Artists and preservationists Beatrice Moore and Tony Zahn recall how they established Phoenix’s Grand Avenue arts district despite wanting to do the opposite.
PHOENIX—When they bought their first property along Phoenix’s Grand Avenue in 1992, Beatrice Moore and Tony Zahn weren’t thinking about creating an arts district.
“To be honest, the idea of an arts district disgusted us at the time,” Moore admits, more than thirty years later. “We moved to Grand to get away from fighting with developers who were chasing artists away. Tony and I were tired of fighting and wanted to be left alone to do our artwork.”
The pair had, along with other artists living and working in the nearby warehouse district, been doing battle with the city for more than four years. When the Madison Street artist enclave where Moore and Zahn had settled in the 1980s was uprooted in the late 1980s to make room for America West Arena (now known as Footprint Center), they relocated to Jackson Street. Not long after, the city announced plans to drop Bank One Ballpark (now Chase Field) onto the neighborhood where the artists had settled.
“We moved to Grand Avenue to get out of the path of development,” Moore remembers. “We thought the buildings on Grand were interesting and we wanted away from all the turmoil we’d been in. And we saw how the arts community was becoming divided. Some of the artists were saying it would be good for their art business to be near an arena or a ballpark. But we knew that most people going to sporting events weren’t interested in art.”
Zahn says the couple wanted to stay connected to the urban core.
“We were looking for an appealing neighborhood with the potential to evolve into a place where we’d like to stay for a while,” he remembers. “Lower Grand had good bones, and there was a sense that its ghetto stigma would keep the greedy developers at bay. For a while, at least.”
Regardless of why they wound up on Grand Avenue, Zahn and Moore’s presence there has resulted in the last of Phoenix’s true arts districts. Small local businesses—a hair salon, a cafe, a headshop, a pizza joint, a letter press—share space with galleries showing work by Phoenix-based artists. For many years, Moore’s Mutant Piñata exhibition was a big deal, and the annual Grand Avenue Arts Festival is a much-anticipated opportunity for working artists to share their spaces and artwork with the public.
“We started out just wanting to save old buildings that were neglected or in danger of being razed,” Moore says. “But when you buy a building, you have to do something with it.”
Moore and Zahn knew other artists, and those other artists began renting studio space from the couple. Soon, Grand Avenue began looking less like a fallen industrial neighborhood and more like a canvas for local creatives who lived and worked there; an al fresco tribute to visual art. There was Stop and Look: A Visual Community Resource, for instance, a drive-by gallery where local artists created installations in the windows for passersby to enjoy. And Moore’s whimsical pastel-bright mural Between Innocence and Knowing. And the façade of the La Melgosa building, designed by Zahn and Moore with wrought-iron grillwork and scrolly plaster pieces.
“Mike Miskowski had Scorchydome on Polk and Grand,” Moore recalls. “And Pete Deise opened an art studio. Artists just gravitated here.”
The couple added retail to their business model in 2008; by then, Grand was known as a proper arts district. For a while, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, who’s known for Barrio Café, had a restaurant in Bragg’s Pie Factory, which Zahn and Moore had spent four years resurrecting. Zahn says he and Moore weren’t alone in their preservation work.
“There was a similar dynamic occurring in many older downtown areas in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” he explains. “Flight to the suburbs and newer commercial developments had led to a depressed real estate environment in cities’ older core. Artists with limited resources could afford the kinds of workspace they craved: large, open commercial/industrial buildings with lots of vintage character.”
But saving buildings came with plenty of downsides.
“Being landlords isn’t our dream job,” Moore says. “We fell into it because we had to preserve these buildings. There’s a lot of angst. Tenants, liability issues, the worry of what’s going to break next.”
Those first few years were tough, Moore remembers: Grand Avenue was home to crack houses and prostitution and nightly gunfire. The one thing Grand was safe from, at least back then, was gentrification. Moore and Zahn had done their homework and knew that developers would be slow to come to Grand Avenue, which is zoned for two-story buildings.
“Developers want to build high-rises,” Moore points out. “I learned about zoning when we were fighting the developers over the arena, and I knew what could happen to an arts district that was zoned for tall buildings. The artists who settled along Roosevelt Row weren’t paying attention to things like zoning, and you see what happened there.”
What happened there is what had happened before: the Evans Churchill neighborhood, home to Roosevelt Row, has gentrified after Arizona State University expanded its campus into downtown Phoenix.
“The city wanted a university district,” Moore says, “with high-rise housing for students and expensive chain restaurants that service a campus.”
The city got just that and, as Moore predicted long ago, Roosevelt Row artists couldn’t afford their studio space any longer. Many have fled the scene.
For her part, Moore is trying to do less these days. She says she and Zahn are done buying buildings, and she’s picking her battles when it comes to shutting down disruptive development deals. She’s stepped away from running the Grand Avenue Festival and has retired the annual Mutant Piñata exhibition.
“I still have my installation projects out in front of Bragg’s Pie Factory,” she says. “I have my yard projects in the Weird Garden in front of our home.”
It’s been hard to look away from Grand Avenue’s fate, Moore admits, especially lately as developers have begun buying up property there. She recently tried to save the historic Mercy Hill Church from demolition, but was only able to save its street front sanctuary.
“Gentrification is inevitable,” Zahn says. “What we’ve always hoped for [on Grand] is a sort of soft landing—enough owner-operated vintage buildings to sustain an aura of place, and vigilantly push back against impending projects that would damage the identity of Grand Avenue.”
“I don’t care about our legacy,” Moore insists. “I care about these buildings. I don’t want to see them torn down in my lifetime. But we’ve saved and protected these buildings for as long as we can. I have no idea what’s going to happen to all of this once we’re gone.”