A few years back, Sloane McFarland did something a lot of creative young people from Phoenix do. He left.
And then he did something unusual. He came back.
McFarland is an artist. You can see his video work on display at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, in a one-man show called "Child of God." McFarland is also a businessman, and you can see that work in a couple of slump-block buildings on Central Avenue, just north of Indian School Road.
These days, the city is divided into two groups of people, it seems -- those who drive back and forth on Central, craning to spot the barely visible sign for Lux Coffeebar, and those who drive right to it.
For anyone in the know, Lux is the place to be at the moment, the gathering spot for artists, architects, academics. It is not unusual to see Phoenix City Councilman Tom Simplot or Phil Gordon, the new mayor, having coffee among the white vinyl couches and patrons in black leather.
What is unusual is that Lux is here at all. Inside, it's hard to believe you're not in Seattle. And, in a way, you are. Three years ago, Daniel Wayne and his wife, Felicia Ruiz Wayne, approached McFarland, who had recently purchased the building with some family money, and told him their idea, to replicate a coffee bar they'd owned in Seattle.
McFarland said yes, and the Waynes ripped the place apart, exposing the ceiling, building an espresso bar and making it their own. Daniel's mother, Judy, started a pastry shop in a corner and named it after her granddaughter, Paloma. McFarland took the back of the building for his studio and business office, which he named "Martha + Mary" after two of Christ's disciples.
Another small office became "Country Fair," a music recording project McFarland designed in the spirit of the days when you could go to the fair and make your own 45 in a booth.
Even the building's rest room is an art installation, designed by local ceramist Curt Stickler.
For a while, the spaces adjacent to Lux sat empty. McFarland invited local artist Jon Haddock to paint on a blank wall in one of the spaces. Haddock created new work each day, which McFarland painted over at night. McFarland also composed music to go along with the artwork.
Sloane McFarland met Chris Bianco one night, at Bianco's pizzeria downtown, and the two started talking about putting a sandwich shop next to Lux, where Haddock had been painting. Late this summer, Pane Bianco opened.
So did Passage, a boutique featuring the work of local designers. Sarah Walker runs it. McFarland met Sarah and her husband, Charles, at Lux. Passage carries a line of aprons made from vintage fabric, called "Edna." McFarland's grandmother, Edna, makes them. Charles Walker and Sloane McFarland also have a side business, collecting junk.
McFarland owns another building south of Lux, where the Waynes intend to open a dance studio devoted mainly to flamenco. To the north, another building will likely be a bar someday.
He doesn't like to talk about upcoming projects, but McFarland will say that he's about to open a restaurant in a small, refurbished diner on 10th Street and Roosevelt with Peter Deyo, who used to own The Table, an organic restaurant downtown.
Like everything about Sloane McFarland, who looks like an oversize Davy Jones with luminescent blue-green eyes, and favors the sock-and-sandal approach to fashion, the artist/businessman's office is a little unorthodox. There's a lot of recording equipment in the corner. The concrete floor is covered with neat rows of papers -- APS bills, title documents, the 2003 Farmers Almanac -- and there are sticky notes all over the place, printed with the slogan: "What if the hokey pokey really is what it's all about?"
One of McFarland's favorite topics is "what it's all about." The 30-year-old father of two leans back in an incredibly uncomfortable-looking orange, white and yellow latticed lawn chair, and talks for hours about the meaning of life and how it relates to slump-block buildings.
It sounds odd to say it, but Sloane McFarland is the Jerry Colangelo of his own little world. It sounds even odder when you hear McFarland talk about what he does and why he does it.
McFarland doesn't want to own sports teams. (And that's good, since the family money he's using for his current business pursuits would likely not sustain such a lofty goal.) And for McFarland, it's not about making money, or even about making coffee or sandwiches. He's going through a personal evolution, he says, involving his relationship with God, his family and the place where he grew up -- Phoenix. He came home from San Francisco to pursue that through both art and real estate.
"It doesn't matter if you're working with video, music, businesses, food, ideas," McFarland says. "It's really about where is it all coming from and what are you processing and what are you hoping to give?
"I'm really searching to heal as a human being, and that includes where I came from and where I'm going and where I am now."
McFarland says the common tie for all of his projects is love -- whether it's the love of coffee, fashion, bread or junk. He wants to become a better person through the projects he supports. And for anyone interested, "I'm open to doing the right thing," he says.
