Rainey sits back, satisfied, so pleased that you can't help taking a little pride in Phoenix, just being in the same room with him.

Hey, it's a start. Maybe we're cool, maybe we're not. Maybe those of us who are left don't really care. A few years ago, Georganne Bryant from Frances printed bumper stickers and T-shirts that said, "Love Phoenix or Leave Phoenix" — a sentiment so popular that someone stole it and put it on their own shirts.

Johnny Chu continues to create delicious Asian fusion dishes.
Andrew Pielage
Johnny Chu continues to create delicious Asian fusion dishes.
A Chu creation
Heather Hoch
A Chu creation


If you want to see for yourself how Phoenix has changed in the past decade, pay a visit to Lux Central at 4402 North Central Avenue. It was easy to find places to schedule interviews for this story — Craig DeMarco and I met at Tammie Coe Cakes; Kimber Lanning wanted to go to Urban Beans; Wayne Rainey told me to grab a drink at Songbird, the coffeehouse in the front of MonOrchid, while he wrapped up a meeting. But, as it was in 2003, Lux — arguably (because there's always an argument about such things) — remains the hub of the coffee culture scene in Phoenix.

The coffeehouse barely resembles its former self; it's Lux on steroids. Opened in 2002 by Daniel Wayne and sold three years later to a guy named Jeff Fischer, Lux moved in the summer of 2011 to much larger (from about 1,600 square feet to about 3,600) digs next door and became Lux Central, such a big deal that the Arizona Republic devoted the cover of its lifestyle section to a story about the expansion.

Lux Central winds around several different rooms, including a full-service bar and kitchen, as well as the ubiquitous coffee. The beans aren't the best in town, but the people-watching is stellar, your fresh-baked raspberry corn muffin comes on a mismatched thrift-store plate and the hibiscus tea has a cult following. There's almost always a live DJ, local art rotates on the walls (lately, Randy Slack's colorful, thought-provoking paintings) and the centerpiece is a table packed with vintage typewriters, an ironic nod to the Apple products that crowd the rest of the tables and laps.

The slump-block complex with the hard-to-spot sign has changed a lot, but co-owner Sloane McFarland still offices there. He's 40 now and hasn't changed a bit, except for a bit of gray in his long-ish buzzcut. Over a cup of tea at Lux Central, McFarland takes the long view on the past 10 years.

In 2003, when "The Cool Index" was published, McFarland's first big show — a video installation that focused on themes he uncovered as he explored real estate and development — was up at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. He hasn't had a show since but says he's still been making art. He's now in the process of cataloging what he's made.

You can drive around town and see some of it. Along with the buildings that house Lux, Pane Bianco, and more, McFarland now owns the Valentine diner on Roosevelt Street that houses Michael Babcock and Jenn Robinson. The building had been vacant for 25 years before McFarland bought it. It's not a money-making proposition; McFarland admits they are now working on making the diner self-sustaining.

"It's really about the space," he says. He doesn't think of himself as a developer, but "materially, it's true."

A larger pursuit, and one that's harder to wrap your head around than the super-cute diner with the bubble lights, is Yourland. The plot of land on the southwest corner of Buckeye and 16th Street has been in the maternal side of McFarland's family for 100 years. For a long time, the building still standing on it housed Phoenix's original Smitty's grocery and department store. Part of that space has been revamped and now is home to the federal government, which leases it for immigration services — including citizenship swearing-in ceremonies. McFarland's work is on display in the lobby, in the form of a video he made of the Statue of Liberty.

An old Kentucky Fried Chicken on the site someday will house a project Babcock and Robinson of Welcome Diner are working on, he says, and a mini-mart that has committed to carrying up to 10 percent organic and natural foods is further along. The gas station next to it sells alternative fuels (including ethanol and diesel), with a number of electric recharging stations for both hybrid and all-electric vehicles. Around the back of the store, McFarland is in the process of creating a mural that reflects the historic nature of the area. Included in his design, executed by a 35-year veteran sign painter, are various name brands in their original fonts, with the year they were introduced to the market (like Doritos, 1967). He's got several semi-secret, art-related billboard projects in the works, as well.

None of it's been easy. It took five years to get the plans together for Lux Central, McFarland says. The economy crashed the same month he signed the lease on Yourland with the federal government. But now he sees things taking shape, and he's pleased. He's big on "the aesthetics of the tenant," he says, gesturing around Lux Central. And he sees a close connection to his videos, which always have been about transformation, growth, and using buildings as metaphors for the soul.

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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?  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.


@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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