The Cool Index: Ten Years Later, Phoenix Is Still Hot. But Is It Finally Cool?
The other day, I spoke on the phone with a woman named Taz Loomans. She stepped out of a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon, into lightly falling rain to take my call, which sounded pretty romantic considering that I was hunched in my car in the parking lot at Scottsdale Fashion Square at the time, air-conditioning blasting against the early November heat.
Loomans, 37, moved to Phoenix with her family from Mozambique when she was 14. She earned degrees at Arizona State University, becoming a licensed architect and then a disillusioned licensed architect, quitting a corporate gig in 2009 to buy and rehab a couple of foreclosed duplexes in Central Phoenix. She started her own firm called Blooming Rock and became a one-woman cheering squad — on her blog and in several other online forums —for historic preservation, adaptive reuse, and other buzzwords for making Phoenix a better city.
Then she left. A few months ago, as she tells it, Loomans was going through a divorce when she took a four-day vacation to Portland. On the third day, she decided to move there. Her decision was big news in certain circles: New Times wrote about it, and KJZZ, the local NPR affiliate, did a series of essays based on it. Social media buzzed for weeks.
"I actually had no intention of moving away," Loomans says. But Portland was just so great. "It's about 30 years ahead of Phoenix . . . The conversations are at a much more evolved level."
People in Phoenix are such boosters, Loomans says. It drives her nuts. "When I left Phoenix, I was very up front about the things I was disappointed in," she says. "I felt a lot of anger, and I sort of felt a disillusionment with my advocacy work."
Oddly, given her disdain for the place, Loomans still is knee-deep in Phoenix. "I love living in Central Phoenix and taking part in the coming of age of this city," it says on the home page of her blog, which she updates regularly. Two months ago, when word spread that Harkins Camelview 5 movie theater in Scottsdale was in danger, it was Loomans who started a "Save Camelview!" page on Facebook.
She tells me that Portland can make a bigger national impact than Phoenix when it comes to issues surrounding urban sustainability and that she will be a part of that conversation.
She's supporting herself these days as a freelance writer, working for online publications like answers.com and 1-800-RECYCLING.
Mostly, Loomans adds a little sheepishly, she writes about Phoenix.
This is not a story about the people who have left Phoenix. It's a story about the people who have stayed.
Ten years ago this fall, New Times devoted a lot of ink to the possibility of urban renewal in a series called "Exploding Downtown." The bottom line: After several false starts over the course of many decades, downtown Phoenix was deserted after dark, a cultural wasteland with pro baseball and basketball arenas and little else to draw a crowd — and it was hardly better during the day. At the time, a guy named Richard Florida wrote a book called The Rise of the Creative Class, in which he championed the notion of rehabbing crumbling cities (and, thus, economies) by making them places where "creatives" — up to a third of the population! — would want to live and work. It had been done in Pittsburgh, which pretty much meant it could be done anywhere, right?
But Phoenix? New Times flew in Florida to speak at the Orpheum Theatre; the city of Phoenix paid him tens of thousands of dollars to share his secrets (which boiled down to: Quit tearing down old buildings and put neat coffee shops in them instead) with city leaders.
After his talk at the Orpheum, a group of us had dinner with Florida at the only place any of us could think of to take him: My Florist Cafe. We sat in the middle of the dining room at a large table, surrounded by empty tables, no hustle and bustle like a real city would have. I remember feeling a little ashamed.
Richard Florida published a 10th-anniversary edition of his book, The Rise of the Creative Class Revisited, this year — and the only mention of Phoenix is a passing reference to solar energy. Some would argue that there's still not much to do at night downtown and that city leaders really bungled things by allowing CityScape — a gigantic office/retail complex with a lot of concrete, a lackluster selection of stores, and some bad planning — to take center stage. And My Florist is gone, the whole intersection now inhabited largely by cheap chain restaurants.
But hold on there. Something has happened in this city, and it's way more significant than getting our own Urban Outfitters or Habit Burger. The big picture has changed. One of Florida's admonitions when he spoke at the Orpheum was that people have to quit being embarrassed by Phoenix and, most important, they have to stop moving away. Ten years later, people still move away. Loomans is evidence of that, and she's not the only one.
And yet, check out who's stayed.
