Grand Divide

Amy SilvermanApril 25, 2019
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Photo by Nicole Neri; Bragg’s Pie Factory Building
Photo by Nicole Neri; Bragg’s Pie Factory Building

Grand Avenue is poised to succeed Roosevelt Row as the Valley’s signature arts district, but the expected wave of gentrification – and possible departure of its staunchest advocate – has some longtime residents bracing for impact.

Whatever you do, don’t call Grand Avenue an arts district – not in front of Beatrice Moore.

You can call it historical, or a neighborhood, but really, Moore would be just fine if you didn’t mention it at all.

In a city where two restaurants and a plant shop at a single intersection are enough to trigger a cultural chain reaction and send property values through the roof, Moore would rather keep her neighborhood to herself.

And it really is hers. It’s hard to come up with another person in metropolitan Phoenix who’s so closely associated with a street.

For more than 25 years, the Downtown Phoenix stretch of Grand Avenue – that odd, diagonal outlier among Valley roadways – has been artist Moore’s personal playground. She and her partner, Tony Zahn, own eight properties in the neighborhood.

Moore was covering her buildings in pastel shades and commissioning giant, outdoor paintings of monsters long before murals were chic. For a while, she put fancy, fake cement cakes in the windows, just for fun, and when she finally painted her own mural, she made it sparkle – literally – with hundreds of tiny crystals glued to brick. For years, she ran her own craft supply store, selling vintage pipe cleaners and doll faces. She’s hung Easter baskets from the trees and wrapped the trunks in thrifted afghans outside Bragg’s Pie Factory, a building she and Zahn rehabbed at 13th Avenue and Grand. Her outdoor studio on 15th Avenue is visible from the street. Through the chain-link fence, you can often see the one-time fashion model at work, fabulous in some sort of flowing dress and flip-flops with socks, her natural gray hair pulled back from her face.

Thanks to Moore, Grand is an Instagrammer’s gritty paradise, and she continues to add new touches all the time. She’s also managed to stop some high-profile (and high-rise) development on Grand.

But Moore and Zahn are tired, the artist admits.

If they pack up and leave, what will become of Phoenix’s weirdest street?

The seasoned Phoenician knows that Grand Avenue is the best way out of town, particularly if you’re headed to Las Vegas. Once a grain route that connected the farms of the West Valley to the train yards of Downtown Phoenix, the street – formerly called Old Vulture Road – stretches all the way to Wickenburg in the guise of US 60. It was a freeway before there were freeways.

Photo by Mirelle Inglefield; Beatrice Moore in her Weird Garden gallery, flanked by piñatas during the 2019 Art Detour.
Photo by Mirelle Inglefield; Beatrice Moore in her Weird Garden gallery, flanked by piñatas during the 2019 Art Detour.

Grand originates at the historical “five points” intersection of Seventh Avenue and Van Buren Street, cutting north and west to 19th Avenue, where a freeway overpass creates a natural boundary for the Grand Avenue Historic District. Past the freeway, Grand intersects with McDowell Road and the state fairgrounds, and the landscape gets increasingly industrial, following the railway, deserted except for the occasional topless bar or auto shop, until you get to downtown Glendale. Grand Avenue lives up to its name – it’s a very wide street, friendlier to cars than pedestrians – and survives as a unique way to explore a metropolis largely built on a grid.

But if you go back to its source, back to Seventh and Van Buren, you’ll see that “progress” is creeping toward still-sleepy Grand, like a plasma infusion working its way through an IV drip. And that’s making Moore and her like-minded fellow residents nervous.

Modern-day “adaptive” development came late to Downtown Phoenix, but now it’s here with what some would call a vengeance, thanks to a booming economy and Arizona State University, which is slapping its name on buildings as fast as it can. Just north of ASU, developers are taking advantage of high-rise zoning to mow down large pieces of the Roosevelt Row neighborhood, replacing old houses and galleries with condos and apartment towers. Controversial? Sure. But the development has also brought density, fueling the area’s increasing number of bars and restaurants.

Some of that audience-friendly energy is finding its way to Grand. On nearby Seventh Avenue, Gracie’s Tax Bar draws a crowd, as does The Van Buren, the game-changing live music venue at Fourth Avenue and Van Buren. Meanwhile, Containers on Grand – a newfangled apartment complex utilizing the world’s hippest upcycled objet, the land-sea shipping container – became the first development of its kind in the U.S. when it opened three years ago.

Still, Moore would be fine if all that Roosevelt-style reuse stopped dead in its tracks. On a chilly Monday in late February, she’s pretty much the only lunch hour patron at ThirdSpace, a restaurant/bar/coffee shop/music venue at 10th Avenue and Grand. She’s wearing a ruffled green velvet coat over a tie-dye tunic, eating a grilled cheese and pondering the future of her neighborhood, something she does a lot these days. She’ll be 69 years old in October.

