And yet, check out who's stayed.

When I realized it had been 10 years since "Exploding Downtown," I went back and re-read my contribution to the series, a story called "The Cool Index." That piece detailed what was happening in the culture and food scenes in Phoenix then — a time when lots (for us) of galleries and restaurants and creative pursuits were just beginning. The story featured the work of a dozen "super-connectors" — people who weren't just opening a cafe or sponsoring an art opening, they were working together on lots of projects at once, with each other.

I turned to the series of portraits of these people that had accompanied the story, holding my breath as I cataloged them one by one: Stayed. Stayed. Stayed.

(from left) Lanning,  Rainey, Esser, Moore, Tony Zahn, Chu, Dach,  Bianco, Wendy Gruber, Esparza, DeMarco, McFarland. (Zahn and Gruber still live in Phoenix but declined to be photographed.)
issues 2003 photos: jeff newton
(from left) Lanning, Rainey, Esser, Moore, Tony Zahn, Chu, Dach, Bianco, Wendy Gruber, Esparza, DeMarco, McFarland. (Zahn and Gruber still live in Phoenix but declined to be photographed.)
Beatrice Moore
Andrew Pielage
Beatrice Moore


All 12 are still here, and check out what they've been up to in the past decade:

Chris Bianco: In 2003 (the year "The Cool Index" was published), Bianco won the James Beard regional award for the Southwest (the first pizza chef ever to do so). At the time, he was running Pizzeria Bianco at Heritage Square and had just opened Pane Bianco, a sandwich shop on Central Avenue. Today, he owns those plus another Pizzeria Bianco at Town & Country Shopping Center, with plans for a third in Tucson; he has partnered with Jamie Oliver on restaurants in England but still calls Phoenix home and is back in the kitchen after finding a new medicine to treat asthma that until recently forced his hiatus from the pizza oven and flour. Today, his brother, mother, and father all are involved in the business, and he's co-authoring a cookbook.

Cindy Dach: Dach has gone from marketing director at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe to co-owner and general manager of what is one of the nation's most successful independent bookstores. Next spring, the store will open a much-anticipated second location in Central Phoenix. Since 2003, Dach also opened MADE art boutique, which sells mostly handcrafted, locally made goods, on Roosevelt Street — now known as Roosevelt Row, thanks to efforts by her and others, who created a nonprofit to support the fledgling arts district.

Greg Esser: Married to Dach, Esser also has been instrumental in the development of Roosevelt Row; he and Dach help coordinate frequent events including food truck festivals, a chile pepper festival, and this year's "Feast on the Street." Esser left Phoenix for Los Angeles for two years to run a public art program there (still returning constantly to work on Roosevelt Row projects) but returned full time in 2011 to take a job with ASU, where he heads the art museum's international artist residency program and another program called the Desert Initiative.

Kimber Lanning: Lanning still owns Stinkweeds (an independent record store) and curates shows at Modified Arts (an art gallery that once featured live music but no longer does), and she's particularly focused on Local First Arizona, which began with four members and has grown to 2,450 indie business members with 13 staffers and three offices — the largest local business coalition in North America. Local First Arizona has been influential in everything from making policy at the city level to starting Devoured, the city's highest-profile food festival.

Wayne Rainey: Out of the game for nearly five years after a battle with encephalitis, Rainey is back — he sold the live/work arts space Holgas (to artists Matt Moore and Carrie Marill) and just signed escrow on a new ownership deal on MonOrchid, his gallery/work/event space on Roosevelt Row. Rainey still works as a commercial/fine arts photographer; he's also involved with a coalition of Phoenix gallery owners to endorse good business practices and says he's getting ready to re-launch his arts publication, Shade.

Silvana Salcido Esparza and Wendy Gruber: Their romantic partnership ended years ago, but Esparza and Gruber still are in business together at Barrio Cafe in Central Phoenix. Esparza — a James Beard semifinalist more than once in recent years — opened Barrio Queen in Scottsdale and a Barrio Cafe outpost at the airport. Esparza also began a mural project, Calle 16, on the street where her original restaurant is located, to protest Arizona's controversial Senate Bill 1070 and immigration policies in general. And Esparza's just about ready to open a new bar next to Barrio Cafe.

Johnny Chu: He continues to open (and sometimes close) Asian-inspired restaurants. Roosevelt Row's Sens has come and gone; now Chu owns the splashy Sochu House in Central Phoenix and T.Spot, the new ramen shop and Asian tea house inside his Tien Wong Hot Pot in Chandler. He's also consulted on projects including The Mint, a Scottsdale nightclub.

Beatrice Moore and Tony Zahn: Moore and Zahn continue to live and work in the Grand Avenue arts district, where they own several buildings. Since 2003, they bought and opened Bragg's Pie Factory, which houses the Frontal Lobe Gallery, work/retail spaces, and a diner. Moore's opened a craft store, Kooky Krafts, which showcases her art, and she helped start the Grand Avenue Street Festival. She also was involved in an extensive street-scaping project on Grand and fights to keep zoning approval limited to two-story heights in the neighborhood.

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"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.


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

Amy Donohue
Amy Donohue

I love it here so much in CenPho and I've been here for 11 years. :)

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!!!


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.


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

hurricaneric moderator

VIA e-mail feedback:


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.


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


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?

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.


@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....


@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.


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


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


@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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