Culture News

Dear Phoenix: A Longtime Resident Apologizes to the City He Once Hated

Emily Costello

Dear Phoenix,

I am sorry.

Very, very sorry. So sorry, in fact, that I’m writing to apologize for having hated you for so long.

For more than half a century, I’ve rolled my eyes and groaned whenever your name was mentioned. I’ve talked nonstop about leaving you for someplace — any place! — that had real culture, some shade trees, maybe more than a half-week of autumn.

I’ve whined about your conservatism, and hollered in person and in print about how you throw wide your doors to welcome developers who come to knock down our few remaining old buildings. I’ve snorted at your low-rent arts districts. I’ve bitched endlessly about your fifth-circle-of-hell summers. I have sighed over your cowboy culture, sneered at your inadequate city planning, hissed at your lack of forward-thinking policies and your utter disregard for cultural diversity.

Sure, plenty of people have hated on you over the last 103 years. But I’ve collected paychecks for about a third of your lifetime in return for carping about your parched vistas, your lack of sophistication, your crummy politics.

And I’ve told everyone who’ll listen that I can’t wait to get the hell out of this failed attempt at a big city.

I take it all back. Every last word of it. And, if you’ll have me, I promise to stay.

Because just lately, I’ve noticed a real change in you. It’s as if you’ve stopped trying to be world-class, and really begun to succeed. I guess I’m the worst kind of opportunist, because I want to stick around and enjoy some of your success.

I mean, if you’ll have me. Because no one would blame you for banishing me to Tucson or even Tuba City in return for my 54 years of eye-rolling and ridicule. But listen. Don’t forget that I was brought here against my will, all the way from Ohio when I was barely old enough to walk. No one asked me if I felt like leaving or where I might want to end up; can you blame me for being bitter?

Keep in mind everything we’ve been through together. Remember the ’60s? I lived right at the edge of you then — 43rd Avenue and Dunlap! — and never once complained about the crop dusters or the lack of shopping malls or, you know, Sunnyslope.

(Did I ever thank you for Metrocenter? Talk about a game-changer for an entire community. No more schlepping seven miles to Christown to see a movie or eat a corn dog or play air hockey while your mom shopped for mood rings at Goldwater’s. We west-siders finally had a destination. Not to mention an ice skating rink and a bar shaped like a jet airliner.)

But really, even with a super shopping mall, you weren’t the best place for a cranky gay kid to grow up in the ’60s and ’70s. I didn’t blame you for all the conservative assholes who wouldn’t let me play with their kids because I preferred hopscotch over softball, and I never once thought it was your fault that the public school system here was so shitty. (Some things never change.) And if your late ’60s urban renewal plan transformed downtown into a morgue for more than 40 years, didn’t the same thing happen in a lot of your sister cities? Let’s blame Harry Truman and the Housing Act of 1949.

You know, people still love to talk about how awful downtown was for so long. But I’m here to tell you that looking back, I have to admit that it was anything but awful for young, disaffected people who wanted a place to go to be, well, young and disaffected in the 1980s. Back then, we had a whole abandoned playground full of cool old houses to rent. The punk scene was flourishing, and you offered up bombed-out storefronts and abandoned warehouses where we could pogo until we puked to the cacophony of Killer Pussy, Meat Puppets, and Jodie Foster’s Army. Local music was never more exciting.

Likewise the emerging gallery scene, thanks to people like Jeff Falk and the three Petes (Fischer, Petrisko, and Ragan), who brought us performance art at Gallery X and a clannish hangout called Metropophobobia.

Your downtown was a great place to be young and angry and broke. It also proved to be a good place to launch a career in journalism. I stopped going to college, quit my job managing Circles Records, and started my own newspaper, a gay-lesbian political arts rag that I ran for a decade while I learned how to write. Chicago wouldn’t have let me do that. Cleveland would have laughed in my face. Manhattan wouldn’t have noticed. But you! You offered a gritty launching pad that led a bunch of us to adulthood and what we (sometimes laughingly) call our careers.

And even though your downtown is all shiny and new and popular again, it still has that urban core thing going on. Roosevelt Row boutiques continue to thrive in spite of all this new gentrification, and Charlie Levy’s commitment to building bars and music venues that emphasize culture over cocktails is something we haven’t seen before. Things are happening in midtown, too, where retail and restaurants are a nice mix of chain stuff and locals like The Newton, home to a second location of Changing Hands Bookstore, and Frances, that rarest of things: a small, funky, curated boutique in the Camelback corridor that’s not getting gobbled up by nearby national retailers. It’s like we got Jutenhoops back or something.

Frances is owned by Georganne Bryant, whose daughter Aidy is a real honest-to-gosh star —when’s the last time we had one of those? She’s a regular on Saturday Night Live. And, hey, check this out — her former Xavier classmate, Emma Stone, just won an Oscar! But you know all this already. You’re Phoenix.

Not to be nitpicky, but I’m not talking about loving all of Arizona. No offense, but I’ve fallen in love, however belatedly, with you, Phoenix. Tempe? Nuh-uh. Mesa? Not so much. I had a brief flirtation with Gilbert, but after a couple of dates decided it’s more like a really clean amusement park than an actual town.

