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A New Arts District Is Transforming Napa

By Matt Villano

11.26.18

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Napa’s new arts district is bringing color to the city’s rail corridor.

Photo by Birdman Photography/courtesy of the Rail Arts District, Napa

Napa’s new arts district is bringing color to the city’s rail corridor.

This burgeoning area in downtown Napa boasts public art and a new spin on cool.

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Surrealist houses falling through the air. A portrait of a firefighter. Vivid geometric patterns of color and lines. These are a few sights visitors might spot along an industrial corridor bisected by busy railroad tracks and a multi-use path that is changing Napa’s landscape. The centerpiece: a two-mile-long, two-lane bike path that is flanked by nine giant original murals and nearly two dozen other art installations on signal boxes, chain-link fences, and more. The area is now formally known as RAD Napa, short for Rail Arts District. Since its inception in 2017, it’s been living up to its name—and promises to continue.

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At no more than a five-minute walk from downtown Napa and the Oxbow Public Market food hall, RAD Napa is well positioned close to popular hubs. Another bonus: The art is totally free and accessible at any time.

The district is the brainchild of a group of local business and community leaders. The leader of the pack is Scott Goldie, a partner at Brooks Street development firm and co-owner of the Napa Valley Wine Train. To hear Goldie tell it, inspiration came from Wynwood Walls in Miami and the SODO Track in Seattle—both destinations that revolve around modern public art. 

Melissa Arendt's colorful cactus mural is on a signal box off Napa Street.

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“When I first came to the Wine Train [in 2015], this stretch of tracks was known as the cross-city commuter corridor and it had no art and no personality,” he says. “After thinking about these other destinations and how successful they’ve been, it hit me: Why not activate the area with murals?” 

Goldie’s vision was to have artists paint the murals on the back walls of industrial buildings that face the train tracks. Thanks to a pair of $25,000 donations from both the Wine Train and the Napa Valley Vine Trail organizations, RAD was able to commission its first three murals.

Last year, RAD doubled down, using additional donations from businesses and individuals to add six more murals and expand the art effort to the signal boxes that line the tracks. Eventually, organizers see the neighborhood being home to 100-plus pieces of public art, as well as parks, gazebos, and other gathering places. 

Local and international artists showcase their talents

Muralists come from all over the world to participate in RAD. Polish artists Bezt and Natalia Rak painted a piece titled Knocking on Heaven’s Door that features a young woman (inspired by a real-life woman who works at a local hotel) walking past an old farmhouse at dusk. A Southern California artist who goes by bumblebeelovesyou created a huge mural titled Jack and Jill that depicts a young boy reading a story to a young girl.

Even celebrated Argentinian-Spanish artist Felipe Pantone has gotten in on the action. His contribution, Chronodynamica, features a geometric wave pattern that appears to move when you go by in the train or on a bike. Pantone has done similar murals in Berlin, New York, and Monterrey, Mexico, among many other cities.

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Artists who designed pieces for the signal boxes are worth celebrating, too. One of the boxes bears the work of Norma Quintana, a Napa photographer whose Forage from Fire series is composed of images of artifacts from her home, which burned in the Atlas Peak fire of October 2017.

How to explore the Rail Arts District

Currently there are three ways to experience RAD: during a ride on the Wine Train; on your own, by walking or biking along the portion of the Vine Trail that runs through it; or as part of a new walking tour, which started this past summer.

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The tour, from a nascent outfitter called Paper Napan Walkabouts, is an intriguing option for people who want to explore the murals and the surrounding neighborhood slowly. Over the course of the three-hour excursion, owner Kim McGinness covers all nine major murals, providing detailed backgrounds and histories of each. McGinness regales guests with stories about the artists, too. Stops at three local wineries are included in the itinerary: St. Clair Brown Winery & Brewery, Robert Craig Winery, and Cru at The Annex.

All told, visitors start the walk just north of downtown and cover about a mile, ending at the Oxbow Public Market. The price: $95 per person.

McGinness says she loves exposing guests to a part of Napa they likely wouldn’t see otherwise.

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“My tour isn’t designed to give people a workout or anything—it’s built around the art, the wine, the food, and the neighborhood,” she says. “Most people come to Napa and spend the bulk of their time in tasting rooms. We have the tasting experience, but we’re also focused on something much bigger.”

Spanish-Argentinian artist Felipe Pantone works on his mural on Soscol Avenue.

Looking forward, RAD Napa appears to be poised for growth. The neighborhood formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit this past summer, and The Garden, the newest mural, attracted serious attention earlier this fall when East Bay artist Hueman painted it on the Culinary Institute of America at Copia building. The mural depicts red lettuces from the facility’s garden and is the most visible of the bunch.

Goldie hopes to add dozens of new murals in the years ahead, and eventually would like to build into the neighborhood pocket parks and other gathering spaces that connect to the Vine Trail. Noble House Hotels & Resorts, which partnered with Goldie’s Brooks Street to buy the Wine Train, is ironing out plans and permits with the city for a new resort property north of the Wine Train Depot.

In the meantime, to guarantee the long-term success of RAD, Goldie has added a $1 surcharge to all Wine Train checks. This surcharge generates roughly $10,000 per month. While customers can opt out of the additional fee, most don’t.

“People seem proud to be a part of this,” says Goldie. “It’s neat to see an old part of Napa get new life.”

From January 23 to January 25, 2019, AFAR Experiences is heading to Napa. Register now for exclusive, invitation-only entry to some of the region’s most prestigious and memorable places, alongside local winemakers and artisans, renowned chefs, and cultural experts. 

>>Next: New Ways to Explore Napa Valley (and They’re Not All in Tasting Rooms)

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