Snapshots of a City, and New-Found Love for a Hometown
I've never been much for book clubs or New Year's resolutions.
Invite me to your book club meeting and tell me we're reading Ann Patchett's latest novel, and even if I've had that book sitting on my nightstand for months — even if I'm already halfway through it — suddenly I won't be able to pick the thing up. Similarly, after 45 years, I know myself all too well: If I promise myself on January 1 that I'll do the dishes every night before I go to bed, by the end of the first week of the year, you won't be able to get anywhere near my kitchen sink without risk of an avalanche.
I'm just not good at following directions, even my own. Particularly my own. And so most years, I don't even bother to make a New Year's resolution, let alone keep it.
But 2011 was different. That year marked the 20th anniversary of my return to Phoenix, a place where I was born and raised, a place I fled as soon as I was able. A place I returned to for two weeks in 1991 and — well, you can guess the rest.
A place I never much liked.
I like to tell people I have made my peace with Phoenix. I wrote a cover story about it for New Times ("Phoenix Has an Inferiority Complex," May 12, 2005). I've edited the paper's "Best of Phoenix" supplement for years, and in almost two decades at the paper have written dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of "Best of" entries and, yes, I can tell you where to get the best steak or the best martini in Phoenix, but the truth is that after all these years, I still had a grudge against my hometown.
Enough, I thought, as 2011 approached. I'm not going anywhere. I'm tired of this. Why, I wondered, is it that when I go to cities like Manhattan or Portland or even Tucson I step off the plane or get out of the car and immediately begin romanticizing the place? Why do I get all weak-kneed over Hotel Congress in Tucson or the Bagdad Theater in Portland when the Orpheum in downtown Phoenix is just as dreamy? I've asked myself dozens of times and I just can't figure out why a farmers market in a mall parking lot in Denver is urban and funky when the same thing in Phoenix feels weak.
But what, I wondered, if I was forced to face that question every single day? What if I had to come up with something — big or small or even really insignificant — that I loved about Phoenix every day. In fact, the less significant the better, because for me it's the little things — a cross-stitch in the elevator of the Portland Ace Hotel that says "If You'd Taken the Stairs You'd Already Be There"; the way cement always seems to sparkle in the San Francisco sunlight — that make a city larger than life.
So nothing big. A daily affirmation of sorts.
Yuck. I've never been one for daily affirmations. I don't stop to smell the roses, I don't tiptoe through the tulips. The only time I ever stop to watch the sunset is once a year, during our annual family trip to the beach.
But I didn't have any better ideas, so thus, the I Heart Phoenix Project was born. These days it's (way too) easy to start your own blog, so I did. I got on WordPress, chose a template, typed in theiheartphoenixproject and wrote an "about" section that concluded:
My husband and I are raising two daughters . . . and I'd rather share the love than the hate with them, even though I do believe a healthy dose of cynicism is hardly a bad thing.
This town could use a little TLC, and that's what I intend to give it for the next year. Maybe not every day. I don't want to set expectations too high.
But I do promise to cast no aspersions — not here, anyway.
My first post was easy, a poster of a bear with a bloody heart designed by local artist Sebastien Millon, his own off-kilter tribute to the city. I didn't admit that I actually was in Los Angeles on January 1 — not the most auspicious beginning to a blog devoted to loving Phoenix.
I figured I'd write most of my posts, but around that time I discovered the Hipstamatic app on the iPhone and suddenly it was more fun — and a lot quicker — to snap a photo and write a headline. For months I kept it up, documenting my path across town (which I quickly realized was far too beaten) and forcing myself to find something every day that I love about Phoenix: the hand-drawn signs at Cartel Coffee Lab in Tempe; the kissing citrus mural at La Grande Orange; a fire pit at the Arizona Biltmore where you can make s'mores; Grand Avenue artist Beatrice Moore's crazy inedible wedding cakes.
