Downtown Phoenix is waking from a long snooze.
Chain restaurants and name-brand boutiques and that most irrefutable proof that a neighborhood has arrived, the cell phone store, have taken over what planners like to call our "urban core." Arizona State University, once Tempe's concern, has cast a long shadow on the downtown horizon, gobbling up old hotels and low-rise apartment blocks in the name of higher learning. And Roosevelt Row, the long-funky home of quirky cafes and art galleries, is morphing into a big, shiny, residential inner city.
Late to awaken, though, is Grand Avenue. The city's lone diagonal thoroughfare slices across town from Portland Street to Peoria, bracketed in its southernmost section by a decades-old industrial district which, as such neighborhoods tend to do, went hip in the '90s with its own oddball art spaces, curious boutiques, a tiki lounge.
Yawning and stretching, Grand refuses to rouse itself, at least just yet. Although today on Grand one can buy a flaxseed muffin from a locally owned vegan cafe or a late-night slice from a tiny pizza stand, there are no Starbucks or Papa John's or even a Cartel or a Sam Fox restaurant coming soon to a Grand Avenue near you. Which is perfectly fine with Beatrice Moore.
The woman who is most often credited with founding and nurturing Grand Avenue's art-centric aesthetic likes Grand pretty much the way it is, thank you very much. Grand galleries are a little gritty, its boutiques zany, its artist studios roomy and affordable. All these attributes are like Moore herself. And all are housed in buildings that Moore owns and has restored with her longtime life partner, artist Tony Zahn. It's often easy to pick out which structures the couple own, as they've painted most of their Grand Avenue edifices in pastel colors. Moore's mural, on the east-facing wall of her now-shuttered Kooky Krafts boutique at 15th Avenue and Grand, is rendered almost entirely in pastels and depicts a whimsical land encrusted with fake gemstones.
Moore made her name establishing two previous arts districts in parts of town later obliterated by mammoth sports arenas. She's seen what can happen when corporate America takes an interest in a forgotten piece of land reclaimed by creative types. Tedium sets in. Sameness happens. Things get boring.
No one denies that Moore and Zahn are the reason Grand Avenue is known now as an arts district, home to an annual festival and more studios and galleries than any other block in town. Moore herself will admit to chasing away developers who want to tear down Grand's lovelier old motels and warehouses to make room for unattractive midrise housing. And she knows, she confides, that some locals wonder if these very attempts at keeping Grand groovy might also be keeping it from becoming downtown's next big thing.
"People sometimes say I'm holding Grand Avenue back," Moore says in a warm, honeyed Texas drawl. "That I'm trying to make it stay a certain way because that's how I like it. But I don't own Grand Avenue. We own some buildings on a street that no one was all that interested in when we got here."
Moore can, she says, only do so much to keep Grand from looking like every other street in downtown Phoenix. "I'm 65 years old," she offers, with a little sigh. "There are some days where keeping Grand going feels like more of an obligation than a pleasure."
And on the other days? "On other days," she says, her voice rising slightly, "I look around and think, 'Just how many fancy coffee shops do we need in one city?'"
Beatrice Moore knows the importance of a good, solid building. When she was a little girl in Dallas, a tornado touched down on the street where she lived.
"It tore out the house across from ours, and the one behind," she remembers all these years later. "Our house stayed. The whole block was a mess, but my house was standing. I never forgot that."
Moore is sitting just inside the door of one of the half-dozen Grand Avenue buildings she and Zahn own. Her long gray hair is twisted into a knot on top of her head; her cool blue eyes occasionally flash at the late-morning traffic zipping past on roads she convinced the city to narrow, to make room for bicycles and pedestrians. She smiles in the direction of a pair of young hipsters heading into the cafe next door, which she and Zahn found boarded up and neglected when they bought that building several years ago.
Moore and Zahn have been buying and restoring structures in this section of Grand for more than 20 years — saving them from neglect and possible demolition, rehabbing many of them as artist studios and art galleries and renting them to owners of cafes and boutiques. They have, according to both friends and detractors, reshaped Lower Grand, the official name for the southernmost inner-city end of this nearly hundred-year-old warehouse district, transforming it from a blighted horrorshow of drugs and crime and abandoned buildings into a thriving downtown borough that's home to art and artists.
