had a vision for making the event as vast and impactful as possible and took the event to a bunch of new locations,” says Boettcher.
What started as a one month long event at Wild Goose Creative would become a four month event at six different locations, bringing the show to different neighborhoods, and events. Pinchflat returns on Saturday, May 7, 2016 to Wild Goose in the morning, and then moves to Paradise Garage for the evening.
“I loved seeing Denis use his creativity to get volunteers engaged and empowered, to connect people, and to think resourcefully about what kinds of groups and businesses would benefit from being a part of Pinchflat,” says Boettcher. “He was a champion for the artists and their work too.”
“To me, it was showing everyone that we care about art and design, and we wanted the city to see it,” he says.
“Denis brought his creative spirit to the table to get people on bikes and riding safely,” says Boettcher.
When asked what she will miss most about working with him, Boettcher says “his ability to get people fired up and moving, and his ability to talk to anyone about anything any time.”
“It’s a rare person who can rock both the passion and the follow-through like he does,” says Joy.
While reflecting on his time spent in Columbus, de Verteuil says, “It is funny to look back at all the projects that are bike related. There are some really good people in the bike community, which also turned out to become some really good friends of mine.”
He goes on to say, “The best part was that when I told someone about my ideas, they were not quick to write them off, but instead, got inspired and wanted to help and contribute their own ideas. This is what made the magic in Columbus so great for me. It is this collective power of people that wanted more for their city that they were willing to put in time and effort to make an idea a reality.”
Before he left, I asked Denis to share what he will miss most about Columbus:
The people. It has always been about the people. There are so many great individuals in Columbus and that is what makes Columbus so special. I have always tried to surround myself with amazing people and I found it easy in Columbus. So here is the long list:
I will miss my family who have loved and supported me. Shout out to mom and dad, Paul and Ginny, and my sister, brother and sister-in-law, and my two nieces, Elena, Andre’, Ali, Reese (Reesey Piece), and Dylan Jane (Dilly Bean).
I will miss my friends who have also supported me, given me courage, and shared some really good food: Hannah Hauer, Sara Krueger, Tyler Bowers, Jackie Kemble, Sarah Pariser, John Tubb, Mike Schnelzer, Sam Moore, Mike and Mindi Ortiz, Henry Frawley-Fulcher, Andrew and Lora Zotter, Bob Cervas, Jade Naro, John Rice, Ben Langford, Steve Kirk, Mike Bauerle, Tony DeRoberts, Fred Dinovo, Matt Ackerman, and Matt Nicol.
I will miss my planning friends: Kyle May, Matt Dickinson, Mike Anderson, Mike Staff, JM Rayburn, Justin Robbins, Brett Kordenbrock, Brian Davis, Jonathan Nutt, and Alex Smith.
I will miss my Franklinton neighbors and pioneers who are actively trying to shape a neighborhood for the better: Erin Gibbons, Nick Stanich, Jim Sweeney, Trent Smith, Chris Sherman, Chris Howell, the East Franklinton Review Board, and the Franklinton Area Commission.
I will miss the community leaders/organizers who have mentored me: Meredith Joy, Catherine Girves, Jorge Rodriguez, Jessie Boettcher, and Chris Hermann. I will miss the local business leaders who have been an inspiration to me: Paul Westrick, Sam Mabrouk, Adam Benner, Walt Keys, Dan and Emily Monnig, Jeff Davis, and Alex Bandar.
I will miss my cycling teammates at the Jeni’s Cycling Team who love to play bikes, and my bike buds over at Paradise Garage and other shops that truly understand the joy bikes can bring.
I will miss the artists and designers that give the city culture and have the most fun. I will miss our festivals—mainly Independent’s Day—where all of the people I will miss come together to celebrate their city together.
Columbus has been and always will be inspiring.
While he will deeply miss his friends, he looks forward to a new chapter in Crown Heights/Ocean Hill Brooklyn, NY. In March, he left Columbus to explore a new city where his girlfriend Sarah Royal lives.
“If you haven’t heard about Sarah Royal, get on the bandwagon,” he says. “She is the coolest and most interesting person I know. She is a world traveler, adventure seeker, cyclist, author of multiple books and zines, non-profit worker, feminist, and one badass babe. She can make friends with almost anyone, anywhere and can find the beauty and fun in every situation. So you might have guessed, I am pretty pumped to live in the nation’s largest city with this lady.”
He plans on giving NYC “the same treatment” he gave Columbus, which is “get involved, make friends, try to make an impact, and have fun doing it.”