"You want to know the secret? I want to love more. And I'm terribly flawed at it, but I'm going to continue."
Good, because no matter how kooky he sounds, Phoenix could use a lot more of Sloane McFarland's funky, unique businesses. In a way, he and others like him could have -- are having, on the underground level -- as big an impact on Phoenix as Jerry Colangelo.
McFarland is not alone. He is part of a small group of local artists and people with artistic sensibilities who are making more than art in downtown Phoenix. They are opening businesses -- galleries, restaurants, music venues, boutiques and coffee bars -- that reflect both a creative and an entrepreneurial spirit.
That is a step toward building a creative community, according to the guru of cool living, Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life.
These are exactly the people Florida says are vital to economically sustainable communities. They're the type of people who have bought his book, but are too busy to read it.
Talking to these creative entrepreneurs about their businesses can be an almost psychedelic experience, both because of the sheer number of the projects they are working on at once and because, like McFarland, they approach business with an artist's out-of-the-box perspective. These are people who use both sides of their brains, and they cover a lot of turf.
-- Kimber Lanning. She started Stinkweeds, an independent record store, when she was 19. Now she also owns Modified Arts, a music/art space on Roosevelt Street. And she recently founded Arizona Chain Reaction, a nonprofit group devoted to promoting independent businesses.
-- Wayne Rainey. He's a commercial and fine art photographer who opened monOrchid, a multi-use facility on Roosevelt Street that houses his own studio and gallery space, the offices of local architects and graphic designers, and the offices of Shade magazine, which he started. Rainey also owns Holga's, a 12-unit affordable-housing structure he rehabbed himself with $136,000 in grant money. He's at work on a large, low-income housing project for artists.
-- Greg Esser and Cindy Dach. He runs the public art program for the city of Phoenix. She's the marketing director for Changing Hands, the independent bookstore in Tempe. In their spare time, the husband and wife started two artist collectives, eye lounge and 515, on Roosevelt Street, and bought a third building that now houses Sixth Street Studios, which includes gallery space and artist studios. Both are artists, and Dach is a writer. She's trying to start a writers' collective, like the Writer's Grotto in San Francisco.
-- Beatrice Moore. She and her partner Tony Zahn, also an artist, have purchased 12 buildings along Grand Avenue, including the Stop 'n Look gallery, which houses occasional 24-hour displays and Moore's own Weird Garden, where she shows her paintings.
-- Chris Bianco. He went from making contraband mozzarella in his apartment to running one of the most successful restaurants in town, Pizzeria Bianco, in one of the most unlikely locations, the heart of downtown Phoenix. He and partner Susan Pool started Bar Bianco to accommodate waiting patrons, and now he's got Pane Bianco on Central.
-- Johnny Chu. He and his girlfriend, Miranda Lowe, opened Fate, a restaurant featuring Chu's unique Chinese cooking, near Central Avenue and Roosevelt. Chu displays the work of local artists, showcases local bands and -- with torches blazing -- features after-hours parties on weekends 'til 4 a.m. He has a business plan for a teahouse in downtown Phoenix.
-- Silvana Salcido Esparza. Last year she opened Barrio Café on 16th Street with her partner, Wendy Gruber. The restaurant features central Mexican cuisine and the work of local artists. Esparza teaches and leads tours to Mexico. Next month, she's purchasing the building that houses Barrio Café, and plans to buy the entire block, to expand the restaurant and open a bakery and deli.
Now that's multi-tasking. And it's all happening at once, and it's happening all over downtown Phoenix.
David Lacy, the owner of Willo Baking Company and My Florist Cafe, is set to open My Florist Market on McDowell, near Seventh Avenue.
Anthony Oliveri, who owns the strip club Rain on Central Avenue, says he will start offering burlesque shows January 1, and that AZ88, the popular Scottsdale restaurant, will soon open a Phoenix location on his block, just south of Fillmore Street. Oliveri is hoping to build a high-rise on the site featuring a four-story theater. Oliveri, who also owns several properties on Roosevelt Street, is also starting a bar in the old 307 transvestite bar called 504.
Allan Gutkin, a Stanford-educated lawyer who grew up here and came back, has two housing projects under way in downtown Phoenix -- "modernist" connected units with yards and garages with aluminum grilles and three floors that can be designed by the individual owners into live/work spaces. The developer has other projects under way, as well.
