Reviving a Neighborhood

Using art as a springboard, Arcata's Creamery District resurges



By now you may have been to — or heard of — the Arcata Playhouse, the cozy theatre on the ground floor of the Ninth Street Creamery building, with its roller-rink floor and rustic charm.

The pothole-spotted streets crisscrossing the neighborhood around the playhouse have long cloaked a concentration of creativity, from potters and stained glass-makers to painters, dancers and kinetic sculpture makers.

While the Arcata Community Recycling Center was a regular draw, and Halloween brought costumed crowds to the Kinetic Lab's haunted house, it wasn't until the last six or so years, with the opening of the Arcata Playhouse, that the area began to have a more public face.

The Playhouse reels in an eclectic potpourri of dance troupes, plays, bands and more and — next week — is expanding its scope outside the theater walls for an ambitious three-day festival stretched across several city blocks.

"The festival explores the whole neighborhood and what's possible here," said Arcata Playhouse co-owner Jackie Dandeneau. She wants to "blow the doors off a little bit."

This re-envisioning is intended to put a public face on what's becoming known as Arcata's Creamery District, an outwardly industrial gateway to the Bottoms nestled under the asymmetrical creamery. Local artists, property owners and the playhouse owners dreamed up the "Creamery District" name a couple of years ago, to give the neighborhood a stronger identity as they worked with the city to improve it.

The facelift is moving quickly, and a year after receiving a $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant, Dandeneau and her husband David Ferney, who co-owns the playhouse, are putting together a summer spectacular.

With a healthy turnout, they expect the broader community can see the first results of a year-and-a-half-long collaboration of business owners, artists, residents and the city.

In the last several years, the district has seen new businesses, landscaping and public art. Small, affordable offices in the Greenway Partners building (formerly Yakima) now house the Northcoast Environmental Center, the Humboldt-Del Norte Film Commission and graphic designers Sideshow Design. Most recently, the playhouse commissioned works ranging from an audio installation to urban-style art on nearby storage units.

Aging industrial areas like the Creamery District can be havens for artists and startup businesses, said 3rd District Supervisor Mark Lovelace. "You start with the areas where there's a lot of vacant space," he said. "It doesn't need to be the most attractive of areas initially because its inward work, it's not customer-driven work. After a while redevelopment is driven just by the amount of activity going on there."

Jewelry maker Holly Yashi moved into the Creamery building around 1985. "It was the right place at the right price," co-owner Paul Lubitz said. When a building across the street went up for sale, Holly Yashi bought it and moved in, eventually adding 10,000 square feet to the facility. Later, in 2010, it opened a retail shop. That had been co-owner Holly Hosterman's idea, and Lubitz had reservations at first. "We're hardly on the plaza," he said. "Even the Arcata Plaza's not Pier 39. It's retail. It's tough out there."

But Hosterman's vision turned out to be a success. Tourists and locals alike shop and watch jewelry-making in action in Holly Yashi's fuschia-hued building. Lubitz credits part of that success to the draw of the playhouse, and he says the neighborhood would be even more successful with more artists and more reasons to stay — like food, beer and wine.

When the drop-off site of the now-defunct recycling center came up for sale, Holly Yashi pounced on it. While the new owners' plans are "very up in the air," Lubitz loosely envisions the 12,000-square-foot property as a kind of artists' courtyard, where visitors can watch crafts being made and get food or a drink after a Playhouse show. They'll give it a trial run at next week's festival, with food, art demonstrations and festivities occupying the open air space.

"Everyone wants liveliness, they want art, they want life here," Lubitz said.

They also welcome other businesses. The Creamery building hosts a solar refrigerator company and a dance studio along with artists' studios.

What's next? Ferney and Dandeneau plan to continue working with the city on ways to make the district more accessible from the plaza and beyond. That means better, contiguous lighting, safe crossings at K Street, and a look at traffic, parking, walking and bike paths.

Public Works Director Doby Class said Arcata has applied for a Caltrans grant to fund that development. "It's a great project," Class said, adding that the City Council recently designated the playhouse a "Local Arts Agency" to help it to secure more grant funding.

A proposed trail through the district, paralleling the unused rails on L Street, is in the environmental review stage, Class said, and expected to go before the California Transportation Commission in January.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood spirit is blossoming in other ways.

"Renegade gardening" has replaced rocky, weedy roadside grass patches with sunflowers and other colorful flora. After a day of planting earlier this month, three tall paintings appeared overnight at the end of Ninth Street, an uncommissioned gift from a mystery benefactor.

The revival has been driven by a good neighborhood communication, helped along by the liveliness of the playhouse, but its owners don't want to claim too much credit. "We're performers. We're producers. We're not civic organizers," Dandeneau said.

Ferney and Dandeneau met in Edmonton, Canada. After traveling internationally for years, they were both hired by Dell'Arte. They opened the Arcata Playhouse together in 2007.

It was those years of travel and networking ("Once a street performer, always a street performer," Dandeneau said) that gave them the contacts and know-how to attract talent for the playhouse — and for the upcoming festival. "Cross-pollinating" artists in and out of the area makes for a steady supply of talent, Dandeneau said.

Their motto: "Pay artists first," even if it's not much. "You're not going to be able to give them a huge fee — if you can give them a good experience they'll come back," Dandeneau said.

They've paid out $250,000 to artists since the Playhouse opened in 2007, Ferney said, including $7,200 in commissioned street art this year. The pieces, imagined by five local artists, include sculpture, yarn-wrapped trees and an audio installation that will play during the creamery festival. They're all outdoors.

Inspired by similar community-spurred neighborhood revitalizations in Portland and Detroit, Ferney and Dandeneau have long seen their neighborhood as ripe for revival. Their grant from the National Endowment of Arts' helped bring their ideas to the attention of local businesses and governments, Dandeneau said.

"It put a huge stamp of credibility on the organization and the project," she said. And while the city's gotten on board, Dandeneau said, she hopes over time the county will do more to fully embrace the idea of the arts as an economic driver, in Arcata and beyond. County supervisors approved a $25,000 Headwaters Fund grant for the playhouse last year, and Dandeneau would like to see arts and culture highlighted in the county's economic planning.

County Supervisor Lovelace said he's a fan of the Creamery District revitalization, though its development is completely under the purview of the city.

"I'm all ears if there's role for the county to play in developing that," Lovelace said. "I think it's really prime for a renaissance down there."

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