With a twinkle in his eye, he would tell anyone who listened about how he came to be the driving force behind the revitalization of the district. The next thing he knew, he had acquired most of the neighborhood, and he had no plans to make it a stodgy row of warehouses.
Some might say The Paseo was Oklahoma City’s first district, its first art community. Established in 1929 as a shopping center away from downtown, it included a dance hall, a coin-op laundry and a swimming pool. It was christened paseo, meaning “walk” in Spanish, and was built in a time when public transportation was much more accessible and foot traffic was much more common. The district was hit hard by The Great Depression but weathered changes in culture. Jazz clubs and beat poets moved in during the late 1950s. The hippies took over (and some would say never left) during the ’60s.
The first Paseo Arts Festival took place in 1976.
During the 1980s, the district was nearly devoid of its colorful past. While the city weathered the oil bust and the Penn Square Bank failure, businesses along the vibrant street slid into decline and were boarded up. Commercial properties were slated for conversion into warehouses rather than storefronts. What was once a thriving arts district full of lively counterculture was near extinction.
John Belt, a prominent attorney, bought his first property in the area — almost by accident — during this time.
Belt passed away in March of last year, but his memory lives and breathes in every part of the district, which now boasts restaurants, shops and a thriving artistic community. With its beautiful art deco architecture and vibrant color schemes, the Paseo is once again home to more than 20 galleries and almost 100 individual artists. His legacy is the sense of community and tolerance that he and his wife, Joy Reed Belt, sought to preserve when they started their quest over 30 years ago.
Joy Reed also owns JRB Art at the Elms, 2810 N. Walker Ave., a gallery that hosts a wealth of emerging and established artists. She is also the president of Paseo Arts Association (PAA).
Now in its 38th year, the Paseo Arts Festival has grown from a small gathering to something that has made art communities look to it for inspiration.
“I started looking back, and it was more of a festival where you set up on the street,” said Collin Rosebrook, founder of Paseo Pottery, 3017 Paseo St. “You know, with bricks and boards rather than actual professional booths.”
Rosebrook, festival chair, has been involved in the event for 24 years in some way or another. Much like the neighborhood, the festival’s evolution has been grassroots.
“We had to start somewhere,” Rosebrook said.
Most people are unaware how the artists are chosen. The call for entries goes out in the fall of the previous year. The jury that chooses those who will be part of the festival is comprised of area experts, which makes the festival unique.
“I talked about it to people in the art community in Dallas, and they were impressed,” Rosebrook said. “We could end up teaching the people in Dallas a thing or two.”
The festival is also a fundraiser for PAA, but they don’t take any of the artist’s sales.
“We are for the arts and the artists.
We really want to give them support,” Rosebrook said. “We really are [with this festival and PAA] building up the artists and the art community.”
In addition to the art, there is plenty more going on with the festival, including live music, a food court and a children’s area. And it isn’t just any children’s area or picnic area; there will be activities for budding artists, like a mural and a “sound wall” with salvaged materials that children can express their creativity with in a noisy way. These activities will be around 612 Paseo, a new community center that will open in late summer.
James Varnum, part of the team behind 612, said the festival is a great opportunity for 612 to introduce itself to the community, like a soft opening.
Varnum is also the brains behind efforts to make the festival produce as close to zero waste as possible. Picnicland is going to be the center for the festival’s dining space and green initiatives. There will be recycling available for food vendors and their customers as well as a water truck that will dispense filtered, cold water.
The Paseo Fringe Film Festival takes place on the lawn Friday through Sunday at 8:30 p.m. and will feature themed nights with free family-friendly movies under the May sky — a great way to wrap up a day in one of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods.