Dark Impulses

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

By 2:30 a.m., you've finished your tea, and it's that bat time. Sure you could wait until 3 a.m., but being the last to leave is more than a little pathetic. Like the man said, you've got miles to go before you sleep.

The Long Way Home
3 a.m. -- Looking for life

At 3 a.m., downtown Phoenix looks like a Playstation 2 driving game with the "traffic-off" cheat enabled. There's a certain eeriness to the tall, empty skyscrapers and deserted, gritty streets, as if the whole environment was rendered by a lazy game programmer who didn't take time to fill in the scene with some people.

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.


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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To most Valley suburbanites, accustomed to ranch-style dwellings and new construction, the shadowy old towers downtown at night can look foreign, and foreboding. There's a sense of danger -- if only because the environment is more familiar to us from crime movies and shoot-'em-up video games than from anything we see in our own neighborhoods.

Downtown knows it can look like a bad mo-fo at night, which is why the Downtown Phoenix Partnership offers its "Pal Around" program. With a simple call to the phone number listed on its Web site, the free program, funded by fear-fighting Copper Square merchants, dispatches a personal bodyguard -- or "Copper Square ambassador" -- to walk the nervous downtown newbie from the club to her car, or ride up the rickety elevator in that dark, dank parking garage.

Ironically, while the service is offered 365 nights a year, the ambassadors are only available until 11 p.m., even on weekends. Why can't you get your own personal Kevin Costner at 3 a.m., when the pounding of your heart is the loudest noise on the streets? "We find the demand is higher prior to 11," says Brian Kearney, the partnership's president. Could that be because everyone's vanished by that hour? Kearney pauses. "If we could keep 'em here later, we would."

James Bailey, drummer with the Loose Cannons Blues Band, which frequently plays at the jazzy below-street-level bar Monroes, regularly witnesses this early evening mass exodus, and wishes he could keep the crowd downtown later as well.

Bailey, a longtime Phoenix resident who now lives by South Mountain, remembers the days when the city' s vintage downtown benefited from a kinder, more Ritchie Cunningham image.

"Were you here back in the '70s, when cruising Central was going on?" he asks, referring to the days when the city's main drag would fill up at night with hot cars packed with even hotter girls and mooning frat boys. "Talk about a downtown scene, man. I mean, that was wild! No matter where you lived in the Valley, you came down to Central, and there'd be thousands of people, parked along the street. Businesses would be open, there'd be busy restaurants on every block. That was the scene for the entire Valley -- until the city cut that off and the police started kicking everybody out."

The blues man would love to see the city bring "cruisin' Central" back, but says most of the classic car clubs he's talked to are skittish of attempting anything under current downtown policies. "Most of the car clubs are really nervous about it," he says. "They're like, No, we can't do that. The city will shut us down, real quick.'"

For now, time to start that long drive home. Take Central, and try to imagine the days when that street would still be lined with modern-day Fonzies and Potsies, all looking for late-night action along the downtown drag.

There's a little Arnold's diner scene at the 24-hour IHOP, where a racially diverse mix of bleary-eyed all-nighters stop for coffee and self-disclosure. A girl, her bare feet tucked beside her on the booth seat, treats her friend to tales of a steamy office romance gone sour, and the conversation travels. "I saw him at this happy hour party, and he calls me Michelle," she says, wincing. "Is that in any way close to Christine?"

Except for one woman in a strapless, backless dress, this doesn't look like the after-bar crowd. An elderly man in a Day-Glo orange jacket hacks loudly in the corner and reads the paper. In one booth, a couple in their 40s chew in silence. The amiable waiter, who's worked the graveyard shift for a year and a half, attributes the consistent calm to the fact that cops are almost always in the house. In fact, seven lieutenants are sharing a table in one corner. Outside, five cruisers line the street.

They're not really needed downtown anymore. It's an away-game night for all the sports teams in season, and the next First Friday is still nearly three weeks away.

Go to sleep, Phoenix. It's been fun. We'll call.

E-mail jimmy.magahern@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8478.

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