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.
Dancer and choreographer Liliana Gomez.
Dancer and choreographer
I recently moved back to Downtown Phoenix in the Garfield District and I either bike or walk to work everyday. Since I received your email, I have been asking myself this same question.
Traveling past Public Art pieces, murals, saying hello to familiar faces (our local creatives and artists), and seeing business owners setting up for the day, I look up and gaze upon a foreign future - cranes, construction (damn you, construction, for my flat bike) and new apartments going up where old familiars no longer are. The thoughts in my head? “Who's creating this space? Who has the power? Who has a say?”
I don't think I really want to know the answers to my own questions...
As an Artist myself who has been in the Downtown Phoenix scene since early 2000’s, I must say it’s The Artist who created this space. I remember 10 years ago what First Friday was like - just two blocks in radius and a few galleries with everyone creating work; renting out spaces to make pop-up galleries. It was exhilarating and exciting. Now we are in the future, and First Friday is a massive event. Hey, I ain't mad at it! It is the fruit of our work, our passion, our labor. The Artist creating a space people want to find and discover, spend money on, and give back to.
I don't know very many property owners. The ones I do are very active in the future of Roosevelt Row and I applaud them for wanting to do right by the community. They too have a big part in what has been created.
What I think would be magical is if property owners and the city talked to the community and what they thought was best for it. However, even if that were to occur, I don’t know if they would take the feed back.
I have asked some of my close friends this question… “Hey, who do you think started the Downtown Phx Art Scene? The Artist or The Property Owners?”
And this has brought many great views into perspective.
I do not feel that we have the time to sit around and argue about this anymore.
For now, I feel that The Artist has to keep doing what they are doing: discovering new spaces, creating new ideas, and generating a community that will not be broken or torn down. As these Artists, we should back up establishments / owners / art centers that have been on the side of keeping The Artist’s successful and resourceful enterprise in Downtown Phoenix.
Gentrification is a huge monster. Saying Artists are “parasites that think everything is free” is just straight drama. Can this person let me know where the free stuff is at?
We need to decide to join together and build an unbreakable union that will not design barriers and walls that halt The Artist from creating work and a forward moving community.
We must fight for what we believe in.
@monOrchid studios, co-labs, office and galleries
Sadly, sometimes people are unable to deal with their own failings and fear, and they blame others for having fallen short of their goals. I can see how having not taken the opportunity to participate in a nationally acclaimed neighborhood's revitalization could be tremendously painful for someone who could have, but did not, and then have to live with that in hindsight. I don't know Erick, so I can't possibly have an opinion on why he would have such an ill formed view of our neighborhood and its people but his logic is flawed so his point moot. The fact is, is that the business and property owners, and the artists he speaks of with contempt, are one in the same. The people that made this neighborhood what it is today are restaurateurs and coffee shop owners and boutique managers. They are also curators, waiters, designers, students and architects. But they are all artists - every one of them. No one but an artist would go through what was necessary to make this neighborhood work and stay with it day in and day out for all those years. Just look at it now. Roosevelt Row is one giant beautiful artist's canvas. I don't know what or who he's thinking of but I'm not sure I've ever even met him so it's all very unfortunate. He should come around and learn about the neighborhood. Perhaps if he attended one of the many monthly neighborhood meetings, he might better understand what evidently frightens him so much. If you see him let him know he has a standing invitation, and to the monOrchid as well. I'd be happy to buy him a coffee and show him what's what.
Director and Chief Curator, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
Artists are the recognized motor in changing dodgy neighborhoods into desirable locations around the world. They were the first to venture out and redefine areas like Soho in New York, and Williamsburg in Brooklyn; or Venice and downtown in Los Angeles; and even the East End and King’s Cross in London. They have done this in Berlin, Istanbul, Barcelona and probably every major city existing. Not to mention the modest but extraordinary renaissance that is happening in Detroit right now. It seems perfectly clear that the hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals who choose to attend, enjoy and spend money at First Friday on Roosevelt Row are there for the excitement that is generated by the art, the galleries and the artists. Love it or hate it — it is a phenomenon that is unique in our community. Roosevelt Row’s edge is its identification with a creative community that has been established there for a long time. Indeed, many of older businesses and property renovations in the neighborhood were driven by the sheer determination and sweat equity of artists. This is an old story, which has played out in countless cities, countless number of times. My advice is watch the artists. They drive the innovation and excitement. They lead the way. And like the Pied Piper they can pick up and start a new oasis somewhere else. Does anyone else think that Grand Avenue is probably starting to look rather interesting right about now?
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