Who Deserves Credit for Making Roosevelt Row a Thriving Part of Downtown Phoenix?
Mural by El Mac and Augustine Kofie on a building at Roosevelt and Fifth Streets in Roosevelt Row.
When Roosevelt Row landed on the radar of the Arizona Legislature earlier this year, it seemed like everyone knew (or thought they knew) what was best for the area, which is recognized as one of the country's top neighborhoods and art districts.
The Phoenix City Council voted on January 20 to create the Roosevelt Business Improvement District, which would have taxed many property owners in the area to pay for services such as public safety and beautification that go above and beyond those already provided by the City.
But the Legislature swiftly passed a bill that killed the district once Governor Doug Ducey signed it into law on March 11. Several citizens expressed their views about the district to the legislature, but one comment by a district opponent stood out from the rest.
During legislative hearings on the bill, downtown Phoenix property owner Erick Baer described artists in Roosevelt Row as "parasites who think everything is free." Which begged the question: Who gets the credit for making Roosevelt Row what it is today?
As part of our Questionable Content series, New Times reached out to several people to invite their thoughts on the question of who built Roosevelt Row. We gave them all the same question, and asked them to share their answer by e-mail. Here's that question, exactly as we asked it:
While debating the merits of a Roosevelt Row business improvement district (BID), downtown Phoenix property owner Erick Baer recently described the neighborhood’s artists as “parasites that think everything is free” and praised business and property owners as the ones who built the neighborhood into what it is today. As the Arizona Legislature and the Phoenix City Council face off about the potential BID, others credit creatives with making the arts district what it is today. Who do you think built Roosevelt Row into a bustling hub?
It's interesting that Mr. Baer doesn't realize artists are among those business people and property owners in the Roosevelt area. I have no clue how long Mr. Baer has been in the neighborhood, but artists have walked among his people for a very long time. Alwun House brought art to the area in the '70s! My favorite time on Roosevelt was the '90s, during the heyday of Metropophobobia and Planet Earth Theatre at the corner of Roosevelt and Third Street. Peter Ragan, at Metropophobobia, or the 'Bobe, presented live music, obscure records and magazines, original artwork and performance art. Next door, at Planet Earth Theatre, Peter Cirino and Molly Kellogg offered original theatre performances and a gallery space. These artists/business owners paid taxes, kept their lots clean, showed compassion for the less fortunate residents, brought people to the neighborhood and made it safe to be there. In 1999, Jeff Falk, Jack Evans, Randy Becker, Redbird Largo and I opened Artlab 16 (photo attached) at 515 E. Roosevelt. We participated in Art Detour and held monthly receptions. We included other local artists in our exhibits and performance art events. We would not have rented a space on Roosevelt if not for our great experiences at the 'Bobe and Planet Earth. It's too bad Mr. Baer chooses not to participate with his neighbors. The arts have been on Roosevelt for decades and would be just another street without the early art pioneers.
Chair, Downtown Voices Coalition
Pity the Legislature and its speculator-supporters for their claimed bafflement about who built the artists district. Spoiler alert: It was the artists. Artists who did not end their involvement by simply being pioneers decades ago in neighborhoods filled with blight and vacancy. No, those artists also did something unknown to the speculators who sit atop unused empty lots: They rolled up their sleeves and gave. And gave. They created vibrant streetscapes and compelling, life-affirming spaces. They welcomed diversity and occupied historic and vintage buildings that others had abandoned. They built community — actual human interaction — that gave downtown one of its most-admired qualities. And, by the only metric that matters to some of our lawmakers, they increased the monetary value of downtown spaces. Yes, arts can lead to financial prosperity, as new apartment developers will happily confirm.
But no good deed goes unpunished. For all their work, the artists also happened to be increasing the value of those empty and barely used parcels owned by those with dollar signs in their eyes. Eager for a big payout but repulsed by the notion of helping to build their community, those speculators located fellow schemers in the Legislature willing to write special legislation to benefit the least worthy. A downtown was undermined. Decades of investment of blood, sweat and tears were scorned.
In the long war against cities, that vile word “parasites” may be the most insulting comment uttered downtown in decades — and that’s saying something. History is littered with those who build and those who stand by and benefit. This is a setback for artists and arts advocates, but their contributions are immense, recognized, and transformative. They will weather this storm and continue to shape a community we can be proud of.
Roosevelt Row became a bustling hub because of many factors, and through the efforts of a lot of people, over the years.
First and foremost, creatives were increasingly drawn to the neighborhood as early as the mid-1980s, when housing was cheap and plentiful. The arts-related business community began relocating to the area in the mid-1990s, due in part to being displaced when Talking Stick Arena was built. By the early 2000s, iconic businesses like Modified Arts and MonOrchid gallery had taken root in the Row. Soon thereafter, coffee shops, restaurants, and other locally-owned businesses, began following suit (a nascent version of what we see today) building street-level success throughout that decade.
The neighborhood's artists (along with events like Artlink's First Friday and the community efforts of organizations like Roosevelt Row CDC) not only added to the bustle, but helped transform Phoenix's downtown arts community into a national draw.
Also, ASU's downtown campus opened in 2006, bringing an exuberant youthful population with it. Light Rail opened in 2008, bringing even larger crowds to the area. In the last few years, the Roosevelt Street Improvement Project made the pedestrian environment friendlier than its ever been, and the City of Phoenix has been doing its part to encourage more density throughout the city core.
Like I said, there's a lot of factors that came together to make Roosevelt Row what it is today. You can't point to just one thing and say that's what made it work.
However, the arts community has been a consistent presence throughout, no matter how many times downtown tried (and failed) to re-invent itself, paying in sweat equity and money for over 25 years, to help lay the groundwork. I do know that.
And we've never thought anything was free nor have we ever expected it to be, despite outlandish claims made otherwise.
Keep reading for answers from Liliana Gomez, Wayne Rainey, and Sara Cochran.
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