Let me just rant a little bit about this. I didn’t get to process this development Friday before last when I wrote the breaking article based on our editor Karen’s snap of a push card.
I’ll start by saying that, personally, I’ve been fairly critical of the rates that Lofts@624 is asking for their tiny residential spaces something like $15-18 per square foot where the Shreveport average I was able to glean, even for nicer facilities is more like $12-$15. Even the free water and Internet aren’t so much a big deal. Highland View, renovated by the same team as 624, also has those amenities and yet are much cheaper. Anyway, that’s not why we are here.
I’ve spent most of the last seven years working downtown. In that time I’ve worked in the entertainment and culture industries – all of which want to see more people living and playing downtown. It’s a phenomenon that’s been happening over the last few decades across the country. In my time here, I’ve watched the slow building of a wave of interest that could bust the whole thing wide open, bringing new life and vibrancy to the heart of our city, fostering culture and new experiences. I’m here to tell you why I think downtown’s time may have finally come. But before we get into that, let’s go back.
My first experience of any real value downtown was working for the Robinson Film Center, an independent movie house, during its construction in 2007. John Grindley, Chris Jay, Jeff Hendricks, Bruce Allen, Sylvia Goodman, along with the inaugural board and staff, all believed that our little theater would be the catalyst for bringing people downtown. We had high hopes for the fire to catch when we opened in May of 2008. I imagined that I would get to see downtown bustle with moviegoers wanting to see great cinema classics, cult films, the independents. Culture, we thought, would rule the day, and nothing would stop the throngs from pushing down our doors and selling out every screening. We had a few advantages going for us: we were the only thing west of Spring St. open past 5 p.m. except the Noble Savage which was some three blocks away, and there was infinite parking for all our activities!
But we were wrong. Or perhaps, in my naïveté, I was wrong. Maybe some of us knew that we wouldn’t blow the doors off. God knows there were plenty of naysayers. Maybe we knew many of Shreveport’s citizens’ capacity for culture hadn’t been expanded to that level yet. Early numbers showed foreign language pictures were actually costing the RFC money. Many films weren’t pulling their weight at the box office. The seats, built to cradle people before an amazing movie screen, in an auditorium designed by an Academy Award winning theater designer, and installed by technicians who came across the country to perfect, purpose-built to show the films that were lauded by the world’s greatest cinema critics and awards organizations again and again… were empty. Or mostly, anyway.
These films were many times more entertaining than the standard fare at the cineplex, each full of cultural fulfillment! Art that makes you feel. Stories that actually surprise you with how they ended, gave you a window to the world, or at least you would have something different to look at besides overprocessed cinematography, canned soundtracks, and chintzy screenplays directed by people unqualified to open a jar of peanuts, much less direct a piece in what I consider the greatest art form that has ever existed. The staff was frustrated. I know I was. We were doing good, right? This shouldn’t happen.
Slowly, the amazing people who worked that theater pushed this, the boulder that was the Robinson Film Center, uphill while yet others sat on top of said rock, complaining. We were able to implement programs like Silver Screenings and, later, Heels and Reels which brought in specific groups of people, taking a direct approach to marketing the film center to the SBC. One of those programs was the late night Friday Night Freak-Out! – which is the impetus for today’s Rewind Film Series which Heliopolis now sponsors. The Freak-Out! showed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Evil Dead 2, RoboCop, The Big Lebowski and many, many others. Holy. Shit. People showed up in droves. From beatniks to beliebers, they came. And business picked up with the release of Slumdog Millionaire and other huge hits that people lined up to see. Name that Woody Allen movie you saw there – there have been at least six shown since it opened.
With this success, I believe, people began to see what a busy downtown might actually look like. My imagination ran wild. Since then, more businesses and cultural events have come. The Texas Ave Maker’s Fair, the Shreveport Farmers’ Market, the Louisiana Film Prize, as well as numerous one-offs and other celebrations. It has been amazing to watch the transformation. But none of these efforts ever managed to sustain nightlife so far away from the casinos – even repeat showings of Holy Grail had become less of a draw as my time there came to an end in 2010. Huge strides had been made, but there was a lot more to do. Residences needed to be built, more diverse businesses needed to be opened, along with culturally-focused entertainment destinations.