I’m not going to pretend to be the first to notice how cool you’re becoming. Look at all the folks who’ve given up on California, New York, and the Midwest and settled here. Not to mention the Mexicans who keep showing up, despite all the nasty roadblocks we’ve thrown in their path.

More good news: All these people have brought their cuisine with them. I can remember a time when a local chain meant Pancho’s Mexican Buffet or those little stand-alone hamburger shacks all up and down Central.
Sure, there was Durant’s and The Stockyards, but before they became hipster cool, your august eateries were just old restaurants. Local casual dining usually meant Bill Johnson’s or Rustler’s Rooste or some other place with peanut shells on the floor. So cowboy town!

But you’re really on the foodie map now, bursting at the culinary seams with locally owned, just-opened restaurants and diners and taco wagons. One can barely swing a truffle-stuffed partridge breast without smacking into a brand-new, Phoenix-based lunch-and-dinner joint. You got the Christopher Grosses and the Chrysa Robertsons and the Mark Tarbells to stick around, and they begat the Josh Heberts and the Kevin Binkleys and the Charleen Badmans. And did you catch Chris Bianco on Jimmy Kimmel Live? A local chef on national TV! You’ve really upped your gastronomic game, Phoenix.

Getting around town has never been easier, thanks to your groovy new light rail system. I feel downright Big City, standing there gripping a metal pole on an actual train that’s taking me to Target. Speaking of improved travel times, kudos to you on your ever-improving freeways. I’ve been here so long, I can remember when all you offered was three lanes, going or coming, on seedy old Interstate 17. According to TomTom, the company that makes all those lifesaving GPS products, your I-10 stack and that aptly-named Loop 101 are giving you one of the shortest rush-hour travel times of any big city in the country. And while I’m at it, here’s a very belated thank you for setting up your streets in such a tidy grid, so that geographically challenged people like me can get around more easily. That is why you did that, right?

Here’s another thing I need to come clean about: I used to think you were hot all the time because you were mean and stupid. But now I see that it’s just your subtropical sense of humor. One hundred and five degrees at 2 in the morning? You jokester, you. I’m doing my best to laugh with you, I swear. Your invention of the “haboob” certainly helps — such a fun word to say.

Seriously, it’s hot here. And after running out of ways to complain about it, I’ve finally decided to shut up about six-month-long summers and do something about it: I stopped going outside during the day. I take my nightly walk at midnight. It’s still in the 90s, but boy, is it a dry heat! I found a 24-hour grocery store (you have 24-hour grocery stores — another thing to love you for!) where I can shop before the sun comes up. October always comes, if I wait long enough.

Since I’ve hated nothing more about you than your one-note weather, it’s ironic that climate is the very reason I started to notice all the things there are to like about you. After shoveling my rental car out of a snowbank one recent February in Ohio — my uncle died, and I was there as a pallbearer — and then nearly falling down ice-encrusted cement church steps while carrying a 400-pound coffin, I started thinking about how dry and smooth the roads are here in the desert while we’re enduring our worst weather. What’s that old saw about “not having to shovel sunshine”?

Your temperate winters have long provided a nice place for the homeless, I see now. No one’s going to freeze to death sleeping under an overpass around here, thanks to your perpetually autumnal “cold months.” People like to wag fingers at you every summer for all the heat-related deaths — there were 130 of them last year alone. But did you tell those people to hike Ruth Hamilton Trail without adequate sunscreen and an Aquafina? You most certainly did not.

Surviving in a convection oven has taught me to be grateful for what I have. But the truth is, living here has always been easy. You’ve never asked us to reset our clocks in observance of daylight savings time, as if we’re a bunch of 19th-century wheat farmers. The cost of living keeps arcing downward, at least compared to other big cities.

I’m even willing to admit that the desert is kind of pretty. Especially after it’s been Photoshopped, and definitely as seen from inside a moving vehicle with the AC blowing like crazy. Really, for people who like seven shades of pale green and everything sand-colored, the scenery here is beautiful. So are your sunsets, which seem to just keep getting better, thanks to the pollution. That’s okay, our Instagram feeds have never looked so good.

I’ll make you a deal, Phoenix. I’ll forgive you for the Mercado if you’ll forgive me for not seeing how a bunch of ugly Salt River Project drainage ditches could be turned into landscaped, multi-use bike and pedestrian trails. Your Grand Canalscape project is a real winner. A multimillion-dollar path connecting Glendale and Tempe and featuring public art by local artists? I bow to your civic insight.

While I’m going on about the local landscape, who but you could make beige so trendy for so long, and then turn around and replace it with a rainbow of newly repainted, primary-colored apartment buildings? Nice move. The only thing more popular than the word “repurposing” around here these days is actually fixing up an existing building instead of tearing it down. Score!

Speaking of land, I notice you’re in another building frenzy. Talk about recovering from the real estate market crash of 2007! Plus some of the new developers you’ve invited over have discovered shade as an amenity, so that’s nice. I’m sure you know what you’re doing, dropping new apartment buildings onto every available downtown surface. It’s easy to get excited and overdo a good thing, isn’t it? Let’s just hope that right this minute there are 60,000 people on their way to visit you, and that once they get here they’ll decide to stay. Time will tell.

