If you've ever driven along Indian School Road, just east of Seventh Street, you may have noticed the wacky birdhouses displayed on a long, low bench outside the little strip mall on the 1100 block. They're a startlingly colorful exhibit on a rather bleak stretch of road, their wavy-walled, peak-roofed designs the signature of David Bruce, a local woodworker who makes furniture and birdhouses from materials recycled from abandoned buildings.
This tacky little tile-fronted strip mall has been home to Dave's studio for several years, and to many peculiar small businesses before that. There was a bowling supply shop there; a used record store that specialized in obscure motion picture soundtrack albums; a shady massage parlor. When the martial arts school moved in, its owners painted over the bowling-pin-shaped sign left behind by the bowling shop; the samurais depicted on their sign had distinctly bowling-pin-shaped heads.
That sign, and the tidy little laundromat, and the tiny, aviary-themed burst of color won't be there much longer. They're about to be replaced by more of the bland grayness that typifies this bustling, profoundly boring city street. That's because the building where Dave makes his crazy birdhouses, and where a rather lively group of artists and craftspeople has been quietly working away for more than a decade, is about to be replaced by a Circle K.
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"If the market weren't down, I'd sell my house and just get the heck out of here," says one resident of Longview, the adjacent historic neighborhood, who was too nervous about "police retribution" to let me use his name. "Our crime rates were down, but now with another liquor store, it'll just be more drunks stealing beer, then hanging around behind my house."
This fellow says he was certain that Circle K would never be allowed to move into his 'hood. "The neighbors didn't want them in here, and the cops were on our side," he says, probably referring to Detective Chris Wilson, the Phoenix Police Department's chief administrative officer of liquor background investigations, who reportedly told Longview residents that there was too much opposition from too many corners, and therefore Circle K would never stand a chance of having its liquor and propane licenses approved.
"And then, all of a sudden, the police are saying that the neighborhood associations have backed down and are supporting Circle K," says Anthony Pessler, an artist and associate professor of art at ASU whose studio is housed in the doomed building. "And the cops are going with them. Circle K's lawyer brought in a petition with 200 signatures of support from neighbors who, at City Council meetings, had been protesting the new convenience store."
Pessler can't imagine what happened to change everyone's minds. "The only thing I can figure," he says, "is that Circle K promised everybody free Slurpees for life if they'd stop opposing this teardown."
(Bummer, since Slurpees are sold at 7-Eleven, not Circle K.)
In fact, according to Vice Mayor Tom Simplot, in whose District 4 Longview resides, Circle K used something bigger than blender drinks to change neighbors' minds.
"When Circle K first attempted to secure this liquor license," Simplot says, "I gave them a one-month extension and told them to use it to communicate with the neighbors, who were steadfastly against the store going in."
Circle K had little choice, so the corporate officers pulled out the big guns. "They took the neighbors out to some of their new prototype stores to show them what the new Circle Ks are going to look like," Simplot says. Apparently, the Longview folks liked what they saw, so they'll soon have one of the super-sleek, hyper-landscaped Circle Ks for their very own.
Shortly afterward, the tenants noticed that Circle K had posted a new store number and notice of its pending liquor license on the side of their building. The company has also reportedly gobbled up the dilapidated car wash on the corner, as well. And when Circle K buys property and posts liquor licenses, it's not because they're planning to host a kegger.
Pessler, who attended those City Council meetings, is bugged by the whole mess. But there's one thing that's really stuck in his craw. "The Circle K lawyer kept referring to our building as ugly and dormant. It's not beautiful, but it's historic. And it's hardly dormant. There are artists and shop owners here who are chasing their dreams."
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Simplot feels their pain. He's put together a committee of District 4 staffers to help the soon-to-be-displaced artists find new digs. "My first choice is a building on Central Avenue that is currently sitting empty," Simplot says. "If we can't make that happen for these artists, I've got a Plan B building that will also work. Both are in areas that are really popping."
Pessler is cautiously hopeful about Simplot's plan. "We just got our notice of eviction, followed immediately by an e-mail from Tom Simplot about how he's looking for homes for us," he reports. "But will these new places be affordable? I've sort of resigned myself to relocating my studio to the back bedroom of my house, because I can't afford dollar-a-square-foot rent."
Either way, the four painters, the ceramics artist, the woman who makes fancy dog and cat beds, the faux finisher, and Dave the funky birdhouse guy will all be moving out sometime soon. So will the Miter Box, big-deal artist Henry Schoebel's recently opened contemporary art gallery. In place of this quiet enclave for hardworking artists will be a spot where we can buy malt liquor, a package of Twinkies, and a gallon of gas. A convenience store where artists used to be. Because that's what Phoenix is really about: convenience. The hell with art, and arty types, and little boutique-y shops and galleries that might make our town into a place with some real texture and distinctiveness. What we want is ease and expediency. CornNuts and Corona.
Beer. Not birdhouses.