Finding a Decent Park in Phoenix Is No Picnic

Water fails: A canal is a canal is a canal. But it's not a park.

I get strange things in the mail. This is probably because publicists are notoriously lazy and often insane, which might be why one of them recently sent me a DVD box set of the first season of Family Affair, a situation comedy that aired on NBC in the 1960s. The attached preprinted note suggested I might like to write about Family Affair for my newspaper column, but because I write about buildings and live theater, this didn't seem likely.

I remember liking this show when I was a kid, and it was nice to see Mr. French and Mrs. Beasley, two of the story's more important characters, again. But there was something I'd forgotten about Family Affair that drove me crazy when I was little: all the parks are clearly indoor sets, dressed with sheets of plastic grass and rubber trees and quaint cobblestone walkways. These pretend parks were perfect, which bothered me not only because they looked so fake, but also because I lived in Phoenix, where all the parks I knew were ugly dirt lots filled with great expanses of nothing.

This hasn't changed, although there are exceptions. Downtown's ancient Encanto Park is lovely and bursting with amenities, and the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park in Scottsdale is nice, especially if you have a nephew who's obsessed with trains, as I do. But most of the parks here are either sad and weary or they're not really parks at all.

Don't take my word for it. Go visit Barry Goldwater Memorial Park on the northeast corner of Lincoln and Tatum. This place is truly more of a traffic turnaround than a park. There's no grass, so picnicking is out of the question; there's nowhere to sit and only four parking spaces, and although the typical scrubby desert plants are all nicely labeled, the place is little more than a pavement-and-rock backdrop for the colossal statue of Mr. Conservative that dwarfs the place. Barry's posthumous gaze is fixed on a street sign reading "Right Lane Must Turn Right," a sign that appears to be pleasing him, if the rather prominent bulge in his trousers is any indication. Behind him, a faded directory of the wee park announces, "You are here!" with absolutely no irony whatsoever.

I'm mesmerized by the audacity of Salt River Project's Arizona Falls, an adjunct to the G.R. Herberger Park at Indian School Road and 56th Street. It calls itself a "hydroelectric plant and neighborhood gathering place," but the only other person I've ever seen there is a bored-looking security guard. I was bored, too, when I stopped there to watch water pour over cement blocks. I was also reminded of how nasty canal water smells. The only thing I like about this odiferous ode to H2O is its nerve. There's a metal bench perched on a lookout point, so that one can sit and watch dirty water being churned into a froth; there's a cement seating area where one might perch on a concrete bolster to watch traffic speed by; there's a walkway to the "north canal bank," which looks exactly like the unlabeled south canal bank: home to a smallish, man-made waterfall spilling spooge into a city waterway.

The park that shouts "Phoenix!" more loudly than the rest is Cross-Cut Canal Park on 48th Street between Indian School and McDowell. This isn't a park so much as a really exceptionally wide median with a drinking fountain stuck in the middle of it. It backs onto several older housing developments and so offers views of people's alleys and back fences, but it's only useful for cutting through ugly parts of this side of town. There's barely any shade; no benches or picnic tables or even anywhere to park, so you'd better be on foot (and not looking for any pleasure) if you visit this dump. Even the pigeons looked fed up when I drove through there the other day on my way to Target. (How fitting, though, that Cross-Cut Canal Park features, at its southernmost end, a cemetery.)

And then there's the Richard and Annette Block Cancer Survivors Park at First Street and McDowell, really little more than a well-ornamented driveway leading to the Burton Barr Public Library, which faces it. This narrow, block-long driving path is meant to honor those who've carried on after a horrible illness, but it doubles as a graveyard to the failed businesses that front it, most notably a long-dead cafe, an old house that was most recently a hair salon, and the stunning ghost of Radix, the lovely glass-and-stone art gallery that was shuttered in the early 1990s yet still proudly wears its name in brushed-steel lettering on its façade.

There are benches and the usual tangle of desert plant life here, as well as one very dead drinking fountain. The lack of grass and shade didn't seem to bother the half-dozen homeless people gathered there last Sunday for a rowdy hand of poker. This park has its own drug recovery office: Terros headquarters stand facing this cement-and-macadam street park, which offers a dozen or so lighted lecterns carved with aphorisms such as "Seek and accept support." I don't know about you, but I don't go to the park looking for advice; I want grass and trees and someplace where I can sit and have a sandwich. The Cancer Survivors Park offers none of these, although it does have something no other park around here has: a big, plywood obelisk with a little Plexiglas window in it. When one looks into the window, one sees absolutely nothing, which probably means that this obelisk is a commentary on Phoenix parks in general.

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