And, okay, so when it comes to politics and politicians, you’ve still got a ways to go. But replacing Sheriff Joe with a hot Italian guy was a good idea. And arts-and-culture-loving Mayor Greg Stanton is certainly a nice touch. Thanks!

I like how you didn’t let a little old higher-education budget cut of $99 million get you down. Why, just look at ASU, growing like Topsy, gobbling up buildings all over downtown Phoenix and beyond, then restoring and using them instead of ripping them down — like the historic A.E. England building, now an ASU meeting and exhibition center. Or that formerly rusty old hanger in your once-scary warehouse district that’s been transformed into Grant Street Studios and is now home to the School of Art’s grad student studios and a pair of art galleries.

Indeed, ASU itself has come a long way from being a party-school punchline to jokes about our state college. President Michael Crow says he’s making it into a “New American University,” which seems to mean establishing more than a dozen new schools, amping up the focus on sustainability studies, and expanding the campus in all directions so that it eventually takes over the Valley. Whatever. When you’ve got world-famous dance legend Liz Lerman joining your faculty because she wants to, something good’s going on.

And check out your honest-to-gosh historic preservation community, made up of angry activists who care about your architectural history, who rally around Frank Lloyd Wright structures, celebrate Ralph Haver’s contributions to the suburban landscape, and stop just short of chaining themselves to significant buildings slated for demolition. Keep it up and you’ll have some real history on your hands, Valley of the Sun.

Everyone’s going to have to stop saying you have no culture, Phoenix. I’ve watched locals rally around dying theater companies, writing checks and campaigning to keep the playhouse doors open. We’re getting more recent Broadway winners more often, and those crazy little avant-garde theaters that used to shrivel up and die just after getting started are now thriving. Nearly Naked Theatre just wrapped up its 17th season; little-black-box-that-could iTheatre Collaborative is now a resident company at the Herberger Theatre Center; and don’t get me started on Stray Cat Theatre — please!

I’ve attended meetings of concerned artists, gallery owners, and curators who want to improve and expand on the visual arts scene here. I’ve listened while officers from state arts committees promise they’re working on a new facility that will enhance the profile of our Latino artists.

Portland can keep its weird. Austin, too! And, okay, Seattle has a genuine arts district, but you gave us two of them — and for nearly a decade, besides. So what if Roosevelt Row is blowing away like a tumbleweed? We still have Grand Avenue (at least until Beatrice Moore gives up and moves back to Texas). And the slow, steady migration of contemporary gallerists to Scottsdale (hello, Geoffrey Gersten and Nicole Royse!) is nothing but good news for art collectors.

Your ballet company (run by world-renowned dancer and choreographer Ib Andersen) and your symphony are flourishing, and what’s this I hear about you hosting a second, city-named opera company? I know you’ll keep coming up with cultural stuff. Why, just look at how your spoken-word community has taken off!

Before I forget, thank you for handling yourself with such dignity when SB 1070 passed in 2010. Welcoming back every metal band and comic book conventioneer who boycotted you — hell, the whole state! — was really considerate. Smart, too — talk about knowing your bread and butter. And you certainly learned your lesson. When local government tried to pass that nasty anti-gay SB 1062, you sent Governor Jan Brewer to make sure the Super Bowl didn’t make good on its promise to unfriend you. Again, bravo.

Let’s face it. At long last, you’re becoming one of the cool kids, Phoenix. Your name always turns up these days on those national “best places” lists, thanks to your safe drivers, your giant pile of entry-level jobs, and your oven-fired pizzas. Sure, you had Jodi Arias. But, hey, your driver’s licenses don’t expire until we’re 65. And, okay, so you have roof rats. But when’s the last time a 2-year-old was eaten by an alligator (hello, Florida)? And if you have your share of racist lunatics, what big city doesn’t these days? At least your racists aren’t buying up all of Costco’s tiki torches and running down a paralegal with a rented Dodge, now are they?

I don’t know what you did (can a city take a self-improvement course?), but keep up the good work, Phoenix. It’s obvious you’re really trying to change and improve. You’re succeeding, and I, for the first time ever, want to be here to watch you rise from the ashes, one more time. I want to stay and be a part of it. I want to watch you grow, and continue to mature, and to make amends for all the pissy things I’ve said about you since 1963.

In the meantime, I hope you can forgive me for refusing to believe in you all these years, and for being such a blowhard and a bully for more than half a century.

Sincerely, your proud citizen,
Robrt L. Pela

Phoenix New Times and First Draft Book Bar will present New Times Live! — a chance to interact with the characters, subjects, and authors of the alternative newsweekly's cover storiesat 7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 18, at First Draft, 300 West Camelback Road.

First up: Longtime Valley resident and
New Times contributor Robrt Pela has penned an apology to Phoenix, the city he once hated. Join Pela, "Crafty Chica" Kathy Cano-Murillo, local music promotor Charlie Levy, and others as they explore what's changed about this place — and why people still love to hate it. First Draft will offer happy hour specials all night.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela