Phoenix Has an Inferiority Complex

Or maybe you do

New Orleans is sexy. Denver is earthy. Austin rocks, Dallas shops. New York never sleeps. San Francisco is stunning. Los Angeles is star struck. Boston is really smart.

And Phoenix? Phoenix is slumped on the Barcalounger eating potato chips and drinking beer, scratching itself, bored to tears. If Phoenix had a mother, she would say, "Get off your ass and take a shower! Get out of the house! You're young, you're handsome, you've got a lot going on upstairs. For Chrissakes, you're the fifth-largest city in the country. You've got to be able to find something to do."

But Phoenix is depressed. I think the city's having a quarter-life crisis -- you know, that new trend where 25-year-olds decide they're all washed up because they've graduated from college and haven't yet married, had 2.5 kids, bought a lovely house and made a million dollars?

Keeping the good thought.
Jeff Newton
Keeping the good thought.
"But there's nothing to do. . ."
Jeff Newton
"But there's nothing to do. . ."
Some call it cocooning.
Jeff Newton
Some call it cocooning.
All this and a bag of chips.
Jeff Newton
All this and a bag of chips.
Let it shine.
Jeff Newton
Let it shine.
Yeah! That's the spirit!
Jeff Newton
Yeah! That's the spirit!

This first occurred to me about a year and a half ago, when urban-studies rock star Richard Florida came to town to talk about the creative class. New Times did a big long project on downtown Phoenix -- why we've never had one, why we need one, what it will take to get one. After Florida left, everyone admitted they hadn't been able to make it all the way through his book, and we all agreed the guy was a real boor, but that he was onto something when he said that cities need more bookstores, coffee shops and art galleries. We scrambled to find the one cool restaurant in Phoenix open after 10 p.m. to take Florida to, after his speech.

Point taken.

It's totally camp to hate Phoenix. In the early '90s, a local artist made tee shirts with booming yellow suns and the slogan "Phoenix Is Boring." Reubens Accomplice, a local band, named an album Blame It on the Scenery. And for years, I had Hunter S. Thompson's opinion of Phoenix pasted to a wall in my office:

"If there is, in fact, a heaven and a hell, all we know for sure is that hell will be a viscously overcrowded version of Phoenix -- a clean, well-lighted place full of sunshine and bromides and fast cars where almost everybody seems vaguely happy, except those who know in their hearts what is missing."

Is Phoenix so bad? Or do we suck because we think we suck? So many times, I've read or heard about how super a city or a neighborhood is, and rushed to check it out. Almost every time, I get there and, yeah, sure, it's kinda cool -- all two blocks of it. I stood on Sixth Street in Austin, in NoLita (north of Little Italy) in Lower Manhattan, at the Highlands in Denver, and thought, well, yeah, this is neat. But where's the rest of it? What's the big fucking deal?

The big fucking deal is the hype. People love Seattle, so go there, and I bet you'll love it, too. It's got the vibe, the rep, the gold. And Phoenix? MTV hasn't even filmed a season of The Real World here. No one wants to live in Phoenix.

Of course, that's not true. People are streaming in here like crazy. They're also streaming out, not as quickly, but they are. And I've always noticed that smart people seem to leave the fastest. Every few years, someone swears the tide is turning, that Phoenix is coming into its own, that good stuff is about to happen. For the first time, I actually sort of believe it. But now I'm worried that no one else does, that Phoenix is so convinced of its ugly-duckling status that nobody will bother to notice that anything's going on.

The other day, I stood in Stinkweeds, Kimber Lanning's record shop in central Phoenix, and she told me about Dominick, a kid she knows from Peoria. He comes into the store once in a while. Recently, he told her he was just back from New York City, had a great time, saw Tim Berne, a really great jazz musician.

Really? Lanning said. Tim Berne was just at Modified Arts, the performance space/art gallery she runs downtown. She didn't see Dominick at that show.

Oh no, the kid replied. Why drive all the way across town to see a band?

Well, it beats flying across the country.

It's not like the kid went to New York just to see Tim Berne, but you get the point.

Go downtown. I remember driving down Roosevelt Street late one night a few years ago, on my way home from someplace, and noticing twinkly white lights on the windows of a building I'd never noticed. Hmmmph, I thought. Looks like someone's opened something. Good luck. Turns out, that was Modified, Lanning's place. This time, it was actually joined by other art and performance spaces, and something's happening in the Roosevelt neighborhood. It's like watching a Polaroid picture develop. Go over to Grand Avenue; you can actually park and spend a hunk of time, walking from gallery to gallery. There's even a place to get coffee. We all joke about how crappy most of the art for sale is, but that's changing, too. Artists from Phoenix are starting to get recognized in New York, but for the most part, they're still ignored here. Lanning swears she heard a statistic that on a given weekend, there are more shows here than in Seattle. I'm not sure I believe that, but there's a lot more going on than most people think.

