East Roosevelt Street is haunted by its past. Walk across the erstwhile drug-addled neighbourhood in downtown Phoenix, just a few blocks south of the I-10 highway and the postmodern central library, and you'd never guess you're close to the city's sophisticated historic downtown – there are too many empty dirt lots, front yards filled with trash and fences made from wobbly chainlink or corroded wood. "No one's ever wanted to live here until now," says Michael Lanier, who runs a local plant shop called the Bosque. "When I told my mom I was moving here, she cried. She was like, 'I'll pay your rent if you move anywhere else.'"
But Lanier did move here, and he wasn't alone. East Roosevelt – known as Roosevelt Row, or simply RoRo – has transformed into what The New York Times called a "the city's cutting-edge art destination." It's community-focused, densely populated and covered in graffiti; there are independent coffee shops, organic grocery markets, all-night bars and strictly local art galleries, none of which existed 15 years ago.
RoRo is the city's first real walkable neighbourhood, and locals are flocking to it so quickly that rental rates have soared to become the most expensive in Phoenix, trumping even well-moneyed Scottsdale. When my girlfriend and I visited in the fall, we saw apartments and townhouses rising at a furious pace, construction crews repaving whole streets, and city workers installing bike parking behind a yoga studio. It's a neighbourhood under construction, pushing past the ragged clothes still left behind on public benches by the homeless who, for now, still quietly occupy the streets.
It's hard to stress how weird this all feels for a city so famously unwalkable. For decades, Phoenix has been defined by archetypes of American sprawl: snaking highways, segregated suburbs, a concentrated downtown business district. You'd be crazy to live there and not own a car.
That point was made clear days earlier, when we caught a local TV news story about a new environmental-arts group that temporarily transformed downtown parking spots into miniature green spaces. When the program cut back to the two anchors, one burst out laughing: "That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard of."
Wanting to see this area for ourselves, we started our self-guided tour at Mother Bunch Brewing, a microbrewery tastefully adorned with old church pews and exposed ventilation ducts. While the myriad beers on tap are the main draw (standouts from our sampler flight were the Stripped Copper Amber and Huss Scottsdale Blonde), the food was good, too; the Phoenix French dip was excellent, served on soft baguette-style bread with horseradish sauce, crispy arugula, and spicy fennel. But despite the quality, the restaurant can't help but stand out in RoRo – it's an emblem of gentrification, a hollow industrial warehouse repurposed and filled with young professionals in collared shirts and ties. On our way out, when I asked our waiter how long the place had been open, he cheerfully replied: "Actually, tomorrow is our one-year anniversary."
To find the neighbourhood's most established favourites, we had to visit 5th Street, a block filled with older vintage-clothing shops, a hookah lounge, a grungy bookstore, and a homemade-ice cream parlour. Most businesses on this stretch opened when Arizona State University launched its satellite campus nearby in 2006, opening a floodgate of young creative types to take advantage of nearby cheap rent.
We walked into the independent bookstore, Lawn Gnome Publishing, which inhabits an old 1930s residential bungalow beside what's now a weed-paraphernalia shop. The owner, a poet named Aaron Johnson, founded it as an antithesis to the ASU campus bookstore – a place for free thought and expression, where students and activists could sell political and feminist zines and locally recorded albums.
The girl working at Lawn Gnomes looked half-asleep, dressed all in black with dyed turquoise hair. "I just took this Monday shift," she all but yawned. "It's the slowest shift I've ever worked." RoRo isn't much of a daytime neighbourhood, she explained – the area's personality is only really visible after sundown, during the nightly open mics held at across the street at Jobot Coffee, or during the 'hood's so-called "vampire hours," when businesses open up in the evening and don't close until after midnight.
We checked out Jobot next, where an employee confirmed how odd it was that we'd visit during the day. "This place really comes alive at night," she told us. "We're open 24/7 on weekends, and the front patio is always crazy." Jobot is the kind of place that made RoRo what it is today – it opened in 2008 as a hangout specifically for a local arts collective and just kept growing. The interior is quirky and ramshackle, with toy robots, lots of lamps and old armchairs, and a chalkboard menu offering chai lattes for $4. The menu offers locally churned chorizo and thin-sliced fried potatoes, and their coffee is as strong and fresh as you'd expect from a shop dubbed home of the best brew in Phoenix.
The irony behind Roosevelt Row is how the artists who today call it home – who protest high-rise developments invading their creative nook – were the first wave of gentrifiers, transforming the home of some of Phoenix's most vulnerable residents into an arts hub.
To get a sense of that original history, we walked over to an art gallery near Roosevelt and 2nd called PSA Art Awakenings, where art therapists help locals recovering from drug addictions or mental illness channel their emotions into visual art for display and sale. It's equal parts social-work centre and art gallery, and is among the only venues offering a glimpse into what Roosevelt Street used to be. We were led through the halls by one of the program's students, who seemed constantly uncertain of whether he was doing a good enough job, and who ended our tour by showing us the factory-like back room where dozens of participants sat painting, sculpting and sketching some of the city's most atmospheric and personal art.
As the afternoon wound down, we stopped into Tacos de Juarez near 7th Street, enticed by the gigantic Day of the Dead-style cartoon skulls spray-painted on the little restaurant's front wall. Inside, couples were sitting in high-backed Jacobean chairs ordering huge plates of overflowing tacos and sloppy refried beans topped with melted cheese – but we opted for a simple oversized cup of sweet horchata (rice milk with cinnamon) and some fresh-baked Mexican pastries.
As we finished our drink, a jittery man in ragged clothes stomped inside and yelled abruptly into the kitchen, "Can I get some water, please?" In a gesture that looked routine, the guy behind the counter handed him a plastic cup of water, and the homeless man walked right out. When we left the restaurant, we saw him again, sitting on the pavement in the shade across from the front door – a gentle reminder that no matter how much changes, Roosevelt Row will never completely escape its past.
IF YOU GO
If you're in Phoenix for the first Friday of any month, you can take a self-guided (but curated) walking tour of Roosevelt Row as part of Artlink Phoenix's First Fridays initiative. Artlink also offers neighbourhood maps and directories, and hosts numerous events there throughout the year. artlinkphoenix.com
Where to Stay
The Camby Hotel is a new, unique luxury hotel right in Biltmore, the upscale heart of Phoenix, and a 15-minute drive from East Roosevelt. Stay here for a decidedly quirky Southwestern flair and a rooftop bar and pool. Rooms from $299 (U.S.). 2401 E. Camelback Rd., thecamby.com
Or kick back at the Maricopa Manor Bed and Breakfast. This gorgeous southern-style villa, built in 1928, has become one of Phoenix's best-reviewed B&Bs. Rooms from $119 a night. 15 West Pasadena Ave., maricopamanor.com
Where to Eat
Mother Bunch Brewing is a critically acclaimed microbrewery with an extensive gourmet menu and a variety of draught options from across Arizona. 825 N. 7th St., motherbunchbrew.com
Jobot Coffee is one of Roosevelt Row's earliest arts hubs, with an eclectic food menu and great selection of free-trade coffees and teas. For the best ambience, go at night – it's open 24/7 on weekends and until midnight on weeknights. 918 N. 5th St., jobotcoffee.com
For some of the most authentic Mexican food in Phoenix, check out Tacos de Juarez, a dingy but delicious joint serving spicy tamales, overflowing tacos, cheesy enchiladas and sweet Mexican desserts. 1017 N. 7th St., facebook.com/tacosJ