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Nan Ellin says that she recently took a friend -- renowned architect James Wines, president of SITE in New York -- to the Warehouse District to visit Bentley Projects. "He was floored," she says. "He said this is the next SoHo. And he lives in SoHo!"
What downtown really needs now, Greg Esser says, is sustainable, ongoing culture, and one of the next steps toward that is the growth of Saturday After (afternoon gallery hours on the first Saturday of the month) and Third Fridays.
The art scene is thriving, and a fringe benefit is the explosion of live music venues downtown, since some of the spaces double as art galleries, or vice versa. To some, the music is almost making a bigger splash than the art. While Modified Arts has long been operating as both a gallery and concert venue on Roosevelt Street, many of its neighbors also host performances on First Fridays, from indie and punk bands on the outdoor stage at Holga's, and DJs on the porch at Fate, to acoustic singer-songwriters next to 515. And the MadCaPs still play garage rock from the back of a pickup truck that cruises the area.
Over on Grand Avenue, there's a bona fide music renaissance, where galleries even have their own stages and hold regular events throughout the month, including the Paper Heart, Four White Walls, the PHiX, and the Trunk Space. Occasionally, the Paisley Violin (recently relocated from Roosevelt), the Cone Gallery, Perihelion Arts and Icon Studio have music as well. Rounding out the all-month-long nightlife on Grand are two bars, the Bikini Lounge and Fat Cats. Even the Old Brickhouse and Alice Cooper'stown, both down on Jackson Street near Studio LoDo, have spiced up their concert schedules with art displays and special First Fridays events.
Retail will also be crucial in making downtown a more around-the-clock place, says artist Beatrice Moore, who owns several downtown properties where artists have created studios and galleries that are often open to the public only one day a month. "You need small retail to help create a more pedestrian-friendly environment. For some of these businesses to survive, they'll need to have something more than once a month," she says.
To that end, as current artist occupants leave their storefront studios in Moore's buildings, she says she will turn the spaces into retail, eventually keeping artist studios at the back of the properties. Also, Moore bought a 15,000-square-foot building at the intersection of Grand and McKinley, which she hopes to convert to mixed-use, small retail spaces and artist workshops. Since last April, she has been working to bring it up to code, and to get a historic designation as well as historic preservation funding.
Already, a number of new spots have cropped up near the galleries: Greta's Pet Boutique and the new public farmers' market on Central Avenue, as well as boutiques Stay Gold and MADE on Roosevelt. Coming later this summer, according to Artisan Homes' Chuck Kaye, the sold-out Artisan Village development at the intersection of Seventh Street and Roosevelt -- directly across from several art galleries -- will offer a variety of new street-level storefronts, including a photography studio, art gallery, specialty food store, real estate office, music store, specialty furniture store, and Tammie Coe Cakes, a 300-square-foot offshoot of the popular bakery at La Grande Orange near the Arcadia neighborhood.
Beyond the imminent store openings, there's more in the works: Esser says he will start programming readings, workshops, and even yoga classes at some of the galleries on Roosevelt, activating spaces that are currently dark most of the month.
But for now, this weekend, there's Art Detour -- and more than 150 venues featuring art and entertainment, everything from Bentley Projects to unnamed projects in the dirt lot across the street from Holga's artist housing project.
Perhaps the art is really in support of the events, instead of the events being in support of the art, says Wellington "Duke" Reiter, the dean of ASU's College of Architecture and Environmental Design. "I'm not sure that really matters, though," he says. "Other places, other times, and other venues will evolve. Right now, there are people on the street, and I'd almost take that first and the art second. That doesn't mean it will always be that way."
Reiter says this is the third time he's seen a city transformed, and that's what brought him here in 2003. "In New Orleans, I saw a complete transformation of the Warehouse District. Then I saw it in Boston," he says. "There's no doubt that we're at the cusp of a moment where the city's either going to go in the right direction or not. The planets are aligned, and if it doesn't happen here, it never will. But we don't know how this story ends."