Fade in, nearly five years later. I’ve moved into downtown out of south Highland just doors away from the Robinson. Lofts@624 is inching toward completion. We are on an upward trend of downtown activity. Each time a new event is held or a new business opens, more people are exposed to the idea of downtown living as a totally functional way of life. But in the last year, I’ve really been looking for that thing that will convince the average citizen to cross the barrier of being downtown after 5 p.m. I believe the businesses that have signed agreements to build at the Lofts could have that Chipotle-like opening that people will be just itching to experience. And there will be three such openings.
First, Rock-n-Sake is an incredibly popular business out of New Orleans which is also in Baton Rouge. When I told a friend, who went to LSU, that Rock-n-Sake was coming, her eyes bulged and she grabbed my shoulders and shook them with excitement. Friends from New Orleans have told me that I’ll love it. This could be that “omg we r getting a Rock-n-Sake HSiROTFlmao” moment we have seen with other wildly-anticipated, high class takeout restaurant openings. Hopefully they commit to staying open for dinner.
Second, I believe that Rhino Coffee is a massively important business. It is a local atmospheric treat, owned by locals, staffed by locals, frequented by locals as a hip alternative to Starbucks. They serve food, have concerts, and their aesthetic is so in right now. Opening a location downtown, should it stay open until, say 8 p.m., will be a sea change. Early indications are that they might be open late, because, per a press conference on Wednesday, they will be serving wine and spirits in the evening.
Third – and this is a huge one – is Tips on Texas, reported to be an upscale music venue, likely to be in the basement. The name stems from its owner’s other music endeavor, Tipitina’s in New Orleans. Shreveport has long needed a nicer place to hear music that doesn’t force you to strain over sounds of drunk assholes and a busy bar. This is supposed to be a music venue, not a club. Something bigger and more formal than Bears, but smaller and at least a different kind of fancy than the Municipal. This could house the right kind of artists – ones on their way from Dallas to Memphis or Nashville to Austin. Shreveport is a crossroads situated smack in the middle of some of the best music and culture capitals of the country, which will now have a venue of adequate size and status, to draw new artists and new audiences. And finally, a place you’d be able to go underground in downtown and not get roofied.
Can you imagine what a runaway success story like Lofts and Shops at 624 could mean for downtown? Or for the success of our non profit cultural centers like the Robinson, which can always use the help? It could be amazing. Bustling nightlife, the buildings aglow, a new culture of urban living where you can actually walk downstairs and go to a shop or a movie or dinner without feeling like you’re living in The Truman Show? I’m looking at you, Villagio. But I don’t think any of that will happen, or happen quickly anyway, if a few things don’t fall into place.
First, these businesses need to be opened nearly all at once. Waiting six months between openings would be giving away valuable momentum in press and public awareness. Second, they need to stay open into the evening, till at least 8 p.m., preferably 9 p.m. The music venue almost certainly will be exclusive to evening and weekend events though I’d wager it’d be open to use for keynotes and other events as well. Third, they all need to start at full throttle. Hesitation is something the general public hates. Look at Chipotle’s liquor license thing. I’m not even sure if they ever got it. It took months and months for them to get their whole business plan off the ground. All three of these businesses have other locations and prior experience. There’s nothing that should keep them from programming the spaces like they do at their other locations almost immediately after opening downtown. People want the full experience, not the diet one. Open full featured, or at least be complete in your commitment to activate the space.
Some of the burden of providing above and beyond these services should be offset by the promise of constant traffic. The courthouse is a block away. Southern University is on the same block. Robinson Film Center, 4Js, Crystal Stairs, artspace, Emmett Hook, all within 2 minute walks of these new establishments. That’s not even mentioning the new tenants of Lofts@624 who will be occupying the small, “market rate” spaces. Hey, perhaps we are becoming a big city after all. And while the things like grocery stores and laundry service would be nice downtown today, I feel those will follow soon after people accept downtown as a place to live, work, and play the way Liz Swaine at the Shreveport DDA has been promoting for years. Those pioneers will have to undergo some limitations in the service of growth.
Gripes aside, I can only hope that this set of openings will fan the small flame that has been growing in the West Edge, the cultural heart of downtown.