Architecture and Design

Roosevelt Row: The Fight to Keep Downtown Phoenix "Authentic" Is a Fight to Let It Become Something It's Never Been

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In fact, Roosevelt Row isn't going anywhere, at least not yet. It's certainly about to be transformed, and a trio of buildings popular with locals will likely be razed as part of that transformation. But the loss of some well-loved buildings -- arguably insignificant ones, at least architecturally -- does not necessarily mean the end of a neighborhood.

Phoenix ought to have seen it coming. Ours is a town -- inarguably a town, still struggling to be a real city -- that has spent the past several decades emulating successful models used elsewhere to transform a downtown core from hovel to haven. We've co-opted urban studies theorist Richard Florida's "creative class" scheme, successful in Pittsburgh, to create a more vibrant city core by nurturing a downtown arts scene. We've borrowed so generously from Los Angeles and Philadelphia the notion that murals enhance a blighted area that, laid end to end, our own murals might reach from here to Death Valley. We've stepped up our historic preservation efforts and implemented arts overlays and adaptive reuse programs -- always looking over our shoulders at successful city plans, lifting ideas and executing them, sometimes to good effect.

Yet we've often ignored the final chapter of those other cities' stories, the one about how, once the creatives made neighborhoods more attractive, developers inevitably turned up, forcing out artists and small-business owners who could no longer afford the newly gentrified neighborhood they'd made so vibrant.

"The arts community is always the victim of its own success in a story like this one," admits Michelle Dodds, Historic Preservation officer for the City of Phoenix. "They attract redevelopment and end up having to leave because they can't pay the rent in the redeveloped neighborhood."

In our furor to keep this from happening, we appear to have become extremists: We must, we seem to be saying, save every building. We must do everything we can to keep this neighborhood from evolving. We must keep downtown from changing.

Why? It may be, according to architecture writer Walt Lockley, what the French call nostalgie de la boue.

"It means 'nostalgia for the mud,'" Lockley says. "In this case, it's a way of thinking about the emotional quality of a building, but not the actual value of the building. We become romantically attached to a building or a neighborhood because of what it represents to us. Some young people think you can't have an arts district that's gentrified, with all the corners tucked in. That takes away from the experience of exchanging ideas, in some people's minds. Maybe there has to be a place that's grungy and marginal so when you go there, you have the kind of experience you wouldn't have at the same kind of place in a shiny new shopping mall."

Phoenix lost that special grungy, marginal place once before. Twenty years ago, the downtown arts community scattered after the spaces they'd been leasing -- bombed-out warehouses and abandoned storefronts in downtown's outer fringe -- were torn down to make room for the ballpark now known as Chase Field. The artists and gallery owners eventually resettled on Grand Avenue and what would become Roosevelt Row, the epicenter of the current downtown art scene.

RoRo, as it's come to be called, is that rarest of things: a grassroots urban renewal project that worked, combining rehabilitated bungalows with new infill projects, all of it overseen by the nonprofit Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, a homegrown supporter of small local businesses.

Bordered by Seventh Avenue and 16th Street, Interstate 10 and Fillmore Street, the district in which RoRo resides has operated as a mixed-use area for more than a hundred years. In the 1970s, after parts of the area were rezoned for high-rise incentives, land speculation led to neighborhood decline. The area's blighted buildings and former drug dens were affordable for working artists, whose open-studio policies and contemporary galleries helped revitalize a former slum.

What started as a handful of artist studios, funky cafes, and boutiques has evolved into a nationally recognized reclamation project. Roosevelt Row paved the way for the bustling Phoenix Public Market, open on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings -- the first downtown Phoenix farmers market to really take off, its cafe mobbed by weekday lunchers. Once-empty storefronts are now home to FilmBar, a Second Street movie theater and wine bar, and a rundown, low-rent apartment building has become Combine Studios, a live/work space purchased and renovated in 2011 by artists Carrie Marill and Matthew Moore, that's home to the ASU Art Museum International Artist in Residence Program. Up-and-coming galleries -- Kimber Lanning's Modified Arts, Wayne Rainey's MonOrchid, the artist collective eye lounge -- have hung on to become leaders in the downtown arts scene. Their First and Third Friday mob scene, which routinely draws crowds of thousands, has increased awareness of the area -- among art lovers, scenesters, and people looking for a vibrant city block where they can shop and eat and hang out.

That vibrant downtown district also has drawn developers with big plans. And this time, according to artist and activist Pete Petrisko, there may not be anywhere for the ousted creative class to run to.

"Twenty years ago, the art community pretty much moved from one blighted area to a different blighted area," he says. "There was more housing and more storefronts that could be cheaply rented. That's no longer the case. So if the whole downtown arts community relocates again, where do we go this time?"

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela