Cool Tips

Craig and Kris DeMarco preside over one of the coolest corners in town.

First they opened Postino, a beautifully appointed wine bar in an old post office. They took advantage of the cavernous space and put in an enormous sliding door that takes one side off the place in nice weather, opening onto a deck. The floors are shiny concrete and the tables are cozy, or you can eat your bruschetta on overstuffed, slipcovered couches. Tom Tuberty, a sculptor who shows at Bentley, one of the most prestigious galleries in Scottsdale, did the artwork and the sign.

Last year, the DeMarcos opened La Grande Orange across from Postino. The small market features gourmet pizza, a flower stand and pastries. The inventory makes A.J.'s look schlocky.

In the same complex, someone else opened a baby store called Le Petite Chateau, featuring hip designers like Betsey Johnson. A home store, Indigo, opened recently. Across the street, another boutique called Anna Sophia showed up. Near it, renowned local architect Wil Bruder is designing a funky, Technicolor taco stand.

"We're so strip mall, chain restaurant, scrape-some-dirt-and-build-a-big-box development that people lose sight of these little gems," says Craig DeMarco, who works hard but considers himself the luckiest guy in town, given his constant proximity to good wine and good pizza.

This is exactly the kind of development downtown Phoenix needs.

Too bad it's nowhere near downtown.

Craig DeMarco says it was risky enough to start a new business in an all-but-abandoned corner at 40th Street and Campbell, just south of Camelback, nestled between the Biltmore and Arcadia neighborhoods, not far from Paradise Valley. He looked in downtown Phoenix, but couldn't take the chance.

Still won't. The DeMarcos' next venture is a "family-friendly" restaurant on 40th Street, north of Camelback in the old North Bank spot.

The Postino corner is important, say urban planners like Arizona State University's Nan Ellin. Ellin says Phoenix can't use the parameters other cities employ to distinguish downtown density, but instead has to realize that the car culture spreads out development, making interesting nodes like the ones at Lux, the Grand Avenue galleries and Roosevelt Row -- and recognizing the value in the cultural offerings from neighboring communities like Scottsdale and Tempe.

But how to fill in the blanks, to get to the "tipping point"?

That is a question on Wellington Reiter's mind. Reiter, who goes by Duke, was named dean of the College of Architecture at ASU earlier this year. He is focused not only on the university but the community.

Reiter doesn't hedge: No, he says, Phoenix is not cool. In fact, he says the question on the table is whether Phoenix will ever be a legitimate metropolis.

"People are kind of scratching at the ground for answers," he says. "There is nothing inevitable about this city."

Reiter -- recently an architecture professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- comes to Phoenix via cities like Boston and New Orleans. He watched them become "cool."

Can Phoenix be cool? Reiter warns that cool is not sustainable -- it's constantly on the move. But yes, Phoenix can become a much better place to live, a place more like what Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, describes. That is one of the reasons Reiter came to Arizona, to make such a mark. He is involved in the move to bring 12,000 students downtown.

"We're going to be continually throwing out potential futures," he says.

Reiter, who is also an artist, says that in order to make it past the tipping point, the quality of the art in Phoenix has to improve.

Go to downtown Phoenix on any First Friday, and you'll see a lot of people looking. For the most part, they're not looking at the art -- they're looking at each other.

The art, like the people, is varied. Some downtown artists, like Steve Yazzie and Carrie Bloomston, are very, very good. Wayne Rainey's fine art photography is beautiful. ThoughtCrime has shown amazing work.

But some of the artwork downtown is very, very bad: Rows of plastic white razors glued down, in what appears to be a last-minute, oh-no-there's-a-hole-in-my-all-white-show fill-in. Amateur bare breasts and psychedelic scenes dominate the subject matter at many downtown galleries, reminiscent of the poster rack at a head shop.

That raises a potentially painful question: In order to have a vibrant downtown sparked by the arts community, does the art have to be any good?

Yes, says John Spiak, a curator at the Arizona State University Art Museum. "The art is not always the best quality down there," says Spiak, who adds that downtown Phoenix is in a "learning phase."

The bar will likely be raised with the opening of the Bentley Gallery's downtown Phoenix location, Spiak says. He has hope.

Reiter echoes Spiak's sentiments.

"I think the art matters, and I think it can't be provincial," he says. "You've got to get more than just people on the streets."

So then the question becomes, how can Phoenix encourage artists and the people who support them?

There are examples from all over the country.

Not every place has needed government incentives. Randy Gragg, who covers architecture and urban planning for the Oregonian in Portland, Oregon, says the "alternative sensibility" did more to encourage creative entrepreneurship in Portland than anything else. It did help, he says, that the city built a lot of affordable housing in the 1970s.

Now that Portland is entrenched as a creative city, Gragg says, government has talked about incentives. Mayor Vera Katz is meeting with artists, but the kind of money she's talking about -- $1,000 grants to artists -- is laughable.

"It's ridiculous. Barely worth bothering with," Gragg says.

But there's a lot out there that is worth emulating.

Fifteen years ago, voters in metropolitan Denver created the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. The district, renewed by voters in 1994, collects 1 cent on every $10 purchase, and gives the proceeds to arts, culture and science organizations. Tens of millions of dollars are pumped into the culture economy of Denver every year -- including into small, independent arts organizations.

Or how about tax breaks for artists who make the decision to live downtown?

In the 1990s, downtown Providence, Rhode Island, was run-down. The mayor went to the state legislature and lobbied to create an arts district. Artists who live downtown don't pay income taxes on earnings from their work.

Maryland recently passed similar legislation, creating several arts districts around the state.

Sarah Hutt, who now heads the City of Boston's public art department, is an artist who started fighting for artists' rights years ago. She wound up working for the city.

She recalls that Boston's art scene took off after the city made it easier for artists to find and buy housing downtown.

The city passed a zoning law that relaxed some rules for artists' work/live spaces, using commercial codes instead of residential, in many instances. That made the spaces more affordable. Artists had to qualify as artists under prescribed guidelines. The properties were sold at a reduced rate, with restrictions on resale. Storefronts had to be commercial, to encourage foot traffic. Finally, the properties are taxed at a residential rate instead of a commercial rate, to make them more affordable.

The city runs a program called Home Buying 101, to educate artists about how to buy these properties.

In addition, Hutt started a city program called the Boston Open Studio Coalition. The group provides grants, lists galleries with the local chamber of commerce, promotes the arts on the city's Web site and pays for mailings and posters.

Hutt suggests showing local artists' work in city hall, sponsoring a festival highlighting the arts and offering contests.

"You have to raise the self-esteem of the artists while you're trying to raise visibility," she says. The art can't be junk, and artists must be open during the hours they say they'll be open.

The city needs to support the whole thing, Hutt says.

"It's almost like if you started the WPA there."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.