As the Arts District turns: The rapid transformation of a once-sleepy neighborhood

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Photo by Melissa Richardson Banks

With the news over the last few weeks that Soho House and other high-profile tenants are snapping up property in the Arts District, a hue and cry has erupted (at least in some media outposts) that the once-gritty neighborhood is done–at least for artists.

I met up with long-time resident, photographer and neighborhood activist Melissa Richardson Banks to hear her take. She drove me around the 52-block area late last Saturday afternoon, identifying what’s in store for empty parcels of land and once-forgotten buildings–as we skirted gaggles of happy, shopping, jaywalking pedestrians.

Melissa Richardson Banks
Melissa Richardson Banks

Photogenic graffiti, camera-wielding tourists, holes in the ground destined to become malls, old structures reincarnated as condos and restaurants and ‘creative office space’: Welcome to the rapidly transforming neighborhood where only the most successful of artists (or anyone, for that matter) can afford to dwell. There was a time, not very long ago, when this was an area most people went out of their way to avoid. Then, in 2008, the sausage place came in, and suddenly the Arts District became a destination. One after another, storefronts and warehouses transformed. The area grew from 1,500 to 6,000 residents in just the last seven years, Banks said, and only a tiny fraction is working artists.

On Santa Fe, just south of Bread Lounge and Stumptown and just north of the warehouse recently announced as the new location of the private club called Soho House, I pointed out a bride posing for a camera. “Oh that happens all the time here,” she told me.  “People love to have their engagement photos taken in front of graffiti. It’s very popular.” Banks pointed out this strip isn’t even technically in the Arts District, but, rather, Arts District adjacent. So great is the cache of staking a post downtown.

The new outpost of Soho House-a warehouse where bands have long rehearsed
The new outpost of Soho House-a 100 year old warehouse where bands have long rehearsed Photo: Scot Ezzell/Downtown News

For someone who could get edged out by the rising rents, Banks is decidedly not NIMBY about the groundswell of interest in her neighborhood. “We don’t want to lose our past and we want to appreciate what’s coming,” she said as we passed a triangle of land that had been co-opted by Nike as a pop-up store. Hundreds of people stood in line waiting for the chance to buy $175 sneakers. She does, however, have that remorse familiar to those of us who haven’t bought:  “I looked around in the late ’90s, but could never quite do it.”

Photo by Melissa Richardson Banks
Photo by Melissa Richardson Banks