The Rise of Roosevelt Row
Writer Shannon Severson
Photography Courtesy of Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation
Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row has gone from thriving to blighted and back again. The Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation (CDC) has played a major role in successfully uniting artists, residents and business owners to preserve, protect and promote this vibrant place that draws artists and art enthusiasts to a revitalized Phoenix neighborhood that was nearly lost.
In the early days, when Phoenix was a small but burgeoning city in territorial Arizona, the Salt River overflowed in tremendous fashion, flooding the southern end of the city to such an extent that people began to seek higher ground along Central Avenue, and to the west along Washington Street. Farther and farther north they came, reshaping settlement patterns that continue to impact Phoenix today.
“These sidewalks were poured in 1909,” says Roosevelt Row CDC vice president and co-founder Greg Esser. “The Roosevelt District was originally north of the Phoenix city limit.”
Roosevelt was home to the city’s late nineteenth and early twentieth century hoi palloi. It was rich with architectural gems, both residential and public, including the still-operational Kenilworth School and Trinity Cathedral, which recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of jazz legend Duke Ellington and his band’s 1966 performance of “A Concert of Sacred Music.”
“We did a mural on the wall next door to celebrate the anniversary,” says Esser. “That sense of art and diversity have long been part of the DNA of this place, and we hope it will be for another 50 years.”
As the automobile replaced the streetcar, development plans threatened the viability of the neighborhood and the middle class fled. In the ensuing decades, the area fell further into disrepair; more than 3,000 homes—many priceless architectural treasures—were razed.
Abandoned buildings and empty lots created a swath of blight that attracted rampant crime. It also drew a population that would eventually band together to revitalize the area and make it one of the hottest neighborhoods in the United States: artists.
Re-Birth of Community
The downtrodden neighborhood was an affordable space to live and work, but longtime residents and those artistic newcomers were dismayed by rezoning and development that threatened to completely wipe out the last vestiges of the area’s former glory, displacing low income families and threatening the community.
“The community said, ‘Enough is enough,’” says Esser. “In 2000, 12 small business owners came together as a vanguard who would invest in the core of Roosevelt Row. We founded Roosevelt Row CDC as a non-profit with a centralized approach. All the original founders are still here.”
The catalyst for a comeback was an agreement among gallery owners to have common hours on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. This coincided with public interest in the already decade-long tradition of the First Fridays art walk. There were no restaurants, bars or coffee houses at the time, so it was important to create a concentration of galleries for visitors.
“That collective effort really attracted that next wave of service businesses,” says Esser. “The city has recognized the value of First Fridays and Roosevelt Row and that is the result of long-term relationships that have developed through proactive engagement with the city. That collaborative working relationship that is the root of our success.”
Like a pebble dropped into a pool of water, the concentric ripples of CDC’s efforts continue to serve as a connector to the adjoining neighborhoods of Garfield, Story, Triangle, Central Core and Midtown Museum District.
A Sense of Place
As one of the most Instagrammed neighborhoods in the country, Roosevelt has continued to gain local and national prominence, and that has meant a residential and business boom.
“The neighborhood has a residential population of over 3,000 that’s diverse in every way,” says Roosevelt Row CDC program manager Amy Otto. “There’s an authenticity and sense of place that attracts people of all ages to live here. Our sense of community is built on that small town vibe.”
A committee of First Friday and now Third Friday artists was formed to ensure that the rising cost of living in this now extremely popular area won’t prohibit artists from gaining exposure. The goal is to be an artists’ district, not just an arts district.
“I want to put the focus on working artists,” says Otto, “to provide them a platform that is accessible and affordable. We are growing that model as much as possible so that, even if living in the district isn’t possible right now, they’re still working here as part of the community. We have 10×10 pop-up galleries and have been working with developers to create opportunities for exposure at the new businesses springing up in the area.”
The neighborhood’s many galleries and renowned murals bring in art and photography enthusiasts, but visitors now have over 230 businesses where they can browse, buy, sip, dine and even sleep. Boutique hotel Found:Re will soon be joined by The Cambria, slated for completion in 2019.
Santa Fe-based arts and entertainment collective, Meow Wolf, recently announced a partnership with True North Studio to create a groundbreaking, immersive, interactive exhibition and hotel concept: a hotel with 400 rooms, each designed by local artists with varying themes, a 75,000-square-foot exhibition and music performance venue. The project, described as a “cultural shockwave,” was inspired by visitors who expressed interest in spending the night at Meow Wolf’s immersive House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe.
“An intertwined exhibition and hotel just made sense to us,” says Meow Wolf CEO and co-founder Vince Kadlubek. “Our partnership with True North Studio in Phoenix is a perfect opportunity to explore this wild concept. Our intention for this venture is to collaborate with the creative community in greater Phoenix to produce an authentic, local statement of expression which will bring further excitement and creative energy to the Roosevelt Row Arts District. This project is going to be truly monumental on so many levels.”
Developers are motivated to invest in the area because of its powerful draw and deep bench of creativity.
“Our business community is eager to incorporate eclectic and place-based art,” says Otto. “We’re excited to partner with them.”
The CDC’s Roosevelt Row Merchants Association (RoRoMA) has recently partnered with the Evans-Churchill Community Association to survey and set priorities for area businesses, provide workshops and marketing opportunities and work as a coalition that will lend its voice and input to city projects. Their goal is to best serve the area’s permanent residents, as well as visitors.
Many businesses participate in Art Detour, a 30-year-old program sponsored by CDC partner ArtLink to allow galleries and businesses in different downtown districts to become art-centered each weekend. It creates a centralized destination and offers adjacent neighborhoods a chance to shine.
One of the things Otto is most proud of is the number of young people who are drawn to what is happening in Roosevelt.
“Some would say it as a criticism,” says Otto, “but something I love about First Fridays is that we have so many teenagers coming downtown and being exposed to something new. They are excited about that cultural experience.”
Otto has made it a point to work in partnership with schools in the area, including the Paradise Valley School District, to create programming that brings student artists to perform, display and learn. Engaging area youth is part of an effort to grow the number of Phoenix artists who stay in the city even as they gain national and international notoriety.
“We really want to incorporate the younger generation of artists who are going to be part of our future with their incredible work,” says Otto.
This year, Roosevelt Row Academy utilized a grant from the City of Phoenix to bring together the old and the young for three free art teaching experiences, making art extremely accessible for all in the community.
“Our events draw one of the most diverse audiences I’ve seen anywhere,” says Esser. “Age, color, languages spoken, the diversity really shines. On any given Friday, there’s always something happening.”