Every week, it seems, a new contemporary furniture store, another club, a gallery opens in downtown Phoenix. People such as Daniel and Felicia Ruiz Wayne are moving home to raise their kids near family, and they're bringing what they've learned in cities like Seattle back with them. When something does go out of business -- like The Table, which closed last spring -- more likely than not, something cool (Johnny Chu's Fate) is there almost overnight to replace it.
"We are the best party in town right now," says Chu, who thought he would need to keep running Lucky Dragon, his restaurant/nightclub in Tempe, to pay his rent in Phoenix. But when he served 385 meals his first night in business, Chu changed his mind.
The list goes on and on. (Check it out in our guides to Who's Cool and Where's Cool that accompany this story.)
And it all leads to a question no one from these parts has ever dared to ask before:
Is Phoenix finally on the verge of being cool?
Richard Florida, the Carnegie Mellon professor who wrote the bible of cool, came to town this fall. He talked about how a third of the work force in America is creative, a group that craves a rich urban lifestyle that offers a great cup of coffee, a neighborhood bistro and a gallery scene along with big museums and stadiums.
He talked about how cities need to be cool, and not just for the sake of being hip, but to be economically sustainable.
Florida was here for less than 24 hours. A cross between Elvis Presley and Elvis Costello, he is unquestionably cool. As he dashed from a television interview to a cocktail party in the basement of the Orpheum Theatre, he fired back an answer to a quick query: "How do you know when your city is cool?"
"When you don't have to ask."
Touché. Phoenix is only beginning to even ask the question. This place has the biggest inferiority complex of any city in the world. A few years back, a local artist printed tee shirts emblazoned with a huge sun and the message "Phoenix Is Boring." Local legend has it that another artist once got an unrestricted grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and used the money to buy a pickup truck and leave town. MTV won't even film a season of The Real World here.
Phoenix has a long way to go.
But how do you know when your city is on the verge of being cool? Another recent book better answers that question than Florida's. It's called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The author, Malcolm Gladwell, is a staff writer at The New Yorker, and his book is based on a series of articles he wrote for the magazine about how social phenomena occur. For example, Gladwell wrote about how Hush Puppies -- the brushed-suede loafers from the '50s -- had a resurgence of popularity in the '90s. Gladwell traced the trend all the way back to a group of friends from Brooklyn, who liked to go clubbing at the hippest spots in the city. The hipsters started wearing Hush Puppies they'd bought at vintage stores, and soon other hipsters were combing thrift shops for Hush Puppies. Fashionistas picked up on the trend and wrote about it in magazines, and not long after that, the company that makes Hush Puppies, which was almost out of business, was booming.
To boil it down, the "tipping point" is the point at which something goes from being an anomaly to being the hottest thing around. Or the coolest, depending on your preferred vernacular.
Years from now, people like Malcolm Gladwell may very well point to Lux Coffeebar and Sloane McFarland as the tipping point of a cultural renaissance in Phoenix.
Other cities have such legends. The birthplace of cool in Denver is the City Spirit Café. In Providence, Rhode Island, it's an artists' collective called AS22. In Boston it's an artist named Sarah Hutt.
It's easy to identify a tipping point, after the fact. What's difficult is knowing you're on the verge of one, and figuring out how to get there.
Gladwell, who has spent more time in Phoenix than Richard Florida has, is surprised to hear that the "cool" question is even being asked. He came to town recently to write a story, he says, and booked a room at the San Carlos Hotel because he figured he should stay downtown. He wound up moving to a resort in Scottsdale, which didn't make him any happier.
Gladwell definitely would have missed the sign for Lux.
Phoenix won't ever be Paris, he says with confidence, but yeah, maybe the place could one day have an urban bohemian feel. The tipping point in creating a vibrant city, he says, comes when creative people decide to stay. But good things have to happen first, creating a chicken-and-egg dilemma similar to that involving downtown living space and downtown businesses. (In other words, no one wants to live downtown because there's nothing to do downtown, and no businesses want to locate downtown because no one lives there.)
"When you're not embarrassed to say, I'm from Phoenix,' then people will start to stay," Gladwell says. "The biggest issue with cities like Phoenix that are trying to develop this kind of downtown culture is that the kind of people who need to live there leave."
If people like Sloane McFarland are staying, Gladwell says, that's the first step. The second step: more people like Sloane McFarland. Many more. And there has to be density. Right now, the cool spots around town -- 15th Avenue and Grand, Central and Indian School, Third Street and Roosevelt -- hug the outskirts of what is traditionally considered the downtown core of Phoenix. With cool businesses emerging organically around the city, the question becomes: What is the role of government in encouraging this unique commerce, in pushing it past the tipping point? (See accompanying story on page 11.) Gladwell warns that incentives are not the be-all.
