Phoenix organization fosters artistic culture on Roosevelt Row

By Colin Kennedy

Fifteen years ago, the Roosevelt Row corridor in downtown Phoenix might be described as a desolate, crime-stricken neighborhood. Today, more than 25,000 people visit the half-mile transit-oriented district each month.

Roosevelt Row’s recent resurgence is visibly marked by successful small businesses, food trucks and dozens of aesthetically pleasing murals. But at the forefront of one of America’s most drastic metropolitan turnarounds is a small non-profit organization called the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation.

Greg Esser

Greg Esser/Photo by Colin Kennedy

The movement began just before the turn of the millennium when Greg Esser and a group of fellow artists started snagging up affordable properties in the troubled neighborhood to exhibit their work.

“One of the things that was really critical was creating space for artists to gather, come together, learn and network,” Esser, the RoRo CDC board vice president said.

At a time when many locals avoided the area because of recurring drug sales and open crime, Esser says it was the very nature of the Roosevelt Row community that helped foster the expanding arts culture.

“It’s because artists were given economically accessible opportunity to take risks and do something very interesting as opposed to larger, more predictable development,” he said.

What began as an informal initiative to cultivate opportunity for local artists has since developed into a citywide effort to make downtown Phoenix a more attractive destination for visitors and residents alike.

Since aiding the infusion of art into the Roosevelt Row community in the early 2000s, RoRo CDC has taken off. According to their website, the district has seen reported crime rates drop by more than 50 percent.

Roosevelt Row by Numbers

Infographic by Iva Dixit

The corporation, which was officially established as a 501(c) non-profit service organization in 2007, has helped link dozens of local business and property owners to artists who have layered the region’s walls with countless eye-catching murals.

RoRo CDC has worked with the city of Phoenix to develop policy solutions like the Adaptive Reuse Program, which helps transform old buildings into usable and livable working spaces for local artists.

Other local residents like Wayne Rainey have stepped into the scene and assisted in the promotion of a culture conducive to the arts as well. Rainey, who converted an underutilized storage facility into the local gallery known as monOrchid in the early stages of the district’s revitalization, followed RoRo CDC’s lead in developing the housing scene in downtown Phoenix.

“I acquired a (14-unit apartment) building across the street (from monOrchid),” he said. “I took two units out of inventory for that building and created one of the first truly affordable housing solutions geared toward artists. So for the first time, artists not only had a place to live, but they also had a place to exercise their craft.”

The commitment to cultural character is also evidenced in RoRo CDC’s promotion and sponsorship of events like First Fridays, which serve as one of the country’s preeminent art walks. On the first Friday of each month, RoRo CDC will sublease vacant lots for artists to create, display and sell their work in an open-market setting.

Vermon Pierre, a local pastor at Roosevelt Community Church, is RoRo CDC’s board president. He says it is events like First Friday that help his organization near their vision for a vibrant, 24/7 urban community.

Vermon Pierre

Vermon Pierre/Photo by Colin Kennedy

“A lot of times I tell people that we would like to be an organization that helps Roosevelt Row be a place for people to live, work, study and play in all the creative ways that they possibly can,” Pierre said. “We want to hopefully create a permanent environment for the creative types.”

Though both Pierre and Esser agree there is still work to be done, national endowments like the $150,000 ArtPlace grant the RoRo CDC received in 2012 have helped the organization invest in a district that can now claim more than 386 residential artists, 648 art exhibits and at least 27 different galleries, according to the organization’s website.

Esser says that RoRo CDC’s priorities have shifted toward complementary local support as a result of the increased national focus that aligns with the type of work his organization has been doing. And local business owners like Adrian Fontes suggest that downtown Phoenix is a near-perfect fit for the flourishing art community.

“We don’t live in a place that was designed by Martha Stewart,” Fontes said. “This is an inner city. We have a hugely diverse demographic that lives down here and I think the murals are expressive and engaging. People will walk by, stop and look for taking pictures.”

The admiration doesn’t stop with locals either. This past May, USA Today included Roosevelt Row on its list of the 10 best art districts in America.

However, even considering the progress the RoRo CDC has made in downtown Phoenix, the organization still has its fair share of obstacles. More than 12 years after its inception, the RoRo CDC is comprised of a singular full-time employee and a handful of unpaid volunteers—most of whom claim careers outside of Roosevelt Row.

Upwards of 9,100 hours are volunteered downtown each year, according to a recent survey conducted by the RoRo CDC, but Esser says his work will never be complete.

“I think one of our largest challenges is our capacity as a very small non-profit organization,” he said. “We have a really large impact, but our vision for this area still is a long way from being realized. So we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Street artists impact downtown community

By Glen Luke Flanagan

On Roosevelt Street, a skeleton in an evening dress grins maniacally as she clutches a microphone and prepares to sing.  Not too far away, on North First Street, a man without skin is brought to life by the breath of God. These are just two of the murals to be seen as one wanders downtown in Phoenix.

Muscle man with geometric shapes

Photo by Courtney Marabella

Much like the man in the second mural, street art has breathed a new life into the downtown area over the last few years.

“It’s evolved so much since I moved here in 2004, and the street art is part of that evolution,” said Carrie Marill, a local artist and muralist who helps run the Combine Studios residency program at Arizona State University for international artists.

While the area was considered dangerous just a few years ago, Marill explained, things have started looking up since artists began buying studio space and making the local buildings their canvases.


Photo by Iva Dixit

“A lot of the places were run-down and closed, and so artists have been buying up some of the property and turning it into small businesses, art galleries, restaurants,” she said. “Most of what’s downtown here is privately owned, and I think that’s important.”

Even though art has made an impact on the community, the journey hasn’t been entirely smooth. Street art has to fight an association with illegal graffiti and tagging.

“It’s a little bit more random, haphazard, because street art is still a little more bold, and typically it has been illegal,” explained Joey Grether, a born-and-raised Phoenix local who has been involved in the art and music scene for the last 15 years.

But legitimized street art could be a way to get young people involved and keep them away from criminal graffiti, according to Gennaro Garcia, an artist who has worked in Phoenix for the past 12 years.

“Instead of doing vandalism, they create art,” he said. “The next thing you know, they’re helping you with the mural. They get involved with the mural, and they protect the mural, because they’re part of it. They’re not going to tag the mural.”

Garcia donates murals to local schools in an effort to get children involved in the arts, with the cost of materials and food covered by a private sponsor.

Public Information Officer Tommy Thompson with the Phoenix Police Department also sees the art movement as a positive influence on the community.

“I think, at least as far as Phoenix goes, we have seen a change in the 30 years I’ve been a cop,” he said. “You’ll see more things that would be classified as art or something of that nature.”

The downtown scene is even elevating urban art to a place where it’s recognized as an elegant form of expression, equal to older, more traditional styles.

“A hundred years ago, if Van Gogh or Monet had spray paint, they would be doing this,” Garcia said. “It’s so amazing to paint with the spray, to paint outside.”

While he hopes to see the art scene spread from downtown to other areas of Phoenix, Garcia explained that dense paperwork and a lack of funding is hamstringing artists who might otherwise expand.

Marill, too, hopes to see the art scene expand and attract a wider audience.

“I think more people should come downtown, not just for First Fridays, but for other things, like Third Fridays, to come down and actually look at the art and what people are doing down here,” she said. “It’s growing and thriving, it’s just we’re doing it our own way. It’s not necessarily the way they’re doing it in other places.”

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