Theres plenty of room for creativity downtown. How about a Park N Swap instead of a vacant lot? It could be one part of a diverse street culture.
Theres plenty of room for creativity downtown. How about a Park N Swap instead of a vacant lot? It could be one part of a diverse street culture.
Jackie Mercandetti

Us vs. Them

New Times is bringing pop-culture luminary Richard Florida to the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix at 6:30 p.m. on October 21. We expect him to save us from ourselves. You're invited; tickets are free.

Florida was last year's -- "Check out the big brain on Brad" -- author of The Rise of the Creative Class, a learned yet painfully obvious best seller on how some cities create vibrant downtowns, while others create downtown Phoenix.

For all of the open space and comfort many find in the suburban nature of Phoenix, there are those who seek the community, the racial and sexual diversity of a real downtown -- those who are in open rebellion against the relentless march of strip malls.


Exploding Downtown

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Richard Florida will be speaking on October 21, 2003,at 6:30 p.m. For free tickets, stop by Changing Hands Bookstore, call 602-229-8428 or click here

Great restaurants, bars, parks, pedestrian neighborhoods, galleries, cultural venues and music beget smart, and smart-ass, residents who, in turn, attract knowledge-based businesses looking to start up or relocate. Florida points out that the work force in America has shifted dramatically from the nation's historic manufacturing base. Today, 30 percent of employees are well-educated, creative and motivated by lifestyle choices both at work and at home. The next wave of economic development will favor communities that attract a young population seeking flexibility on the job and vitality on the streetscape, argues Florida. (New Times writer Michele Laudig's take on the author and urban guru accompanies this column.)

Suddenly, with the arrival of Florida's book, people with too much black in their closet found themselves armed with a manifesto when confronting thoughtless development. And because Florida is not some self-absorbed, lazy blogger but rather the H. John Heinz III Professor of Regional Economic Development, Heinz School of Public Policy and Management, Carnegie Mellon University (hey! . . . you try fitting that gracefully into a sentence), his work is backed up with an intellectual rigor that bankers and Chamber of Commerce members acknowledge.

His ideas, like a styling gel for the urban soul, stiffened the resolve of dreamers in city halls, espresso bars, think tanks and lofts across America. He was in demand, so much so that he has already talked to Valley movers and shakers as well as to those in the economic development infrastructure.

We are bringing Florida here to speak to the public because the fuse in downtown Phoenix is sizzling:

• The city has $600 million budgeted to expand the downtown convention center and is looking at another $300 million for a new convention hotel. That amounts to nearly $1 billion targeted downtown -- and not a penny of it spent wisely.

• A controversial light-rail system on the drawing board will link the vast horizontal spaces downtown where lofts and condominiums are starting to sprout. The light-rail will also couple Phoenix with downtown Tempe. Needing legislative and public approval by next spring, the nearly $16 billion transportation package of rail and freeway investment threatens to become a punching bag of the taxophobics.

• On June 19, the Arizona Republic revealed the formation of a blue-ribbon task force made up of estimable sports impresario Jerry Colangelo, the publisher of the daily paper covering the task force, the heads of Valley utilities, banks and development companies, as well as Chamber leaders and scattered politicos. If all of the names are already familiar to you -- and how could they not be -- it is only because the impression is left that this is a committee that never actually disbands.

But there is something unique about this group.

Local charitable foundations have kicked in nearly $300,000 in grants so that the task force can study how local arts and culture can . . . strengthen economic development.

It would appear that the blue-ribbon commission is lifting more than a few pages from Florida's thesis. In fact, the foundations are candid that the choice of downtown Phoenix by a new genome research consortium spurred this investigation into what it would take to attract more industry based upon high-paying, creative jobs.

And while the task force is regional in outlook and composition, the implications for downtown Phoenix are immense. Beyond the address of the research center, the largest concentration of arts and cultural facilities throughout the Valley is in downtown Phoenix.

One would like to remain hopeful. Can one remain hopeful and alarmed at the same time?

Clearly, many of the participants and financiers on the blue-ribbon committee, for example, have been exposed to Florida's message. Exposure is not the same thing, at all, as getting it.

