The Cool Index

Phoenix has always been hot. But can it ever be cool?

Rainey, who graduated from Central High School in 1984, grew up around downtown Phoenix, riding his bike, skateboarding. He became a photographer, and his goal was to move to New York or San Francisco.

He bought a house in downtown Phoenix with money he made shooting a Smitty's catalogue, converted the back bedroom into a studio and lost himself in commercial photography.

"I stopped shooting for myself," he says.

By 25, he says, he had burned out. He moved around the country, lived in Alaska for a while, fished. He says no one expected him to make it to 30. "I was a wild boy."

He had stopped making photographs, and just before he turned 30, on his way back to Phoenix, a friend in Albuquerque urged him to pick up the camera again. He did, and photographed a storm that chased him all the way home. Rainey sold some property to pay his debts, got new camera equipment, and started shooting again.

After a year, he says, he had enough money to buy a studio. He chose to stay in town.

"Phoenix has potential. Phoenix has more potential than any of these other cities," Rainey says. "Phoenix is like this extraordinary canvas with all kinds of places to paint."

And although there wasn't much going on, he felt strongly that he needed to be downtown.

"If I'm going to live in a city that's going to help me as an artist thrive, there's got to be heart," he says. "Without heart, there's no place even to meet. And if you can't meet, you can't even disagree."

That's a funny comment, considering that today, Rainey is arguably the most controversial member of the arts community in downtown Phoenix.

He got a government grant for $136,000 to rehab a building he bought near Second Street and Roosevelt and named Holga's. Today the 500-square-foot units rent for $450 a month and a common space houses a gallery; Rainey offers matching funds for improvement projects proposed by his tenants.

Then Rainey bought a building he'd coveted for years, a 1937 warehouse designed by Del Webb, which he named monOrchid and rehabbed into gallery and office space. Last year he started Shade, a beautiful-looking but oddly anti-journalistic/pro-public service magazine that promotes the arts and does not pay its writers.

People in downtown Phoenix love to hate Rainey, partly because he's successful in what they call a Scottsdale sort of way, but mainly because he refused to get in step with the rest of the arts community when it came time to fight the Arizona Cardinals stadium. The stadium found its final home in the West Valley, but in the spring of 2002 it looked as though it would wipe out the galleries and businesses slowly emerging along Roosevelt Street. While other artists and business owners were shouting at city council meetings and marching in protest, Rainey was sitting at the table with the enemy -- the Phoenix Community Alliance and Downtown Phoenix Partnership.

"I went in to talk to [the] Downtown Phoenix Partnership not as any kind of developer. . . . I went in on my own volition," Rainey says, to try to see what sort of deal he could broker for the artists. "Then I'm the traitor because I'm talking to these guys."

Nan Ellin, a professor in the school of architecture at Arizona State University and an important figure in discussions about downtown Phoenix, was present for some of the meetings Rainey had with the government types, and says he was doing nothing wrong, just trying to lobby on behalf of the arts community.

The confabs wound up a moot point, with the relocation of the stadium, but Rainey's name is dirt in many circles. He's the frequent target -- in fact, one might say the raison d'être -- for an anonymous newsletter that circulates in the arts community called the D.A.M. (Downtown Arts Movement) Report.

Rainey doesn't regret the decision. "I worked in the places where I'm most effective," he says.

He's continued to play up to the bigwigs. Last month, Shadehosted a fund raiser at monOrchid, honoring Governor Janet Napolitano for her contributions to the arts.

One morning a few days before the big party, Rainey was multi-tasking like crazy, sweeping through the halls of monOrchid with a handful of lighted incense sticks, trying to get rid of the smell of fresh paint on the walls. He walked into the open area of the gallery, where the high ceilings used to accommodate boat storage, to listen to the rare sound of rain on the roof, then got in his SUV to drive a block to the Paisley Violin for coffee.

Inside, Rainey knows all the regulars. He settles at a table and talks about his next project, a campus with affordable housing for artists, three and a half years in the making. If it makes it, it will go in just north of monOrchid. Rainey is in the process of getting city approval. He says the negotiation process is delicate, and praises the city for efforts thus far. The 54 units would cost $550 a month for 600 square feet with 10-foot ceilings.

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