When it comes to people you need to know in the Downtown Phoenix area, Wayne Rainey is at the top of the list. An Arizona native and one of the first people to see the potential in Downtown Phoenix, Wayne and his associates were early adopters and promoters of the First Friday art walk on Roosevelt, and is the owner and operator of the monOrchid Studios — home of local businesses, art galleries, and events.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Wayne to discuss the history of the downtown area, the potential (and soon to come) upgrade of Downtown Phoenix, and what it means to take pride in our ever-growing city of Phoenix.
Words By Nerds: Why did you decide to start your business in the Downtown Phoenix area?
Wayne Rainey: As a kid I grew up here skateboarding these parking lots during the late 70’s, 80’s and even during the 90’s, when downtown was just dead empty. That somehow left a mark on me, so when it came time for me to make some career choices I decided to build my studio here. I’m an advertising photographer and a filmmaker, and the collective wisdom back then was that you had to go to New York, LA, or San Francisco in order to make it.
That really bothered me coming from a long line of family here, from a city that I’ve seen pictures of… Downtown was poppin’! There was the opera house, Hanny’s was a department store — I’ve still got some cowboy hats and boots from my grandfather that say Hanny’s in them — so it bugged me that Phoenix had lost it’s way.
We turned into something that we weren’t really meant to be. Phoenix should have never been a suburb; we’re a desert city. Desert cities are really meant to be dense, really urban, conserve water, conserve power, all those things.
When it came time to really make the commitment to where I was going to pursue my career, I made a very conscious decision to do it in downtown Phoenix. I chose an area that I thought had a potential for change and an area that I thought I could potentially influence. I bought a building here on Roosevelt back in ‘99, and to double down on the whole thing I bought an apartment complex across the street which was known as Holga’s for a long time, and was the first affordable building for artist living.
The building but now it’s owned by Matt Moore, it’s called The Combine. It’s an international artist residency. It’s really grown into it’s own. When I bought it, it was two people living in a run-down hotel. It was really rough; this whole neighborhood was really rough.
WBN: After you settled into your spot on Roosevelt, how fast did you start seeing a revival of interest in the downtown area?
WR: We got people down here almost immediately. The first year there was no art walk at Roosevelt at that point. We were 2 of the 3 galleries in the neighborhood at that point. There was Kimber [Lanning], us, and Holgas. It went from 0 people to 10,000 people on a First Friday in 6 months. It was insane.
WBN: Why do you think you were so successful with Roosevelt Row so quickly?
WR: People are dying for an authentic urban experience here. All you have to do is provide the opportunity for them–that’s why I’m here in the building.
WBN: Do you think Phoenicians are having right discussion — or any discussion at all — regarding change in Phoenix? What problems are we still having with change and growth in the Downtown Phoenix area?
WR: I think the discussion’s happening all the time. I think that we’re on the cusp of a major shift. We’ve got some really good leadership now. One of the problems has been leadership in the past. We have not been good at all at managing our assets, our water, land use, our historic equity and buildings, our parks.
Our downtown has just been overlooked for so long and mainly because there’s so much money to be made on the perimeter. We’re very much a city that depends on construction, so it’s a of a lot cheaper to do new housing on the perimeter of the city then it is to do infill. When you do infill you’re not buying one big lot, you’re buying several.
You have to consolidate, you maybe have to tear something down or you have historic considerations. You have to go vertical in some situations because it’s necessary, but it’s a lot more risky. If you go out to the perimeter you can just build five thousand houses on a couple hundred square acres and walk away a rich man. That’s really hard to fight against.
We’ve been treating Arizona as if land were an inexhaustible resource and it’s becoming quite obvious that it isn’t inexhaustible. The other thing we’re learning now is that when you build in a desert city and you build out like that, you end up impacting your environment long term.
It’s changing now. I give lots of credit to Greg Stanton, he’s been a terrific leader and mayor, we’ve got some good council people… We’ve got a really screwed up state legislature but that’s just a matter of getting our urban sector to vote more often or at all, I’m optimistic.
