Community leaders and activists have revived Mesa's downtown using arts and culture and made it a place that's welcoming and relevant to all residents, regardless of income. Now, with the arrival of the light rail, they hope to add the affordable housing and jobs that could turn Arizona's third largest city into a truly equitable transit village.
When Ryan Winkle was growing up in Mesa in the 1980s and 90s, he could fish for crawdads in prehistoric canals built by Hohokam Indians, build forts out of mesquite and ride his bike to Main Street. “But it was dead,” he recalls. “The most exciting thing that happened downtown was when the Taco Bell opened.”
Back then, Winkle wouldn't have known to call a new fast food outlet “economic development.” But today, as a co-founder of the Mesa Urban Garden and RAIL, a neighborhood group that advocates for responsible housing development and jobs along Mesa’s light rail, he's learned a lot about what it takes to reanimate the historic downtown and to make it welcoming to all: “It takes more than a chain store or two."
Ryan Winkle, a Mesa community activist who is running for a seat on the city council, stands next to a signpost pointing the way to local businesses, and noting the time it takes to walk to each.
In the past few years, Mesa has begun to percolate. For Winkle, and many like-minded residents, business owners and community developers, arts and culture are a key to revival—to putting Mesa’s downtown back on the map, as the heart of the third largest city in Arizona. The opening of the expansive Mesa Arts Center and the Mesa Urban Garden, and robust initiatives to stage free community events and exhibit public art downtown, have catalyzed tangible change.
This is what is called "creative placemaking" and it has helped propel community building, too—bringing to the table the insight and contribution of residents who live in low-income neighborhoods that have long been ignored and literally disconnected from the core. In some parts of Mesa, city sidewalks don't extend into these historically sidelined areas. Activists are banking on mass transit and dynamic local businesses and services—woven through with arts and free cultural events—to connect disparate populations.
Every station along the light rail is appointed with a substantial work of art, like the steel cone that stands as a gateway to Mesa's civic, arts and retail district, at the Central/Main stop. The sculpture is a filigree of profiles of Mesa's leaders and supporters—if you look carefully, you can spot LISC Phoenix director Terry Benelli.
Another station sculpture, Mesaflor, evokes a blooming desert plant—and the flowering of the city's downtown. The desert colors of its "blossoms" shift throughout the day, and light the station stop after sundown.
While Mesa welcomed the light rail and the vitality it promised to bring, merchants along Main Street faced three years of noise, dust and blocked streets during construction—the kind of disruption that can be deadly for small businesses. But with a grant from State Farm, LISC helped turn downtown’s back alleys, where patrons could park, into cheery and inventive facades. Called “Activate the Alleyway,” the effort was so successful that not a single business closed by the time the light rail opened in Mesa last year.
Today, a visitor to Main Street is greeted by rows of eclectic shops and restaurants, sidewalks alive with sculpture and painting, and the Mesa Arts Center, a complex of galleries, performance halls, studios and public spaces. “It used to be, ‘Mesa? Why would I go to Mesa?’” says Amy Del Castillo, owner of Lulubell’s Toy Bodega, an intriguing gift shop and gallery for local artists on Main Street. “Now, they have a lot of reasons to come.”
Jenelle Whipple waters flower boxes in the alley behind Tre Bella, a wedding venue that fronts onto Main Street. The plantings, drapery and murals are part of Activate the Alleyway, an initiative that helped keep customers coming in for business during three years of messy light rail construction
Amy Del Castillo (pictured with son Kai) wanted a place with "community feel, when she was looking to move her family and her shop, Lulubelle's Toy Bodega, out of Tucson. During the light rail construction, Del Castillo joined forces with her Main Street neighbors and took a LISC-sponsored placemaking training that taught them how to collaborate with artists and use arts and culture to activate their businesses, as with Thursday Night Markets, when live music and special promotions inspired people to come downtown.
Jinette and Edmundo Meraz, and their son Marco, opened República Empanada in an abandoned former restaurant space and used vintage signage, repurposed toys and a mural depicting the family's Mexican, Costa Rican and local roots to create a uniquely Mesa aesthetic.
A well-used toy dump truck gets a new post at República Empanada. "So much of what is built in the Valley is generic," says LISC's Terry Benelli. "What's growing in Mesa is a quirky, creative, distinctive personality. This is a far cry from Taco Bell."
Betty and Mike Freeman run Inside the Bungalow, a cafe, wedding venue and humming community meeting spot. Patrons, some of whom live in an adjacent assisted living complex and come just for the company, call it "the center of the universe." The Freemans got a small business loan through LISC that helped keep the cafe open during the recession. "We wouldn't be here today if it weren't for LISC," says Betty.
Augie Gastelum (left) and David Crummey, carry a painting that hung in an outdoor exhibit to its new home. It's one of dozens of art installations that have nurtured a sense of place along Main Street. Gastelum and Crummey work with the Neighborhood Economic Development Corp, a steadfast driver of downtown rejuvenation.
Since it opened in 2012, the Mesa Urban Garden has served as a community gathering place in the heart of downtown. Beyond providing fresh produce to a local food bank and neighborhood residents, the garden hosts movie nights, full moon parties and educational projects that enfold people from all walks of life in Mesa.
To read more on LISC's work in Phoenix, see
Phoenix on the Verge
Communities of Connection in the Valley of the Sun
and our interactive map