The Cool Index: Ten Years Later, Phoenix Is Still Hot. But Is It Finally Cool?

The Cool Index: Ten Years Later, Phoenix Is Still Hot. But Is It Finally Cool?

The other day, I spoke on the phone with a woman named Taz Loomans. She stepped out of a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon, into lightly falling rain to take my call, which sounded pretty romantic considering that I was hunched in my car in the parking lot at Scottsdale Fashion Square at the time, air-conditioning blasting against the early November heat.

Loomans, 37, moved to Phoenix with her family from Mozambique when she was 14. She earned degrees at Arizona State University, becoming a licensed architect and then a disillusioned licensed architect, quitting a corporate gig in 2009 to buy and rehab a couple of foreclosed duplexes in Central Phoenix. She started her own firm called Blooming Rock and became a one-woman cheering squad — on her blog and in several other online forums —for historic preservation, adaptive reuse, and other buzzwords for making Phoenix a better city.

Then she left. A few months ago, as she tells it, Loomans was going through a divorce when she took a four-day vacation to Portland. On the third day, she decided to move there. Her decision was big news in certain circles: New Times wrote about it, and KJZZ, the local NPR affiliate, did a series of essays based on it. Social media buzzed for weeks.

(from left) Kimber Lanning,  Wayne Rainey, Greg Esser, Beatrice Moore, Johnny Chu, Cindy Dach, Chris Bianco, Silvana Salcido Esparza, Craig DeMarco, Sloane McFarland
Andrew Pielage
(from left) Kimber Lanning, Wayne Rainey, Greg Esser, Beatrice Moore, Johnny Chu, Cindy Dach, Chris Bianco, Silvana Salcido Esparza, Craig DeMarco, Sloane McFarland
Cover of New Times issue from December 4, 2003
Cover of New Times issue from December 4, 2003

The Cool Index: Is Phoenix Finally Cool? (Complete Slideshow)

"I actually had no intention of moving away," Loomans says. But Portland was just so great. "It's about 30 years ahead of Phoenix . . . The conversations are at a much more evolved level."

People in Phoenix are such boosters, Loomans says. It drives her nuts. "When I left Phoenix, I was very up front about the things I was disappointed in," she says. "I felt a lot of anger, and I sort of felt a disillusionment with my advocacy work."

Oddly, given her disdain for the place, Loomans still is knee-deep in Phoenix. "I love living in Central Phoenix and taking part in the coming of age of this city," it says on the home page of her blog, which she updates regularly. Two months ago, when word spread that Harkins Camelview 5 movie theater in Scottsdale was in danger, it was Loomans who started a "Save Camelview!" page on Facebook.

She tells me that Portland can make a bigger national impact than Phoenix when it comes to issues surrounding urban sustainability and that she will be a part of that conversation.

She's supporting herself these days as a freelance writer, working for online publications like answers.com and 1-800-RECYCLING.

Mostly, Loomans adds a little sheepishly, she writes about Phoenix.


This is not a story about the people who have left Phoenix. It's a story about the people who have stayed.

Ten years ago this fall, New Times devoted a lot of ink to the possibility of urban renewal in a series called "Exploding Downtown." The bottom line: After several false starts over the course of many decades, downtown Phoenix was deserted after dark, a cultural wasteland with pro baseball and basketball arenas and little else to draw a crowd — and it was hardly better during the day. At the time, a guy named Richard Florida wrote a book called The Rise of the Creative Class, in which he championed the notion of rehabbing crumbling cities (and, thus, economies) by making them places where "creatives" — up to a third of the population! — would want to live and work. It had been done in Pittsburgh, which pretty much meant it could be done anywhere, right?

But Phoenix? New Times flew in Florida to speak at the Orpheum Theatre; the city of Phoenix paid him tens of thousands of dollars to share his secrets (which boiled down to: Quit tearing down old buildings and put neat coffee shops in them instead) with city leaders.

