Ice Try

Frozen out of the downtown art scene, Helen Hestenes turns the heat up under the Icehouse

Hestenes wasn't the first to dream of a downtown art center. In the 1970s, then-mayor Margaret Hance toyed with the notion of buying the Monroe School, on Seventh Street, and converting it into studios for the visual and performing arts. But her conservative backers feared the precedent of spending public money on art.

So the development of a downtown arts neighborhood fell to the artists who, in the 1980s, began trickling into the old warehouses and abandoned bars south of Jefferson Street, between Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue.

"They were cheap places in those days," says Beatrice Moore, who led various fights against eviction before finally moving to Grand Avenue and becoming a small-scale developer of art spaces. "They were pretty funky, but they gave us lots of room to work, and nobody really wanted them."

The influx accomplished something that the stadium, arena, museums and other large governmental projects downtown still haven't been able to. They began putting people on the street after hours and after events.

Numerous city and private plans from the past decade spell out the advantages of building upon the historic structures on Jackson Street. But the city never implemented the plans. Too preoccupied with producing big-splash projects, it neglected the small but essential developments that would give the city's downtown blocks some genuine life.

Had the city followed through with the plans, the historic buildings of downtown wouldn't have become such easy targets for county bulldozers.

And the Icehouse, problematic as it is, would be surrounded by more than just empty streets.

Proof of what can be done is sprouting along Grand Avenue, where Moore and other artists are repeating what they began downtown. But this time, they're buying the properties.

"Getting scattered the way we were was probably a blessing in disguise," says Moore. "When we came out here, the buildings were even cheaper than they'd been downtown."

Moore and her partner, Tony Zahn, also an artist, bought their first building for about $17,000. They now own about a dozen, which house numerous artists. Other artists are moving into the area and adding life to streets and properties that were on the slide. The same thing is occurring along Roosevelt, just north of downtown.

"When I was downtown, I used to think the city could help us," Moore says. "But they always kind of blew it."

Not long ago, she attended a meeting with the city's economic development staff, to discuss ways to encourage storefront operations.

"I sat there and listened, and the longer I listened, the more I thought that maybe the best thing the city can do for us down here is to just leave us alone."

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