"The thing about financial incentives is, that's not the stumbling block to these people," he says. "People out to create ground swells aren't in it for the money. They are people who are trying to live a certain way and have a certain cultural satisfaction in life."
In fact, almost every creative entrepreneur interviewed says he or she did not receive breaks from the city and would not want them even if they had been available. But if the concentration Gladwell wants is to exist, some sort of incentives do need to be available for would-be self-starters who need a little push. Other cities have been successful at taking the seeds of creativity planted by the Sloane McFarlands and nurturing them past a tipping point.
The next sign of a tipping point, Gladwell says, is that word will spread outside the city so that people will come to Phoenix the way they come to Austin, Texas, or Portland, Oregon -- because those cities are viewed as cool.
From his desk in New York City, Gladwell confirms that Phoenix is definitely not there yet.
In 1999, one of the few signs of life on Roosevelt Street was the 307, a beloved, beyond-a-dive, now-defunct transvestite bar. And then quietly, one night, tiny white Christmas lights appeared on the bars of the windows of a small brick building across the street.
Kimber Lanning had opened Modified Arts. Art spaces have come and gone in downtown Phoenix for years, but Lanning was a serious businesswoman with a proven track record. And she had a plan.
Lanning grew up on the west side and moved out of her parents' house in 1985 to study architecture at Arizona State University. She went from knowing everyone in high school to knowing no one at ASU. She listened to Black Flag and Bad Religion and couldn't stand her classmates, so after a year and a half she dropped out to open a record store in Mesa. Today, Stinkweeds, which is now located on Apache Boulevard in Tempe, is widely considered the edgiest independent record store in town.
It drove Lanning nuts when bands would pass through town without playing, so she let them play at Stinkweeds for $5 a head, and let the bands keep the money. She wanted a real music venue, so she opened Modified, and, with art in the family (her mother runs a gallery in Sedona), Lanning created gallery space in Modified, too.
Short on cash but big on ideas, Lanning made Modified an unofficial nonprofit. She runs the gallery and has a manager who books the bands. The rest of the people who work at Modified are volunteers.
"That's what I'm most proud of, that in Phoenix, where people say, This town sucks,' we have been able to put together a volunteer-based art space that has been able to last five years," Lanning says. "When bands leave, they get paid. It's well-run, you know what I mean? And what touches me most is that these kids who are volunteering . . . are learning about how to run a business with integrity and how to be reliable and how to treat bands. We give them a key."
Lanning is now in her mid-30s, although she looks so young you wonder if she raided her mom's closet for the cocktail dress she's wearing at a First Friday opening. But she's a veteran of the scene. Up to now she's kept her record store in a strip mall in Tempe because she doesn't get the traffic she needs in Phoenix to sustain such a business. Even with a volunteer staff, Stinkweeds basically pays the bills for Modified. But Lanning is eternally hopeful. And she's not going anywhere. She bought the Modified building last year.
"All of my peers, everyone that I grew up with . . . they've all gone to do great things in other cities. And they all say, Why are you still there?' And I say, It's getting better.' It's been 15 years that I've been saying it's getting better. But now I'm not the only one who's saying that anymore."
Next came Wayne Rainey.
Rainey's family has roots in downtown Phoenix. His grandfather came to town from Texas in 1918, and Rainey remembers stories about "The Wine Glass," a downtown cattlemen's club.
Rainey, who graduated from Central High School in 1984, grew up around downtown Phoenix, riding his bike, skateboarding. He became a photographer, and his goal was to move to New York or San Francisco.
He bought a house in downtown Phoenix with money he made shooting a Smitty's catalogue, converted the back bedroom into a studio and lost himself in commercial photography.
"I stopped shooting for myself," he says.
By 25, he says, he had burned out. He moved around the country, lived in Alaska for a while, fished. He says no one expected him to make it to 30. "I was a wild boy."
He had stopped making photographs, and just before he turned 30, on his way back to Phoenix, a friend in Albuquerque urged him to pick up the camera again. He did, and photographed a storm that chased him all the way home. Rainey sold some property to pay his debts, got new camera equipment, and started shooting again.
After a year, he says, he had enough money to buy a studio. He chose to stay in town.
