Wyoming Arts Council

The rise of the "artists' district" in Phoenix

You have to admire the chutzpah shown by the artists of Phoenix.

At the turn of the century, the Phoenix downtown area had about a dozen artist spaces. Five years later, there were more than 100.

“The change has been dramatic,” says Greg Esser, founder of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation. “We didn’t want an arts district but an artists’ district — a vibrant urban community.”

And that what Esser and other pioneering Phoenix artists have created with their “front-porch activism.” It’s a lively city neighborhood with live-in and exhibit spaces for artists with the coffee shops, restaurants and bars that go along with it. The Roosevelt Row First Friday Art Walk draws up to 20,000 people. It’s become so popular that the group started a Third Fridays Gallery Night.

Esser spoke to a July 25 gathering of visual arts coordinators from the West, a meeting sponsored by Denver’s Western States Arts Federation. Mike Shay was there to represent the Wyoming Arts Council. Esser’s PowerPoint presentation included before-and-after images of the neighborhood — and plenty of tips on “adaptive reuse” of old buildings.

When the artists first looked out upon Roosevelt Street just north of downtown’s high-rises, they saw abandoned bungalows that housed squatters and crack dealers. It was such a dangerous neighborhood that, even after the first arts space opened, artists and arts-lovers were afraid to go there after dark. As more and more buildings were bought (or leased) and renovated, and traffic changed from drive-by drug buyers to drive-in arts patrons, the Roosevelt Row artists faced new problems in the form of city regulations — and lack thereof.

“We had a lot of public resistance initially,” says Esser, “and no public funding, at least in the beginning.”

The initial resistance came from the City of Phoenix, the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, the Arizona Tourism and Sports Authority, and developers who thought the neighborhood would be a great place for a new football stadium. The land had been purchased and demolition had already begun in adjacent areas. Voters had passed a bond issue to fund the stadium in one of four locations in the valley, which included downtown.

But the battle was on. Artists were opposed to a new stadium being dropped on their heads. They wrote letters and attended meetings to voice their opposition. They also told their story through art. Esser’s first installation at the new studio was on its floor. He designed a replica of the proposed stadium’s 40-yard-line right at the very spot it was supposed to be. It brought home the fact that this very gallery was due to be replaced by a stadium that would be used a few weekends a year, and the rest of the time would sit there like a big silver barrel cactus, a native plant (the green kind, not the silver variety) that the architects allegedly used for inspiration.

The Phoenix Cardinals Stadium, host of the 2008 Super Bowl, now sits ten miles away from downtown in Glendale.

But, for Esser and the other Roosevelt Row artists, there were more meetings to attend and more paperwork to be filled out. Not all artists like the nuts-and-bolts of creating an artists’ district.

“Engagement is a choice,” says Esser. “Someone has to go to the city meeting. First, you have to find out which ones to go to.” By going to these meetings, Esser became the de facto “artists’ advocate” and schooled himself on the arcane laws of the city bureaucracy. It was rough going at first, especially when faced with zoning regulations.

“One of our big challenges were official policies that encouraged post-World War II single-family residences and the development that followed,” according to Esser. “This city was not used to adaptive reuse.” Phoenix had no old warehouse district to be renovated. These districts have been key to redevelopment in cities such as Denver and Baltimore. Ironically, the rise of downtown artists’ districts in these cities were spurred by construction of retro-style baseball stadiums that either copied or used old brick warehouses in the facilities.

All is not sunny for artists in the Valley of the Sun. Old houses and buildings are still being torn down and, says Esser, “we’re still surrounded by blight.” While they now have allies in city hall, even an Office of Customer Relations to help citizen-artists find the right meetings to attend, they have to keep on their toes, lest new regulations be enacted that can derail their progress.

Artists in other urban areas can learn a lot from the Roosevelt Row experience. It takes money and time and persistence to create an artists’ district. All that takes time away from your art, but can lead to your own live-in gallery in a thriving city neighborhood. It also offers many lessons in the civic engagement which is crucial to democracy.

For more on the Roosevelt Row CDC, go to http://www.rooseveltrow.org/. Of particular interest is the “planning” page at http://www.rooseveltrow.org/downtown.html. It includes a 2004 study of downtown Phoenix by Richard Florida’s consulting firm Catalytix.

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