The Cool Index

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

"When you're not embarrassed to say, I'm from Phoenix,' then people will start to stay," Gladwell says. "The biggest issue with cities like Phoenix that are trying to develop this kind of downtown culture is that the kind of people who need to live there leave."

If people like Sloane McFarland are staying, Gladwell says, that's the first step. The second step: more people like Sloane McFarland. Many more. And there has to be density. Right now, the cool spots around town -- 15th Avenue and Grand, Central and Indian School, Third Street and Roosevelt -- hug the outskirts of what is traditionally considered the downtown core of Phoenix. With cool businesses emerging organically around the city, the question becomes: What is the role of government in encouraging this unique commerce, in pushing it past the tipping point? (See accompanying story on page 11.) Gladwell warns that incentives are not the be-all.

"The thing about financial incentives is, that's not the stumbling block to these people," he says. "People out to create ground swells aren't in it for the money. They are people who are trying to live a certain way and have a certain cultural satisfaction in life."

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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In fact, almost every creative entrepreneur interviewed says he or she did not receive breaks from the city and would not want them even if they had been available. But if the concentration Gladwell wants is to exist, some sort of incentives do need to be available for would-be self-starters who need a little push. Other cities have been successful at taking the seeds of creativity planted by the Sloane McFarlands and nurturing them past a tipping point.

The next sign of a tipping point, Gladwell says, is that word will spread outside the city so that people will come to Phoenix the way they come to Austin, Texas, or Portland, Oregon -- because those cities are viewed as cool.

From his desk in New York City, Gladwell confirms that Phoenix is definitely not there yet.

In 1999, one of the few signs of life on Roosevelt Street was the 307, a beloved, beyond-a-dive, now-defunct transvestite bar. And then quietly, one night, tiny white Christmas lights appeared on the bars of the windows of a small brick building across the street.

Kimber Lanning had opened Modified Arts. Art spaces have come and gone in downtown Phoenix for years, but Lanning was a serious businesswoman with a proven track record. And she had a plan.

Lanning grew up on the west side and moved out of her parents' house in 1985 to study architecture at Arizona State University. She went from knowing everyone in high school to knowing no one at ASU. She listened to Black Flag and Bad Religion and couldn't stand her classmates, so after a year and a half she dropped out to open a record store in Mesa. Today, Stinkweeds, which is now located on Apache Boulevard in Tempe, is widely considered the edgiest independent record store in town.

It drove Lanning nuts when bands would pass through town without playing, so she let them play at Stinkweeds for $5 a head, and let the bands keep the money. She wanted a real music venue, so she opened Modified, and, with art in the family (her mother runs a gallery in Sedona), Lanning created gallery space in Modified, too.

Short on cash but big on ideas, Lanning made Modified an unofficial nonprofit. She runs the gallery and has a manager who books the bands. The rest of the people who work at Modified are volunteers.

"That's what I'm most proud of, that in Phoenix, where people say, This town sucks,' we have been able to put together a volunteer-based art space that has been able to last five years," Lanning says. "When bands leave, they get paid. It's well-run, you know what I mean? And what touches me most is that these kids who are volunteering . . . are learning about how to run a business with integrity and how to be reliable and how to treat bands. We give them a key."

Lanning is now in her mid-30s, although she looks so young you wonder if she raided her mom's closet for the cocktail dress she's wearing at a First Friday opening. But she's a veteran of the scene. Up to now she's kept her record store in a strip mall in Tempe because she doesn't get the traffic she needs in Phoenix to sustain such a business. Even with a volunteer staff, Stinkweeds basically pays the bills for Modified. But Lanning is eternally hopeful. And she's not going anywhere. She bought the Modified building last year.

"All of my peers, everyone that I grew up with . . . they've all gone to do great things in other cities. And they all say, Why are you still there?' And I say, It's getting better.' It's been 15 years that I've been saying it's getting better. But now I'm not the only one who's saying that anymore."

Next came Wayne Rainey.

Rainey's family has roots in downtown Phoenix. His grandfather came to town from Texas in 1918, and Rainey remembers stories about "The Wine Glass," a downtown cattlemen's club.

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