A suburbanite-friendly guide to downtown Phoenix

It's that time of year again. People who normally never travel south of Camelback will be heading downtown for Art Detour, where they'll ogle art and artists in a tour of galleries and work studios; a subdivision-free milieu that many suburbanites consider with some small amount of fear.

Folks visiting from the suburbs are easy to spot, with their handbags clutched to their sides (because there are Homeless People downtown, and you can't be too careful around them) and their wide-eyed surprise at all the old buildings we insist on having down here. At last year's Art Detour, I overheard one of these visitors whispering to his female companion, "The people actually live down here, in lofts. Some of the painters even sleep right in their studios." To which his friend replied, "Lofts? Like where you keep hay?"

I don't live in a loft. I live in an old Craftsman built in 1924, in one of those gentrified neighborhoods where people lived alongside one another in the old days, before everyone abandoned downtown for the boxy-ness of suburban Phoenix. I moved downtown from the northwest Valley in 1984, and some of my people are still trying to recover from the shock. I'm still asked rather routinely, by people who are planning to come for dinner, whether it's safe to park on my street.

Hey, Ho, let's go: The Westward Ho is one of many quirky vintage buildings on view during Art Detour.
Todd Grossman
Hey, Ho, let's go: The Westward Ho is one of many quirky vintage buildings on view during Art Detour.

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These are the same folks who gather up their courage and visit downtown's annual historic home tours in order to marvel at the impossibility of wood floors and eight-inch baseboards, who go down there to see how the other half lives and leave muttering, "And they don't even have a mall down here!"

This, after billions of dollars have been poured into making downtown accessible. People are still visiting downtown as if it were a tatty Museum of Quaint Obsolescence. This weekend, they'll give themselves a carefully guided tour of that museum, but the Art Detour map they'll be clutching won't have printed on it any of the stuff I'd like them to see.

I'd send visiting suburbanites to see the place I call Statue of Liberty House over on Seventh Avenue, just north of McDowell, with the gargantuan Lady Liberty planted in the middle of the front yard there — something you won't find in Ahwatukee. I'd want them to make sure and drive past the majestic, Norman Marsh-designed Monroe School (215 North Seventh Street), which will reopen this summer as the Children's Museum of Phoenix. It's kitty-corner to the old Phoenix Union High (now an ASU Biomedical campus), and both old beauties look like set pieces from a '30s Janet Gaynor picture about naughty coeds.

Will anyone notice, on their way to downtown galleries, that cool old apartment building at 635 North Fourth Avenue? The white-and-orange one with the great Deco railings and oddball terraces? Will they pause for a moment to admire that lovely, decrepit old red brick apartment building on Roosevelt, just east of Seventh Avenue, with its round windows and wrought-iron gating? I doubt it.

If anyone were asking me, I'd say "Go to Palatte for a post-Detour lunch," because it's one of my favorite downtown diners but also so they could see the D'Art Apartments next door (610 North Fourth Avenue), a building that looks like a big cake box whose top is melting down the front. I'd suggest that they stop in front of Phoenix Fire Station Number One (323 North Fourth Avenue), a hunk of our small-town past that's still in use today.

Right around the corner at Sixth Avenue and Van Buren, there's a couple of absolutely terrifying motels that Art Detour visitors would probably run screaming from, but which I often take my own detour past, just so I can stare at them in horror and delight. The City Center Motel (600 West Van Buren) is my favorite — a '50s fright that was once elegant with its peaked patio, super-slopey roof, and glamorous indoor pool. I'm melancholy for all these sleazy old motels, because they're a testament to a time when downtown wasn't just a place one nervously visited once a year, but an actual destination.

I'll be sure to hit the Art Detour events at First Studio (631 North First Avenue), the former home of KPHO, Phoenix's first TV station. I love its Industrial faux façade and its link to our past; I squint when I drive by and try to picture Bill Thompson and Ladmo, Marge Condon and Pat McMahon — all former Channel 5 personalities — nipping in that narrow glass doorway on their way to television stardom.

Next door, there's the Westward Ho (618 North Central), which does not, contrary to rumor, appear in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. (The Ho does have a cameo in Gus Van Sant's remake, however.) That unsightly antenna bursting from the top of this gorgeous Spanish Mission skyscraper was originally used by Channel 5 until about 1960; I guess someone else is using it now. The Westward Ho is an old-folks' home, and it's recently begun giving tours. My secret wish is that suburbanites who are downtown this weekend to eyeball art will stop in to admire the Ho's stained glass windows and Spanish-tiled drinking fountain.

There's a security guard at the Ho, so they could even park on the street. But they probably won't.

 
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