Lanning also says -- often -- that Phoenix has an inferiority complex.

When I decided to write this, I started asking people, "Do you think Phoenix has an inferiority complex?" You can split the response down the middle. Half the people groaned. "Don't write a blowjob story," one colleague warned me. "Don't be a booster." The other half groaned, too. "Please don't write another negative story about this city," an academic type begged.

The truth is that this story is neither.

You know, there's this house west of Seventh Street, just south of McDowell; I notice it from Seventh sometimes when I'm driving to lunch. Someone's put a ton of junk -- lawn gnomes, statues, recently I noticed what looked like a wooden horse head -- in the front yard. I always think to myself, That looks like shit. But I have to stop and wonder, what would I think of that if I saw it in Chicago? I'd think, Cool! Why doesn't anyone do anything that original in Phoenix?

Maybe we all need an attitude adjustment. Look, I won't pretend to be this city's biggest fan. Last month, I had a lunch appointment at the Arizona Center, and walking through that place was enough to make me want to slit my wrists -- a mall that can't even sustain a Victoria's Secret. Driving to work the other day, I could not believe how gross the brown cloud was. At the same time, I have to admit that the city's not so bad anymore. Stuff's happening. During Art Detour, I drove my mom down to Bentley Projects, the grand, relatively new art space south of Bank One Ballpark, and practically had to force her out of the car. Fifteen minutes later, she couldn't stop thanking me for taking her there. Yeah, it always seems like there's no place to go for lunch, but at the same time, I can name you a dozen great new restaurants across metropolitan Phoenix. I've gone shopping -- and found stuff! -- in Mesa. People actually have good things to say about Buckeye.

This is no longer the city where Kimber Lanning and I went to high school. I think it takes a native -- or an almost-native, in Lanning's case -- to get that. And to understand that until Phoenix can get a little happy about that fact, things can't get much better.

The other day, I stopped for coffee at Lux, the über-cool coffee bar on Central Avenue, housed in a funky green slump-block building next to Passage, an artsy boutique, and Pane Bianco, pizza guy Chris Bianco's sandwich shop. The landlord, Sloane McFarland, another native, walked up with his kids. Like many of us, McFarland left Phoenix after school, ultimately landing right back here.

I asked him my question.

He laughed. "No, but I think I used to have an inferiority complex," he said, as he disappeared into the coffee shop.


My birth certificate claims I was born at Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, but for as long as I can remember, I've been telling people I was kidnapped at a very early age from the Upper West Side of Manhattan by a very nice couple named the Silvermans, and brought to live in this disgusting hellhole.

Blame television. One of my earliest memories is of watching TV in bed; my mom would put the fuzzy, old black-and-white in my room to occupy me during adult dinner parties. I'd fall asleep watching Bob Newhart and Mary Tyler Moore and dream about snow and winter clothes and living in that big, sparkly building or that cute Victorian, where your neighbors drop by all the time, the way Rhoda and Phyllis did. I wanted to wear the red-and-white plaid wool dress my Great Aunt Adele had sent from Chicago every day, but it was only cold enough for about a week. And no one ever took me to the park, the way Mr. French on Family Affair did. Never mind that that was probably because we had a swing set and a pool in the backyard. The world was a terribly unfair place.

No one ever even mentioned Phoenix on TV, which in my mind meant the place didn't exist. And then the show Alice premièred. I watched Mel kiss Flo's grits in that gross diner and thought, Oh my God, Phoenix really is as bad as I've always suspected.

I went to high school in the '80s, the last time preppy was big. The Preppy Handbook was published, and I got my hands on a copy and memorized it. I was no dummy, I was president of the Speech and Debate club at school (quit laughing), but I had no idea this book was supposed to be a joke. This was my bible, all about people I knew nothing about, but wanted to be, people who vacationed at a place called Martha's Vineyard, drank cocktails and did not shop at Yellow Front. I poured Lauren cologne on everything I owned and came to school layered in my favorite outfit: a hot pink polo shirt, with a bright green polo over that, with a pale pink button-down Oxford shirt over that, khakis, pink espadrilles, a pale pink/hot pink/green striped grosgrain ribbon headband, a pink belt with green ladybugs embroidered on it and a purse with a button-on madras cover in matching hues.

