The Cool Index

Phoenix has always been hot. But can it ever be cool?

Every week, it seems, a new contemporary furniture store, another club, a gallery opens in downtown Phoenix. People such as Daniel and Felicia Ruiz Wayne are moving home to raise their kids near family, and they're bringing what they've learned in cities like Seattle back with them. When something does go out of business -- like The Table, which closed last spring -- more likely than not, something cool (Johnny Chu's Fate) is there almost overnight to replace it.

"We are the best party in town right now," says Chu, who thought he would need to keep running Lucky Dragon, his restaurant/nightclub in Tempe, to pay his rent in Phoenix. But when he served 385 meals his first night in business, Chu changed his mind.

The list goes on and on. (Check it out in our guides to Who's Cool and Where's Cool that accompany this story.)

From left, Kimber Lanning, 
Wayne Rainey, Greg Esser, Beatrice Moore, 
Tony Zahn, Johnny Chu, Cindy Dach, Chris Bianco, Wendy Gruber, Silvana Salcido Esparza, Craig DeMarco, Sloane McFarland.
From left, Kimber Lanning, Wayne Rainey, Greg Esser, Beatrice Moore, Tony Zahn, Johnny Chu, Cindy Dach, Chris Bianco, Wendy Gruber, Silvana Salcido Esparza, Craig DeMarco, Sloane McFarland.


Photograpy by Jeff Newton

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And it all leads to a question no one from these parts has ever dared to ask before:

Is Phoenix finally on the verge of being cool?

Richard Florida, the Carnegie Mellon professor who wrote the bible of cool, came to town this fall. He talked about how a third of the work force in America is creative, a group that craves a rich urban lifestyle that offers a great cup of coffee, a neighborhood bistro and a gallery scene along with big museums and stadiums.

He talked about how cities need to be cool, and not just for the sake of being hip, but to be economically sustainable.

Florida was here for less than 24 hours. A cross between Elvis Presley and Elvis Costello, he is unquestionably cool. As he dashed from a television interview to a cocktail party in the basement of the Orpheum Theatre, he fired back an answer to a quick query: "How do you know when your city is cool?"

"When you don't have to ask."

Touché. Phoenix is only beginning to even ask the question. This place has the biggest inferiority complex of any city in the world. A few years back, a local artist printed tee shirts emblazoned with a huge sun and the message "Phoenix Is Boring." Local legend has it that another artist once got an unrestricted grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and used the money to buy a pickup truck and leave town. MTV won't even film a season of The Real World here.

Phoenix has a long way to go.

But how do you know when your city is on the verge of being cool? Another recent book better answers that question than Florida's. It's called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The author, Malcolm Gladwell, is a staff writer at The New Yorker, and his book is based on a series of articles he wrote for the magazine about how social phenomena occur. For example, Gladwell wrote about how Hush Puppies -- the brushed-suede loafers from the '50s -- had a resurgence of popularity in the '90s. Gladwell traced the trend all the way back to a group of friends from Brooklyn, who liked to go clubbing at the hippest spots in the city. The hipsters started wearing Hush Puppies they'd bought at vintage stores, and soon other hipsters were combing thrift shops for Hush Puppies. Fashionistas picked up on the trend and wrote about it in magazines, and not long after that, the company that makes Hush Puppies, which was almost out of business, was booming.

To boil it down, the "tipping point" is the point at which something goes from being an anomaly to being the hottest thing around. Or the coolest, depending on your preferred vernacular.

Years from now, people like Malcolm Gladwell may very well point to Lux Coffeebar and Sloane McFarland as the tipping point of a cultural renaissance in Phoenix.

Other cities have such legends. The birthplace of cool in Denver is the City Spirit Café. In Providence, Rhode Island, it's an artists' collective called AS22. In Boston it's an artist named Sarah Hutt.

It's easy to identify a tipping point, after the fact. What's difficult is knowing you're on the verge of one, and figuring out how to get there.

Gladwell, who has spent more time in Phoenix than Richard Florida has, is surprised to hear that the "cool" question is even being asked. He came to town recently to write a story, he says, and booked a room at the San Carlos Hotel because he figured he should stay downtown. He wound up moving to a resort in Scottsdale, which didn't make him any happier.

Gladwell definitely would have missed the sign for Lux.

Phoenix won't ever be Paris, he says with confidence, but yeah, maybe the place could one day have an urban bohemian feel. The tipping point in creating a vibrant city, he says, comes when creative people decide to stay. But good things have to happen first, creating a chicken-and-egg dilemma similar to that involving downtown living space and downtown businesses. (In other words, no one wants to live downtown because there's nothing to do downtown, and no businesses want to locate downtown because no one lives there.)

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