Dark Impulses

At night, downtown Phoenix is a ghost town except for a few bright spots

As soon as the Suns game wraps up, they come busting out of the north doors of the America West Arena like a pack of hungry wolves.

"The party's in there," declares a young black woman in micro-braids and a form-fitting blue dress, checking out the long line that has already assembled outside 9 Lounge a block north of the arena on Washington. "You can smell it!"

Indeed you can -- and she's not just referring to the bracing blend of hair gel, perfume and cologne wafting out of the already crowded downtown Phoenix club. While the place has only been filling up since the Suns vs. Magic game let out less than 30 minutes ago, there's already a palpable party vibe bouncing above the loud hip-hop beat at 9 Lounge, just a few degrees hotter than the one coming from the diverse crowd gyrating to jungle house music at the Sports City Grill two doors down.

Everyone looks like a shabby-chic rock star at Boom.
Everyone looks like a shabby-chic rock star at Boom.
Top: Curtains down at Cheuvront. Above left: Performance art at Paper Heart. Above right: Pizzeria Bianco lights up Heritage Square.
Top: Curtains down at Cheuvront. Above left: Performance art at Paper Heart. Above right: Pizzeria Bianco lights up Heritage Square.

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Contributers:
Elaine Bell, Quetta Carpenter, Joy Hepp, Brendan Joel Kelley, Paul Kix, Jill Koch, Michele Laudig, Steve Lemons, Christopher O'Connor, Robrt L. Pela
Photography by Emily Piraino



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The doorman at Sports City Grill tries to entice passers-by with economic logic. "Our cover charge is just $3 tonight -- better than the $10 they're charging over there!" he says, noting that the bargain fee also covers entry to the bar's upstairs club, Sky Lounge. But reason has little to do with the after-game crowd's party-spot picks. At the Hard Rock Cafe immediately across from the arena, patrons are not only pick-pocketed a ten spot but also probed with a metal detector -- and the crowd inside is already approaching capacity level.

Party over here? Party over there? For the thousands of fish-out-of-water suburbanites emptied onto the downtown streets after each weeknight sporting event, moderately juiced up on overpriced beer and a post-game testosterone buzz, downtown Phoenix transforms into a temporary French Quarter. There's a tourist-like curiosity in the way all the couples and singles packs roam the streets, following the crowds, peeking in doorways and furtively seeking out the best place to blow off whatever steam they have left.

It's the same thing on First Fridays -- although the migrant party crowd on those well-attended monthly art walks is more likely to yell "Show us your Keith Krassner of the woman with saw blades on her breasts!" than the more popular cat-call of the sports bar crowd. While a bit more bohemian than the post-basketball group (jerseys are only worn if they're in some way ironic), First Friday fans party with downtown in their own peculiar way.

On one month's first weekend opener, for example, a raucous crowd could be seen gathered around a band of fire-eaters outside the Holga's artist community on Third Street just south of Roosevelt, where a collective of offbeat artists paint and live in a funky old restored 14-unit motel. In front of the gallery, the Tempe pyrotechnic performance group, Fyrae, put on a sort of gothic circus, twirling flaming batons to thumping techno music while creating a tribal, fire-lit dance hall in the parking lot. Inside the gallery, meanwhile, several young women in cosmic makeup and beehive hairdos mingled with guests, conjuring the feeling of a house party with the B-52's.

Call it the art crowd's beer and hot dogs -- the combination of stimuli gets them just as charged up to do the town. A couple hours after the last bus run, though, just like a couple hours after the game, it will also all be over. By 1:30, most of the bars will be closed, the parking lots will be emptied and downtown Phoenix -- like a too-eager-to-please party girl gang-banged by the visiting team and quickly left for dead -- will return to the lonely, abandoned ghost town of non-event nights.

Downtown is the city's disrespected be-otch, the Valley's ho. Great for the occasional wild night out, but hardly deserving of a long-term commitment. Few choose to live there: Many visitors, in fact, are still afraid to park their cars on the streets after dark, even though the downtown blocks are patrolled more vigilantly than any suburb, and the hookers and shady characters still associated with downtown have migrated to the malls.

But the same perceptions that keep Valley residents from settling into domesticity downtown draw them there for occasional nighttime adventure. There's a certain disconnected "what happens here, stays here" anonymity to the downtown nightlife: People like letting their hair down in a place where they know they won't be seen the next day. Downtown may feel a little too edgy, sleazy and dangerous to bring home to mother. But when's the last time Ahwatukee cozied up next to you at a game and beaconed, "Hey -- wanna party?"

For this report -- the sixth in New Times' downtown series -- we dispatched our crew of music, arts and entertainment writers to treat our long-suffering downtown to a proper night out, from dusk 'til dawn. We actually revisited for several nights: Every lady has secret charms that aren't all revealed in one evening, and downtown is one moody dame. Mostly, she only feels like dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. But she'll sing karaoke on Wednesdays, and on Thursdays, you may catch her in a tango.

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