My mom and her best friend started calling me Muffy Buffy, and not in a nice way.

I had to get out of town.

I planned my escape at an early age. But I was chicken, so the first time I only made it to just east of L.A., to Claremont, a small college town that sort of looked like it belonged on the East Coast, but with a lot of smog. From there, I went to Washington, D.C., even lived in London for a semester, but no place was quite right. I had seen When Harry Met Sally . . . , and I absolutely had to live in New York City.

And so I did. I applied to grad school not because I sought academic enlightenment but because it seemed like the easiest way to get to New York. I moved into a pie-shaped dorm room in south Harlem, next to a crack house. If I stood on my bed, I could sort of see the river. For once, I had no TV. I was determined. If I could make it here, I'd make it anywhere. Start spreading the news. I even took a bartending course, in case grad school didn't go so well. I marched up and down the Upper West Side, pretending I was in a Woody Allen movie. I decided it was sort of cool to be from Arizona but living in New York, so I bought some cowboy boots at Kenneth Cole. (It was only my second pair, ever; the first were purchased at Saba's for the Parada del Sol in Scottsdale when I was in the second grade. They were teal. These were black.)

I'm sure I looked like an idiot. New York was onto me. I'll never forget my most cinematic moment, waiting to cross the street at Columbus Circle, so sick with a cold that I'd actually made a doctor' s appointment. It was cold and rainy, and I stood right at the edge of the street, eagerly waiting to cross, not noticing that for once, I wasn't crushed with other people. They were keeping a safe distance, which I realized only when a bus drove past, drenching me with dirty New York City gutter water. I stood there, blinking through the black gunk, and thought, "Maybe it's time to go home."

Anyhow, I'd failed the bartending class. So I finished school, packed up all my stuff and shipped it to Phoenix, vowing I'd stay a week or two, a month tops, before moving on to some place cool like Philadelphia, since I really liked the show thirtysomething, or maybe even back to D.C. (St. Elmo's Fire was an all-time favorite).

After two weeks, I was ready to kill my parents. Concerned the feeling was mutual, I quickly got out of the house. There was no time to leave town, so I rented an apartment over a sand volleyball court and talked my way into a job at the Scottsdale Daily Progress, my hometown newspaper. My apartment was about four times the size of my dorm room in New York, but the volleyballs kept knocking over the pots of petunias I'd placed on the patio wall in an effort to create the feel of a Manhattan fire escape, and when I tried to stencil the bathroom to make the place look artsy, it just made a mess.

I moved to another apartment, and eventually to another job, at New Times, and I made some friends. One of them, Christa, was just the sort of girl you'd stumble on in D.C. or New York. She'd gone to my college, although we hadn't known each other there, and had come to Phoenix to work for Bruce Babbitt when he ran for president in the late '80s, and she just sort of stuck around after that, working political jobs. Christa loved to hate Phoenix as much as I did. But then she met a guy who really liked Phoenix. They got engaged, and she refused a bridal shower (as well as a diamond -- and she got married in the rain on the carousel at Kiddie Land, with sneakers under her wedding dress), so a few of us took her out instead. We ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Such Is Life, where the waiter found out Christa was engaged and gave her a rose, telling her, "Laaaaahhv him to death," which made us laugh. (So did the margaritas.) And somewhere along the way, we all decided that we were going to love Phoenix, too. Christa and I wrote "I ♥ Phoenix" on little slips of paper and shoved them in our wallets, like fortunes.

We ended the night at the Royal Palms. This was before they redid it, back when the place still had a heart-shaped pool, and a guy named Buddy Raymond played "The Girl From Ipanema" on a keyboard in the grungy lounge. We walked out onto the golf course and looked out at the city. In the distance, I saw some funny red lights, blinking off and on. "What are those lights?" I asked my friends. I swore I'd never seen them before. The women stared at me. They thought I was joking.

I was born and raised in Phoenix, but I'd never noticed the TV towers on South Mountain.


For years now, I've been telling people all about how I've made my peace with Phoenix. Sure, I hated it growing up, but I like it now, I say. About five minutes after Christa got married, I started dating a guy who worked in advertising at New Times. His family moved to Tempe from Queens when he was 11 (you should see the neighborhood where he grew up! It looks exactly like the opening scene in All in the Family!), and he got to go to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade when he was a kid, but he really hated New York, vowed he'd never go back. He was one of the first people I'd ever met who truly loves Phoenix. The guy actually had (and still has) an Arizona flag bumper sticker on his car. We got married at the Royal Palms, post-remodel, and bought a place in Tempe, across town from where I grew up. I took to humming the theme to Green Acres around the house, and even went camping a few times, and to the Desert Botanical Garden. I still refused to ever open the car windows, and continued to insist that large open spaces made me feel uneasy, but I had decided that being happy isn't about where you are, it's about who you are. Early one Tuesday morning in late summer, I was watching an ER rerun, feeding our three-month-old daughter Annabelle, when without explanation the show broke to an image of the second tower collapsing.

