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.
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.
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.
“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.”