Walking Downtown Phoenix's Streets Is Like Walking With Dead People

Rebecca Fish Ewan performs at Bar Flies: Take a Walk on Wednesday, September 30, at Crescent Ballroom. Find tickets ($10) and details on Facebook.

I walk with dead people. Not in a Rick Grimes zombie apocalypse way. More like Cole Sear, who said to his therapist in The Sixth Sense: “I see dead people…walking around like regular people.” This was palpable while preparing for the upcoming Bar Flies: Take a Walk reading. As I enjoyed a summer afternoon stroll from the Valley Bar to the Crescent Ballroom, it dawned on me that I dwell in the past so much that when I walk down a street, I can picture it as it once was. If I linger in a place long enough the sidewalks become populated with people. Even in Phoenix.

Study the urban landscape and you’ll start to see the bones from centuries past poking up through the concrete. The city’s skeleton endures in the grid iron streets, at the Adams Hotel, the YMCA or the vulcanizing shop. Wait, what? The vulcanizing shop? That closed years ago! Vulcanizing. What’s that about? I grew up watching Star Trek, so I thought to Vulcan meant applying emotionless logic to Star Fleet’s intergalactic battles with Klingons. Vulcanizing is actually the process of making rubber hard. So perhaps a vulcanizing shop was last century’s polite euphemism for dildo factory.

It’s a reasonable guess, since dildos made serious headway in the late 19th century. For instance, the first steam-powered vibrator was invented by Dr. George Taylor in 1869 to relieve his fingers made weary from bringing his hysterical female patients to orgasm. No matter the theory Victorian physicians ascribed to — ancient Greek lore claiming the uterus is a beast inside all women that causes hysteria when it gets restless and roams about the body, or perhaps Galen of Pergamum’s notion that hysteria results from retention of uterine sperm — they all agreed hysteria could be calmed through orgasm. I’ve tried to explain this medical provenance to my husband, but he’s not a history buff like me. As it turns out, vulcanizing extends beyond the niche market of medicinal prosthetics, to give us bowling balls, smoking pipes, fountain pens, and saxophone mouthpieces. All of which have no doubt also relieved hysteria, so I’m sad the vulcanizing industry left the downtown.

If you study history, or just live in a place for a really long time, walking along its streets can become like Einstein’s relativity wormhole thing that Kafka keyed into when he wrote: “We walk through the wide streets of the newly built city. Yet our steps and glances are unsure. Inwardly we still tremble as we did in the old narrow streets of misery.”

You can always count on Kafka to lift up a gloomy mood. Later in the same passage, he offers helpful advice: “Awake, we are wandering through a dream, we ourselves just specters of times past.” I love when Kafka samples Proust. Imagine if he were alive today and into hip-hop. That’d be dope.

Kafka suggests that time travel while walking down the street is possible, in fact inescapable—even in downtown Phoenix, a place I called an erasure landscape when I arrived in 1991. When I moved to Phoenix from the Bay Area, I phoned the city planning office to find out if they had any ordinances for live/work lofts. I was fresh out of grad school in landscape architecture and thought I might get in on the ground floor of being a hipster.

The nice lady on the phone replied, “What’s that?”

So I moved to Tempe.

That was the '90s. Let’s travel back further. To investigate the landscape of 1915, I poured over Sanborn maps, fire insurance records that document structures in American cities. They’re fascinatingly informative, especially for people who yearn to know which roofs are trussed and which are bow-strung. Or how utilities are supplied. Lights: electric. Heat: stoves. It’s like haiku for Actuaries.

The maps reveal that not much has changed. For instance, in 1915 the Crescent Ballroom was a vacant lot looking onto dusty 2nd avenue. If time could pretzel, a Ballroom patron could enjoy a beer under the mist in the outdoor seating and then saunter across the street to buy a buggy. Or toss a fishing line into the canal that ran cattywampus along Van Buren. Walking to the Crescent from Monroe and Central, I passed a cobbler, tailor, and even a livery. My first guesses on unfamiliar words aren’t always spot on. A livery isn’t a butcher shop selling only liver. Livery is short for livery stables, another term for horses for hire. My summer binge-watch of Downton Abbey also taught me that livery is what footmen wear. Five seasons of life with the Crawleys did little, however, to clarify why footmen are called footmen, since they open doors and serve food with their hands.