“The arts cliché is very attractive to developers and people that are investing in real estate, speculators,” she says. “As soon as you start calling it an arts district… it implies that this is an up-and-coming neighborhood.”

In Moore’s book, “up-and-coming” is an expletive. Don’t even try to use the word “emerging” around her.

And yet, it’s hard to drive up and down Grand Avenue and not notice a change.

Photo by Nicole Neri; Wooden flowers by artist Kristin Wesley near Grand Avenue Pizza Company
Photo by Nicole Neri; Wooden flowers by artist Kristin Wesley near Grand Avenue Pizza Company
Photo by Tayler Brown; mural on Paper Heart building by artist Har Simrit Singh
Photo by Tayler Brown; mural on Paper Heart building by artist Har Simrit Singh

For decades, tiny businesses – coffeehouses, dive bars, galleries, a wig shop, a record/candy store – quietly opened and closed on the fabled street. But in 2016, the mattress magnate Tuft & Needle put its headquarters on Grand. Around the same time, local celebrity chef Silvana Salcido Esparza opened a restaurant – Barrio Café Gran Reserva – in the Bragg’s Pie Factory building. A half-dozen new businesses took root in the old Desert Sun Motel, a once-bustling roadside destination that had gone to seed after Interstate 10 opened in 1978, siphoning much business away from Grand. And The McKinley Club, a popular coworking space, relocated to the neighborhood last fall from the Roosevelt neighborhood and quickly filled to capacity.

Today there are more murals and gallery spaces than ever along Grand Avenue. Another Roosevelt refugee, the collective Five15 Arts, is here now, as well as Grand Arthaus, Unexpected, The Chocolate Factory, {9} the Gallery and Moore’s own Weird Garden.

But the progress, if you want to call it that, has been halting. Numerous businesses have been stymied by Grand’s lack of foot traffic and density. Art One, the successful Scottsdale gallery that champions student artists, was here briefly several years ago. Amy Young’s Perihelion Arts gallery is long gone. A reboot of fan-favorite juke joint Chez Nous – which thrived on Indian School Road for many decades before being razed to make way for a Fresh & Easy grocery store – tried to make it for a while on Grand, but ultimately shuttered. The Trunk Space, a Grand mainstay long considered the best small venue to see live music, relocated to Roosevelt a couple years ago.

Commercial zoning in this area means high-rises aren’t possible, but rules are more lax in the adjacent residential areas, where developers have started flipping properties and building multistory homes. Prices in the area have risen accordingly. Houses are going for around $250,000 – still well below the average for historical Central Phoenix neighborhoods, says realtor Lauren Schellhase, but unheard of in the Grand Avenue area until recently – and a bargain compared to a condo in nearby Roosevelt Row, which can top $400,000.

Considering that Moore and Zahn own so much real estate in the neighborhood, you’d think she’d be thrilled to see real estate values climb – but Moore doesn’t appear to be playing this Monopoly game to get rich.

She supports the churches and social service agencies in the area, as well as businesses that have nothing to do with the arts. Focusing on the artists alone is unfair to the owner of the boxing gym across the street from her studio and the car repair shops that still line Grand, she says.

Calling Grand an arts district “is saying that what’s important is the arts and really, that’s bullshit… It’s not good for the people who were in the neighborhood before the artists came,” she says. She’s not a big fan of the First Friday art walks that first captured the city’s attention when they swelled to capacity in the early 2000s, particularly on Roosevelt Row.

Photo by Mirelle Inglefield; Silvana Salcido Esparza at Barrio Café Gran Reserva beneath a hanging garden of found baskets by Beatrice Moore
Photo by Mirelle Inglefield; Silvana Salcido Esparza at Barrio Café Gran Reserva beneath a hanging garden of found baskets by Beatrice Moore

And yet, Moore also manages to champion the arts. To her, this all makes sense – and she shrugs if you suggest otherwise.

Each fall, Moore puts on the Grand Avenue Festival, which celebrates the neighborhood and highlights its historic charm. In the spring, she sponsors a “mutant piñata show,” inviting anyone from the community to contribute a piñata, which she displays during Art Detour, a Downtown tradition she helped start years ago.

Even at its busiest times, Grand is still pretty quiet. Moore likes it that way. She has worked successfully to convince business owners to save old buildings and she’s fought zoning for bigger developments. She’s done such a good job of limiting growth that some say she’s threatening the health of the businesses that are there.