The Valley's movers and shakers joined a blue-ribbon task force to gird local arts and culture in part because of surveys and focus groups that told them this was the key to attracting new, knowledge-based industries.

"Young people, knowledge workers" are concerned about "quality of life," said Judy Jolley Mohraz, president and chief executive officer of the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, which is joined by the Flinn Foundation, the J.W. Kieckhefer Foundation and the Margaret T. Morris Foundation in underwriting more than a quarter of a million dollars in expenses for the arts-and-culture task force.

All of this activity has been triggered by the arrival of the Phoenix Bioscience Center downtown. The brain child of attorney Richard Mallery, the center will house both the Translational Genomics Research Institute and the International Genomics Consortium.

The staff of these research facilities view the arts as essential to their relocation to downtown Phoenix, claims John Murphy, executive director of Flinn.

"The creative work force that drives this new technology-based economy also demands a rich cultural atmosphere," observed Murphy.

You might ask yourself: What the hell does any of this mean?

A critical point in Florida's analysis of what works and what doesn't is: New economy workers desire a street culture that is vibrant, accessible, diverse and authentic; a real downtown, if you will.

Furthermore -- and this is important -- a successful urban setting must be created for the people who already live here. What you don't want is an arts-and-culture theme park designed to entice businesses that reside out of state. Yet you cannot create something for people who don't yet exist and, at the same time, maintain local soul. That would be like moving the London Bridge to Lake Havasu to attract the dead and dying.

Instead, you create a city center that is inherently interesting for city residents -- which attracts other young, creative folks to your downtown.

Arts and Culture, as embraced by the blue-ribbon commission, are looked at with a capital A, and a capital C -- which is only a small part of a successful core city according to Florida.

"Florida finds that the creative class' has also altered economic geography," noted Los Angeles Times critic Robert J. Samuelson. "Localities can't attract high-paying businesses simply by offering tax concessions and subsidies. The harder task is to foster a social climate that lures the best and the brightest. Companies will go where workers want to be -- or already are. What's desired are not ballparks and symphonies but exciting street life."

What's hugely missing in downtown Phoenix are enough restaurants, bars, coffee houses, lofts, music showcases and retail outlets to form the day-to-day fabric of urban life. We already have the capital A's and C's.

If you look around downtown, you can identify a number of imposing structures: the Phoenix Art Museum, the Burton Barr Central Library, the Heard Museum, the Herberger Theater Center, the Arizona Science Center, Phoenix Symphony Hall, the Orpheum Theatre and the Dodge Theatre.

Like Wal-Mart, these are big-box venues.

Downtown Phoenix has several theater companies, opera, ballet, chamber music, and even a baseball park and a basketball arena.

But despite all this Art and Culture, there is no downtown Phoenix.

In Seattle recently, voters rejected a tax on gourmet coffee. The point for us here in Phoenix is that there are so many espresso shops in the Pacific Northwest that someone thought they could fund school projects with a java levy. If you taxed every coffee bean in downtown Phoenix, you could not support a charter school for redheaded twins.

Tempe, on the other hand, has almost no arts and cultural facilities downtown. But it does have a downtown. There may be one too many chains to suit your artistic self, but people are out on the bricks walking around. You can get suicide wings at Long Wong's that will weld your tongue to the roof of your mouth and you can listen to great music.

And when I hear that someone who doesn't even live here (say, a researcher for a genome consortium) is gassing on about how important the arts are to them, I have to wonder. I mean, how can you argue that arts are not important? But that's just the point. I don't trust the results of such surveys or focus groups. If you question newspaper readers, they never tell you that they like the comics or the horoscope. They always tell you they are simply fascinated, by U Thant, or Boutros Boutros-Ghali, even Kofi Annan.

When a survey of workers in the next big-business migration admits that what they are really concerned about is getting their funk on, then maybe, just maybe, we'll have something to take to the bank.

Instead of plotting out a course of action for people who don't live here, we would be wiser to improve the lifestyle options of those already living in downtown Phoenix.

Us, not them.

And while critics are quick to point out that sports events do not make a viable urban core, we should keep in mind that exhibitions at the Heard Museum also are isolated happenings that are tangential to day-to-day survival.