Even Moore's detractors, and they appear to be few, will admit that it wasn't the city of Phoenix that saw the potential of this southwestern hunk of U.S. 60. Pretty much everyone who knows how Grand's lower end became an arts district has heard how it was Moore and Zahn (who prefers to let Moore represent the pair) that launched this once-derelict street into a quietly booming boulevard of kooky craft supplies, mutant piñatas, and public-art planters.
"There's no question that Beatrice has been the mother of Grand Avenue," admits Bob Graham, president of the Grand Avenue Members Association, a nonprofit merchants group. "But what that means is there are a lot of offspring living there. And offspring don't always do what Mom wants them to."
Graham might be hinting at Moore's interest in keeping Grand funky, a little grungy. Or maybe he's heard rumors that Moore and Zahn are thinking about leaving Grand one day in the near future.
"I love Grand, but I don't want to die doing this," Moore says of her life as an arts district maven. "On the other hand, if we sold some of our buildings and stayed in the neighborhood, I'm not sure I'd want to watch what might happen to them."
Moore rolls her eyes when the subject of keeping Grand funky comes up. "I guess I'm kind of anti-establishment on a lot of levels," she says with a little sigh. "I don't really know where that comes from. It's evolved over the years. But I've definitely been this way since I was a little girl."
Born in Dallas in 1950, Moore lived in Mexico as a toddler. Her parents divorced when she was 4, leaving her mother to raise three daughters on a secretary's salary. When she was 11, Moore's older sister, Mary, died unexpectedly at age 12.
"Her death has informed my entire life," Moore says simply. "In 1962, we didn't have support groups or anyone to talk about death with. We were just expected to get on with things. When someone close to you dies unexpectedly, you think about the world in a very different way."
Moore began making art as a child. Her paternal grandmother — whose husband, Stuart Moore, worked for the Dixie Wax Paper Company, makers of the Dixie cup — didn't approve. "She was very religious, and she thought my sister and I were heathens. She was nice enough, but she wanted us to be something we weren't."
(One thing Moore definitely isn't is the Dixie cup heiress. "I hear that about myself from time to time," she says. "I wish I were! My grandmother had some money from my grandfather's involvement with that company, and she did provide for us, which is why I have been able to buy all these buildings. But if I were as wealthy as everyone thinks I am, Tony and I would have every damn building completely restored. We have mortgages like everyone else. I am not an heiress!")
Mostly, Moore's grandmother wanted her granddaughters to be college educated and had set aside money to pay their tuition. "I wanted to go to art school," Moore recalls. "My grandmother peeked in on a life drawing class and came back and told me, 'No, you're not going to do that.'"
Instead, Moore studied art and political science at the University of Dallas but didn't take her finals. "I still have nightmares about that," she says. "In my dreams, I'm trying to find a classroom to take those tests, and I'm lost. I just really wasn't interested in college. My grandmother couldn't accept that."
Moore moved to Austin for a while, where she took up weaving, then traveled through Mexico for a time in the early '70s. Her boyfriend took a teaching position at the University of Idaho, where she exhibited her weaving and, after breaking up with her boyfriend, began making the elaborate fake birthday cakes for which she became known — fanciful, sometimes emotionally dark sculptures covered in vintage cake decorations: baby doll heads, plastic dinosaurs, smiling clowns. One of them, iced with the legend "Congratulations on your first abortion!" was dumped from a traveling exhibition of Idaho artists.
(Moore is a self-trained artist known primarily for her crafts-inspired 3-D assemblage art. She's also a fine painter whose series of wild bird portraits at Burton Barr Central Library a few years ago was a rare event for her. "I've stepped away from the organized art world," she says about why she chooses not to show her work. "I never liked that world much, anyway.")
Moore met Zahn at a University of Idaho party. "He was wearing a black slip and had a long black Mohawk," she remembers. "He asked me to dance and I thought, 'Well, he's gay, I won't have to worry about him hitting on me.' But then he asked me out. Turns out he's not gay, and we've been together ever since."
The couple lived in Germany for a time, then returned to Idaho, restless and wanting a new adventure. "It was kind of eeny meeny miny moe," Moore admits. "We liked the name Phoenix and what it implied. We came here sight unseen in 1986."
