Director Nicholas Holthaus on his new documentary Mill Ave. Inc.

By Jonathan McNamara

It’s five minutes into the six-minute trailer for Mill Ave. Inc., a new documentary about the gentrification of Mill Avenue, and nothing but musicians, citizens and club owners talking about “corporate takeover” and prizing (the old) Mill Avenue as “the jewel” of Tempe have been seen. Finally, Director Nicholas “Nico” Holthaus interviews The Gin Blossoms’ Robin Wilson, who offers up a counterpoint:

“You know, these things are natural, and I think it’s futile to get too angry about forces that you cannot control. I blame the city itself more than I blame Starbucks or the Gap, but I can’t necessarily blame the city a whole lot either. We had to grow. We had to move on.”

Holthaus replies with the notion that many of the “stalwart” voices he has heard from on the subject claim they will simply find a different place to play.

“But,” the director poses, “What happens when the corporations take those places over in the next three to five years?”

Wilson scoffs, “Closing a nightclub is not going to cause bands to break up or for bands to want to stop playing, you know? They’ll find a place.”

In a New Times interview with the director, he paints a much bleaker picture.

“A lot of the artists that made it big here had to leave. They defected from Tempe because there was no place to play.” He cites Austin as a common destination for these musical nomads and then just as quickly points out that even the celebrated capital of live music in Texas isn’t what is use to be.

Make no mistake that Holthaus is a man at war with corporate hegemony. He is the executive producer of the Inc. project, in which he intends to include other cities, each with their own film tailor-made to fit their specific situations. St. Louis, Holthaus says, has a much better balance between corporations and the mom-and-pops, so that part of the Inc. project take a different slant on the issue.

“This is spreading and I hope it does,” Holthaus says, “because I’ve been joking that on a long enough time line, you’re going to have to go to Anchorage to see a live band. I really see that day coming.”

Holthaus fears a viral corporate assimilation that is hell bent on razing cultural centers, turning them into shopping malls and repeating the process.

It would be not only naïve but untrue to say that journalism is always objective, but at its heart, that’s the idea. Documentary film follows a different set of rules, often ending up as blatant advocacy for one particular view despite its best intentions. It was on that note that I asked Holthaus what he has to say to people who see financial motivation as a beneficial force in driving social progress.

He jokes that he would tell them they’re wrong, then admits that making money is a necessary part of living in our society.

So, if Holthaus believes that gentrification is having a negative impact due to the loss of treasured cultural centers (which Mill Ave. Inc. clearly does), what is to be done about it?

Mill Ave, Inc presents a solution, Holthaus says.

“[It’s] the same message that every documentary says: just get organized. Communicate. Pay attention to what happens at your city council meetings. You have to support local independent stuff.”

What Holthaus is saying is that as consumers we should think for ourselves. That idea should go without saying whether you’re venturing into a Starbucks or a documentary film debut.

Mill Ave. Inc. debuts tonight at Harkins Valley Art Theater at 505 South Mill Ave. For more information on the opening, see Mill Street Blues by Sarah Ventre.

For more on the film and Director Nicholas Holthaus, see the Mill Ave. Inc. web site (but turn your speakers down first).

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jonathan McNamara