When I realized it had been 10 years since "Exploding Downtown," I went back and re-read my contribution to the series, a story called "The Cool Index." That piece detailed what was happening in the culture and food scenes in Phoenix then — a time when lots (for us) of galleries and restaurants and creative pursuits were just beginning. The story featured the work of a dozen "super-connectors" — people who weren't just opening a cafe or sponsoring an art opening, they were working together on lots of projects at once, with each other.
I turned to the series of portraits of these people that had accompanied the story, holding my breath as I cataloged them one by one: Stayed. Stayed. Stayed.
All 12 are still here, and check out what they've been up to in the past decade:
Chris Bianco: In 2003 (the year "The Cool Index" was published), Bianco won the James Beard regional award for the Southwest (the first pizza chef ever to do so). At the time, he was running Pizzeria Bianco at Heritage Square and had just opened Pane Bianco, a sandwich shop on Central Avenue. Today, he owns those plus another Pizzeria Bianco at Town & Country Shopping Center, with plans for a third in Tucson; he has partnered with Jamie Oliver on restaurants in England but still calls Phoenix home and is back in the kitchen after finding a new medicine to treat asthma that until recently forced his hiatus from the pizza oven and flour. Today, his brother, mother, and father all are involved in the business, and he's co-authoring a cookbook.
Cindy Dach: Dach has gone from marketing director at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe to co-owner and general manager of what is one of the nation's most successful independent bookstores. Next spring, the store will open a much-anticipated second location in Central Phoenix. Since 2003, Dach also opened MADE art boutique, which sells mostly handcrafted, locally made goods, on Roosevelt Street — now known as Roosevelt Row, thanks to efforts by her and others, who created a nonprofit to support the fledgling arts district.
Greg Esser: Married to Dach, Esser also has been instrumental in the development of Roosevelt Row; he and Dach help coordinate frequent events including food truck festivals, a chile pepper festival, and this year's "Feast on the Street." Esser left Phoenix for Los Angeles for two years to run a public art program there (still returning constantly to work on Roosevelt Row projects) but returned full time in 2011 to take a job with ASU, where he heads the art museum's international artist residency program and another program called the Desert Initiative.
Kimber Lanning: Lanning still owns Stinkweeds (an independent record store) and curates shows at Modified Arts (an art gallery that once featured live music but no longer does), and she's particularly focused on Local First Arizona, which began with four members and has grown to 2,450 indie business members with 13 staffers and three offices — the largest local business coalition in North America. Local First Arizona has been influential in everything from making policy at the city level to starting Devoured, the city's highest-profile food festival.
Wayne Rainey: Out of the game for nearly five years after a battle with encephalitis, Rainey is back — he sold the live/work arts space Holgas (to artists Matt Moore and Carrie Marill) and just signed escrow on a new ownership deal on MonOrchid, his gallery/work/event space on Roosevelt Row. Rainey still works as a commercial/fine arts photographer; he's also involved with a coalition of Phoenix gallery owners to endorse good business practices and says he's getting ready to re-launch his arts publication, Shade.
Silvana Salcido Esparza and Wendy Gruber: Their romantic partnership ended years ago, but Esparza and Gruber still are in business together at Barrio Cafe in Central Phoenix. Esparza — a James Beard semifinalist more than once in recent years — opened Barrio Queen in Scottsdale and a Barrio Cafe outpost at the airport. Esparza also began a mural project, Calle 16, on the street where her original restaurant is located, to protest Arizona's controversial Senate Bill 1070 and immigration policies in general. And Esparza's just about ready to open a new bar next to Barrio Cafe.
Johnny Chu: He continues to open (and sometimes close) Asian-inspired restaurants. Roosevelt Row's Sens has come and gone; now Chu owns the splashy Sochu House in Central Phoenix and T.Spot, the new ramen shop and Asian tea house inside his Tien Wong Hot Pot in Chandler. He's also consulted on projects including The Mint, a Scottsdale nightclub.
Beatrice Moore and Tony Zahn: Moore and Zahn continue to live and work in the Grand Avenue arts district, where they own several buildings. Since 2003, they bought and opened Bragg's Pie Factory, which houses the Frontal Lobe Gallery, work/retail spaces, and a diner. Moore's opened a craft store, Kooky Krafts, which showcases her art, and she helped start the Grand Avenue Street Festival. She also was involved in an extensive street-scaping project on Grand and fights to keep zoning approval limited to two-story heights in the neighborhood.