“Beatrice sees gentrification in every paint job. I keep telling her, ‘You know, there’s not going to be a Baby Gap here any time soon,’” says Nancy Hill, who owns Hazel & Violet, a letterpress studio that leases space in the Bragg’s building. Although she insists she’s had a “whimsy bypass” and therefore does not share Moore’s zeal for pastels and the Easter baskets hanging from the trees outside her business, Hill loves the neighborhood and has helped Moore organize events including the Grand Avenue Festival.

But Hill admits business is slow. And she would not-so-secretly love to see one of the auto repair shops near her studio become a sandwich shop, the kind of comment that’s sacrilege to Moore.

“Density helps everyone,” Hill says. “I mean, you just can’t deny it. We would have way more traffic on Grand Avenue if there was an apartment building on the corner. This is just the nature of things. If the artists get pushed out, they’ll go somewhere else.”

Moore and Zahn began buying property along Grand Avenue in 1992, a few years after moving to Phoenix from Dallas. They originally lived in The Deuce, the warehouse district south of Downtown, drawn by its rough past and refreshing lack of regulation. Her studio was housed in the bar where Ernesto Miranda (of Miranda Rights fame) was murdered.

But then the Phoenix Suns relocated Downtown, and The Deuce started to get trendy.

Photo by Tayler Brown; the Tuft & Needle building
Photo by Tayler Brown; the Tuft & Needle building

“Speculators started pouring in,” Moore recalls, “and they were paying really high prices for things and we realized, ‘Do we want to sit here and watch everything torn down around us?’ No.”

Grand Avenue was a little farther off the beaten path, home to car parts dealers, beautiful old buildings – and one artsy relic, Bikini Lounge, a tiki bar that opened in 1947 and is still in operation today.

Moore admits she opened Pandora’s box by renting studio space to artists. Those were the people she knew, she says. And she quickly began showcasing her own brand of outsider art, which she considers more “unexpected” than “cool.”

“You know, I remember this storefront in Dallas,” she says. “A couple lived there in the building. They had all these weird scenarios set up in the windows of the storefront, they lived in the back and there were cobwebs in it. It had been there for so long, and it had something about the JFK assassination and just all these weird little scenarios that they’d created.”

It was creepy and memorable. She says it inspired the Stop ‘n Look window displays she made in the 1990s, where she showed off her giant cement cakes. She got busy and discontinued the windows when she and Zahn bought and rehabbed Bragg’s Pie Factory in the early 2000s.

Bragg’s was a worthy labor. The gorgeous white 1947 building no longer produces pie, but remains vaguely pie-like in appearance, with its distinctive wedge-shaped storefront. This is the tiny space where Esparza runs Barrio Café Gran Reserva, featuring a renowned tasting menu – the chef scored a 2019 James Beard Award nomination for the restaurant – and exceptional tequila selection.

The restaurant caused quite a stir in Valley dining when it opened on Grand in 2016 – heralding, many thought, a new era for the neighborhood as a culture magnet. Esparza was happy to lend Grand some of the credibility she amassed with the success of her original 16th Street restaurant, Barrio Café.

Both are located in transitional neighborhoods, Esparza notes. She says she relates to Moore, her landlord, and her desire to forge new turf. She also says Barrio Café Gran Reserva has struggled in its three-year existence, with much of its scant 25-seat dining room empty during weekdays. (It will seat 30 or 31 “if a few of them are skinny,” the chef says, laughing.)

Esparza is grateful to Downtown hotel concierges who regularly send guests her way, but like Hill, she believes Grand Avenue could use a little more action.

“We’re going into our fourth year, and I’m not going to say it hasn’t been a struggle,” Esparza says. She now closes in the summer and has shortened year-round hours, as well.

“Why is this place not happening every weekend?” she asks. “It’s a short district, it’s right off Downtown.” But she understands the delicate balance.

Photo by Mirelle Inglefield; McKinley Club coworking space owners Kevin and Celine Rille
Photo by Mirelle Inglefield; McKinley Club coworking space owners Kevin and Celine Rille

“I tell you what shouldn’t happen to this neighborhood: Roosevelt fucking Row,” she says, referring not so obliquely to the high-rise condo towers that now line Roosevelt. “That’s what should not happen to this neighborhood. I’m with Beatrice right there. I got her back on that.”

Kimber Lanning understands the market forces that brought about that change – and the pros and cons of it – better than just about anyone. The longtime record-store owner opened the music/arts space Modified Arts on Roosevelt in 1999 and had a bird’s-eye view of what happened next, as First Fridays exploded in popularity and the neighborhood caught the attention of developers.

Lanning backed out of the concert promotion game in the mid-2000s, but she still owns Modified – it’s strictly an art gallery now – and found her calling as executive director of Local First Arizona, a nonprofit devoted to supporting local businesses. Local First is headquartered at the Wurth House, a 1911 home Lanning saved from demolition and moved to the southeast corner of Third Street and Roosevelt several years ago.

