The corner of University Avenue and 30th Street has always been full of characters. The affluent boutique shopper on her cell phone, annoyed as she shuffles by the tall guy carrying the cross who's telling her that Jesus loves her. The tight-jeans hipster-type, crossing the street to get to Off the Record, careful not to bump into Mr. Suit-and-Tie who's on his way to get lunch at Urban Solace.
North Park's busiest corner and main thoroughfares have had a hell of a decade. At the beginning of 2000, the nearest thing you could get to fine dining in the neighborhood was San Diego Giant Pizza, and the closest thing to a boutique was the redundantly named Stuff ‘N' Things. But then, attracted by cheap rents, the artists and galleries moved in and the bars and restaurants soon followed. Now, the area is saturated with bars, boutiques and restaurants, so much so that The New York Times featured the neighborhood in its travel section and felt compelled to proclaim it one of “the city's most vibrant and diverse districts.”
The transition from a more art-centric enclave to a nightlife destination seems natural, if not inevitable. Call it gentrification, call it revitalization, but it's here. Neighborhoods like Silver Lake in Los Angeles and Williamsburg in Brooklyn have seen similar changes. But with that comes higher rents and more traffic, and for North Park's original gallery owners, who were able to afford spaces at the beginning of the millennium, they're not seeing the changes as positive.
“Most everyone is bummed I'm leaving,” says Gustaf Rooth, who is moving his Planet Rooth Studios Gallery to Hillcrest after almost 10 years on Ray Street. “And I am upset, because I could have expanded here, and this could have happened in North Park.
“Some people might call me a sell-out,” he says, “but I don't have much of a choice.”
Rooth cites rent increases and his landlord's refusal to let him expand as reasons for his departure but adds that living above the gallery has become intolerable due to the raucous crowds that are flocking to bars like True North and U-31. Chris Puzio, who owned Spacecraft Gallery before closing earlier this year, has also been vocal in his displeasure with the direction the neighborhood is heading.
But Elizabeth Studebaker, executive director of North Park Main Street—a nonprofit corporation that advocates for businesses and aims to further revitalize the neighborhood—says that as much as some might not like the nightlife resurgence, it's inevitable.
“Eighty percent of the potential and interested business owners seeking support or trying to find a space are nighttime-use types of businesses, and that has definitely increased in the last three years,” Studebaker says. “There are positives and negatives to that scenario. There's been the introduction of a couple very large establishments that draw a lot of people to North Park [who] don't live here or don't respect it.”
North Park Main Street encourages these new businesses to support the local arts and galleries. Before True North opened, the owners seemed ready to adapt to, and even help, their neighbors a block over.
“You have to wake up every day and feel like you're still doing something positive and good,” Eric Lingenfelder, a co-owner of Verant Group, the company that runs True North and the recently opened West Coast Tavern told Pacific magazine at the time. “It's enough that the world thinks you're the evil bar owner, but for us, you have to wake up and feel like you're doing something positive in the community.”
Whether or not the bars are doing something positive for the community is certainly subjective—Verant Group declined to comment for this story—but it seems clear that if there's any hope for the arts and remaining galleries in North Park, it will come down to simple economics and the ability to embrace what is already a changed community. In the past, the galleries' refusal to adapt or compromise may have led to their undoing. Even before True North opened, conflicts between galleries and businesses on Ray Street led to such dissention and bitterness that there are now two different monthly art walks (Ray at Night and North Park Nights). Galleries like Agitprop and Art Produce were often excluded from Ray at Night because of opposing views on how to enhance the art experience.
“A number of the art galleries on Ray Street just couldn't cut it,” says Jay Turner, who headed North Park Main Street from 1995 to 2005 and is often credited with the revitalization of North Park. “But were they driven out by the new businesses? No way. There was no traffic after Ray at Night and they weren't open. Is that a good model to just be open one night? And there was a major rift between some of the galleries there about whether they should be open more.”
Turner's point: Either you work collaboratively or you'll be fighting an uphill battle, because at the end of the day, the neighborhood will move on without you.
“North Park's gonna be known for bars. It's going to lose the arts and cultural part,” Rooth says. “There's no culture when you keep pulling a Petri dish out of the fridge and smashing it to the ground and starting a new one.”
Turner, on the other hand, remains optimistic.
“If this is truly an urban neighborhood, it will be that some sites are like incubator sites,” he says. “People will start here and then move out or move on or they'll fail. Or they'll find a formula that works for this neighborhood. Simple as that. The Big Lots building and the Woolworth's building are wonderful locations for new types of artistic things—something that could really jolt the neighborhood again and also be something that both artists and the neighborhood want.”
Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.