Even grand art does not create a lifestyle, or even, necessarily, a crowd. The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art has done a wonderful job at booking moving exhibitions and yet the venue had box-office trouble. It received $800,000 from the city's general fund and spent $500,000 on a national marketing campaign. From January through mid-February of this past year, half of the scheduled tours canceled. The first 15 events drew 49 paying customers.

By contrast, First Friday in downtown Phoenix routinely draws 5,000 to 10,000 participants even in the molten Valley summer. Built around a couple of dozen street galleries, people turn out to see and be seen once a month. Much of the art on display is too cutting-edge, or crude, to end up in your home. This is precisely the charm of the event. People turn out to check out the art -- and each other -- which is precisely why First Friday should be supported.

This is street culture at its very best, with a small c.

Yet this distinct celebration has shaky institutional funding. This summer, First Friday lost the shuttle buses usually employed to ferry revelers among the exhibition spaces. Instead, Phoenix hauled passengers to a fireworks show on the Fourth of July without bothering to accommodate the city's nascent bohemian scene.

We aren't shocked to learn that no one from ArtLink, the umbrella organization that organizes First Friday, serves on the blue-ribbon task force to promote Arts and Culture on behalf of economic development.

While alarmed, I remain optimistic.

There are good things already accomplished, there are plans by city officials to encourage even more infill and multi-housing components. And whether you label them lofts or apartments is sort of beside the point. But for every two steps forward . . .

You do not get a better example of the city's confusion over whether it is building a downtown for us, or for them -- for we who live and work here, or for those who visit -- than by comparing the convention center expansion and the proposed light rail.

If you toiled at the new genome consortium, for example, you could take the light rail home to the Artisan Lofts on Central Avenue across from the Burton Barr Central Library. On Sundays you could travel from the jazz scene at the Virgil Bell VFW Post 1710 near the railroad tracks on 17th Street and Jackson all the way to a rival jazz club at Park Central. You could do it without driving drunk. You could stop off and dine at Portland's. Or Durant's. Or Majerle's.

The light-rail should enable residents to overcome one of the single greatest impediments to the development of an urban core: the great physical distances that separate where we work, live and play, distances that make it impossible to walk anywhere in downtown Phoenix. While we wait for the infill that will generate the critical mass of residents that will support a true street scene, light-rail has the potential to tie the disparate elements together.

If the light-rail is for us, the expanded convention center is clearly for them.

Consider this: Is there anything more repugnant than the tourist in shorts, calf-length socks and a camera?

Why yes, a conventioneer with a nametag.

Why is it that no one with a brain in his head goes to Fisherman's Wharf when they visit San Francisco? Because few of us would choose to be labeled a tourist.

Conventioneers are worse. You show me a city where conventioneers dominate the landscape and I'll show you a horror show, a sterile downtown landscape dominated by Styrofoam structures.


The answer is not all that complex. The number-one convention city in the country is Las Vegas; the fastest-growing convention city in America is Orlando. This target audience prefers plastic breasts, plastic mouse ears and plastic habitats.

You cannot build a downtown for these people and build a downtown for us.

So, if we don't want a downtown dominated by conventioneers, what do we want?

Ahh, now . . . the answer to this ought to be as complex as possible. Different people want different things, and a real downtown crosses all kinds of lines. Variety, singularity, bread and circus, sophistication, low-down and a level of intensity now absent.

But before we get lost in the reverie of the dream, let us consider the practical.

As the convention center expansion demonstrates, as the tax-supplemented financing for professional sports venues makes clear, there is money targeted for downtown. But historically the cash has been allocated to a select few who have created the big boxes -- the islands -- of Arts, Culture and Entertainment with an emphasis on capital letters and capital projects. The money needs to be spread around to smaller entrepreneurs.


The city should subsidize financial incentives for apartment and loft developers, restaurateurs, and shopkeepers.

There will never be a downtown until enough people live there to keep the lights on in restaurants and bars after the office towers are abandoned at the end of the workday. When the downtown work force walks home instead of driving to the suburbs, downtown Phoenix will reach critical mass.

A lot of multi-unit condos, lofts and apartments are already built. Others are planned. More are needed. And as the yuppies come, and they must, the city must protect those artists and pioneers who made this discussion even possible.

