Arts district flourishes from dregs of downtown, but now faces new problems

(Madeline Pado/DD)
Roosevelt Street has experienced a transformation over the years, from a crime-ridden area to a now-substantial arts district. But some worry big businesses may threaten the current community. (Madeline Pado/DD)

Many places define downtown Phoenix — historical buildings such as the Westward Ho, massive public art like “Her Secret Is Patience” and retail areas including CityScape. But, according to many around downtown, one of the most important aspects of downtown Phoenix is Roosevelt Row.

“Without arts districts, you just have a sterile corpse of a city,” said Wayne Rainey, the owner of MonOrchid art gallery on Roosevelt Street.

For many, including Jobot Coffee and Dining owner John Sagasta, the growth of the arts district between 1998 and today has been a positive change in the culture of Phoenix.

“A lot of people like to say they started it,” Sagasta said. “But I don’t know if you really start a movement.”

Dozens of artists live, perform and decorate the streets of the arts district. But the colored frescoes and muffled music bleeding into the street have been a recent addition to the landscape.

The area was once a dilapidated neighborhood marked by boarded-up windows and weed-filled lots, said Kimber Lanning. Crime and drug problems were common occurrences before its transition.

“There was a liquor store and a hub cap shop — everything else was blighted and abandoned,” Lanning said.

Lanning started off as a music shop owner in Mesa, but became one of the most important catalysts for the district.

“We had several people who were interested in having galleries and being a part of an arts district,” Lanning said as she organized a pile of CDs on the counter of Stinkweeds, the record store she founded near Central Avenue and Camelback Road.

She launched Modified Arts in 1998 as a venue for art and music to be shown downtown. For the first couple of years, Modifies Arts was struggling every week to collect an audience, Lanning said.

Lanning also started the organization Local First Arizona as a way to support local artists and businesses that wanted to build around Phoenix. Local First used methods such as the adaptive reuse program, which streamlines the process of owning an old building at a lower cost in Phoenix.

Overtime, more venues opened up nearby, including MonOrchid.

“It became pretty apparent right away that the city was very thirsty for cultural content,” Rainey said. “We’ve been fed strip malls and destination shopping centers as our form of culture.”

Rainey started MonOrchid as a “multi-use creative collaborative” where artists could work and display their talents. As a professional photographer, he saw the need for a visual space in the downtown core.

“We’re a huge city, we just haven’t really found our urban center,” he said. “I wanted to make an impact on Phoenix.”

The First Fridays art walk was also a primary draw to “invite more people to come in, walk around and see what was going on,” Rainey said.

In the early ’90s, the First Fridays event was lucky to get 100 to 300 guests. Today, the number of people that go to Roosevelt Street on First Fridays reaches 12,000, Lanning said.

Places like Eye Lounge art gallery, Jobot and Revolver Records have now firmly planted themselves along the street.

“(Lanning) has done a lot,” Sagasta said. “But it happens because people want to come be a part of it.”

The city of Phoenix gave Roosevelt its own light rail stop, with the words “Arts District” placed on the sign.

“They recognized that it brings people downtown and it drives revenue,” Lanning said. “It’s the biggest art walk in the country today.”

But where there are a lot of people, there can be an opportunity for change.

Community members hold strong opinions about the Phoenix City Council’s recent vote to recommend a liquor license for a new Circle K location on Seventh and Roosevelt streets.

“I think it’s one of the stupidest signals that the city could send,” Rainey said about having two gas stations so close to the arts district.

Opponents of the Circle K fear that large businesses will start to encroach on Roosevelt and push out all the artists. According to Rainey, the city is planning on building more senior and high-end accommodations downtown, restricting nearby housing options for the younger workforce that works downtown.

“These are things you wouldn’t consider smart planning for a vibrant arts district,” he said.

Beatrice Moore, the owner of Kooky Krafts Shop on Grand Avenue, said “the problem with arts districts is that they morph into something completely different” as property values go up.

Historical Grand Avenue has a similar story to Roosevelt. It was once a gang-ridden area that, over time, transitioned into a neighborhood of local businesses and artists. Moore has been a facilitator for the area’s revitalization, but her main concern is the protection of local historical buildings.

“I don’t really call Grand Avenue an arts district,” she said. “I want it to stay balanced.”

Nevertheless, Rainey is “worried that (Grand) could be the last refuge for artists in downtown,” as Roosevelt could become more centered around “big business.”

Rainey said much of Phoenix’s policies cater to the biggest incomes while crushing smaller businesses and residents.

“We have something completely unique in the country and yet we just don’t seem to value it enough,” he said.

Rainey said he thinks that “Phoenix has more potential than any other city in the country” due to the amount of vacant lots available around downtown.

Downtown advocates said that while old buildings and shopping centers are essential in constructing a city, the heart of culture in any community comes from the residents and their creative output.

“Artists add a lot of vitality to the neighborhood,” Moore said.

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Correction: Dec. 23, 2013

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Rainey’s view on the future of housing in downtown Phoenix. Rainey said he believed senior and high-income housing projects will limit options for the younger workforce that works downtown.