Artful Endurance

Story by: Jordon Shinn, Staff Writer

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As Oklahoma City residents become more interested in the cultural renaissance of areas such as Bricktown and The Plaza district, many are wondering what the future holds for the city's oldest and original arts community -- The Paseo.

The Walk

To look into The Paseo's future, we must first peer into its past.

Architect G.A. Nichols built The Paseo in 1929 as the first shopping center north of downtown.

"He was creating a shopping district for all the neighborhoods he was developing so the residents wouldn't have to go downtown," said John Belt, lawyer and longtime Paseo developer. "So they would be able to have those everyday, personal items."

There was a barbershop, a shoe repair store, a small grocery, coin laundry, a dance hall and a swimming pool. Built at a time when not everybody had a car and the trolley reigned, The Paseo was designed for foot traffic. Translated, "paseo" means "walk" in Spanish; The Paseo -- The Walk.

Today, the district's unique design benefits are experienced during the First Friday Gallery Walk, when every first Friday of the month, the art galleries open their doors to the public -- more than 15 galleries all within a few block's walking distance.

Historic Paseo

Finding its way

The Paseo saw tough times from the start, with the Great Depression of the 1930s. The '50s saw the beat generation and jazz clubs, which found a natural home in the district. Then, the hippies moved in, opening clubs like The Yellow Submarine. Through the '70s, The Paseo flourished and artists thrived. The Paseo Arts Festival was first held on Memorial Day weekend in 1976 and has continued every year since. It is considered by some to be the best arts festival in Oklahoma. The Paseo's artists united, and in 1982 the Paseo Artists Association came into being.

As the beat and hippie generations aged, many left; some never have. But interest and investment dollars waned in the '80s with the Penn Square Bank failure and the oil bust. Businesses on the strip were sold to the bank and boarded up. The Paseo was on the verge of becoming a warehouse district.

Modern Paseo neighborhood

Neighborhood Praised

Oklahoma City's Paseo district was named this fall as one of the American Planning Association's "10 Great Neighborhoods for 2010."

The first such designation in Oklahoma, the honor was bestowed on the neighborhood for its historic architecture, Spanish-influenced commercial area, affordable housing, and strong citizen engagement and civic participation -- including an active arts community.

The Belt factor

Now, across from Picasso's on the north end of the street, John Belt's latest project -- a three-story, 22,864-square-foot building -- towers above the surrounding tile-roofed studios and stucco storefronts.

In the '80s, it was home to the Spaghetti Factory at 3010 Paseo Drive.

Belt bought his first property in The Paseo more than 30 years ago. He is now the district's primary property owner. A lawyer by trade, for three decades he has gradually bought and restored many of the buildings on the original strip. Without him, The Paseo might have withered a long time ago.

"Changing the street and making it better has been a pleasure for me," Belt said. "You just do what you can as you [go] along, and now, finally, it's just getting to where we want it to be.

"It takes time, and that has been the problem -- it takes time."

His current renovation is his largest yet. Belt's exterior improvements echo the Spanish-revival architecture of the neighborhood with a colorful, stucco facade and clay-tile roofing. But inside, the building remains a mystery. Belt said it would be home to both businesses and galleries. But one thing is for sure, after three decades of renovating the historic arts district, this project is his magnum opus -- his master work.

"When I say it takes time, it's a process," Belt said.

Moving in

In the shadowed living room of his apartment, Tim Anderson, a.k.a. The Reverend, sits in a black armchair splattered with paint. His shoes  --  and the room, too  --  are splattered with paint. The wall to his right looks like a Jackson Pollock painting, red and black paint flung over white primer. He says that one is finished. But he is unsatisfied with the opposing wall across the room, smeared with purple and handprints. Near the top, the wall reads, "You are blessed if you tolerate this - The Rev."

"If you live in The Paseo, you figure out and understand The Paseo, or you leave," Anderson said. "I'm fortunate enough to live at ground zero -- The Market."

Hidden halfway between NW 30 and Walker on the west side of the street, Market on Paseo Apartments, 600 NW 29, is a haven to many young artists seeking a counter-culture environment. At this two-story, triangular complex, all the doors face the courtyard -- a miniature forest full of trees and sunlight. The vibe here is bohemian.

"The Market is an amalgamation of musicians, artists, writers, college students and one clown," Anderson said. "We are mostly people who moved here because of the free and loving nature of The Paseo. And we are free to live how we want."

For Anderson and other residents of The Market, neighborhood development and renovation projects are seen as a threat to their way of life.

"We have a constant fear of gentrification," Anderson said. "... If the rent in The Paseo goes above what the artists can afford -- and most of us are starving artists -- The Paseo will die."

He cites Greenwich Village in New York City where art attracted development and, in turn, rising property values forced artists out.

"Art isn't free -- neither is rent."

Tom Lee

An Artist's Words

Artist Tom Lee dedicated many years toward improving The Paseo. Before his death in October, Lee commented to The Oklahoman about the historic district:

“I think the future looks pretty bright for The Paseo. The major renovation is done now. It's entered a new phase. It's kind of done with the urban pioneer phase (of the '90s) that I was a part of.”

“There may end up being more commercial businesses than art galleries. But, that's something that's always in flux.”

Lee was a former president of the Paseo Arts Association and served in that capacity for 17 years.

'A fascinating secret'

"In the '90s it was a fascinating secret, it was something accidentally stumbled upon, and it was small," said Brian Barnes, president and founder of ghost, an advertising and design company he originally founded in The Paseo.

A lifelong resident of Oklahoma City, Barnes said he fell in love with The Paseo the first time he saw it in the '90s, and knew then that he wanted to have a business there. It wasn't until 2004 that he opened ghost. Since then, Barnes said he has seen the north and south ends of the strip connect and traffic increase.

"All the business was on the north side," Barnes recalled.

Barnes said ghost was part of the "new" new group of business owners who moved to the south side of the strip in the early 2000s. Around the same time of his arrival, The Art of Yoga, Paseo Grill and Sauced opened, too. These businesses bridged the gap between north and south Paseo.

"This is not the same thing that you're going to see elsewhere," Barnes said. "What you're not going to see on the street are Starbucks or Barnes and Noble. The strip isn't occupied by franchises."

In September, ghost outgrew its Paseo location and moved to Automobile Alley. Even so, Barnes said he still has strong feelings about The Paseo and that the move was bittersweet.

The future

What was once an organization of artists, for artists, has expanded to embrace the entire community, including businesses and Paseo residents. Last year, the Paseo Artists Association changed its name to the Paseo Arts Association.

Regardless of what the future holds for Oklahoma City's historic arts district, The Paseo has a history of endurance.

Barnes offers this sentiment about The Paseo's longevity:

"This is the most full, most vibrant, most active this arts district has ever been," Barnes said. "I think what you see today is only going to continue and flourish in the future."