Craig DeMarco: He maintains an ownership share in La Grande Orange, the grocery/coffee shop (and later pizzeria) he started with his wife, Kris, but today they are focused on Upward Projects, run with Lauren and Wyatt Bailey, which now has three Postinos, Federal Pizza, Windsor, Joyride Taco House, and more in the works.
Sloane McFarland: The artist still co-owns the Central Avenue slump-block buildings that house his office, Martha + Mary, along with Pane Bianco and Lux; both have expanded. New tenants: Slippery Pig Bikes and Hayden Flour Mills. He bought a 1950s-era Valentine diner on Roosevelt and created Welcome Diner, which served as a pop-up long before the term was coined — chefs from Nobuo Fukuda to Payton Curry have cooked there, and Michael Babcock and Jenn Robinson have settled in with their Southern diner cooking. McFarland also is hard at work on Yourland, an arts/development project on a hunk of land at 16th Street and Buckeye purchased by his great-grandfather 100 years ago.
Not bad, huh? And that was during a decade that included the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, in the city that was arguably hardest hit, as well as an immigration debate that did not show Arizona at her best.
Today, we'd have trouble deciding on which restaurant to take Richard Florida to. There still aren't enough, but there are a lot more.
It's not just these 12 people, of course, who have made a difference these past 10 years. Other players have emerged on the downtown and Central Phoenix scene. Chefs, artists, designers, and business people like Georganne Bryant, who opened a boutique called Frances in 2006 and, later, the candy shop Smeeks and runs Crafeteria, a popular holiday craft festival. Bryant's been instrumental in pushing for support of independent businesses. Longtime music promoter Charlie Levy opened Crescent Ballroom in 2011, bringing bands and people to Second Avenue and Van Buren. It's been a "real game changer" for the local music scene, Kimber Lanning says (though she still admits it's a tough city for a mid-career visual artist). Even the city of Phoenix has played along, she adds, changing adaptive-reuse policies and other regulations that were standing in the way of independents. And infrastructure is arriving.
"It's really gratifying to look around," says Wayne Rainey. ASU's downtown campus, the medical campus, the Translational Genomics Research Institute, light rail — all have happened in the past decade. "Those are things we talked about in the kitchen here [at MonOrchid]; we had salons," he says. Now it's all here and, yes, it's great, but it also scares him. So many people say Phoenix's cultural scene isn't nearly big enough; Rainey's worried that it's just big enough to get squashed by the next wave of development.
"I think things are different. We're probably a lot more vulnerable than we were," Rainey says. "There's even more intense speculation about how to leverage these projects for profitability. This next economic cycle is going to be the determining factor of whether Phoenix wants to maintain an arts district . . . These things almost never last."
One thing is definitely true: These days, you can barely drive a block in downtown and Central Phoenix without hitting a coffee shop — often housed in an old building.
All of which begs a version of the question New Times asked 10 years ago: Phoenix is still hot. Is it finally cool?
Assuming we were at the tipping point in 2003, have we made it a decade later?
Of course, if you have to ask whether you're cool, you're not, as Richard Florida observed when he was here. By definition, cool is ephemeral. The hot part is easy; I found out with one e-mail that it's actually hotter here than it was a decade ago.
"Yes, it has become warmer in metro Phoenix, mostly nighttime temperatures," writes Nancy Selover, the state's climatologist. "And, yes, we [people] are mostly the cause of that."
So that's settled. But there is no climatologist who can tell you whether your city is cool. I had a chance to ask most of the dozen super-connectors from the 2003 story, and the answers were all over the board.
Beatrice Moore says she certainly hopes Phoenix isn't considered cool, and she resents the businesspeople who want to move to Grand Avenue and mooch off her funkiness. "We're not just a bunch of trained monkeys who are down here making things hip and cool for you," Moore says.
Craig DeMarco cringes and says he tells his staff, "When you try to be cool, you're not cool." This city's never not been cool, Kimber Lanning insists. But Silvana Esparza looks a little uncomfortable — odd for a woman who's typically not afraid to share her opinions.
