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Craig and Kris DeMarco preside over one of the coolest corners in town.
First they opened Postino, a beautifully appointed wine bar in an old post office. They took advantage of the cavernous space and put in an enormous sliding door that takes one side off the place in nice weather, opening onto a deck. The floors are shiny concrete and the tables are cozy, or you can eat your bruschetta on overstuffed, slipcovered couches. Tom Tuberty, a sculptor who shows at Bentley, one of the most prestigious galleries in Scottsdale, did the artwork and the sign.
Last year, the DeMarcos opened La Grande Orange across from Postino. The small market features gourmet pizza, a flower stand and pastries. The inventory makes A.J.'s look schlocky.
In the same complex, someone else opened a baby store called Le Petite Chateau, featuring hip designers like Betsey Johnson. A home store, Indigo, opened recently. Across the street, another boutique called Anna Sophia showed up. Near it, renowned local architect Wil Bruder is designing a funky, Technicolor taco stand.
"We're so strip mall, chain restaurant, scrape-some-dirt-and-build-a-big-box development that people lose sight of these little gems," says Craig DeMarco, who works hard but considers himself the luckiest guy in town, given his constant proximity to good wine and good pizza.
This is exactly the kind of development downtown Phoenix needs.
Too bad it's nowhere near downtown.
Craig DeMarco says it was risky enough to start a new business in an all-but-abandoned corner at 40th Street and Campbell, just south of Camelback, nestled between the Biltmore and Arcadia neighborhoods, not far from Paradise Valley. He looked in downtown Phoenix, but couldn't take the chance.
Still won't. The DeMarcos' next venture is a "family-friendly" restaurant on 40th Street, north of Camelback in the old North Bank spot.
The Postino corner is important, say urban planners like Arizona State University's Nan Ellin. Ellin says Phoenix can't use the parameters other cities employ to distinguish downtown density, but instead has to realize that the car culture spreads out development, making interesting nodes like the ones at Lux, the Grand Avenue galleries and Roosevelt Row -- and recognizing the value in the cultural offerings from neighboring communities like Scottsdale and Tempe.
But how to fill in the blanks, to get to the "tipping point"?
That is a question on Wellington Reiter's mind. Reiter, who goes by Duke, was named dean of the College of Architecture at ASU earlier this year. He is focused not only on the university but the community.
Reiter doesn't hedge: No, he says, Phoenix is not cool. In fact, he says the question on the table is whether Phoenix will ever be a legitimate metropolis.
"People are kind of scratching at the ground for answers," he says. "There is nothing inevitable about this city."
Reiter -- recently an architecture professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- comes to Phoenix via cities like Boston and New Orleans. He watched them become "cool."
Can Phoenix be cool? Reiter warns that cool is not sustainable -- it's constantly on the move. But yes, Phoenix can become a much better place to live, a place more like what Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, describes. That is one of the reasons Reiter came to Arizona, to make such a mark. He is involved in the move to bring 12,000 students downtown.
"We're going to be continually throwing out potential futures," he says.
Reiter, who is also an artist, says that in order to make it past the tipping point, the quality of the art in Phoenix has to improve.
Go to downtown Phoenix on any First Friday, and you'll see a lot of people looking. For the most part, they're not looking at the art -- they're looking at each other.
The art, like the people, is varied. Some downtown artists, like Steve Yazzie and Carrie Bloomston, are very, very good. Wayne Rainey's fine art photography is beautiful. ThoughtCrime has shown amazing work.
But some of the artwork downtown is very, very bad: Rows of plastic white razors glued down, in what appears to be a last-minute, oh-no-there's-a-hole-in-my-all-white-show fill-in. Amateur bare breasts and psychedelic scenes dominate the subject matter at many downtown galleries, reminiscent of the poster rack at a head shop.
That raises a potentially painful question: In order to have a vibrant downtown sparked by the arts community, does the art have to be any good?
Yes, says John Spiak, a curator at the Arizona State University Art Museum. "The art is not always the best quality down there," says Spiak, who adds that downtown Phoenix is in a "learning phase."
The bar will likely be raised with the opening of the Bentley Gallery's downtown Phoenix location, Spiak says. He has hope.
Reiter echoes Spiak's sentiments.
"I think the art matters, and I think it can't be provincial," he says. "You've got to get more than just people on the streets."
So then the question becomes, how can Phoenix encourage artists and the people who support them?