Tear Down Town

It's a knock-down, drag-out for the city's soul

"It's an awful property!" Haskins says. "And saving awful properties like that one is why Phoenix looks the way it does."

The man has a point. It's hard to see any former or potential beauty in the Palmcroft, which was built as wartime housing in 1943. But Dreiseszun, who agrees that not every old building should be saved, believes that the Scott Haskinses of the world aren't hearing a passionate plea to preserve what's left of our city's past. Instead, they're made deaf by a loud litany of building restrictions.

"The concern here has become, 'If we alienate developers, Phoenix will die,' because no one will want to come here and build," Dreiseszun says. "And the developers are saying, 'How dare you limit my ability to express myself!' But that's the city's job. If we let developers build anything they want, Phoenix will always look like a city in transition."

The Busy Bee Cafe, formerly standing on Central Avenue near Van Buren Street, was among many buildings razed to make room for ASU's downtown Phoenix campus.
Wayne Michael Reich
The Busy Bee Cafe, formerly standing on Central Avenue near Van Buren Street, was among many buildings razed to make room for ASU's downtown Phoenix campus.
King's Cocktails, a Central Avenue mainstay, is no more.
Wayne Michael Reich
King's Cocktails, a Central Avenue mainstay, is no more.
If Phoenix's past is any indication, this 19th-century Queen Anne-style home, deemed historic by the city, will almost certainly be demolished rather than restored.
Steve Jansen
If Phoenix's past is any indication, this 19th-century Queen Anne-style home, deemed historic by the city, will almost certainly be demolished rather than restored.
This pile of rubble on North Seventh Street was once a beautiful old home.
Steve Jansen
This pile of rubble on North Seventh Street was once a beautiful old home.

"I came here wanting to connect with Phoenix," says photographer Wayne Michael Reich, a former New Yorker who's made a name for himself photographing the vestiges of Phoenix's fast-dying architectural history. (Steve Jansen, New Times' assistant Night & Day editor, also makes it a habit to snap old buildings.) "What I found was a place that seems to want to be some other place, like Los Angeles or Chicago. I feel like I'm running a race with a city that's in a hurry to obliterate its past. You know, I find these beautiful, human touches in the buildings I'm photographing, but they all have demolition signs in front of them. Pretty soon, there won't be any human touches left to find. Phoenix will be big and shiny by then, but it won't ever be Los Angeles or Chicago, just an impostor."

Even in our attempts to document our rise from the ashes, Phoenix's inability to make up its mind — are we a city that's about to be successfully reborn at last, or a city that's about to muck up its façade one more time? — is apparent. A new art exhibition at ASU called "New American City" offers 23 local artists' visions of our city's big, shiny future, while "Phoenix: Land of Somewhere," a group exhibition at Modified Arts, depicts downtown's failure to overcome a faceless past.

And then there's what all the historic preservation people have lately been calling "the Phoenix book." Phoenix: 21st Century City is the fourth in a series spotlighting what London-based boutique publisher Booth-Clibborn is calling "emerging centers for art and design." (Tellingly, Booth-Clibborn required that Phoenicians interested in joining Moscow, Brooklyn, and Berlin on the shelf raise the money needed to publish the book — something the publisher didn't require of the other cities it's devoted books to.) But where the Phoenix edition is concerned, the city shown here often looks so weary from "emerging" that it appears to be on its way back into the dark hole from which it's dragged itself, probably in search of much-needed rest.

Open the book to any page and you'll find depictions of places and things both profoundly dreary and instantly recognizable as symbols of life in the Valley of the Sun. In one photo, a scuffed black trash bin stands proudly center stage before a slump-block fence; in another, dozens of cookie-cutter ceramic tile rooftops line up like soldiers around a paved cul-de-sac. A gray-on-gray painting by artist Jeff Lyon depicts dark clouds hanging limply above a freeway off-ramp.

The book's cover photo says it all: Rather than depicting the Luhrs Tower, or the Orpheum Theatre, or any single landmark found at ground level, it instead offers a cloudless, pale blue sky, one that could be found most anywhere at all. Far down toward the bottom of the picture, a scattering of power poles poke up out of a dusty brown cloud that is, apparently, our fair city. In the upper right, an airplane is shown, jetting quickly away from Phoenix. It's easy to imagine that the plane is full of people who came here from somewhere with a rich history, expecting to find a landscape that tells our city's story and welcomes them into it. And off they fly, in search of a city with a deeper identity, a city that isn't ashamed of displaying what it once was.


Next week: Urban gurus from Jane Jacobs to Richard Florida say it's essential to preserve old buildings, but Phoenix does little to encourage indie businesses to come downtown and open shop in a place with some history. Also: a peek at the future cityscape.

Read the whole series online.

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