"No, I'm very sad to say, but no," she says, looking down.
"Phoenix is the coolest!" Rainey yells, sitting up straight from a comfortable slump at his desk at MonOrchid to pull up proof on the computer — a study he saw just that morning, he posted it on Facebook, it's here somewhere. He searches, searches — there it is. A publication called Money Journal (no, I hadn't heard of it, either) just named Phoenix one of the "10 Most Liked U.S. Cities." We're number five. Portland is number one.
Rainey sits back, satisfied, so pleased that you can't help taking a little pride in Phoenix, just being in the same room with him.
Hey, it's a start. Maybe we're cool, maybe we're not. Maybe those of us who are left don't really care. A few years ago, Georganne Bryant from Frances printed bumper stickers and T-shirts that said, "Love Phoenix or Leave Phoenix" — a sentiment so popular that someone stole it and put it on their own shirts.
If you want to see for yourself how Phoenix has changed in the past decade, pay a visit to Lux Central at 4402 North Central Avenue. It was easy to find places to schedule interviews for this story — Craig DeMarco and I met at Tammie Coe Cakes; Kimber Lanning wanted to go to Urban Beans; Wayne Rainey told me to grab a drink at Songbird, the coffeehouse in the front of MonOrchid, while he wrapped up a meeting. But, as it was in 2003, Lux — arguably (because there's always an argument about such things) — remains the hub of the coffee culture scene in Phoenix.
The coffeehouse barely resembles its former self; it's Lux on steroids. Opened in 2002 by Daniel Wayne and sold three years later to a guy named Jeff Fischer, Lux moved in the summer of 2011 to much larger (from about 1,600 square feet to about 3,600) digs next door and became Lux Central, such a big deal that the Arizona Republic devoted the cover of its lifestyle section to a story about the expansion.
Lux Central winds around several different rooms, including a full-service bar and kitchen, as well as the ubiquitous coffee. The beans aren't the best in town, but the people-watching is stellar, your fresh-baked raspberry corn muffin comes on a mismatched thrift-store plate and the hibiscus tea has a cult following. There's almost always a live DJ, local art rotates on the walls (lately, Randy Slack's colorful, thought-provoking paintings) and the centerpiece is a table packed with vintage typewriters, an ironic nod to the Apple products that crowd the rest of the tables and laps.
The slump-block complex with the hard-to-spot sign has changed a lot, but co-owner Sloane McFarland still offices there. He's 40 now and hasn't changed a bit, except for a bit of gray in his long-ish buzzcut. Over a cup of tea at Lux Central, McFarland takes the long view on the past 10 years.
In 2003, when "The Cool Index" was published, McFarland's first big show — a video installation that focused on themes he uncovered as he explored real estate and development — was up at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. He hasn't had a show since but says he's still been making art. He's now in the process of cataloging what he's made.
You can drive around town and see some of it. Along with the buildings that house Lux, Pane Bianco, and more, McFarland now owns the Valentine diner on Roosevelt Street that houses Michael Babcock and Jenn Robinson. The building had been vacant for 25 years before McFarland bought it. It's not a money-making proposition; McFarland admits they are now working on making the diner self-sustaining.
"It's really about the space," he says. He doesn't think of himself as a developer, but "materially, it's true."
A larger pursuit, and one that's harder to wrap your head around than the super-cute diner with the bubble lights, is Yourland. The plot of land on the southwest corner of Buckeye and 16th Street has been in the maternal side of McFarland's family for 100 years. For a long time, the building still standing on it housed Phoenix's original Smitty's grocery and department store. Part of that space has been revamped and now is home to the federal government, which leases it for immigration services — including citizenship swearing-in ceremonies. McFarland's work is on display in the lobby, in the form of a video he made of the Statue of Liberty.
An old Kentucky Fried Chicken on the site someday will house a project Babcock and Robinson of Welcome Diner are working on, he says, and a mini-mart that has committed to carrying up to 10 percent organic and natural foods is further along. The gas station next to it sells alternative fuels (including ethanol and diesel), with a number of electric recharging stations for both hybrid and all-electric vehicles. Around the back of the store, McFarland is in the process of creating a mural that reflects the historic nature of the area. Included in his design, executed by a 35-year veteran sign painter, are various name brands in their original fonts, with the year they were introduced to the market (like Doritos, 1967). He's got several semi-secret, art-related billboard projects in the works, as well.
