D.I.Y. Downtown

Phoenix's downtown is not a place for artists and business owners looking for a fashionable address or an established scene. But it's just right for those who want to blaze urban trails into a city with a suburban soul

Go to a city like New York, Denver or Chicago, and a glimmering Oz awaits you. The city core is thriving, the mass transit is running, the scene is a done deal and you just have to hop on board.

In Phoenix the downtown is still more down than town, so you have to invest some elbow grease if you want an urban experience. The city's center is the equivalent of a fixer-upper house: It's cheap, funky, and loaded with potential, but it's going to take some DIY zeal to make it into the high-density, happenin' place of hipster dreams.

Talk to the people who run the tiny galleries, restaurants and retail shops on Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Row, and they can tell you some stories about building a living, breathing urban center from the ground up. It's a process short on glamour and loaded with hard work. These DIY-ers don't spend their days in black turtlenecks talking about the Whitney Biennial. Instead, they're scraping asbestos tile off the floor, juggling bills, and unstopping 60-year-old toilets.

Little art spaces are everywhere you look.
Jason Hill
Little art spaces are everywhere you look.
Alex Kutchins: Cellular Sketch P-2006-13
Alex Kutchins: Cellular Sketch P-2006-13

And, generally, they love it.

"This is the only job I can imagine doing," says JRC, who, along with his significant other, Stephanie Carrico, runs the Trunk Space, a wee art space at 15th Avenue and Grand. He has a degree in painting; she has one in fine art photography. But they spend as much as 70 hours a week doing the menial chores it takes to operate a small business. They sweep floors, sell sodas, hang art shows, take art shows down when a band plays the space, rehang the shows when the band is finished, make fliers for upcoming shows, buy paper towels at Costco and do the books.

On a recent weeknight, the local band Dust Jacket was scheduled to play the Trunk Space. One of the band members had car trouble, and the group was nearly two hours late to the gig. JRC, who was busy collecting the door and supervising the, um, housing- and personal-hygiene-challenged man he had hired to direct traffic in the parking lot, coerced the opening act, a singer-songwriter from Alaska, into playing a longer set.

A much longer set. At one point, the poor guy was pulling audience members who also happened to be in other local bands on stage to sing and jam with him.

Finally, the headliner act showed up, and JRC spent the next hour helping them with sound checks. The scene could have been a training film for a course in multitasking. JRC would collect the cover charge from a customer at the front door, run over and consult with the Dust Jacket boys on their amps and mics, run outside to guesstimate how many more cars could squeeze into the overcrowded parking lot, and then return to collect a cover from another patron.

Meanwhile, Carrico sat at a computer behind the refreshment counter, pecking out next month's Trunk Space newsletter in between selling sodas and coffee to patrons who had to work to get her attention because she was wearing earplugs to blot out the din of the music.

The Space doubles as an art gallery, so JRC had come in earlier in the day and taken the 20 or so pieces in the latest exhibition off the walls and packed them into the safety of a back room. When the band finished playing at midnight, he and Carrico rehung the entire show before picking up the beer bottles and cups that littered the space and the parking lot, restocking the snack counter, taking down the sound system and locking up.

Did Lawrence Ferlinghetti work this hard to keep City Lights humming?

A few doors down at Perihelion Arts, owner Amy Young is delighted to have front doors again. An SUV barreled into the combo art gallery and bookstore last December, coming to a stop in the middle of the gallery. No one was injured because the accident happened in the middle of the night, long after the First Friday crowd had gone home. None of the art was harmed, either.

Perihelion's floor glittered with shards of glass from the demolished doors for days after the accident. Still, the show went on. Young nailed sheets of plywood over the gaping hole and tacked a note on them instructing customers to use the back entrance. Like any plucky DIY-er, she was unfazed by the freak accident.

"What are the odds of that ever happening again?" Young asks.

Of course, weirdness happens. It's Grand Avenue, after all.

Over on Roosevelt Row, the scene has started to gentrify in relatively short order. There's the gorgeous and sophisticated monOrchid space that gives a peek into what downtown could be like when its transformation is complete. A block of condos popped up like mushrooms after a rain of developer money, which worries those who prefer their downtown nice and rough. (A recent ad on Craigslist for studio space in a downtown warehouse boasted that the surrounding neighborhood was still authentically tough.) And along with those condos, there's Artisan Lofts, a row of sparkling new retail spaces with second-floor living accommodations for business owners that house the likes of artisan cakemaker Tammie Coe. It's also home to Retail Laboratory, a hip boutique opened by Kurt DeMunbrun and Chris Bale, a couple of guys who wearied of heart-stopping Los Angeles real estate prices and decamped for the tabula rasa of downtown Phoenix.

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