"Phoenix has potential. Phoenix has more potential than any of these other cities," Rainey says. "Phoenix is like this extraordinary canvas with all kinds of places to paint."
And although there wasn't much going on, he felt strongly that he needed to be downtown.
"If I'm going to live in a city that's going to help me as an artist thrive, there's got to be heart," he says. "Without heart, there's no place even to meet. And if you can't meet, you can't even disagree."
That's a funny comment, considering that today, Rainey is arguably the most controversial member of the arts community in downtown Phoenix.
He got a government grant for $136,000 to rehab a building he bought near Second Street and Roosevelt and named Holga's. Today the 500-square-foot units rent for $450 a month and a common space houses a gallery; Rainey offers matching funds for improvement projects proposed by his tenants.
Then Rainey bought a building he'd coveted for years, a 1937 warehouse designed by Del Webb, which he named monOrchid and rehabbed into gallery and office space. Last year he started Shade, a beautiful-looking but oddly anti-journalistic/pro-public service magazine that promotes the arts and does not pay its writers.
People in downtown Phoenix love to hate Rainey, partly because he's successful in what they call a Scottsdale sort of way, but mainly because he refused to get in step with the rest of the arts community when it came time to fight the Arizona Cardinals stadium. The stadium found its final home in the West Valley, but in the spring of 2002 it looked as though it would wipe out the galleries and businesses slowly emerging along Roosevelt Street. While other artists and business owners were shouting at city council meetings and marching in protest, Rainey was sitting at the table with the enemy -- the Phoenix Community Alliance and Downtown Phoenix Partnership.
"I went in to talk to [the] Downtown Phoenix Partnership not as any kind of developer. . . . I went in on my own volition," Rainey says, to try to see what sort of deal he could broker for the artists. "Then I'm the traitor because I'm talking to these guys."
Nan Ellin, a professor in the school of architecture at Arizona State University and an important figure in discussions about downtown Phoenix, was present for some of the meetings Rainey had with the government types, and says he was doing nothing wrong, just trying to lobby on behalf of the arts community.
The confabs wound up a moot point, with the relocation of the stadium, but Rainey's name is dirt in many circles. He's the frequent target -- in fact, one might say the raison d'être -- for an anonymous newsletter that circulates in the arts community called the D.A.M. (Downtown Arts Movement) Report.
Rainey doesn't regret the decision. "I worked in the places where I'm most effective," he says.
He's continued to play up to the bigwigs. Last month, Shade hosted a fund raiser at monOrchid, honoring Governor Janet Napolitano for her contributions to the arts.
One morning a few days before the big party, Rainey was multi-tasking like crazy, sweeping through the halls of monOrchid with a handful of lighted incense sticks, trying to get rid of the smell of fresh paint on the walls. He walked into the open area of the gallery, where the high ceilings used to accommodate boat storage, to listen to the rare sound of rain on the roof, then got in his SUV to drive a block to the Paisley Violin for coffee.
Inside, Rainey knows all the regulars. He settles at a table and talks about his next project, a campus with affordable housing for artists, three and a half years in the making. If it makes it, it will go in just north of monOrchid. Rainey is in the process of getting city approval. He says the negotiation process is delicate, and praises the city for efforts thus far. The 54 units would cost $550 a month for 600 square feet with 10-foot ceilings.
Rainey is happy. "Phoenix is very cool," he says. "Phoenix is cooler than it knows."
Unlike Kimber Lanning and Wayne Rainey, Greg Esser and Cindy Dach came to Phoenix from someplace else -- Denver. They couldn't help but make constant comparisons.
Esser came to town as director of Phoenix's public art program. Dach eventually landed at Changing Hands, where she lures authors like David Sedaris and T.C. Boyle to town.
They were both miserable. Neither has family here, and without culture -- they told the yogurt joke a lot -- there wasn't much reason to stay. In their minds, the damage to downtown Phoenix was already done. Unlike Denver, which built a ballpark, Coors Field, designed to spill people out onto the sidewalks and into restaurants, shops and sports bars, Bank One Ballpark was completely enclosed, shooting people back into their cars and off to the suburbs, after a game. The rest of Phoenix was the same: the Mercado, Arizona Center, America West Arena. A downtown of fortresses.
But Esser and Dach saw opportunity just a few blocks north, on Roosevelt Street, and instead of leaving town, they decided to quit complaining and make Phoenix into something they could live with. Esser remembers Denver before it was cool, and knows it took a small group of artists to get things going.