None of it's been easy. It took five years to get the plans together for Lux Central, McFarland says. The economy crashed the same month he signed the lease on Yourland with the federal government. But now he sees things taking shape, and he's pleased. He's big on "the aesthetics of the tenant," he says, gesturing around Lux Central. And he sees a close connection to his videos, which always have been about transformation, growth, and using buildings as metaphors for the soul.
"I'm happy Phoenix isn't a major art market," McFarland says, shrugging. "It's just a fact." For him, it's about something less conventional.
His goal: "Look at the past and feel like you did something your heart told you to do."
It's the end of a very long day, and I'm waiting to talk to Cindy Dach. A reporter from the Downtown Devil, ASU's online publication, is interviewing her. Has been for at least 45 minutes. They sit on a picnic table, and around them, volunteers swirl over the "What Should Go Here" pop-up park at Second and Roosevelt streets, cleaning up the remains of the fourth annual Pie Social (full disclosure: Chow Bella, New Times' food blog, which I run, co-sponsors the event with Roosevelt Row). It's been a good day, with record attendance. Everyone's full and tired. Finally, as the sun begins to dip, the reporter turns off her voice recorder and Dach and her husband, Greg Esser, sit still long enough to answer a few more questions.
How long have they been in Phoenix? They look at each other. Seventeen or 18 years, neither is sure. "We're on the two-year plan," Dach says, laughing, though she's serious when she says they never meant to stay. In 2000, just after they bought their first building, which houses eye lounge near Fifth Street and Roosevelt, the city announced plans to gut Roosevelt to put in a football stadium. It was "game on" from there. The two have bought and sold buildings, advanced in their day jobs, and created Roosevelt Row — a nonprofit and a neighborhood. In 2003, there were fewer than 100 businesses in the area, Esser estimates. Today, he puts the figure at more than 300.
Dach says she's always liked it here. "Maybe because I work in air conditioning — summer just isn't that bad for me."
As for Esser, when asked the inevitable question: "Hell, yeah. Phoenix has never not been cool. It's how we appreciate its coolness."
He pauses and points at power lines against the yellow sky. "How cool is that?" he asks, snapping a photo with his phone.
"I wanted a life where I could walk for coffee, walk for wine, music, a gallon of milk," Dach says. She's got that now. "That makes it cool for me." She realizes others have a different definition.
"It's been a pivotal 10 years," Esser says. He points to the downtown skyline — 40 percent new, he says, largely the result of $4 billion in private/public investment. He and Dach laugh at the notion that the city paid Richard Florida to make Phoenix cool. They're among the ones who've literally done the heavy lifting.
So what's the last 10 years been like?
Dach replies in a small voice: "Hard."
In an even smaller voice: "Yeah."
People like to say Phoenix still is in its infancy, that in a way, it's a city like no other, that you can't compare it to any other place in America. Keeping a baby alive is a lot of hard work. Ditto for new businesses. It's taken a long time, but Silvana Salcido Esparza says she finally has assembled the right management team of young people to help her keep going. To work at Craig DeMarco's Upward Projects, you have to go through six interviews, then meet with him or Lauren Bailey.
"We're ready for the next wave of young people," says Beatrice Moore, 63. "We don't want to be doing this when we're 75 years old."
On a recent weekday, we wrap up lunch at Bragg's Factory Diner on Grand Avenue (Moore loves the vegan jackfruit sandwich but complains about the lack of signage — a couple of businesses already have failed in the spot) and walk past one of the many new murals on Grand, this one on the side of The Lodge. It's by a young painter named Rebecca Green, one of her signature female figures, reading a book to a group of foxes. Green moved to Denver this summer.
"She said she's gonna come back and finish it," Moore says, a little wistful.
Back on Roosevelt Row, it's dark now, and it's getting cold. Esser and Dach have good, eager volunteers, but never enough — and never, it seems, when you really need them. Everyone else has gone home, and there are still tables to be put away. The two excuse themselves to finish cleaning up.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter