Phoenix Has an Inferiority Complex

Or maybe you do

To me, that implies that, yes, Phoenix does in fact have an inferiority complex, but Phil isn't willing to concede that point. Wellington "Duke" Reiter, the dean of the College of Architecture at Arizona State University, is a little looser, but he still wants to talk about things like ASU's "recipe for change" in downtown Phoenix. I want to talk about what it was like to move here after living in cities like New Orleans and Boston. C'mon, I urge, isn't this place a little different?

Yes, he finally admits. "I've never lived in another place where there's doubt."

It was time to get outside of Phoenix. I called Washington, D.C., specifically Neal Peirce, the urban guru whose Peirce Report had so many revelations about Phoenix in the late '80s, notably, as Peirce himself recalls for me, the quote from a businessman asked what sets Phoenix apart. "It was a December day, it was sunny. He looked out the window and said, 'It ain't Buffalo.'"

Keeping the good thought.
Jeff Newton
Keeping the good thought.
"But there's nothing to do. . ."
Jeff Newton
"But there's nothing to do. . ."

Peirce doesn't think Phoenix has an inferiority complex at all. The word he uses to describe Phoenix is, "Exuberant! Growth in the desert. It's against all odds. Where God put no water, you found it!"

Thank goodness I found Joel Garreau. He is a reporter for the Washington Post who has written several books, among them Edge City, which focused on cities that spring up near major urban centers, without a downtown core. Phoenix, Garreau wrote, is the only edge city that emerged on its own, away from another city. He's spent some time here, and he writes about urban issues across the country. (His official title is "cultural revolution reporter." Top that.) He's familiar with the concept of inferiority complexes in cities. Usually, he says, it happens when cities are pitted against one another -- L.A. vs. S.F., New York vs. Boston, Fort Worth vs. Dallas. He can't think of a city Phoenix really competes with, though.

"God, you guys have become Canadians," Garreau says.


He talks about a friend of his assigned the beat of covering Canada for the Washington Post. The friend thought it a perfectly good assignment, 'til he spoke with someone at the Canadian Embassy who said, "Oh, pulled the short straw, eh?"

And then, Garreau says, "sometimes you run into self-deprecation where they're trying to find out if you're really an asshole." That happens in Iowa, where folks will tell you they're dumb. "They're just trying to see how big a jerk you are."

That's not what's happening in Phoenix. Garreau says we have the paradise problem -- places like Miami, Orange County, Phoenix, people see them as paradise and are bound to be bummed.

"A place that attracts a lot of dreamers is a place that is setting itself up for a lot of disappointments."

Garreau is just warming up. Edge cities like Phoenix, he says, are great at making money, but they're not so good at what he calls the "squishy" things -- civilization, soul, identity, community.

He comes back around to the same thing as everyone -- Gordon, Reiter, Peirce and the others I've interviewed -- does. Phoenix is young. Give it some time.

"It took Venice 500 goddamn years to get that way," Garreau says, "and [you're] trying to do it in 20."

So Phoenix is having a quarter-life crisis. I can live with that. At least we've got a name for the malady. I wish I'd known what to call my own personal quarter-life crisis when I was having it. But still, I can't help but ask Garreau one last question.

"Does Phoenix come up much in conversation, in D.C.?"

Long pause. I can tell Garreau is struggling for a way to be polite. Finally, he gives up. "Not much," he says, sighing.

I went to Portland last week. For a while now, my college girlfriends and I have been trading off, visit each other's cities, although as I write this I realize that no one's come to Phoenix for a long time. (And funerals don't count!) Anyhow, Portland is gorgeous, dark green, and the spring flowers were going crazy. The people who live there love that city the way people who live in Phoenix hate it here, and you feel it as soon as you get off the plane. I don't get out of town much anymore, so I'd done my homework, and came with a wadded-up page torn from Travel and Leisure, with all sorts of cool stuff to do. We had blackberry cosmopolitans at a new bar called Doug Fir, found the best shoe store (Imelda's, in case you're interested) and even went to a strip club, apparently the thing to do in Portland. Whatever.

It was a great weekend. A highlight was dinner at the Kennedy School. Turns out, a pair of brothers named McMenamin have gone nuts on Portland, rehabbing old moviehouses and other historic buildings, literally opening dozens of breweries, theaters, restaurants and B&Bs. The McMenamins make Cindy Dach and Greg Esser -- the Phoenix couple with three galleries, a boutique, a writers' studio and a penchant for saving sick cats, along with their day jobs -- look like slackers.

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