North Park's Ray Street has always been stuck somewhere between a booming arts district and a shell of an arts district. During Ray at Night, the monthly art walk focused on Ray Street, the block comes alive as hordes of culture seekers flood the place, red wine in hand, ready to feast their eyes.
Almost every other night of the week, though, Ray Street's dead. Most of the galleries are locked up, a few storefronts sit vacant and the businesses that are bustling aren't doing so because of art—they're making money by cutting hair or selling sex toys and pet food.
“You've heard we're changing the name of Ray at Night to North Park Nights, right?” asked plein air painter Marjorie Taylor, opening the door to her studio and gallery (Taylor is one of the few artists who keep their Ray Street galleries open during the day). “This area's growing and expanding beyond this block, so it's a good thing. I think it's time.”
Taylor's right about the growth and expansion of North Park. Just around the corner on University Avenue, street life is popping. A grand-opening sign flops in the wind at the new Yog-Art yogurt shop, a Mexican restaurant is under construction and the sidewalks are fairly full as motorists circle the block looking for parking, likely ready to patronize one of the dozens of new boutiques, restaurants or salons.
North Park has officially gentrified, but not everybody shares Taylor's opinion when it comes to whether the Ray at Night name change is a good thing.
“It's bullshit,” Gustaf Rooth said, sitting in Bluefoot Bar & Lounge, one of his favorite North Park hangouts. Rooth owns a woodworking studio and art gallery on Ray Street called Planet Rooth. Seven years ago, it was Rooth who walked down to the corner of Ray Street and North Park Way to what was then North Park Studios and asked owner Ken Callaway if he wanted to start a community art walk. Callaway said yes, the two got a few others on the block to sign on and they came up with the name. And even though the scheduled Ray at Night launch landed just days after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the two went forward with the event.
Thousands of people showed up to that first Ray at Night, according to numerous accounts, and hundreds have shown up every second Saturday since. To Rooth, who's the only Ray at Night founder left on the block, the event has become one of his life's finest works of art. He says he's watched with pride as the night has led the way toward North Park's revival.
“We just keep doing it,” Rooth said, doing calculations in his head and settling on 142 as the number of art shows he's had in his gallery since the start of Ray at Night. “Galleries have come, galleries have gone, boutiques have come, boutiques have gone. All these places have left, and all these other sophisticated things started moving in, like the Birch Theatre, and the focus became on the gentrification of North Park. They built the parking garage and the La Boheme condos went up and, oh, how did they advertise those things? ‘Steps away from the Ray Street galleries.' We basically enticed the developers.”
Now that North Park's been built up, Rooth fears rent will rise and the artists and galleries will be forced out. Rooth sees the re-branding of Ray at Night to “North Park Nights” as a sure sign that things are headed in that direction.
But even Rooth isn't happy with the current state of Ray at Night. “Unfortunately, nobody buys the art. They just come and come and enjoy the beverage and the amenities we're providing, but they don't purchase the art.”
On this point, the business owners and community members behind the North Park Nights re-branding agree. The idea to reorganize Ray at Night first came up because everyone on the block was struggling, and the event didn't seem to be helping. Lea Caughlan and Carly Delso-Saavedra, owners of The Rubber Rose, a sexuality boutique on Ray Street, had to close down the 1,500-square-foot gallery attached to their boutique space a few weeks ago because they couldn't afford the rent.
“In the beginning, Gustaf was with us and he wanted the change,” Caughlan said. “I told him, ‘I'm struggling, I don't sell art—do you sell art?' He was, like, ‘No, man, I'm thinking about renting out the gallery.'”
So they talked about the change during a monthly Ray at Night meeting, and the idea quickly morphed into making the event an independent nonprofit and, in the meantime, operating it under the auspices of the San Diego Art Institute, which owns the San Diego Art Department, also located on Ray Street. And instead of the loose, participate-if-you-want organization of the event, Ray at Night would offer tiered official membership levels to North Park businesses and galleries interested in participating. Depending on the level of participation in the event, membership fees would range from $200 to $400, with the idea that the small art galleries putting in the most effort would pay the least, and the businesses that already benefit from the crowds of people coming to North Park but don't contribute by showing art, would pay the most.
The fees would go toward a better marketing campaign and cover the cost of fliers, maps and maintenance of the website. Until now, all the marketing efforts have been handled by individual galleries, and the website has been run by Rooth alone, which is the main reason for the Ray at Night name change—in short, Rooth didn't want to hand over the domain name.
Rooth resisted the changes early on, but the group went forward. Following the seventh anniversary of Ray at Night this Saturday, Sept. 13, the new night will be launched in October. Whether North Park Nights will be held on the second Saturday has yet to be decided. Rooth says he'll continue his Ray at Night openings regardless, but he says he hopes the new event will be held on a different night, and he's still a bit suspicious of the intentions—he believes attention will be shifted away from the artists and the galleries and toward other businesses.
The backers of North Park Nights say that's a valid concern.
“Point blank,” Caughlan says, “that already happens and we get no benefit from it. A huge night happens every month, and people go to the bars, people go to the restaurants, people go everywhere, and the galleries are going out of business. So it already happens.”
“It should be called ‘North Park Boutiques at Night' or ‘North Park Restaurants at Night,' if anything,” Rooth said, finishing off his beer. “Planet Rooth does not endorse North Park Nights, for the simple reason that North Park Nights basically endorses restaurants, boutiques and bars with a mild emphasis on the arts, and that's not what Ray at Night was all about. Ray at Night has always been about the art and the artists.”