So much on Roosevelt is gone now. Five15 Arts has been replaced by a barber-
shop. The building that housed the 307, a one-time popular drag bar, was razed, as was the funky, custom-built space that once held Paz Cantina. (Ironically, Paz is now housed on the first floor of the condo development that replaced it – a much-maligned 316-room tower from Weidner Apartment Homes that’s become the punching bag of choice for Roosevelt advocates. “It’s just cheaply built,” says one local who asked to remain nameless.)

Revolver Records left. Curious Nature, a curios shop, moved uptown. Welcome Diner relocated a few blocks south.

But Roosevelt is far from over – it’s simply changed, an object lesson in what happens when an art-driven neighborhood gets discovered by taste-makers with money. At 8 p.m. on a recent First Friday, the street was jammed with bodies checking out street vendors and grabbing beers at the bars, which seemed to pop up overnight. It’s beginning to feel a little bit like another Valley college street, Mill Avenue.

David Quan, aka Luster Kaboom, with his “Fruit Stripes” mural near 15th and Grand avenues; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield
David Quan, aka Luster Kaboom, with his “Fruit Stripes” mural near 15th and Grand avenues; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield
Trans Am Café, Grand Avenue Records and the historical Bikini Lounge near 15th Avenue on Grand Avenue; Photo by Tayler Brown
Trans Am Café, Grand Avenue Records and the historical Bikini Lounge near 15th Avenue on Grand Avenue; Photo by Tayler Brown

“I think that there’s a balance. I think that Roosevelt struck that balance for almost 10 years – at least almost six or seven years – before market forces pushed us back,” Lanning says.

Property ownership is key, she says.

“At the end of the day,” Lanning adds, “the three major galleries left on Roosevelt Row [Modified Arts, eye lounge and monOrchid] were the ones that were the first three in the door that bought their buildings, and that tells a lot about how gentrification happens when there’s no local ownership.”

Even when there is local ownership, things can change. Earlier this year, monOrchid was sold to a developer.

David Quan bought a house near Grand Avenue in 2002. At $55,000, the price was right. According to neighborhood lore, Quan says, he lives next door to the “Mother Teresa House” – the spot where she stayed when she visited Phoenix in 1989. At the time, a friend told him that Mother Teresa always stayed in the poorest part of any place she visited.

But while he could probably get more than $200,000 for his house today, Quan isn’t ready to move.

Photo by Mirelle Inglefield; Nancy Hill of Hazel & Violet
Photo by Mirelle Inglefield; Nancy Hill of Hazel & Violet

In the early days, it was a little rough. He worked the graveyard shift and when he returned home, Quan dreaded the trek from the driveway to his door. He was surprised the first time the police put up flyers around the neighborhood warning neighbors to refrain from shooting guns on the Fourth of July.

“I was like, ‘Oh wow, that’s crazy that they put up a flyer on your door.’ Because I mean, who’s going to do that? And sure enough, I look out the door at midnight, the guy across the street comes out with a gun in his pants. He shoots it, he puts it back in and goes back in the house. Stuff like that was always happening.”

Stuff like that still happens sometimes, but Quan and his wife also see young couples out walking their dogs, or families out and about. The neighborhood is changing.

It wasn’t just cheap real estate that led Quan to Grand. Moore was a draw for the professional artist. His house is near one of her properties. He’s painted his oozing monster murals in the neighborhood for years, and shown work at various galleries. (Quan often signs his artwork as Luster Kaboom.)

Yes, he says, there are others in the neighborhood who are interested in preservation – but no one as devoted as Moore.

“We’re very, very lucky that Beatrice owns so much of the building stock,” Lanning says. She’s a big fan of Grand Avenue.

“I think that they’ve done a great job of curating a great cluster of businesses there right now, and I think it’s one of the easily best things going on in town.”

But for how long? Moore says she and Zahn are working on an exit strategy that she believes will help to preserve the neighborhood.

Moore’s been thinking for a while about her next act, one that might not include Grand Avenue. She knows that along with her activism, her role as a property owner is fundamental in keeping the neighborhood from changing.

“We’ve half-joked that we’ll just sell all our buildings to social service agencies and that’ll help create a balance in the neighborhood,” she says. She’s pretty certain that would keep the speculators away.

Quan recalls a conversation with Moore, in which she said she might just pick up one day and move to the dusty Arizona border town of Douglas.

“I’m always like, ‘Let me know if that happens,’” he says. “We won’t be that far behind.”

An aerial look at the 1-mile-long Historic Grand Avenue from its origin at Downtown’s “five points” to its terminus at the I-10.
An aerial look at the 1-mile-long Historic Grand Avenue from its origin at Downtown’s “five points” to its terminus at the I-10.

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