They settled in an old bungalow at 15th Avenue and Fillmore, later renting an artist space at Madison Studios on Second Street. When Moore discovered that the complex hosted an artist open house, she offered to organize the next one. "I thought it would be cool if there was more than just one building involved. That's where Art Detour came from. Everyone said, 'Oh, you won't be able to get any publicity. No one will come out for that.' I decided to do it anyway."
The annual tour of studios and galleries flourished, evolving into a weekend-long, downtown-wide event that recently marked its 27th anniversary. Art Detour — which included the then-thriving Movimiento Artistico del Rio Salado (M.A.R.S.) Artspace as well as galleries like 11 East Ashland, Alwun House, and Crash Arts — put both the downtown arts scene and Moore herself on the map.
Janet de Berge Lange remembers meeting Moore when she and Zahn were hunkering in the La Amapola Bar at Sixth Street and Madison. "She was just this warm young Texas girl," recalls de Berge Lange, who was president of something called the Phoenix Artist Coalition at the time. "Beatrice was a workhorse who could do things none of us had done before. She met with people from the city, and she got things donated. We would tell her, 'Oh, it's a great idea, but good luck with that.' And she would come back to us and say, 'Well, I got the city to pay for the trolley to take people to Art Detour.' She was tireless. We all had this vision of an artist community, but she would go to businesses and say, 'We need food donated for Art Detour. We need billboards to promote this event.' And she got them. Beatrice took it to the next level."
For Moore, that next level included scoring city grants to pay an Art Detour coordinator and founding ArtLink, now the largest all-volunteer-run 501(c)(3) arts organization in the state. Moore began talking to artists early on, de Berge Lange says, about the bigger picture. "It went from 'Let's make the public aware we're here!' to 'Let's get some buildings!'"
The first of those buildings was the ArtLink space on Central Avenue, which was donated by the city. "She was always meeting with City Council to get them to see that the arts were important to a developing city," Lange says. "Back then, people were still afraid to come downtown. Beatrice saw things differently. She had the insight to know the next frontier could very well be Grand Avenue. She was going to make this town her own."
Before it became an eccentric, slightly tatty arts district, the southern end of Grand Avenue was just a hunk of U.S. 60, an east-west highway that runs for 369 miles through Arizona, slicing through West Phoenix at a 45-degree angle and eventually feeding into the Superstition Freeway in the East Valley.
Annie Lopez has long felt a deep connection to Grand Avenue. "Probably," she says, "because it's the only diagonal street in a city full of straight ones, kind of like me." Her grandfather's business was located at Grand and Thomas, so her mother grew up in company housing there. Her father was raised in the same area. Her parents shopped there, between Seventh and 19th avenues, when they were first married; her visiting relatives would stay at hotels on the street. Her family's favorite restaurant, Uncle John's Pancake House, was on Grand. "Everything happened on that street, for us," says Lopez, who's married to artist Jeff Falk. "It was how you got downtown." Back then, there was still a large community of Japanese on Grand, where they settled after being released from Phoenix's World War II interment camps.
"Grand was the dividing line between the Japanese and the Mexicans," remembers Lopez, whose autobiographical art has been shown around the world. "No one cares about these little details, even people who've been here for a long time. Beatrice and Tony do. They did their research about the history of Phoenix, and the buildings they were moving into. I like that they're force-feeding the history of Phoenix to people who live here now. They moved here from somewhere else, and adopted us and this street."
Grand Avenue was not the first hunk of land Beatrice Moore made her own. While she was planning the first Art Detour, Moore heard a rumor about an $89 million basketball arena being built, one that would obliterate the cozy arts district she and others were just settling into. "I invited Mayor Goddard to go on a trolley tour of Art Detour," Moore remembers with a wicked smile. "We hijacked him and took him to Jackson Street. We pointed out all the cool buildings, and said, 'Wouldn't it be neat if this was an arts district?'"
The artists fought the America West Arena developers and lost, and the city gave the misplaced Madison Street artists relocation money. Moore and Zahn reinvested theirs. "The city was willing to fix up a building for us to live in, so we chose one cattycorner to the Icehouse at Fifth Avenue and Jackson," she says. At the time, live-work was a new concept in Phoenix. Friends kept asking Moore and Zahn, "You live in your studio?"