After his talk at the Orpheum, a group of us had dinner with Florida at the only place any of us could think of to take him: My Florist Cafe. We sat in the middle of the dining room at a large table, surrounded by empty tables, no hustle and bustle like a real city would have. I remember feeling a little ashamed.

Richard Florida published a 10th-anniversary edition of his book, The Rise of the Creative Class Revisited, this year — and the only mention of Phoenix is a passing reference to solar energy. Some would argue that there's still not much to do at night downtown and that city leaders really bungled things by allowing CityScape — a gigantic office/retail complex with a lot of concrete, a lackluster selection of stores, and some bad planning — to take center stage. And My Florist is gone, the whole intersection now inhabited largely by cheap chain restaurants.

But hold on there. Something has happened in this city, and it's way more significant than getting our own Urban Outfitters or Habit Burger. The big picture has changed. One of Florida's admonitions when he spoke at the Orpheum was that people have to quit being embarrassed by Phoenix and, most important, they have to stop moving away. Ten years later, people still move away. Loomans is evidence of that, and she's not the only one.

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18 comments
exit2lef
exit2lef

"The conversations are at a much more evolved level." -- I'm wondering how this claim can possibly be made about one of the few major American cities not to fluoridate its water. Portland has some nice qualities, but it's hardly the pinnacle of enlightenment Taz makes it out to be. After reading the exaggerated claims of overzealous transplants to Portland, I've come to the conclusion that if South Park ever follows up its infamous "Smug Alert" episode, the sequel won't be set in San Francisco like the original. Instead, it will occur 635 miles to the north in Oregon.

BrekanArts
BrekanArts

This article fails to recognize Kim Moody and Dana Johnson of the Alwun House.  Or yours truly...   ;)

Pamela Stone Vozza
Pamela Stone Vozza

I'm such a freakin' central Phoenix / downtown cheerleader - my tween & I both! Hard to believe I was a hater in the 90s, but I wholeheartedly embrace it all now & drag my suburbanite friends downtown every chance I get!!!

wayne154
wayne154

I have lived downtown for 30 years.  The article seems to overlook the "people" who are not movers and shakers and are our neighbors. Ones that form bonds that don't necessarily require public social display. We may not be artists or innovators but workers and families. I will take a friendship and a beer, I have made in the drywall department at Home Depot because we are both working on a home improvement project to a custom coffee for $3.50 in a renovated storefront. That is the Phoenix I have known all these years and it is very very cool. Other cities that have had a reinvention of downtown have worked with developers (who have the knowhow and the money to create) instead of against them, driving them to other areas of the valley. McDowell one of the major arteries of the City gets a total facelift in Scottsdale, and it rots from 52nd to Grand.


Eric325
Eric325

I love Phoenix, for all its flaws, I do see character and personality...

hurricaneric
hurricaneric moderator

VIA e-mail feedback:

LETTER:

OK, I'm sorry, but somebody has to speak up about this. Take this as my contribution to the future development of Phoenix. Pretend I'm attending a Downtown Coalitions meeting. 

I've lived in Phoenix since 1991, I've lived in the valley since 1981. I moved to Tempe from Prescott,AZ to attend ASU. My wife has lived in Phoenix her whole life as have some of our best friends. There are many like us who are disconcerted and disconnected with the development of a city we once loved. 

This article begins with a meeting of a guy named Richard Florida who was invited and paid to recommend how Phoenix could become "cool". According to the article, he suggested "stop tearing down old buildings and open up coffee shops in them." At the end of the article, the author talks about how much Phoenix has grown 2003-2013 because NOW it has plenty of coffee shops in old buildings. 

Oh really?

Coolness does not reside in hifalutin, organic, locally grown gourmet coffee boutiques in old buildings. (I refuse to call them "coffee shops" because they are NOT where a blue collar truck driver might stop for a cheap cup of coffee to keep themselves awake, they are NOT open 24 hours, they do NOT offer doughnuts, and they do NOT provide free refills). 