In 2000, the couple bought a building east of Modified Arts, named it eye lounge, and created an artists collective. That was so successful they couldn't resist the $350-a-month rent on a nearby space, and created another collective. When a 1918 house went up for sale around the corner, they scraped up the money and bought that, too.
On the Saturday after the first Friday in August, Esser and Dach sit on folding chairs at 515, surrounded by a show of Esser's photography of Jerusalem (membership in the collective is a perk). He didn't sell a single piece the previous night, but Esser and Dach estimate that more than 4,000 people packed Roosevelt for First Friday on a hot, humid, dusty August night.
Dach unlocks the door to the future Sixth Street Studios, a space that looks unfit for a crack house. She's thrilled, because they just found oak floors under the cruddy linoleum. Dach offers a tour, pointing out where she can picture cubicles for the members of a writers' collective, although first the space will be used for a gallery. In some rooms, you can smell sewage.
A year and a half ago, Dach got scared when a car slowed down outside eye lounge. Now it's a developer in a BMW, writing down the address.
She and Esser are really excited. "You won't recognize this street in a year," Esser says.
In fact, only two months later, on the first Friday in October, Sixth Street Studios is completely transformed. The wood floors gleam, thanks in part to performance artist Julie Hampton, who silently scrubs them in her contribution to the group show "You STILL Draw Like a Girl," curated by Sherrie Medina and showcasing some of the best local artists around.
A month after that, a huge empty lot across the street from the galleries is cordoned off, no longer available for parking, the future site of high-end lofts. Esser and Dach have mixed feelings about the project. And they still have mixed feelings about Phoenix.
So, they're asked on that hot Saturday afternoon in August, do you still think about leaving town?
"Every day," they say in unison, laughing.
Beatrice Moore thinks about leaving Phoenix, too, for opposite reasons. The last thing she wants is for this city to be cool.
In some respects, pardon the pun, Moore is the grande dame of the downtown Phoenix art scene, presiding over a cluster of buildings on Grand, around 15th Avenue. At 52, she is older than most of the other creative entrepreneurs in town. And she doesn't welcome change.
On a recent wet Tuesday, Moore sits on a couch in her studio, "Weird Garden," a converted motorcycle shop, and shoves brightly colored pieces of chenille pipe cleaners into a Styrofoam ball. This project, "Winter Wonderland," is a break from the difficult work of painting. Moore's almost neon paintings cover the brick walls, and her elaborate wedding cakes -- one covered in devil-faced rubber ducks -- crowd the corners, leftovers from a past art exhibit in her Stop 'n Look gallery on Grand Avenue.
There are women in Scottsdale who would spend hours and pay a mint to achieve Moore's unstudied chic. The artist looks like one of her own creations in layers of lacy pink and cream on top, with cut-off gray sweatpants and flip-flops with socks.
You can't get to Moore's studio on a rainy day without getting your feet muddy, and that's fine with her. Moore doesn't welcome the Scottsdale crowd down here. She settled on Grand after development downtown pushed her west, and she and her partner, Tony Zahn, started buying buildings in 1992. They had come to Phoenix in the mid-'80s from Idaho by way of Europe because they liked the name, as well as the isolation.
"There was also a challenge here to make something happen," she says. Today, they house 20 artists in low-income studios, and when they're done rehabbing their 12 buildings, they'll have room for 10 more. They also own the space that houses the Bikini Lounge, a run-down tiki bar now wildly popular with the First Friday crowd.
There's talk of coffee bars and boutiques, which horrifies Moore. She's worried developers will come in and snatch up old buildings and drive up rents. To that end, she's considering creating a trust that will care for her property when she's gone. Moore likes Grand Avenue exactly as it is.
Beatrice Moore may not be interested in high-end cuisine, but many people consider it the mark of a city's success. Used to be, a foodie couldn't find a crumb in downtown Phoenix. Chef Eddie Matney ventured the closest, to Seventh Street just south of Camelback, but after a few years he gave up on downtown and settled in near the Biltmore.
That is changing, with Silvana Salcido Esparza's Barrio Café, Johnny Chu's Fate, and Ruby Beet Gourmet, which recently opened in Heritage Square, across from Pizzeria Bianco.
Chris Bianco started it all, of course, leaving the comfort of Town & Country on Camelback shopping center to come to downtown Phoenix, before the ballpark, before the new town homes, before any signs of life.