In 1992, Moore and Zahn were recovering from the battle with the arena folks when they got word that Bank One Ballpark, now known as Chase Field, was about to be dropped onto their new artsy neighborhood. The ensuing battle — their second in less than four years — nearly did them in.
"I was exhausted, and Tony was in bed for three months," Moore says. "Once we were back on our feet, we started looking around for someplace no one would be shoving a sports arena onto." They found an old auto parts warehouse, built in 1948, on Grand Avenue. They bought it and, in 1994, moved in.
Almost at once, the press came calling. If Moore and Zahn were settling on Grand, that meant a new arts district was on its way, didn't it? "I refused to talk to the press or answer any questions," Moore says, shaking her head. "We had not come here to start an arts community, we were here to get away from development. We knew the neighborhood. We just wanted to do our art projects and be left alone."
Moore began displaying art in the front windows of their building, and billing the installations as Stop 'n' Look: A Visual Community Resource. The concept allowed Moore to show her art and the work of others without having to be open to the public. "That gave me a creative presence here on Grand. People could look in and enjoy the art. I ran that for about 12 years until we started the Bragg's Pie Factory project, and then I didn't have time."
In the meantime, Moore and Zahn had purchased the structure next door to theirs, and later the building that houses the 1947 Bikini Lounge, the Valley's oldest tiki bar. "We bought things that weren't even for sale," Moore laughs. "I would send a letter to the owners asking if they'd be interested in selling."
On one occasion, Moore bought the property across the street because she wanted to evict its tenant, who owned a forge and was making bullets. "He was mean to me because he thought I was a witch," she says, barely containing her glee. After buying the building, Moore found an altar in the back room and a skull-shaped candle with her name scratched into it.
Clearing out the local riffraff became Moore's avocation. "I was obsessed with getting the drugs out of the neighborhood," she says. "We were surrounded by crack houses. I was calling the police six or seven times a day. One drug house would get closed down, and another would open up. Tony and I got used to hearing gunfire. I watched drive-by shootings. One day, a bullet came through our front window and shattered our vintage stove. Finally, I couldn't take it any more."
The couple fled to Tucson for several months in 1997 but returned to buy more buildings on Grand. Sometimes they bought structures simply because they were languishing, with no real plans to rehab them, like the one at Polk and 15th Avenue. Vacant for a decade, home to prostitution and drug deals, it caught fire one day. "Obviously, no one cared about this place. I paid off the tax liens, and it was mine," Moore says. "I'd like to do something with it, but right now we just don't have the money."
Today, they own six buildings on Grand, including the La Melgosa, which has been home to several different art galleries, and a structure at I-10 and Grand where Zahn keeps an art studio and Moore stores some of her treasures. They got that one for $7,500.
Bragg's Pie Factory remains the jewel in the couple's Grand crown. Built in 1947 as a commercial bakery, the colossal structure has, since its renovation, housed various galleries and artist studios, a tattoo shop, a cafe, and a photography collective. "When we bought it in 2004, it was a wreck," Moore says. "We didn't even know the cafe was there, it was all boarded up." After massive renovations, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
For now, Moore and Zahn have stopped acquiring buildings. "The economy tanked while we were fixing up Bragg's," Moore says. "That project took us down a notch, financially. We started asking ourselves, 'What are we doing?'"
What they did was begin renting their properties, mostly to artists. Studios and galleries required less renovation than retail and cafe spaces, and creative people would bring to Grand the arty vibe that Moore wanted.
The pair didn't set out to become landlords. "We don't love it," Moore admits. "It's a byproduct of saving these buildings, more like, 'What are we going to do with them now that we own them?' So we have tenants. Most of them have been good. Dealing with the arts community, you have a lot of bullshit. It's been a real struggle."
Tenants sometimes assume, because Zahn and Moore are themselves artists, that the couple is more altruistic than they really are. "I'm tired of nagging people about paying their rent," Moore says in a rare moment of grousing. "We've forgiven late fees, but we're trying to be more businesslike about it. I'm glad we've been able to help people, and I understand the issues. We've known a lot of these people for a long time. With some of them, we're more than just their landlords."
