Phoenix Rising: Artists can fight back by teaming up



(Nicole Neri/DD)
(Nicole Neri/DD)

First Fridays are the epitome of a contradictory phenomenon within downtown Phoenix: the commodification of the artist community.

“Even before the creation of Roosevelt Row, pioneering artists came up with the simple idea of collaborating to bring people into the area on First Fridays.

This concept has since evolved to the largest artwalk in the nation and earned the area many honors, including being named a Great Place in America by the American Planning Association and the 22nd most Instagrammed place, according to Vice’s Creators series.

The economic impact of the arts has been well documented. In 2010, amidst the Great Recession, the report “Arts & Economic Prosperity IV” by Americans for the Arts found that the nonprofit artistic community alone provided an economic impact of $300,617,328 supporting 9,623 jobs citywide.

Now though, many developers seek to build new apartments in order to cash in on the culture of the local neighborhood.
Proxy333 Apartment Homes, which was built over the SoRo community of small businesses, sells itself as offering an “unparalleled location in Phoenix, lavish collection of amenities, and high caliber of resident service (that) offers you much more than an apartment community; Proxy 333 offers a lifestyle from the inside, out.”

The newly completed iLuminate apartment homes, which replaced GreenHAUS, says prospective residents can “Experience all the culture and convenience of living in the downtown district from an apartment community that will elevate your perception of luxury.”

Still in construction, the Broadstone Arts District proclaims: “You, the gallery go-er, studio lover, museum member” are “welcome home to the Downtown Phoenix, AZ apartment community as unique, lively and colorful as you,” after displacing the Wurth House.

Unfortunately, this only touches on the changes which have rubbed many community members the wrong way recently. However, this commodification is neither new nor as apocalyptic as it is often made out to be.

While headlines in the Phoenix Business Journal may query whether Grand Avenue is the next Roosevelt Row (a rather loaded question), Downtown Devil has known that artists and their communities shift in and out for many years.

In 2012, we covered a panel of developers and students organized by an ASU class to discuss gentrification. The developers, including the Local Initiatives Service Corporation and Raza Development Foundation, claimed that the reality of what was going on in downtown Phoenix could be described more neutrally as “redevelopment,” rather than dreaded “gentrification.”

In 2014, community members from Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Row talked at an Arizona Downtown Alliance event at the Phoenix Center for the Arts. There, the discussion focused on how certain people had been kicked out of the Warehouse District and that over time they had taken root in Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Row. Grand Avenue’s representative feared the loss of the community soul from a sterilization of the area, while Roosevelt Row’s representative simply feared streetscape closures would strangle businesses.

In 2015, we even ran a headline stating “Roosevelt Row faces rising costs of living, could displace artists” and observed that artists were moving to Garfield in the east as the value of land began to rise in Roosevelt Row. Others still defended this as merely natural.

And so the cycle continues to this day.

The pessimist will see this as the slow boiling of the water tricking the frog into being cooked alive.

The optimist will see it as proof that things are improving in downtown Phoenix and that our arts districts have succeeded in revitalizing the neighborhood.

But a realist sees that this is ultimately a price to pay in the society we live in.

Artists create value by their expressive work, and that work gains value by attracting nonlocal guests (who spend a lot) and by retaining locals so that they don’t use their money in other places.

But economically, we still do not highly value artists and the concentration of an urban core naturally leads to a competition for space.

Was this better before all the apartment complexes were built? Perhaps not, for before then the housing situation in downtown Phoenix was extremely limited.

Has this apartment boom helped artists? Probably not, because the projects being built right now do not support creating an economically diverse downtown core.

In reality, downtown Phoenix does not have to take this lying down.

Organizations such as the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, Roosevelt Row Merchant Association and Evans Churchill Community Association seek to put a focus on visual arts with the expansion of First Fridays onto Moreland Street.

The City of Phoenix has many plans on development, but it also stresses the arts with its Creative Sector Task Force Vision for 2013-2018, which called for dedicated streams of funding to help protect the entire cultural economy and not just nonprofit institutions.

But for any of this to matter, artists must turn back to their roots.

Long ago some artists on a blighted stretch of downtown Phoenix began to collaborate to put on an event that has become a national icon. Today, they must come together again through supporting each other and establishing strong shelters to weather the storm of economic transition in downtown Phoenix.

Correction: May 3, 2017

An earlier version of this story had stated that First Fridays were created early in the creation of Roosevelt Row. The story has been updated to reflect that First Fridays were created before the creation of Roosevelt Row.
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