I’m a wanderer and suck at following orders, so when I took the assigned walk prepared for the Bar Flies event by Angela Ellsworth, curator of The Museum of Walking at ASU, I meandered a bit on my way from the Valley Bar to the Crescent Ballroom. Who could resist First Street between Monroe and Adams? The lure of its moving picture houses alone — three on one block! — is worth the detour. But throw in a bakery, candy-making factory, and a shooting gallery, and it beats the Santa Monica Pier any day, except the day they shot the final scene of Falling Down.

What new releases might play at a moving picture house in 1915? If you’re patient, patriotic, and perhaps a tad racist, you could take in The Birth of a Nation, 165 minutes of American Civil War history with white men in black face and the KKK portrayed as heroic. Maybe catch it as a double-feature with The Picture of Dorian Gray, the adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel about a man who loves himself, or a man who loves a picture of a man who loves himself. It’s Oscar Wilde, so lots of man-man love going on. I’d like to see Alice Guy’s gender-bending futuristic film, In the Year 2000, when males and females reverse roles, but it came out in 1912 and probably never made it to Phoenix, despite Arizona being in the vanguard of first-wave feminism. Alice Guy’s Solax company is still among the few woman-owned movie studios and hers was in the epicenter of the nascent American film industry: New Jersey. For a sweet mid-summer marathon, nothing could surpass The Broken Coin. Buy a tub of popcorn and prepare to dig in for seven and a half hours of movie-going splendor. Forty-four reels of story with a cornucopia of characters: a henchman, pawn broker, prime minister, editor-in-chief, confidante, a count, the King of Grahaffen, and Gorgas the Outlaw. It’s a mystery, but sadly we’ll never know how it ends, since the film is “presumed lost.” Maybe Hollywood will do a sequel: The Broken Coin 2: Rogue Gorgas. Tom Cruise could play the King of Grahaffen as a short scientologist with lots of ex-wives.

When I finally stroll up Central, I imagine the long awnings that shaded the wide sidewalks back then. I pretend to be in a bustle of other walkers, women thickly draped in layer upon layer of natural fabrics, waists cinched tight, topped with flouncy hats like ice cream sundaes. Men in trousers and bowlers, looking comfortable. I can hear “Syncopated Walk” oozing from the open windows of the old Arizona School of Music near Taylor Place and feel the urge to Fox Trot. The artist formally known as Charles Adams Prince, who released this single in 1915, was so progressive in his treatment of bandstand standards, it’s no wonder the music students are tackling this popular tune.

While a nostalgic romp through an old dead landscape can be more fun than facing present realities, this isn’t why I love landscape history. Places, like people, become more textured and complex over time. In a culture obsessed with youth and perfection, the rough and aging often get overlooked, or worse, destroyed to make way for fresh young things. Shortly after having my first child, my boss told me that “society has a place for post-menopausal women.” My daughter is now 18, so I’ve had some time to ponder the subtext of his comment. I think he meant it to encourage me to fast-track the whole mom thing and return to being a productive scholar. He was giving me permission to use my brain and not my womb, since we all know using both simultaneously is impossible. But underneath this friendly nudge lay the cultural bias against anything aging and presumed passed its productive years. He fancied himself progressive to acknowledge that non-reproductive women could be useful to society. Imagine my relief now that my menstrual ship has sailed to know my nation won’t go all Logan’s Run on my ass.

What does my retired womb have to do with walking in downtown Phoenix? It’s taken years, but Phoenix has finally begun to see value in its post-productive landscape, to find life in its Kafkaesque “old narrow streets of misery.” I used to describe Phoenix as an adolescent city, because it grew so fast it kept bumping into shit with its clumsy limbs, it always wanted to take the car, and it whined incessantly about how big sister, Los Angeles, got everything even though she was totally not awesome in any way what-so-ever. But lately, I’ve been re-exploring Phoenix and while I don’t want to condescend to insult the city like my boss did me, I have to say I like what it’s doing with its old worn out bones.
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