Moore encouraged her tenants to fly their creative flags. "We've always thought of our storefronts as public art," she explains. "Instead of waiting for someone from the city to say, 'Yes, you can do public art,' we've done it ourselves." Plans for a Bragg's mural were squashed by Historic Preservation, but Grand Avenue tenants have left their mark: murals on the sides of buildings; pillars painted different pastel colors; huge paper flowers hanging from trees. All of this makes Moore very happy. This, she claims, is how Grand should look.
"We're probably breaking some kind of law," she says cheerfully. "But so far I haven't had any problem with someone saying I can't paint a pillar or hang flowers on a tree. I look out the windows and I see a street that's been made different, and made better. On good days, when I'm not thinking about all the problems we've had, that makes me happy."
Moore has been less happy about attempts to rezone Grand Avenue for larger residential development, and she's done what she can to stop it. She recalls arguing with Grand Avenue merchants at a GAMA meeting over whether a single midrise building would be so bad. "I went home and typed it all out for them why this wouldn't be okay, and took it to the next meeting. If you let one midrise in, how will you resist another?"
She worked with GAMA and several other neighborhood associations to defeat something called The Gateway on Grand project. ("They weren't developers, they were speculators," she complains. "And their design was ugly. It looked like something from a really bad design book.") When a potential buyer for the sleazy old Desert Sun Motel was pursuing rezoning on the property, hoping to build a nine-story building there, Moore and some likeminded cronies aligned themselves with every neighboring historic district and met repeatedly with the city council. Moore and friends prevailed, and the broker was forced to compromise at four stories, tops. Instead, he filed for bankruptcy and lost the property.
"If you let one go through, the next thing you know, you've got developers and land speculators everywhere," Moore groans. "And then it's, 'Oh, well, I need five parcels on Grand because I've got to have parking, and I need to build eight stories.' And that's the demise of these smaller neighborhoods."
This won't happen on Moore's watch, she says. "Not every part of town needs to look the same. You have these generic lofts going in; they're like a cancer. They take over the whole neighborhood. And then the interesting people move away."
It's Moore's micromanagement of Grand Avenue's kooky character, some say, that may keep Grand Avenue from prospering.
"Beatrice objects to sanitized corporate gentrification," according to Graham. "She knows how it goes: Artists make a neighborhood cool, and then a big corporation comes in, buys the block, and ruins it. I understand completely. But if Beatrice's vision is to put people in buildings, lock up Grand, and throw away the key because the street is good enough the way it is, that's going to fail."
Landowners can't dictate how hip an entire block is going to be, Graham insists. "The most you can do is help to shape it. If you lock it up to keep it funky, you lose the opportunity for something better."
Moore doesn't worry that people think she's keeping Grand Avenue from prospering, that she's trying to mold the district in her own likeness. "I know people sometimes think we're crazy," she says. "But Grand isn't on the Historic Register, so it's not protected. No one thinks about how over-development and gentrification can affect the neighborhood in the long run. There's a ripple effect. If new zoning allows you to go up to eight stories, what do you think every property owner is going to do? They don't give a shit about their property, because they're not here. We're seeing it on Roosevelt now — all those loft projects are changing the feeling of the street." Moore is referring to the several historically significant buildings recently torn down along Roosevelt, among them the 307 lounge and the Wilcox House.
She has some allies. Lyssa Hall, a city of Phoenix neighborhood specialist whose beat includes Grand Avenue, grew up in Jerome. She knows what can happen to an abandoned corner of the world when a couple of former hippies care enough about it.
"My parents moved to Jerome in the '70s, when it was this funky place that no one thought was worth saving," Hall explains. "My dad founded Made in Jerome Pottery, which is huge now. He became the fire chief of Jerome and turned it into one of the country's finest all-volunteer fire departments. My mom started a theater company and the children's art movement in Jerome. They used sweat equity, they rebuilt and reused buildings. I've seen what's possible when people like Beatrice and Tony believe in someplace that other people think is a mess."
Falk rented a space from Moore and Zahn, where he and Lopez ran the Deus Ex Machina gallery with artists Michele and Richard Bledsoe. He thinks it's entirely likely that, if the couple were to leave, so would Grand Avenue as we know it. "They've made a difference with their actions and their words," he says, "and they've spoken pretty loudly. That's not been true of most of the other flakes in this town. Look at it this way: Downtown Scottsdale had the country's third-largest art market in the 1980s. Now look at it. Art is always the first thing to go, and when it goes, everything you liked about that place can go with it."
