By Ashley Naftule, October 2019 issue. Photos courtesy of Alwun House.
Some things can’t help but live up to their clichés. You’d expect that a city named after a mythical bird that keeps resurrecting itself by bursting into flames would also be in a constant state of reinvention, and Phoenix doesn’t disappoint. Any sense of enduring local history and permanence seems to get paved over and forgotten every few years. Venues close, art galleries open and shutter, visionary artists submit to the siren’s call of Portland or Seattle, developers transform funky neighborhoods into craft bar districts. Sift through the ashes of those flashfires of change and only a handful of local landmarks and organizations endure. Places like the indomitable Alwun House.
A bungalow style manor house situated on the corner of 12th and Roosevelt streets, the Alwun House is an art oasis that has thrived for nearly 50 years in the desert. Once known as the Sedler House (named for its builder and original owner, John Sedler, who erected the house in 1912), the Alwun House has become a big enough fixture in the community for the building to have landed on both the City of Phoenix’s list of registered historical properties and the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office’s Inventory of Historic Properties (making it eligible for National Historic Registration). It’s also, in many respects, the alpha and omega of the downtown arts scene.
Started in 1971, the Alwun House has been an active gallery and venue space in the Garfield neighborhood for decades. In a local arts culture where most venues are considered venerable elders if they make it to their 10th anniversary, Alwun House’s nearly five decade long existence is without equal. First to the art party and the last to leave, Alwun House’s Kim Moody and Dana Johnson credit sheer stubbornness as the secret to their success.
“Perseverance and stubbornness,” Johnson says, seated with Moody in the house’s backyard. A lush backdrop of koi ponds, trees, and rock formations dot the landscape, creating an environment that’s part Zen garden and part exotica album cover. “For many years we were renting this house at a pretty good rate that we could still barely afford. But we worked hard and now we own this house free and clear.”
In addition to dogged persistence, Moody thinks the key to Alwun’s longevity has been its dedication to values. “Vision, purpose, all of the arts in one place. Progressive, always progressive,” Moody drawls. “Like when we did the recall for Evan Meacham.”
Central to the art organization’s operating ethos is a belief in fostering and developing community. “We call it the Art Transformative Theory,” Moody says. “That through the power of art you can transform a community.”
It’s pretty talk, but one that’s been backed by decades of walk: The Alwun House has been a significant player in the transformation of the Garfield neighborhood, working closely with their neighbors to create a safer community.
“This neighborhood was scary to a lot of people, especially the Scottsdale money people,” Johnson says. “Danny Harkins donated to our art park recently, and when he did he said, ‘You know, I used to come down here in the ‘80s and I had to stop because my wife made me after our car got broken into.”
Moody and Johnson also own a piece of land that’s north of the Alwun House. For the last few years, they’ve embarked on their most ambitious long-term project yet: developing that land into a green art park for the neighborhood.
“It’s a planned unit development,” Moody explains. “That way we could develop it with 47 different uses: artists, displays, food trucks, dancers, yard sales, even movies. We’ve been talking with Danny Harkins about maybe doing outdoor screenings for the neighborhood.”
Rezoning land is an extremely arduous, time-consuming process. If Johnson and Moody hadn’t already been such good neighbors to their Garfield peers, it would also have proven to be a nearly impossible undertaking.
“With the zoning, we had to be very public about it and tell everyone what it is we’re doing because it’s a public process to zone,” Johnson says. “We had to go through several public hearings, we had to mail out to our residents and neighbors. We got an approval by the neighborhood association. When we went to the village planning committee to change the zoning, everyone spoke up with accolades instead of opposing us. One guy stood up and said he opposed the kind of rezoning we were trying to do but in this case would make an exception because he knew us and knew what we do.”
Moody and Johnson have built up considerable goodwill in the Garfield area because of their efforts to help transform the neighborhood.
“Back in the ‘90s, when we started getting involved in the neighborhood, landlords were renting severely substandard houses,” Johnson says. “Landlords were abusing undocumented people by renting them shitty places because they knew that they weren’t going to get reported for renting houses where people literally had no place to take a shit in them.”
Johnson isn’t nostalgic for Garfield’s past. “Gentrification is a really nasty word. When we’re talking about gentrification and displacement, a lot of what was displaced was drug dealers and whores that were selling on Van Buren.”
That perception of Garfield being a crime-ridden area still persists in the popular imagination. “We hear it all the time,” Moody says, talking about the invisible wall separating Roosevelt Row from the Garfield district. “People saying, ‘oh, we don’t cross 7th Street.’”
That wall may come down soon: in addition to the activation of Alwun House’s green park, restaurants are popping up all over that side of the 7th Street dividing line. And the Alwun founders say there’s an Israeli investor whose been buying up churches in the area with a long-term plan of transforming them into venues and gallery spaces.
It’s in part because of these developments that the Alwun men remain sanguine about the coming of Meow Wolf to Phoenix and the gentrification that’s rapidly transforming the Roosevelt area.
“People may go down to Meow Wolf and see it and experience, but it’s kinda like going to the Grand Canyon, “Johnson says. “You saw it, okay — so what’s next? People are going to go looking for other things to see and do.” Moody, with a mischievous gleam in his eye, chimes in: “And we’re just five minutes away.”
While Johnson and Moody have been placing a lot of their focus on the art park, they continue to program shows and exhibitions at the Alwun House. In addition to longstanding annual shows like the Exotic Art Show, Monsters Menagerie, and Lighthouse, they also host burlesque shows, freakshows, readings, and theater events in their backyard. They’ve also recently formed a relationship with the folks behind Burning Man, thanks to Alwun’s connections with the organizers behind Arizona’s Saguaro Man.
“Hundreds of people came out for the Burning Man party,” Moody says, pointing to the land north of the building. “We had flame balls going up 25, 40 feet in the air,” Johnson adds.
It’s no wonder that Moody and Johnson have endured and thrived in the Valley’s constantly changing arts scene: they’ve planted strong, lasting roots in their community. Their civic engagement and willingness to work with their neighborhoods is a model that more artistic organizations and creators should emulate. But most laudable of all is their desire to preserve — in a city where everything is burning down and getting built back up again, Johnson and Moody understand that you need to save something from the flames.