Us vs. Them

Make downtown attractive to locals, not to outsiders wearing knee socks and nametags. It only makes sense.

The staff of these research facilities view the arts as essential to their relocation to downtown Phoenix, claims John Murphy, executive director of Flinn.

"The creative work force that drives this new technology-based economy also demands a rich cultural atmosphere," observed Murphy.

You might ask yourself: What the hell does any of this mean?

Lunch places aren't even plentiful in downtown Phoenix, and if you're looking for more than a few decent dinner spots, forget it.
Jackie Mercandetti
Lunch places aren't even plentiful in downtown Phoenix, and if you're looking for more than a few decent dinner spots, forget it.

A critical point in Florida's analysis of what works and what doesn't is: New economy workers desire a street culture that is vibrant, accessible, diverse and authentic; a real downtown, if you will.

Furthermore -- and this is important -- a successful urban setting must be created for the people who already live here. What you don't want is an arts-and-culture theme park designed to entice businesses that reside out of state. Yet you cannot create something for people who don't yet exist and, at the same time, maintain local soul. That would be like moving the London Bridge to Lake Havasu to attract the dead and dying.

Instead, you create a city center that is inherently interesting for city residents -- which attracts other young, creative folks to your downtown.

Arts and Culture, as embraced by the blue-ribbon commission, are looked at with a capital A, and a capital C -- which is only a small part of a successful core city according to Florida.

"Florida finds that the creative class' has also altered economic geography," noted Los Angeles Times critic Robert J. Samuelson. "Localities can't attract high-paying businesses simply by offering tax concessions and subsidies. The harder task is to foster a social climate that lures the best and the brightest. Companies will go where workers want to be -- or already are. What's desired are not ballparks and symphonies but exciting street life."

What's hugely missing in downtown Phoenix are enough restaurants, bars, coffee houses, lofts, music showcases and retail outlets to form the day-to-day fabric of urban life. We already have the capital A's and C's.

If you look around downtown, you can identify a number of imposing structures: the Phoenix Art Museum, the Burton Barr Central Library, the Heard Museum, the Herberger Theater Center, the Arizona Science Center, Phoenix Symphony Hall, the Orpheum Theatre and the Dodge Theatre.

Like Wal-Mart, these are big-box venues.

Downtown Phoenix has several theater companies, opera, ballet, chamber music, and even a baseball park and a basketball arena.

But despite all this Art and Culture, there is no downtown Phoenix.

In Seattle recently, voters rejected a tax on gourmet coffee. The point for us here in Phoenix is that there are so many espresso shops in the Pacific Northwest that someone thought they could fund school projects with a java levy. If you taxed every coffee bean in downtown Phoenix, you could not support a charter school for redheaded twins.

Tempe, on the other hand, has almost no arts and cultural facilities downtown. But it does have a downtown. There may be one too many chains to suit your artistic self, but people are out on the bricks walking around. You can get suicide wings at Long Wong's that will weld your tongue to the roof of your mouth and you can listen to great music.

And when I hear that someone who doesn't even live here (say, a researcher for a genome consortium) is gassing on about how important the arts are to them, I have to wonder. I mean, how can you argue that arts are not important? But that's just the point. I don't trust the results of such surveys or focus groups. If you question newspaper readers, they never tell you that they like the comics or the horoscope. They always tell you they are simply fascinated, by U Thant, or Boutros Boutros-Ghali, even Kofi Annan.

When a survey of workers in the next big-business migration admits that what they are really concerned about is getting their funk on, then maybe, just maybe, we'll have something to take to the bank.

Instead of plotting out a course of action for people who don't live here, we would be wiser to improve the lifestyle options of those already living in downtown Phoenix.

Us, not them.

And while critics are quick to point out that sports events do not make a viable urban core, we should keep in mind that exhibitions at the Heard Museum also are isolated happenings that are tangential to day-to-day survival.

Even grand art does not create a lifestyle, or even, necessarily, a crowd. The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art has done a wonderful job at booking moving exhibitions and yet the venue had box-office trouble. It received $800,000 from the city's general fund and spent $500,000 on a national marketing campaign. From January through mid-February of this past year, half of the scheduled tours canceled. The first 15 events drew 49 paying customers.

By contrast, First Friday in downtown Phoenix routinely draws 5,000 to 10,000 participants even in the molten Valley summer. Built around a couple of dozen street galleries, people turn out to see and be seen once a month. Much of the art on display is too cutting-edge, or crude, to end up in your home. This is precisely the charm of the event. People turn out to check out the art -- and each other -- which is precisely why First Friday should be supported.

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