There Goes the Neighborhood

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

The New Franklin Theater has always had potential; on this everyone agrees. Since it was targeted for redevelopment near the beginning of the last decade, this building at 1021 E. Franklin Ave. has served as a repository for a bounty of community schemes, and a bushel of money. Yet only when the onetime movie theater reopened as Franklin Art Works in November of last year did anyone get a close look at the actual edifice that had long absorbed their hopes.

As part of the renovation that began in May 1999, workers uncovered a graceful arched window with a 29-foot stained-glass panel, and a sculpted brick façade. A gilded plaster frame emerged that had once encircled the original movie screen; according to fashion, this had been applied in reflective paint directly on the wall. And spots of the ornamental art-deco stencil work remained on the walls of the theater's main auditorium. "Back then, they just covered up things," says Tim Peterson, the director and sole employee of Franklin Art Works, the gallery that now fills this rehabilitated structure. "And they just shoved all kinds of junk in the intervening space. This place was a mess--you would not believe what we found here....We even found two of the original seats from the theater, made of mahogany and cast iron, shoved up into the false ceiling. They came crashing down when we were working--but still, there they were."

The arrival of Franklin Art Works in the oft-beleaguered Phillips neighborhood may not have represented quite the same level of serendipity as those falling seats: Roughly $900,000 has been spent by various agencies and institutions to get the theater in shape and its tenant up and running. But the fact that the true nature of the New Franklin has now revealed itself from behind decades of neglect does not mean that the project has filled its potential. Rather, neighborhood people seem to have invested this gallery with the mission of buoying a stretch of road that has defied other development efforts. The philosophy behind the creation of Franklin Art Works seems both simple and intriguing: Where public money goes into art, art will attract more money.

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

Though expectations for this one building may seem high, the New Franklin was also a focal point for the neighborhood upon its completion in 1916, in the neighborhood that was then known as Southside (Phillips became its name in the 1960s). At the time the theater was built, Southside was home to a wide range of Minneapolitans. On its west side lived some of the city's wealthiest families, including the Pillsburys, Washburns, and Peaveys. On its east side, drawn by the proximity to the Southtown railyard, and streetcar access to the rest of the city, lived a constantly changing working-class immigrant community: Southern-born blacks; Scandinavians; Germans; Irish; and Jews. Many of the homes of these people were without electricity, running water, or plumbing at the time the New Franklin was built. The theater itself, however, was a splendid neighborhood refuge, said to be the largest movie house of its kind west of Chicago.

The golden age for the New Franklin Theater proved short-lived. By the 1930s the neighborhood had begun to see a significant decline in its living standard. The encroachment of the automobile on city planning began to necessitate a widening of roadways and the eventual dismantling of the cable car. (This, long before the construction of I-35W and I-94 isolated the area and decimated its pedestrian traffic.) Furthermore, the Great Depression hit the working-class families in the area extremely hard, and large swaths of the region became, as one city planning report called it, "a rooming-house district" of itinerant workers who could not afford to keep their homes. In 1934 more than 25 percent of neighborhood residents were unemployed, 75 percent of the houses were rented, and 20 percent of the buildings were considered uninhabitable.

Remarkably, those statistics are not much different today. One thing that changed in the long interim, though, is that the New Franklin became one of Phillips's many distressed properties. Around 1970, declining commercial traffic drove the theater to shutter its doors, and in 1977 it reopened as a three-screen porn-plex. When owner Ferris Alexander was imprisoned on obscenity, tax-evasion, and racketeering charges in 1990, the New Franklin entered a decade of intermittent hibernation. In 1992 the New Franklin, then just another aging and empty building on a run-down block, was purchased by the MCDA at the behest of a neighborhood group called the People of Phillips (PoP), and it was set aside for eventual renovation. In time, several hundred thousand dollars of Minneapolis Community Development Agency money was squandered in administrative costs and planning, but no restoration occurred.

Though the MCDA talked of scrapping the building and starting over, eventually the Neighborhood Revitalization Program and other funders teamed with a secessionist neighborhood group calling itself Ventura Village, allocating $700,000 to restore the theater. The New Franklin Cultural Center Inc. hired Tim Peterson, age 35, to program the space. Though he'd worked as an assistant curator at the Walker and at Los Angeles's Lannan Foundation for some 11 years, Peterson could hardly have anticipated the difficulty of the project before him. "The task has been tremendously daunting," says the diminutive and
pale administrator.