Moore doesn't appear to be going anywhere. She and former ArtLink chair and curator Nancy Hill recently co-founded Grand Avenue Arts and Preservation, a neighborhood association that's more specific, Moore says, to the concerns of artists than to the merchants who belong to GAMA. Moore took the Grand Avenue Festival, an annual block party that celebrates Grand, with her when she left, and will co-chair the event with Hill this year. "I think GAMA was happy to see the festival go," Moore confides. "It's a ton of work."
(Moore continues to work with GAMA, and Graham is diplomatic about the need for two Grand Avenue associations, using phrases like "maturing of the situation" and "divergent interests" to account for the recent division between artists and merchants on the street. "People felt this was an unfortunate split," he admits, "but I don't share that view. I think it was a wise move.")
Despite all these new projects, Moore is talking about dialing back her involvement on Grand. She's closed her Kooky Krafts store and has turned over her Frontal Lobe gallery to Hill, who reopened the space as Chartreuse Gallery last month. Moore reports that she and Zahn have recently hired a manager to oversee some of their rental properties, but in the next breath announces a meeting with the city to discuss slowing traffic on Grand.
Although Moore isn't quick to pat herself on the back, she admits to a recent rare bit of private praise. "The other day Tony and I were driving down the street, and I said, 'We should feel good that we helped create this street, and save buildings here, and set an example of a sort.'" She glances back out at the street. "But most of the time, we're just depressed about all the work we have to do to keep all of this going."
If Moore and Zahn leave, Graham says, Grand will continue to prosper. "Plenty of us here have invested resources in Grand Avenue — money and time and psychic energy. It's not just artists here who won't have any say in what happens when developers show up."
Graham is referring to recent developments on Roosevelt Row, where artists and small-business owners who've set up shop are being pushed out by developers bent on gentrification. "Roosevelt Row is kind of toast," he says, "with all the redevelopment. Those five-story apartment buildings could be in Houston or San Diego. On Grand, we're engaging developers who see the benefit of preservation, and designers who feel good about maintaining the street's character." Should Moore and Zahn blow town, Grand's arty community will linger, Graham believes, because of GAMA's strong ties to the city council, which stands in support of the street's continued quirkiness. "We'll be challenged," he predicts, "because you can't control the private market. But I think we'll prevail."
Graham believes that giving higher profiles to old buildings that aren't protected is the best way to keep developers from razing them. "If I convince you a building is important to the character of your neighborhood, and a developer buys it and wants to knock it down, you might not like that. And developers hate to hear that his new neighbors are going to have a problem with him tearing down his new building."
Graham is likely hinting at behind-the-scenes ways to attract developers with adaptive reuse agendas, who are more likely to reclaim a building than tear it down. This would support plans to rezone Grand Avenue under the new walkable urban code, which would pave the way for the Grand Avenue Rail Project, recently funded with $900,000 of Proposition 104 money. Earmarked for new light-rail lines, bus expansion, and street improvements over the next several decades, that money will morph Grand into a proper transit corridor. "Then," Graham admits, "we can really incentivize adaptive reuse along that corridor, and de-incentivize demolition."
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Meanwhile, Moore says she and Zahn have recently visited an estate planner to discuss their future on Grand; they have no children to whom they might leave all that property. "We talked about selling the buildings one day, with deed restrictions, but that makes them less desirable to buyers. We talked about putting them in a trust. It's complicated."
She sighs. "We've done our part," Moore says. "We've lost a lot of our own peace of mind, and a lot of sleep. We can't go out of town without wondering if someone's swamp cooler's going to go out. I hear people criticizing us for trying to make everything go our way, and I just want to say, 'What have you done for the artist community? I want to see your list.' We've done more than our fair share. No matter what happens from here on out, all we can hope for is good caretakers for the buildings."
Moore squints into the sunlight of Grand Avenue, where a shirtless man with dirty hair has stopped to scribble on a tree with a ballpoint pen. "If we do go, one day, I hope there's someone who'll treat this street with the respect it deserves."