Preventing the "Soho" effect: Creative Enterprise Zone wants artists to thrive

You might as well plan on not sleeping this weekend, with celebrations marking the opening of the new Green Line happening all day and evening on Saturday, and the art activities and performances going until dawn in Minneapolis for Northern Spark. Amidst your Saturday plans, you may want to consider getting off at the Raymond Avenue Station, where artists and entrepreneurs will show off the new Creative Enterprise Zone, an area touted to be a "center of creativity and enterprise." The intersection of University and Raymond is central, with borders at Prior Avenue, the railroad tracks by Energy Park Drive, and along University Avenue before St. Paul meets Minneapolis. 

The area, long home to a number of artist studios and creative businesses, took a hit during the financial crisis when the historic C & E Building went into foreclosure, displacing the artists and businesses that were housed there. That building is now luxury apartments, but the artists came together in partnership with community groups, nonprofits and developers to brand the area as a place where arts and commerce can thrive. 

According to artist and business owner Catherine Reid Day, who serves as chair of CEZ, the effort was a way of keeping the area on University as a place for arts and commerce. The zone has been written into the city plan, but efforts remain grassroots in order to be free and accessible. The project is organized as a taskforce of the Saint Anthony Park Community Council (SAPCC). 

Amy Sparks, executive director of SAPCC, says that the community rallied after the C&E Building went into distress in order to fight gentrification that seemed inevitable with the new light rail. Working with Artspace, they initially looked at ways to turn the building into artist housing.

In a 2009 feasibility study, Artspace outlined a goal to prevent the "Soho" effect, where an arts district becomes so popular that it is no longer affordable for artists to live there. Eventually, with a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, they moved forward with a plan to preserve the creative culture while equipping artists and entrepreneurs with tools to help them thrive. 

Developer Peter Remes, owner of First & First LLC, says it's always challenging to accommodate everyone, even for a developer who is very interested in the creative process. "It's a balance," he says, noting that his development in the CEZ has raised rents modestly. Other First & First projects include arts-related development, such as the event space Aria and the mini sculpture park Ice House Plaza in Minneapolis.

Reid Day hopes that CEZ will provide tools that will help artists and creative business owners, such as offering networking and connection opportunities, as well as resource sharing. 

Last week, photographer Alec Soth, who has a studio in the area, unveiled a new billboard in the zone featuring his photograph of brightly-colored clothes hanging from a clothesline on a houseboat on the Mississippi River. Soth says the idea for the piece originally was "making the invisible visible," which also falls into the spirit of the CEZ itself. 

Located across from the Dubliner Pub on University and Vandalia, the billboard is part of a project created in partnership with CEZ, First and First LLC, and Forecast Public Art. Jack Becker, executive director of Forecast Public Art, says Soth was the first artist he thought of when they were trying to think of an idea for the billboard. 

On Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at LaSalle and University, CEZ will be celebrating the launch of the Green Line with a pop-up cultural park near the light-rail station. Main-stage performances will be happening all day, with mural painting by Erik Pearson, plus lots of family-friendly activities and food. In addition, the Dubliner Pub will be hosting a pig roast with outdoor music from 1 p.m. to midnight; TU Dance will be hosting dance classes for children, teens, and adults; and Artist Arsenal MN will have a pop-up gallery at the former Spiro's Mediterranean Market (2264 University Ave. W.).

See here a full list of Creative Enterprise Zone performances and activities.