WBN: Why do you think this generation wants to start moving downtown?
WR: They’re dying for it. They’re dying for an authentic, true urban experience–something that’s honest. I grew up both ways: my mom lived pretty close to downtown and my dad was a cotton gin manager, so I lived out in Goodyear; I know both lives very well. The suburban lifestyle, especially in the desert where there’s not a close by wood to go into, there’s not even a real desert area to go into. There’s a few state parks you go into, but it’s not really viable for a kid to go down there.
In any other climate you at least have some kind of interaction with nature, whether it’s a river or a lake or whatever… I think that suburban life has changed so radically that what’s left for the kids to do except go to the mall? We’ve created a whole host of so many other problems that they have to deal within their formative years and we’re creating their thought patterns.
We call this kind of an experience a “third place.” In the order of things in life, your “first place” is home. It’s where you spend the most time, you rest your head. Your “second place” is work. That’s where you spend the next biggest majority of your life.
The third place is neither of the first two — it’s where you really grow as a person. It’s where you exchange ideas, it’s where you learn, it’s where you meet your friends, it’s where life is. It’s where you’re not sleeping or working, it’s where society begins. That’s why we have cities, it’s why we have society; it’s to learn and exchange and give each other pieces of our lives.
We’ve lost that third place in these kinds of cities. When you live in a suburb like that you go to school, or if you’re a parent you’re going to work, and you pull into the driveway or you pull into the garage and the door sucks in behind you, you head straight to the couch, hit the TV, you’re in that zone for 2 or 3 hours, the TV dinner pops out and then you go to bed and that’s five days a week. Then on the weekends, you might go out to the back yard and you might share your pool with your family but there’s a big fence that goes around it and you don’t see your neighbors unless they happen to come in and invade.
There’s no interaction. We’ve limited our own educations in the way that we live now. No society has ever lived like that unless they were in a hostile environment. It’s almost as if we’re under attack. It’s not a viable way for society to grow. We’re not evolving anymore we’re devolving.
WBN: How will this influx of youth affect the living situations downtown?
WR: Make no mistake about it, developers are watching. Whenever they see something like that this that has life of it’s own and an attraction to it, they try to capitalize on it. We have to be careful. This is the most tentative, fragile point in Phoenix’s history right now. There is this enormous opportunity for us to create a very viable city within this city — a real urban destination.
We can screw it up really easy, though, and all it takes is greed. If we build this new city and we don’t have an affordable housing component built into it, that means setting aside some land and making sure there is legally structured, affordable housing within that community, we’re going to build such a sterile environment there’s going to be nothing hip about it.
All you have to do is look at parts of Scottsdale and where they’ve tried to do these little urban ideas before; they end up being so expensive that the thing that made it interesting before, which is the kids, the youth the excitement, the change, the art, all those things, those people can’t afford to live there anymore.
Everything’s market rate, everything is going through the roof. Because it’s so hip and so cool it gets really expensive, so unless you set aside some affordable housing, and you make sure that within that community, you have a balanced amount of people that are going to keep it kind of hip and kind of raw, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.
All you have to do is look at history. New York has chased their artists around every section of the city for years now, there’s no part in Manhattan that they can live in. You have to go across the river to find something that’s an arts village. It was Chelsea, it was the East Village, it was SoHo, RoHo — watch history and you can watch the artists being chased around.
There were very rugged, very run down areas and the artists went in and made it cool. Developers came in after them and then the artists couldn’t afford to live there anymore, they left… Here in Phoenix, we’ve only got one shot at this. We don’t have their density or historic equity to try twice.
WBN: What advice do you have for those wanting to help better the Downtown Phoenix area?
WR: Phoenix is not a done deal, and that’s the great thing about Phoenix. Anyone can affect change here. Now is an opportune time if you’re interested in Phoenix becoming a world class livable, sustainable city — now’s the time to get involved! Join the neighborhood association. Get involved in downtown politics. Get involved with the Light Rail. Get involved with parks department. Sit on every arts board that you can. Vote!