To talk about Phoenix being "cool" , you have to talk in the past tense. Phoenix USED to be cool. Phoenix USED to have 24 hour coffee shops. The Sunnyside Cafe, Brookshire's and a downtown Waffle House come immediately to mind, but Phoenix had many more back in the 70's, 60's and 50's. 

But what REALLY made Phoenix "cool" is exactly what is missing today: charm, romance, mystery, affordability, nuance, atmosphere, authenticity, and character.

Phoenix in 2003 still had The Emerald Lounge, The Newsroom, The (original) Autumn Court, Chez Nous (in its original location since 1962), Newman's, King's Cocktails, The Jungle Cabaret, a jazz club in Park Central, The Matador - just to name a few of the places that were unique and provided Phoenix with some semblance of soul. Seedy perhaps, yes, but that's one of the elements, one of the ingredients, that makes a metropolis thrive.

And its not just long time bars and restaurants that Phoenix has diminished. How about malls?

Chris-Town, The Biltmore and Town and Country have all been revamped to look and feel as bland and generic as possible. All three have curtailed the foliage, amped up prices, rid themselves of relaxing park bench seating and provide NO atmosphere for romantic window shopping.

And, of course, the architecture that provided Phoenix with a genuine identity is gone. The Washburn Piano building, Phoenix Civic Center, Patriots Park, The Madison Hotel, palm trees on Central - all still existed in 2003.

Of course you can go further back in time and find an even MORE exciting and robust Phoenix when the Cine' Capri was still around, a small but thriving Chinatown existed in downtown Phoenix, The Green Gables welcomed you to dinner with a shining knight on horseback, and a Swiss restaurant existed where Seamus McCaffery's Irish pub is now.

My point is this, and its expressed by Taz Loomans at the beginning of this New Times article - "People in Phoenix are such boosters, it drives me nuts. I felt a lot of anger and disillusionment." This is one of the reasons she moves to Portland "where the conversation is 30 years beyond Phoenix."

But this ( New Times ) article is not about people who moved away but about people who have stayed (and are making a difference or so the author implies). Fine, just don't tell me Phoenix is now "Cool" because now I can pay over $2.50 for a cup of coffee to watch "important movers and shakers" glide by my uncomfortable seat. God, that makes me feel so privileged. To think, yesteryear I was a nobody reading the newspaper at The Sunnyside and now I'm Cool because I can buy coffee at the same place local artists do.


PERSONAL INFO:

Jim Minnick

Phoenix Arizona

Rob Morgan
Rob Morgan

I can only speak for myself but as a Scot I've loved every minute I've spent in the Valley. I wish I was there or thereabouts right now.

Leo León
Leo León

I think one of the biggest hurdles for the valley is how to connect the massive sprawl. I think once the light rail is extended into other towns and cities, it'll be much easier to commute to arts districts such as Roosevelt row, and spread culture

Jukes
Jukes

Few things make my blood boil faster than the words "Richard Florida."  Has any recent academic made a bigger reputation and collected more cash based on a single book that contains an observation so obvious others would have rejected it as an original idea?  Creative people gather in urban areas and the urban areas benefit from their output.  Wow!  What a concept.  That was happening in Europe and Asia long before Columbus landed at Guanahani.

No, it definitely wasn't "cool" to pay Florida "ten of thousands of dollars" (yikes!) to hear him reiterate the contents of a book I'm sure you all read before he got to My Florist.  So I guess Phoenix had nowhere to go but up.  And it has. 

Above all, I hope no one assumed Florida had anything to do with Pittsburgh's second renaissance. It's not as if the city followed some plan he created, although if anyone makes that assumption, he doesn't correct them.  I lived in Pittsburgh the entire time Florida was teaching at Carnegie-Mellon and while the city has, indeed, become hipper with its transition from a manufacturing- to a knowledge-based economy, Florida had nothing to do with it other than to make observations, many of which are bogus. 

