More than a decade ago -- but not very much more -- the area of Roosevelt Street that runs between Seventh Avenue and 16th Street was known as just that: a street. The name that now defines the arts district along that bisector, more specifically from Third Avenue to Seventh Street, had not yet been created. No cute nicknames, few approachable storefronts, and even more vacant lots.
If you can remember this boundary of downtown that way, then chances are you've lived in Phoenix for quite a while. If you can't, or struggle for even a moment of hesitation to recall how Roosevelt looked, well, that's testament to how successful the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation has been.
Roosevelt Row CDC is a nonprofit service organization tasked with the once-lofty goal of transforming a stretch of asphalt into a gathering place: a livable community. It's a work in progress that still falls slightly short of the pedestrian- and bike-friendly love-thy-neighborhood that organizers and residents have envisioned. And though that's important to remember, it doesn't quite matter -- because for locals, Roosevelt Row has become synonymous with the artistic and creative process, while national publications frequently reference it in their weekend-in-Phoenix guides.
That seemed to be the collective consensus at the Visioning Launch Party on Thursday, February 20, at The Nash. The party was the official kickoff for Roosevelt Row Artists' District: Creative Placemaking in Downtown Phoenix.
Designed largely by 2013 Big Brain finalist Lindsay Kinkade of Design RePublic, the piece is a color-photo-friendly collection of statistics and accomplishments from the Roosevelt Row community. The launch party celebrated all three -- complete with gimmicky yet conversation-provoking handouts like "Teddy's To Do List," about the next major milestones for the thoroughfare.
Speakers included Roosevelt Row CDC President Vermon Pierre, who also is lead pastor at the Roosevelt Community Church; Cindy Dach of Changing Hands and MADE Art Boutique and co-founder of the CDC; and Leslie Lindo, president of IKOLOJI Sustainability Collaborative and co-founder of Project Rising.
In addition to beats provided by jazz students from Arizona School for the Arts, partygoers got a taste of treats from the likes of Mamma Toledo's Pies, Pizza People Pub, Short Leash Hot Dogs and Welcome Diner -- all of which have opened (or reopened) brick-and-mortar storefronts in the area over the past year -- and nearly every table displayed cans of beer from Lumberyard Brewing Co.
The party was self-congratulatory, certainly, and well-deserved, but it wasn't the pat-on-the-back affair it had the potential of being. Collectively, the three speakers addressed the crowd of about 100 people for about half an hour. Each coordinator more or less said the same as the last. It was a good message, and it was a message that finally hit home.
"We're creating a place for people to live, work, play and create. A diverse, dense, walkable urban community," said Pierre, who rounded out the night's speakers. "This is the opportunity to create the story this community has been trying to create."
Dach, who took to the microphone first, had a similar albeit more succinct view.
The arts district received a $150,000 grant from ArtPlace America and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012. That money was slated for "creative placemaking" throughout the district. What sounds like corporate bastardization of language really means the grant was to be used for projects throughout the community, such as dirt lot revitalization and an active dialogue with downtown residents. Both of which the four-block radius needed.
Roosevelt Row CDC ultimately used a portion of funding from that grant to move forward with the publication. They conducted a survey that launched in late 2012 to find out what residents wanted, and that data collection lasted through the winter months of last year. Responses came from the area within the Roosevelt Row boundaries (39 percent) but went so far as to midtown and uptown Phoenix and Central City South (37 percent), with outlying neighborhoods making up the final 24 percent.
The polling covered the communities at the heart of the issue, from as west as Oakland University Park and F.Q. Story to Evans Churchill and Garfield to the east and including the residential Roosevelt. More than 30 percent of the respondents came from that neighborhood, with 29 percent from Garfield nearby. According to the published statistics, half of all those surveyed already volunteer regularly during community projects -- with five percent of contributors investing at least 10 hours of service per week. And that pays off handsomely for the community they're supporting.
The American Community Survey from 2007 to 2011 found that the First Friday event draws nearly 25,000 people from the greater Phoenix area to Roosevelt every month. The RoRo survey boasts that 386 artists are permanent residents of the area, which hosts 27 art galleries including Eye Lounge and Drive-Thru Gallery and eight music venues.
In addition to funding the survey research and the publication of the results (which sold for $25 per paperback copy), the money also went to hosting community engagement projects like last year's popular Feast on the Street. The inaugural production, featuring a half-mile-long table running down First Street, drew more than 9,000 hungry Phoenicians to a literal smorgasbord of food from more than 20 Valley food trucks and restaurants.
The striking success of the Feast, an organic, hyper-local project, is why Roosevelt Row uses it as a shining example of what to strive for when it comes to community engagement. Roosevelt Row Artists' District: Creative Placemaking in Downtown Phoenix is peppered with photographs of smiling residents and volunteers. Lounging on the grass at Chow Bella's Pie Social or eating at the Chile Pepper Festival. Rake in hand while working on Valley of the Sunflowers or at the Grow House.
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These events and places make Roosevelt Row a burgeoning arts district. Which is why in a room buzzing with side conversations and speaker-posed questions about what comes next, both long-term and short, the sense of hope was as palpable as the sense of accomplishment.
See also: What Neighborhood is Phoenix's Williamsburg? JB Snyder's Fifth Street Paint Supply Now Open in Downtown Phoenix Hot Box Gallery Now Open on Roosevelt Row in Phoenix Initial Redevelopment Plans Revealed for Phoenix's Hance Park