Standing on an almost-empty sidewalk in downtown Vallejo at noon Tuesday, Erin Bakke peered in the window of a vacant shop at a whimsical sculpture crafted from found items.
“This is a lot better than tattered brown paper,” she said. “It helps change the dynamic so people don’t feel as if this is a ghost town. Vallejo has a stigma to overcome.”
Bakke, an artist who leads Vallejo’s downtown business-improvement district, led an effort to install original works by local artists in the empty storefronts that pockmark many streets in this former Navy city of 116,000.
It’s one visible sign of a Vallejo arts renaissance that some citizens hope will inject new life into their moribund economy.
The working-class town has taken plenty of hard knocks: The 1996 closure of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard eradicated thousands of jobs, the foreclosure crisis sent home values plummeting, and a municipal bankruptcy in 2008 lasted three years and forced the city to slash services. As happens with many cities, shoppers abandoned downtown for big-box stores, malls and online retailers.
Now, lured by cheap, abundant real estate for rent and purchase, a growing number of creative professionals are turning abandoned storefronts into live-work spaces, studios and galleries. This weekend, several dozen artists will welcome visitors for a free Open Studios event.
“Vallejo is a mecca of affordable, flexible spaces for artists who are doing a myriad of cool things here,” said Tom Arie-Donch, who bought a former preschool on a half-acre of land for InterPlay Design, his business crafting custom public sculptures and parks nationwide.
Vallejo’s downtown clearly is still struggling, said Dan Keen, the city manager. Its antique stores, secondhand shops and cafes don’t attract the same volume of customers as would a grocery store or drugstore. A forthcoming Subway sandwich shop is a bright spot, but the city’s biggest recent retail coup – a Walmart Neighborhood Market – is 2 miles from the city center.
“Downtown is an area looking for a new identity,” Keen said. “Artists are a unique element that could create a draw for other people and businesses.”
Several larger projects add to the arts and entertainment mix downtown.
The Empress Theatre, a restored 1912 Beaux Arts vaudeville house, hosts Wednesday night “professional jam sessions” that draw 150 to 200 people, said manager Don Bassey. Local RB luminaries like Roy Rogers and Tommy Castro are regular performers. Classic movies, choral groups and children’s dance also fill out the schedule.
Next door, the new Temple Art Lofts community offers 29 subsidized apartments with on-site art studios; about half of its low-income tenants are professional artists, said resident Sean Murdock, a recent Florida transplant who does spray-painted abstracts on wood. A block away, the ground floor of the Odd Fellows Hall has been reborn as a community arts center called the Hub, with a gallery, art classes and a planned cafe.
“Artists help energize neighborhoods,” said Thomas Wojak, a master printer who moved to Vallejo about a decade ago after losing his studio space in San Francisco in the wake of the first dot-com boom. He and his girlfriend, Misty Youmans, a grants writer at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, overhauled a dilapidated storefront on a main drag into the airy space where he runs the Works, a fine-arts printing studio, with living quarters out back.
The need for ‘foot traffic’
But some business leaders are skeptical.
“Artists won’t turn Vallejo around; there aren’t enough patrons for them,” said Buck Kamphausen, who runs a mortuary, a classic-car auction company and an event center, as well as chairing the downtown improvement board. “What this town needs is jobs.”
A truck stop, a diesel-mechanics’ school or a casino are all initiatives that would accomplish more, he said.
While artists can improve an area’s image and help attract visitors, economic revitalization requires other ingredients, said Daren Smith, managing principal of Economic Planning Systems, a Berkeley land-use economics consulting firm.
“Many artists don’t have a lot of income,” he said. “While it’s of great benefit to have additional activity and attractive events, the real strength of a downtown depends on the dollars being spent there.”
Oakland’s Uptown district, for instance, benefited from arts-related activities but only took off after an infusion of middle-class and upper-middle-class housing units that brought in more affluent consumers, he said.
Vallejo, by contrast, has a concentration of affordable housing units downtown, which “discourages some potential (business) tenants,” said Keen, the city manager.
Jeff Snell, who paints abstract landscapes, moved to Vallejo from Alameda 18 months ago, determined to pursue his art full time (he works a cabinet-making job one day a week). Finding a downtown live-work space for $1,050 a month helped make it possible, he said.
“I decided to just go for it,” he said. “Artists can reinvent themselves here in a way they can’t do anywhere else because they’re so outpriced everywhere else in the Bay Area.”
To bring in more income, he recently opened Mini Art, a small shop selling painting and drawing supplies. But business has been slow.
“We need more foot traffic in the daytime,” he said.
Meanwhile, a few hopeful signs can be seen nearby: A new bookstore and a garden accessories store are opening soon.
Uniformed security guards hired by local merchants glide through downtown on bikes, trying to overcome the mind-set that Vallejo is crime-ridden, Bakke said. The streets are clean and spruced up with plants and mosaics.
Keen said the city is trying to lure shoppers with a weekly farmers’ market, the December tree lighting and Mad Hatter Parade, and other future events such as a daffodil festival and an Easter Parade.
Like Wojak, many Vallejo artists left other parts of the Bay Area in response to gentrification and rising rents.
Shannon and Kathy O’Hare, who craft elaborate “mutant vehicles” for Burning Man and other events, were “economic refugees” from Oakland.
Vallejo, which he had previously viewed as “a wide spot on the road,” proved a fantastic find, Shannon O’Hare said. They bought a three-bedroom foreclosure for $140,000 and then an old auto-body shop where they run Obtainium Works, which uses “obtained” objects to make assorted wacky contraptions, from robots to full-size art cars.
Like many Vallejo artists, they have day jobs – he does landscaping and hardscaping, she’s an acupressurist – but they’ve found Vallejo fertile ground for creativity, including an annual art-car race, Shannon said.
“This is the beginning of a new arts movement,” he said as he clambered up the Neverwas Haul, a three-story Victorian steampunk house on wheels. “Artists are brave enough to try out new neighborhoods. Lots of interesting people are here already; more will come.”
Vallejo by the numbers
After filing for bankruptcy in 2008, Vallejo drastically reduced city services. The city was also clobbered by the housing downturn.
*The city is recruiting to meet goal of 106 officers.
** Home values are for Vallejo metropolitan statistical area. At its low point in 2011, the median housing value was $187,200, a stunning 61 percent decline from its peak.
Source: Vallejo, Zillow.com
Vallejo art events
– Open studios, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, free self-guided tour; www.vallejoopenstudios.com.
– Forbidden Puppet Cabaret, adults-only show, 7 p.m. Saturday, Fetterly Playhouse in Vallejo, www.magicalmoonshine.org/chaos.htm.
– Mad Hatter Holiday Festival, Parade and Tree Lighting, 2-9 p.m. Dec. 7, www.visitvallejo.com.
Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @csaid