Just south of the city's core lies an unassuming, alley-like street with special significance. Lined with rows of old warehouses, it appears at first glance to be the remnants of a manufacturing district. Amid the bustle of forklifts and loading, though, something more modern is happening. Artists have taken up residence in many of the buildings and art, in all its forms, is flourishing.
Across the street, Intrust Bank Arena stands tall, as questions about its impact loom. The cross section of Waterman and Commerce represents more than the intersection between the future and the past. It also reflects the zeitgeist of Wichita — the push to bring commercial prosperity and relevance to the city's downtown while preserving and even enhancing the bohemian flavor of its most prominent art district.
Even as arena and downtown officials say they embrace Commerce Street's distinctiveness, those who live and work there are guarded. Attitudes range from cautious optimism about the future to skepticism about oncoming development.
Mitch Willis, owner of the Go Away Garage, where he hosts art shows while making a living as a custom-car artistic master, is in the latter camp. He is wary of seeing Commerce Street become just another entertainment district.
"This is a work environment," Willis said. "Unique individuals are making unique works of art here. The other stuff detracts."
Those who live and work in the Commerce Street District have spent years building the success it enjoys today as a cultural hot spot.
Elizabeth Stevenson and her husband, artist Patrick Duegaw, were among the first Commerce Street dwellers. When they moved into what is now the Fisch Haus in the early '90s, the block was full of mostly empty warehouses.
By November 1994, the Fisch Haus space had been renovated enough to allow it to hold its first art show. With it came the birth of a cultural renaissance in the city.
"There's a spirit of do-it-yourself in the Midwest that gives people the audacity to do something like this," Stevenson said.
The advent of Final Friday, the popular monthly art crawl, soon followed. "A lot of people don't realize that Final Friday has been around in Wichita for quite some time," Stevenson said.
A decade later, the Fisch Haus crew found themselves with several like-minded artistic neighbors on the block. In 2004, they formed a coalition, and from that the Commerce Street Arts District was born.
The first Final Friday after that was a big success and a foreshadowing of what was to come.
"I remember looking out of my window that Final Friday and seeing the street full of life and thinking, 'OK, we're on our way,' " Stevenson said.
A thriving arts community
A few doors north, neighbor Marilyn Grisham of The Fiber Studio also recalls the early days. She says there were as few as 10 people at some of her early art shows in 2002.
"Very few people know about the art on Commerce Street or Final Friday in the early part of this decade," she said. "It's been interesting to be part of history and watch it unfold."
The Commerce Street Arts District Web site lists about 20 artists live on the block. About half a dozen galleries have emerged.
Also nestled in the midst of the community is the antique store Dock 410, the AIDS care agency Positive Directions, several operational warehouses, and new loft apartments under construction.
On any given night, the dusty street can be transformed into a full-scale happening. That was the case in early October when Go Away Garage hosted a Surreal Films and Green Art Festival. As a few dozen visitors sat on vintage furniture taking in the films, the surrounding walls displayed a variety of color-themed paintings. A silkscreen of Edie Sedgwick by local artist Revolt caught the attention of one visitor.
"Seeing that makes me feel like I'm part of something just as significant as she was," said Warren Peck, referring to the '60s icon's close association with Andy Warhol and the arts scene that flourished out of his Silver Factory in New York City.
'A huge assortment of people'
Go Away Garage isn't the only place where art is happening, and it's not just the avant-garde that's flourishing on Commerce. The district reflects a cross section of generations, genres and mediums.
Grisham's gallery has been a popular spot for fiber art as well as shows for landscapes, ceramics and other more traditional forms of art. Her Final Friday shows can bring in more than 1,000 people, from older, more established art fans to young hipsters in colorful attire.
"There's a huge assortment of people now," Grisham says. "Many have never been into an art gallery before."
Amy Delamaide, a 20-something Wichitan who often attends Commerce Street events, thinks Final Friday happenings in particular have created a quality of life that didn't exist before its development.
"One of the first times I went to Final Friday, it was a warm, summer night and I dragged my parents and little sister with me. They came out because there was an exhibit of art quilts by an African-American woman on display at the Fiber Studio. At that gallery we saw older couples and people of different races.
"Then we wandered down to Go-Away Garage, which was having its annual 'Art of the Bicycle' show. At that gallery we saw edgy, punk kids and gay couples. Back out on the street, there were families wandering around like mine. I think Commerce Street — and the variety of artists the various galleries attract — really draws out lots of different kinds of people, and that's something I don't see happening too often in other parts of the city."
What impact from Intrust Bank Arena?
As the Intrust Bank Arena prepares to open in January, questions about its impact on the arts district loom. Some residents fear that a rise in land values and property taxes will force them to relocate.
Mark Walker, an artist who helps organize shows at Go Away Garage, says he's reluctant to see the area around Commerce become another entertainment and nightlife hub, like Old Town. He wants Commerce to remain dedicated to artist studios and art galleries.
"Other communities have separate art and entertainment spaces," he said. "I hope we can have that here."
Stevenson says she knows the arena's presence will affect the Commerce community, though she is unsure to what level. She's focusing on the positive, though, and plans to take advantage of its emergence.
"I think the arena is going to motivate us to step up our game," she said. "Sometimes events are catalysts for moving forward, and this is one."
Chris Presson, general manager of the arena, said he hopes the arena will boost activity and excitement for Commerce Street.
"Commerce Street is a unique and integral part of the arena neighborhood, one that we hope continues to prosper as an arts district," he said. "Hopefully, the arena's ability to attract people downtown will lead to more people learning about and enjoying the fine work being produced and displayed there."
Commerce Street lies in what has been dubbed the Arena Neighborhood Plan by the city of Wichita, an area bounded by Kellogg, Main Street, the railway corridor and a half block north of Douglas Street.
Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, said Commerce Street is integral to the development of downtown.
"It is important that as we develop the plan, initiatives build upon the uniqueness and success of the area," he said.
But he also sees the arena helping Commerce Street to flourish.
"I believe you will see attendance increase for events such as Final Fridays and the development of new events that will further complement the arts," he said.
Arts in transition
The bohemian aspect of the arts district adds an important contemporary flair to Wichita, said John D'Angelo, director of arts and cultural services for the city. He doesn't want to see that lost.
"It's a huge asset for the city," he said. "It's a critical component as it relates to a living arts space. We really don't have anything else like it in Wichita."
When asked about the future of the area, D'Angelo said it's too early to tell what will happen. Much depends on what happens to the neighborhood directly surrounding the street. He and Fluhr both point to projects like the Finn Lofts that are being built along the street as part of what could be the future.
Stevenson thinks the arts are at a transition point in Wichita.
"It's all part of an education process," she said. "Wichita did have a prior life in art, but educating is a continuing process."
The same can-do spirit that empowered people like the Commerce Street residents to create the art district will guide them through its next chapter, she said.
"We feel like we're at the forefront of the movement," she said of Commerce Street's unique position in Wichita's development.