The Cool Index

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

Rainey is happy. "Phoenix is very cool," he says. "Phoenix is cooler than it knows."

Unlike Kimber Lanning and Wayne Rainey, Greg Esser and Cindy Dach came to Phoenix from someplace else -- Denver. They couldn't help but make constant comparisons.

From left, Kimber Lanning, 
Wayne Rainey, Greg Esser, Beatrice Moore, 
Tony Zahn, Johnny Chu, Cindy Dach, Chris Bianco, Wendy Gruber, Silvana Salcido Esparza, Craig DeMarco, Sloane McFarland.
From left, Kimber Lanning, Wayne Rainey, Greg Esser, Beatrice Moore, Tony Zahn, Johnny Chu, Cindy Dach, Chris Bianco, Wendy Gruber, Silvana Salcido Esparza, Craig DeMarco, Sloane McFarland.


Photograpy by Jeff Newton

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Esser came to town as director of Phoenix's public art program. Dach eventually landed at Changing Hands, where she lures authors like David Sedaris and T.C. Boyle to town.

They were both miserable. Neither has family here, and without culture -- they told the yogurt joke a lot -- there wasn't much reason to stay. In their minds, the damage to downtown Phoenix was already done. Unlike Denver, which built a ballpark, Coors Field, designed to spill people out onto the sidewalks and into restaurants, shops and sports bars, Bank One Ballpark was completely enclosed, shooting people back into their cars and off to the suburbs, after a game. The rest of Phoenix was the same: the Mercado, Arizona Center, America West Arena. A downtown of fortresses.

But Esser and Dach saw opportunity just a few blocks north, on Roosevelt Street, and instead of leaving town, they decided to quit complaining and make Phoenix into something they could live with. Esser remembers Denver before it was cool, and knows it took a small group of artists to get things going.

In 2000, the couple bought a building east of Modified Arts, named it eye lounge, and created an artists collective. That was so successful they couldn't resist the $350-a-month rent on a nearby space, and created another collective. When a 1918 house went up for sale around the corner, they scraped up the money and bought that, too.

On the Saturday after the first Friday in August, Esser and Dach sit on folding chairs at 515, surrounded by a show of Esser's photography of Jerusalem (membership in the collective is a perk). He didn't sell a single piece the previous night, but Esser and Dach estimate that more than 4,000 people packed Roosevelt for First Friday on a hot, humid, dusty August night.

Dach unlocks the door to the future Sixth Street Studios, a space that looks unfit for a crack house. She's thrilled, because they just found oak floors under the cruddy linoleum. Dach offers a tour, pointing out where she can picture cubicles for the members of a writers' collective, although first the space will be used for a gallery. In some rooms, you can smell sewage.

A year and a half ago, Dach got scared when a car slowed down outside eye lounge. Now it's a developer in a BMW, writing down the address.

She and Esser are really excited. "You won't recognize this street in a year," Esser says.

In fact, only two months later, on the first Friday in October, Sixth Street Studios is completely transformed. The wood floors gleam, thanks in part to performance artist Julie Hampton, who silently scrubs them in her contribution to the group show "You STILL Draw Like a Girl," curated by Sherrie Medina and showcasing some of the best local artists around.

A month after that, a huge empty lot across the street from the galleries is cordoned off, no longer available for parking, the future site of high-end lofts. Esser and Dach have mixed feelings about the project. And they still have mixed feelings about Phoenix.

So, they're asked on that hot Saturday afternoon in August, do you still think about leaving town?

"Every day," they say in unison, laughing.

Beatrice Moore thinks about leaving Phoenix, too, for opposite reasons. The last thing she wants is for this city to be cool.

In some respects, pardon the pun, Moore is the grande dame of the downtown Phoenix art scene, presiding over a cluster of buildings on Grand, around 15th Avenue. At 52, she is older than most of the other creative entrepreneurs in town. And she doesn't welcome change.

On a recent wet Tuesday, Moore sits on a couch in her studio, "Weird Garden," a converted motorcycle shop, and shoves brightly colored pieces of chenille pipe cleaners into a Styrofoam ball. This project, "Winter Wonderland," is a break from the difficult work of painting. Moore's almost neon paintings cover the brick walls, and her elaborate wedding cakes -- one covered in devil-faced rubber ducks -- crowd the corners, leftovers from a past art exhibit in her Stop 'n Look gallery on Grand Avenue.

There are women in Scottsdale who would spend hours and pay a mint to achieve Moore's unstudied chic. The artist looks like one of her own creations in layers of lacy pink and cream on top, with cut-off gray sweatpants and flip-flops with socks.

You can't get to Moore's studio on a rainy day without getting your feet muddy, and that's fine with her. Moore doesn't welcome the Scottsdale crowd down here. She settled on Grand after development downtown pushed her west, and she and her partner, Tony Zahn, started buying buildings in 1992. They had come to Phoenix in the mid-'80s from Idaho by way of Europe because they liked the name, as well as the isolation.

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