There Goes the Neighborhood

Can an art gallery in a rehabilitated theater change the picture for East Franklin Avenue?

Sandy Spieler might know more about the difficult mission Franklin Art Works faces than anyone else in the city: As artistic director of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, she rehabbed another former porn theater a few blocks away on Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue. Despite manifold challenges, she maintains that this kind of development, in which an arts organization is the first to move into a declining area, is a credit to a street. "I don't think when you're in the midst of a crumbling neighborhood and you see buildings emptying out around you, and you are there struggling to keep a positive attitude, doing good work, encouraging people to move there--I don't think it's a gentrification issue." In fact, she says, the opposite is true. Rather than leading to a gentrified neighborhood, the puppet theater has been an anchor business on its block, staying in its building for the past 12 years as most other nearby businesses have disappeared. Spieler also points out that the theater has provided leadership and stability in local planning and business-development organizations, and served as a foil to the same destructive forces that commonly occur on Franklin Avenue--crime, drugs, prostitution.

According to Spieler, artists often are the first wave of new arrivals into blighted areas because they tend to flock to the places that are affordable and that have readily available space. "It's a two-way thing, really," she says. I don't think it's because artists are brave necessarily, but maybe they are more adventurous. They are able to see such a situation as an open place where there are possibilities. They see energy that comes from people in the midst of the chaos, and this might even help spur the creative process. Because frankly--and I don't want to go on about this--these neighborhoods can be a mess."

Painter Doug Padilla is familiar with the way artists often act as the shock troops for an ensuing army of retail and restaurants. Padilla recently moved his studio to Franklin Avenue's Trader's Market after his landlord in the northeast Minneapolis neighborhood nearly tripled the rent on his studio (a technology village is slated for the space). A decade earlier he was run out of the Warehouse District as it turned into a playground of restaurants, strip clubs, and bars. The East Franklin that Padilla sees each day is in no imminent danger of going upscale in a real estate boom. Instead, he complains that the drug dealers who linger outside the corner convenience store have threatened him, and they spend most of the day conducting dubious business on the sidewalk. "In a year I might wake up and this place could be rocking," says Padilla. "Or it could be more of the same."

Curator of neighborhood ambitions Tim Peterson outside Franklin Art Works
Tony Nelson
Curator of neighborhood ambitions Tim Peterson outside Franklin Art Works

At the corner grocery, the Somali shopkeeper is less concerned with the influx of arts organizations than with what's happening on the avenue. "You know there's a lot of guys hanging around and fighting outside my store," Vinai's manager says. "And that's not good. It would be good if the cops took care of them. I'd like it if there would be more cops coming here."

A few minutes later, as if in answer to his plea, five police cars pull over a sedan a few yards up the street. Twelve officers swarm around two men; as they force one against the hood of a squad car, his arms flail and his jacket issues a tearing sound. Motorists are held up for several blocks in each direction, and people gather on the sidewalk to watch what happens.

For now, the New Franklin Theater remains less prominent than the theater of the street.

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