Nothing that has happened in Pittsburgh since the last of the steel mills within city limits closed can't happen in Phoenix.  In fact, Phoenix is starting with a slate that is both literally and figuratively cleaner than Pittsburgh's was in the 1980s.  Pittsburgh's hipness is happening in pockets all over the city, not in one place, so the fact that Phoenix is spread out shouldn't be a deterrent.  This city already has better roads and a better public transit system than Pittsburgh does, so connecting communities is easier here.  

Pittsburgh's hipness is helped by a relatively liberal city government and citizens, from the wealthiest to the poorest, who embrace the arts.  When city resident Sharon Needles won RuPaul's Drag Race last year, she was brought to City Hall to be honored by the Council.  That seems emblematic to me.   Pittsburgh, as a city, reaches out and supports creative endeavors of all types. 

When I lived there, I wrote a series of poems about Andy Warhol that were choreographed into a modern dance and a dance company had no trouble getting funding to mount a serious production.  Even I am amazed by that.  What could be more elitist than poetry and modern dance?!  In a city where football and baseball flourish, no less.  Even when Pittsburghers don't want to buy esoteric works of art to install at their homes doesn't mean they won't support the creation and presentation of out-there ideas.  Have you seen the giant rubber duckie floating down the Allegheny River?  http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/giant-rubber-duckie-splash-pittsburgh-article-1.1470385

Pittsburgh also celebrates education.  And I don't mean the corporate kind.  Counting schools of nursing and seminaries, there are 39 non-profit colleges and universities in Pittsburgh.  But that doesn't necessarily mean Pittsburgh is over-run with young people.  The median age of Pittsburghers is 35.5.  The median age in Phoenix, supposedly overrun with retirees, is 32.2.  But what's important is:  college students who want to stay in Pittsburgh following graduation are encouraged and there are programs to help them buy homes and start businesses. Crotchety conservatives and angry elders don't say NO to every idea. 

I don't think a city can declare itself to be cool.  But if hipness is a goal, and to me it's a good one, it takes citizens like the people profiled in this article (seriously, thanks for your sweat and tears, folks).  It also takes open minds from the top down.  No one gets a rubber duckie from the Netherlands if the mayor's reaction is, "I don't see the point of that."  Say YES, Phoenicians.  Build it and the hipsters will come.


swkennedy
swkennedy

@hurricaneric So, I'm reading this article thinking, "YES YES YES", and thinking "I'm with you stranger!", and thinking "man, who is this???" and had already cut this quote "what REALLY made Phoenix "cool" is exactly what is missing today: charm, romance, mystery, affordability, nuance, atmosphere, authenticity, and character."....


and lo & behold....


Hey Jim!


You nailed it...


It was REAL before.  For better or worse, it was FUCKING REAL.


Oh!  the Sunnyside!  Katz's Deli!


Phoenix WAS cool....It had it's own character...and now, it's just the low-brow bastard child of Tempe & Scottsdale......It's just generic, color by number yupster bullshit....built by Scottsdale types who came down here to capitalize on the REAL cool, and thus KILLED it.  These people didn't recognize what real cool was....real cool comes from the bottom up....

1wayfaringpilgrim
1wayfaringpilgrim

@hurricaneric Well stated sir!  I'm a Phoenix native, born here in 1956.  Much of what made Phoenix cool, at least in my eyes, has been gone for a while.  But I suppose that cool these days means something entirely different to folks of a more recent vintage.

1wayfaringpilgrim
1wayfaringpilgrim

@Jukes I personally find "hipness" to be an unworthy goal and "hipsters" to be both nauseating and pretentious.

Jukes
Jukes

@1wayfaringpilgrim @Jukes Lucky for you there plenty of generic suburbs you can move to where you won't find any artists or innovators. 

1wayfaringpilgrim
1wayfaringpilgrim

@Jukes I know several authors, musicians, artists and innovators who have no need for "hipness" and do not call themselves hipsters.  Many of them actually live in suburban Phoenix.  Imagine that!

 

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