The scale of the renovation is an imposing thing unto itself. The original theater seated 1,000, and the sprawling interior space has now been partitioned into a large art gallery and a planned 110-seat theater and café. Programming funds are currently slated at between $80,000 and $120,000, a fairly modest sum. The debut show in November and December by Minnesota sculptor Robert Fischer attracted 200 to 400 people to its opening and perhaps 1,000 total by Peterson's estimates. How many people were neighborhood residents is difficult to gauge; Peterson guesses 25 percent. In any case, during one long afternoon visit with Peterson, a reporter never saw more than one other person in the gallery at any time.

The owner of a small Somali grocery store, Vinai Food Market, three doors down was unaware that the New Franklin Theater had started its programming. "It's not open yet," said the proprietor, who preferred not to be identified for this story. When asked if he thinks the building, as well as the entire stretch of road, will be restored soon, he shrugs. "Yeah. I think so. At least they say so. I don't know. We'll have to wait and see."

It's hard to imagine that Phillips residents would have identified an art gallery as a pressing priority for a block that last year registered a daunting 775 police calls (653 from a single neighboring address). Yet Peterson professes an intention to make the programming of the New Franklin inclusive to the surrounding community. "Everything we do here is open to the public and free," he says. "Our education program is free. Our theater rental rate will be very low and available for any purpose." Further, Franklin Art Works has secured a two-year, $50,000 grant from the Governor's After School Program to offer hands-on activities for neighborhood kids.

What this mission has to do with the kind of art currently filling the large, well-lighted exhibit space is somewhat unclear. David Rathman's Fact and Figures, which comprises 29 watercolor-and-ink posters on paper and is on display through April 8, is a cerebral, and referential show. The work is touchingly rendered and whimsically labeled; its language and narrative games reflect the influence of artists such as Ed Ruscha and Bruce Conner. For instance, "Atlas" (1999) is a careful rendering of 12 insects, each about one inch in length, each given the name of an American city. Another, "Saturday's Library" (1999), is a loose accumulation of hand tools, every one labeled with the name of a male author. The artist's statement reports that he takes his visual influence from high school posters of a certain vintage--1960s-era science and social-studies images, for instance. Yet this description masks the biting humor in Rathman's work, and the angst-filled expressiveness in the strokes of his pen-quill and watercolor brush.

One suspects the NRP did not expend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the New Franklin Theater out of an interest in 1960s-era science posters. Rather, this site, along with the Ancient Trader's Market, a new shopping center-cum-community center just opened by the American Indian Business Development Corporation a few storefronts away, is intended to lift this block's prospects.

Peterson is not unaware of this dynamic. "When we first opened," he says, "I had people come in and say they were surprised to see something so nice on the avenue. They even called it an oasis. But I tell them they should wait and see. There's lots of good things opening up down the way."

Indeed, the plans for redeveloping the area are extensive. At present, money has been allocated, or plans are in effect, to build 7,500 new housing units to help relieve local housing shortages, to create a walking and shopping district around the light-rail transit station that is planned for the area, to narrow Franklin Avenue and add parking and turn lanes, to widen sidewalks and put in Victorian-style street lighting, and to restore deteriorated buildings and replace blighted ones.

Jim Graham, the project manager for Ventura Village, imagines the area restored to a glory unseen since the Depression. "Our idea is to even have a streetcar go down the middle of Franklin just like it used to," he says a bit giddily. "Though that's really far down the future."

How these sundry schemes progress, though, may hinge on how the New Franklin Theater project fares. Barb Lickness, the neighborhood specialist for Phillips at the NRP, speaks about this somewhat reservedly: "At first, no one was educated about what the project would be. But once Ventura Village became abreast of the project, they wholeheartedly embraced it and came forward with a proposal to use more NRP funds to restore the front of the building. Then the neighborhood even came up with additional money. That's when they took off the false front [of the theater] and found the stained-glass window underneath. From our perspective, [the theater] is an important community gathering point."

Graham sounds more passionate about the connection between this fine-art gallery and the rougher streetscape around it. "The theater is a symbol of the neighborhood," says Graham. "Just as we restored it and found that underneath was a grand old lady, so is the same thing true in the neighborhood. Underneath the crime and the dirt is a nonreplaceable kind of beauty....As the theater goes, so goes the neighborhood."

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."

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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