I was meant to come home, I thought. When my husband suggested (joking, I'm sure) one day that maybe we should move to New York, mix things up a little, I looked at him in horror. What, and leave two sets of grandparents behind? How would we ever find a baby sitter? Or jobs? Or a place to live?

And I had made friends here. Granted, most of them usually left after a while, but some stuck around.

Okay, I didn't exactly love Phoenix. But I was done hating it. Or so I thought. And then one day not long ago I was talking to my boss, Rick Barrs. Rick moved to Phoenix from L.A. about two and a half years ago. He grew up in the South, but had lived in L.A. forever. He's a big-city guy. But he actually likes Phoenix, he told me. And then he told me a story. When he first moved to Phoenix, he found an apartment downtown, in the Post Roosevelt, a new complex on Central Avenue. The parking garage was filled with out-of-town license plates, and all of his neighbors were happy. "Welcome to Paradise!" they greeted him. "We love it here! Look how clean the city is, how beautiful the mountains are! It's November, and the sun is shining!" Rick looked around, and he felt happy. Then he came to work, where many people apologized profusely for the fact that he was stuck in Phoenix.

I, he said, was the prime culprit.

I thought about it. He was right. As soon as I met Rick, I started badmouthing Phoenix, embarrassed to admit I was actually born here, even more ashamed that I'd come home and stayed. This guy from L.A. was going to think I'm a total loser.

Who knows, maybe he did. He's too polite to say. But Rick wound up liking Phoenix. Sure, he says, he understands why people don't like it. It's hard to find any of the cool stuff, like Richardson's or Hot Pink; it's all sort of tucked away. Everything's spread out. The sprawl sucks. But the livin's easy, that's for sure. And he never would have been able to afford the house he just bought here, in L.A.

But back to me. How weird was it that here I thought I was over the whole hating-Phoenix thing, but really, I was no better than ever? I started to think about all the things I like about Phoenix. I like my house, which I always tell people reminds me of someplace else -- like someplace in the Midwest, or back East -- with its screened porches and hardwood floors. I like the fact that we finally got an Anthropologie, and a Sephora. I like it when it gets all cloudy in the winter, just like San Diego in the summer. I like my drive-through Starbucks. I like the fact that the airport's really close, and that the cost of living's so low in Phoenix that I can visit my friends in other cities.

Uh-oh.

I'm exactly what Kimber Lanning hates. The other day, she went on and on about those flags someone's hung on light poles on Seventh Avenue that say "Melrose on 7th."

"It's inexcusable, because Melrose stopped being cool 10 years ago," she says, adding, "It's not the cool factor that I'm worried about. It's the whole idea that we're pretending to be something we're not."

I decided to make a concerted effort to ♥ Phoenix.

I looked at a Web site called www.modernphoenix.net, which celebrates local modern architecture, particularly the work of the late Ralph Haver. I'd never heard of Haver before, but, as it turns out, I've seen plenty of his houses -- you have, too, if you've driven around '50s-era Phoenix neighborhoods. Now, don't tell anyone I said this, but those houses are ugly. Actually, they don't even rise to the level of ugly -- they're just boring. I know it's all hip to be into ranch houses these days; they're indigenous to Phoenix because they're low to the ground, and if you place them right, they'll save you money on your electricity bill. But there is nothing inherently interesting about them. The only cool part of the Web site was where someone had come in and dressed up a Haver home to the point where you could barely recognize it.

I moved on to earthly delights. Driving from Tempe to downtown Phoenix at dusk one evening last month, I admired the way the sun came through the clouds. We really do have amazing sunsets, I remark to my husband, adding that I suppose it's all because of the pollution.

"Yeah," he says. "They say the sunsets are beautiful after a nuclear explosion."

Really. But if you do want to ♥ Phoenix, don't bother with architecture and sunsets. Instead, look no further than my husband, the aforementioned one-man Phoenix fan club. He just doesn't understand how anyone could not love this place. "The problem with you," he told me one recent morning, "is that you didn't grow up in New York City and then move here." (Duh, I thought.) He informs me that here, everyone can be the king and queen of their own castles.