The task was simple; it took no more than a few minutes a day (and some planning) but quickly became an annoying chore. I went on a walk around my neighborhood and shot several things (a mosaic water tower, a tin bird in a tree, a nearby railroad crossing) so I'd have a backlog, just in case. I included many more posts about "nature" than I'd anticipated — prickly pear cactus blooming; pansies in January; my secret love of irrigation. Even some pretty clouds on one particularly desperate day.
By May, I was exhausted. A rhinestone pin spelling out PHOENIX that I found on Etsy buoyed my spirits a bit, but sitting in the parking lot of the Celebrity Theatre, trying to grab a super-quick shot of a round entertainment venue (try that with your iPhone) and still get to work on time, I questioned the worth of this whole thing.
Would anyone notice if I quit? If the goal was to learn to love Phoenix, it certainly wasn't working. In fact, this whole experiment was beginning to make me loathe the place in ways I'd never thought possible.
But I'd made it five months. I could do it. June was tough. It was hot. But I hadn't yet mentioned the sand art from the original Biltmore Fashion Park or the sprinkles section at ABC Baking. When I snapped a photo of "The Bingo Hall Where I Once Took Ballet Lessons" out my car window (I think the car was actually moving at the time), I knew I'd hit a low. The truth is, I was almost done. I'd taken just a few days off here and there all year, trying to schedule posts ahead when I was going to be out of town. But we were headed to San Diego for an entire week in early July, and as we were packing to leave, I realized I hadn't planned any posts, didn't have any pictures in reserve.
July's 8 post didn't have a photo, just "You know what I heart about Phoenix? . . . Our proximity to Southern California's beaches."
What a cliché, quitting at the most miserable time of the year. I didn't intend to quit when I wrote that post. I figured that, at worst, I'd take the entire week off and come back refreshed, ready to finish out the second half of the year. But it was so deliciously freeing to not have to think about that goddamn blog that when I got home, I just sort of kept not thinking about it.
I gave up. Hey, I made it more than half a year. I'd never come close to keeping a resolution that long. Plus, I figured, why keep going if it wasn't working? And it definitely wasn't working.
A couple of weeks passed and, to be honest, I didn't think much about the I Heart Phoenix Project, except for an occasional sense of relief. And then a funny thing happened. I was driving down McDowell Road and I noticed the U-Haul building near 24th Street and I thought about how the orange zigzag design on the side of the building looks just like rickrack and how much I love rickrack, and I reached for my phone to take a picture. Then I remembered: I wasn't doing the blog anymore. Don't get me wrong, I didn't care enough to actually start the thing up again. But I startled myself.
"Wow," I thought. "Without even trying, I found something I really love about Phoenix."
And it was in that organic way that an old sign on the side of a building in Brooklyn can make you stop and stare, or how the street lights in Little Italy look like folk art. Okay, maybe it wasn't quite like that, but it was a start. And it kept happening. Every few days, sometimes more often, I'd notice something that belonged in the I Heart Phoenix Project: the fried green tomatoes at FnB; a Colin Chillag painting on the wall at Lux; Dale Chihuly's green glass agave at the entrance to the Desert Botanical Garden; Roosevelt Row's field of sunflowers in downtown Phoenix.
I had failed, but in a small way I had succeeded, too.
The new year is now well under way; I didn't make any resolutions for 2012. But last year's still lingers. The other morning, as I rushed to get my daughter to school and get to the office to write this piece, she shivered in her thin Old Navy fleece, complaining about the cold.
"Don't be silly!" I said. "Think of all the people digging out of the snow in places like New York and Boston at this time of year. We're really lucky to live here!"
I got behind the wheel and thought, "Did I just say that?"
As we pulled out of the driveway and headed down the street, the sun was beginning to rise, and I noticed the sky — streaked in shades of blue and orange Crayola hasn't yet named. Even though we were late, I couldn't help myself. I had to stop to take a picture.
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