He gets a pretty good deal on rent from the city, but Bianco says that doesn't reflect the hundreds of thousands of dollars it cost to relocate his business and make tenant improvements to a falling-down building. Even though, until Pane Bianco, he's always worked in tiny spots, for Chris Bianco, it's all about space. He fell in love with the Heritage Square location, and he had to be there.
It's easy to see how Bianco and Sloane McFarland became fast friends, because they both speak the tough-to-translate language of the creative person. Bianco talks with great passion -- and a Bronx accent -- about how, when he moved to Santa Fe, he learned to cook in a way that respected the earth. He interacted with farmers who grow 15 different colors of eggplant.
"You become the conductor of human beings and their stories and their struggles and how do you translate that into a menu," he says. And when you bite into one of his pizzas, you understand, for just a moment, what he means.
Bianco left Phoenix for Santa Fe, but he came back. He grew up in New York and moved here in 1985, typically, after coming on vacation one January, and spent three months in culinary school before deciding that wasn't for him. He worked at different restaurants and wound up building a pizza oven and starting Pizzeria Bianco in the back corner at EuroMarket on Central and Camelback, which is now A.J.'s.
When A.J.'s bought EuroMarket, Bianco left for Santa Fe.
But he came back to start his restaurant. When he moved from 20th Street and Camelback to Seventh Street and Washington, Pizzeria Bianco got so popular that Bianco and his partner, Susan Pool, opened Bar Bianco, mainly to accommodate the customers willing to wait hours for a table.
Bianco had always wanted to open a bakery, and a place where he and his staff would have space to spread out and work. So when he met Sloane McFarland and saw the old beauty shop next to Lux, he was sold.
Pane Bianco is as perfect as a movie set. The concrete floors are polished, paintings hang on the walls, a pile of tomatoes is a work of art, accented by a simple glass of orange Gerber daisies. At 8 a.m. on a recent weekday, Bianco has been up for hours, although he won't open 'til 11. He stands at the concrete counter and fields calls, orchestrating deliveries.
"Pepper Man, what's up?" he hollers, arranging for a pepper delivery. Apple wood from Willcox burns in the oven behind him, and quietly, Bianco's kitchen workers tend to business.
Bianco says his restaurants are hard to find on purpose, and yeah, you might have to wait a long time to eat, but he'll make it worth it. Same with Phoenix, he figures.
"I love the fact that we might have to dig harder to find things," he says, loves that there's no map to the stars' homes. You have to go out and find it yourself.
And it's all about perspective, the chef adds. Look, he says, pointing to the picnic tables outside -- Pane Bianco's only official seating. You can either sit at a picnic table and complain about the traffic on Central Avenue, or you can sit at the picnic table and enjoy the view of Camelback Mountain. (And by the way, Bianco adds, these gorgeous handmade tables were crafted from spruce wood from an old bridge in northern California.)
Chris Bianco is particularly proud of the ironwork in Pane Bianco, created by a local sculptor named Pete Deise who Bianco met through Wayne Rainey.
Deise grew up in Phoenix, but moved to Los Angeles for a few years to pursue his art. He surfed too much, so he came home to concentrate on work. He has his studio in his house, downtown near the fairgrounds.
"I was really interested in pursuing art as a passion, really as a way of life. And when I was out there [in L.A.], I would say life really got in the way of art. It was more about living there," Deise says. "I came back here to nothingness."
Pete Deise is a regular fixture at Lux. He remembers the years when there was one arts venue in town at a time. Now, he says, there are depths, layers.
"Maybe it's just finally happening," he says. "I'm glad I'm here for it."
Deise doesn't like to take commissions. He works alone -- it's not ego, just that life's too short to work on someone else's ideas -- but he liked Bianco and his vision so much he acquiesced, designing the Pane Bianco sign and the interior ironwork.
That turned out to be a good career move for Deise. Bianco doesn't really like to talk about it, but he's pals with Jerry Colangelo. Deise explains that Bianco introduced him to Alvan Adams, who is overseeing the expansion of America West Arena, and Bryan Colangelo, Jerry's son. They asked Deise to design a trophy for the Suns, and offered him the opportunity to be the first to show his large sculptures in gallery space at the arena.
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Cool is a tough word. Say it, and whatever you're talking about almost instantly loses cachet. Sloane McFarland doesn't like the word at all.
"Cool is one of those words that means a thousand things," he says.
McFarland prefers to look at it this way: "I think people understand Phoenix is a good place."
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