"You know who the king and queen of the castle are in New York?" he asks.

"The Trumps?"

"No. The loudest people."

My husband says I don't appreciate Phoenix because I've never hiked Camelback Mountain, and he's probably right. But there's got to be more than desert beauty to the fifth-largest population concentration in the world's most advanced nation. Shouldn't there be something for everyone?

He does concede one point. "I do wish Phoenix had cool restaurants and coffee shops like Tucson does," he says. Oddly, I feel myself rising to defend Phoenix. I tell him that I bet that we have way more cool restaurants and coffee shops than Tucson, it's just that ours are spread out all over town (Orange Table's in downtown Scottsdale, La Grande Orange in Arcadia, Barrio Café in downtown Phoenix, that new gelato place everyone's talking about is way out in Chandler), and anyway, all our friends in Tucson talk about how great Tucson is all the time -- that's why he thinks that! Nobody ever talks about how great Phoenix is!

I'm in a frenzy by now, but he's already turned back to the newspaper.


It was time, I decided, to do some serious reporting. Turns out, Rick and I weren't the only ones putting the city on the couch. Everywhere I go, it seems, people are talking about how Phoenix feels about being Phoenix, particularly around the New Times water cooler. Sarah Fenske, our newest staff writer, who joined us late last year from Texas, says when she moved to Houston, everyone welcomed her eagerly, telling her, "You're going to love Houston!" And she did. When she got here, no one said, "You're going to love Phoenix!"

Michele Laudig, New Times' music editor, took it a step further. She actually conducted an experiment. When her cousin came to visit last month from New York City, Michele put our city's best face forward -- showing her cousin all her favorite spots in Phoenix and Scottsdale, willing herself not to say anything negative, even though Michele can dish on Phoenix with the best of them. Her cousin raved, called the trip "life altering" and says she might even move here.

One of the weirder things about Phoenix -- I can never decide if it's good or bad -- is that it's incredibly easy to get in touch with the power brokers. People say this is a small town stuck in a big city, and they're right. Everyone knows everyone. Remember Christa, my friend who vowed to ♥ Phoenix with me? Her husband wound up as the mayor. So although I make it a rule never to write about Phil, I called Mayor Gordon to ask him what he thinks about our inferiority complex. He's lived here forever, he should totally get it. I still think he does, although my head was spinning by the time I hung up the phone.

So, I begin, does Phoenix have an inferiority complex?

"No!" is the immediate reply. "This is a great city, and the proof is in the numbers. People continue to come to Phoenix for a reason."

And then I have to admit that I zoned out for a few minutes. I came back around the time the mayor was talking about how this is one of the only cities in America where you can have your own backyard. He wound down with, "We're a western city that was a small town that now has become a major city and needs to take its place in line and be proud of its place and start to influence policy in this country."

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.'"

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.

Aaaaeh?

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 ishaving 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.

Like it sounds, the Kennedy School is an old elementary school the McMenamins narrowly saved from destruction, adding their own charming touches (one drinking hole's called the Honor Bar, no smoking, another's the Detention Bar) and showing cool movies like Sideways. As always happens when I go someplace else, I got mad at Phoenix. I stomped off to the restroom, with its original cute kid-size toilets and one of those towel dispensers you had in school where the white metal machine supposedly sanitizes the towel as it passes through (I was always suspicious of those), and thought to myself, no one would ever think to do anything neat with an old school in Phoenix. No, they'd just destroy it and put up a strip mall.

And then I started laughing, so hard I probably scared somebody. In the late '80s, someone did save an old Phoenix elementary school from demolition. They rehabbed it lovingly -- hired the best landscape architect in town to put in native plants, and the most talented architect to make the space usable, with courtyards and funky accents like a fountain of water-spitting lizard and snake heads. Every time I walk into the building to go to work, it makes me like this place in spite of myself.

When I got back to Phoenix, I told my boss Rick about my funny epiphany about the New Times Building. "You've got to use that as the ending to your story," he said. I agreed.

"Yeah," Rick said, glancing around his office, which overlooks a beautiful patio with a pond stocked with bright orange fish, "this building is really great. Too bad this part of town is such a complete shithole."

Not long ago, I tried to find that old wallet with the "I ♥ Phoenix" paper in it. It's long gone. I replace my wallets and purses the way I used to replace my cities, always searching for one that will hold everything just right and still look good. No worries. I think I'm beyond a slip of paper. Someone needs to print up some good-looking I ♥ Phoenix bumper stickers, and paste them all over town.

But don't you dare stick one on my car.

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