Downtown Phoenix Isn't as Dead as Janet Leigh: Five Ways to Bring It Back to Life

My first vision of downtown Phoenix also was my most lasting.

The city is set against the backdrop of Camelback Mountain. The camera swirls by skyscrapers and a massive radio tower, past what I now know is the Luhrs City Center, and then zooms in on a fourth-floor window of the old Jefferson Hotel.

And there was the most impressive sight of all: Janet Leigh lying on a bed in a white bullet bra and a half-slip. Wow!

Hey, I was maybe 12 years old the first time I saw Psycho, but the opening of the Alfred Hitchcock film made me think downtown Phoenix must be a pretty cool place.

Then I moved here almost 50 years later. Janet Leigh was really dead by then, and so, it seemed, was downtown Phoenix.

I was stunned the first time I walked down Second Street. Was this Stepford City, a lot of pretty buildings without any people?

When our youngest daughter visited from New York, she asked if we could stop somewhere for dinner after her plane arrived around 11 p.m.

In Manhattan, it’s common to make dinner reservations at 11. Here, we had to scramble to find anything open other than a Denny’s. Only Hanny’s, it seemed, was still serving food downtown at that time on a Saturday night. There was actually a decent crowd there, including several members of the NBA Houston Rockets, who had just beaten the Suns and obviously also were searching for a place to eat.

That was in March 2013, the same month that the Rogue Columnist, author, and journalist Jon Talton, wrote a fascinating three-part series, “Phoenix 101: What Killed Downtown.”

He mourned the loss of the downtown Phoenix that I got a glimpse of in Psycho, which was released in 1960:

“The Fox and Paramount (Orpheum) theaters still showed first-run movies. Seven trains a day served Union Station. We shopped downtown and at Park Central. There were still plenty of small, locally owned businesses along with Woolworth’s, Newberry’s, and Penney’s. Plenty of people were on the street. The Westward Ho still hosted the president. ... In addition, downtown flowed seamlessly into the other business corridors on Central and McDowell. There weren’t the gaping holes that would soon emerge.”

Last week, I edited our cover story, “Dirt Wars,” by Antonia Noori Farzan, a 20-something who just arrived here in January after living in New York and Miami.

She detailed a downtown that is struggling to redefine itself, defining the push-pull for the city’s soul between big developers and homegrown entrepreneurs.

After months of reporting, she concluded:

“Maybe downtown Phoenix won’t ever feel like downtown Seattle or downtown San Francisco or even downtown Denver. And maybe that’s okay.”

I’ve worked in Seattle and Denver, as well as in Cleveland, which is now smaller than Mesa but has a much more vibrant downtown than Phoenix. I’ve seen similar displays of angst over those downtowns during the past few decades.

I remember a Seattle columnist lamenting that the city’s downtown was nothing like Manhattan. Of course, whine and cheese is the staple at any Seattle cocktail party. But be careful what you wish for — it’s almost as expensive to live there now as New York City. Cleveland has shed its Rust Belt image and Denver is anything but a cow town.

It’s been my experience in all those places that people want an identifiable downtown, no matter if they live in the suburbs or in the city. Downtown can be the one unifying factor for a diverse region such as this, too.

So here are a few suggestions for sticking a burr under the butt of downtown Phoenix:

• Grow a pair. And I’m not referencing Janet Leigh now. You’re the fifth-largest city in the country. Stop acting like this is a small market. Take pride in Phoenix. Quit calling this place the Valley. Every city has a valley. We’re in the PHX. And why is our baseball team the Arizona Diamondbacks? They play in Phoenix. Same with the Cardinals. The New York Giants and Jets play in another state, but they wouldn’t dare put NEW JERSEY on their jerseys.

• Don’t kowtow to losing sports teams. Voters in Seattle and Denver approved new facilities after their teams got great. Let the Diamondbacks worry about building a winner before crying about needing a new stadium.

• For God’s sake, don’t let people ride bicycles on the sidewalk downtown. Imagine that happening in any of the other largest cities in America. Build some damn bike lanes.

• Make it cheap to park at night. I participated in a Bar Flies event last month at Valley Bar on Central Avenue. I parked in the garage across the street for two hours. It cost me 16 bucks. Or at least make sure the parking meters are working. How many of you have found an open meter at night only to discover that it won’t take your credit card? Nobody carries enough change to feed the beast’s $1.50 an hour habit. If you do, the punch line to the old joke would be, “Yes, that is a roll of quarters in my pocket.”

• Stop tearing down old shit. Seattle’s No. 1 attraction is its renovated Pike Place Market. Cleveland rehabbed its Warehouse District into a hot spot of restaurants, nightclubs, and downtown condos. And it turned an old bank into the glitziest grocery store you’ve ever walked into to buy a box of Tide. Let’s celebrate local entrepreneurs like Charlie Levy, who has transformed old buildings into The Crescent Ballroom and The Van Buren.

To that end, I’m happy to say that I learned while researching this column that the Jefferson Hotel, where I first lusted after Janet Leigh and her bra, will be preserved.

The 102-year-old structure, now called the Barrister Building and vacant since 2010, has been sold to a developer who plans to turn it into downtown condos.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll visit a room on the fourth floor someday.


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