Downtown Phoenix does not have a staggering list of historic buildings, but it does have an inventory of characters, institutions, urban adventurers, and cool-wave individuals that ought to be part of any genuine audit of the real. Downtown Tempe blew it when rents and parking drove Changing Hands Bookstore off of Mill Avenue.

Today, you can get burgers and wings in downtown Phoenix, but the restaurant mix is abysmal. How is it that we have given valuable franchises to convention hotels downtown and not required the owners to operate a single memorable restaurant?

We have chefs who are known throughout the country, but none of them is downtown. What would it take to get them to consider locating near the light-rail line?

Essential services are missing. Where do you rent a DVD or a VCR? You can't.

While there is a charming rare-edition bookstore south of Patriots Park, there is no general-interest bookstore. That needs to change.

Downtown will never function year-round until we address the sun-and-shade landscaping so critical in the summer. Several decades ago, ASU architecture students envisioned Rio Salado. More recently, the school addressed the problems of a desert city in the summer. What will it cost? We need adjustable shading just like we have adjustable water flow in the canals. What would that look like?

We should expect that city politicians realize that this sort of shade infrastructure is as important to a vital downtown as light-rail or an expanded convention center. The confrontation with the summer sun should include the city's commitment to introduce an enormous desert-plants nursery downtown that will seed the landscaping that needs to happen. The palm tree, which you see all over the core city, is not a native plant. Worse, the palm throws off only pencil-thin shadow for protection. We need thousands of paloverde and mesquite trees downtown. The most wonderful outdoor space in the Valley is the Desert Botanical Garden. Downtown Phoenix needs to follow in these cool footsteps.

It is impossible to predict what might follow in the wake of such structural revitalization. Small business operators dream their own dreams, but there is no reason not to ask impertinent questions.

For years this newspaper has published announcements about the noontime, brown-bag entertainment at Patriots Park. Have you ever seen Jimmy Eat World or the Gin Blossoms or any of the other local bands that broke out nationally downtown?

Don't be silly.

And never mind lunchtime entertainment, what about at night when it counts? The city needs an entertainment czar, no older than 25, to book hot bands into downtown bars.

Bars and live music are critical.

The city needs more downtown bars. You need the kind of saloon where you tell the bartender to "Set 'em up, Joe." Alice Tatum singing in the background wouldn't hurt.

But you need more than that.

Look, it's about sex.

In an exhaustive Web site search of downtown revivals across the country, you never read about the critical role of hooking up. Some significant part of the success of First Friday flows out of the ambient sexual tension of so many people checking each other out. Music is the excuse at the Emerald Lounge, but a lot of people are also taking care of business. Or hoping to.

There are too many blue-ribbon commissions composed of middle-aged dignitaries who've forgotten that there is an entire world of people who do not go night-night at 9 p.m.

What is to become of the Icehouse?

Why aren't European movies, art movies, revival movies, documentaries shown at the Orpheum on a daily basis?

Real downtowns have shopping, and lots of it.

Why not create a Park N Swap downtown? It is a great scene with huge crowds. Bring it downtown every weekend with bands. This also offers a chance to pull large numbers of Mexican citizens into the mix. We will never have a diverse downtown without Mexicans having a piece of the pie. And I'm not talking about mariachis.

Doesn't it strike any of you as symptomatic of everything that is wrong that, with all the terrific Mexican restaurants in the Valley, the choices downtown are so limited? Look at 16th Street, south of Indian School, and the possibilities are apparent.

We need Mexican Popsicle carts downtown, as well as the roach coaches selling tacos. Specialty shops, like those in Sunnyslope that sell Oaxacan pottery, should be downtown. If you look at 16th Street, you find carnicerias, mariscos huts, panderias, and all things Latin. Central Avenue should take a cue. And if shuttles can move the pseudo-arts crowd among galleries on the first Friday of every month, why can't the same shuttles move downtown residents back and forth to the thriving culture of 16th Street?

Downtown does not mean: Black here. Brown there. White everywhere.

What else?

Good downtowns have vendors that sell magazines and newspapers, out-of-town newspapers and thousands of magazine titles.

Have you visited the police museum on the southeast corner of Patriots Park? One thing we surely ought to push is the history of crime in Phoenix. I mean the real history. Local commentator Jana Bommersbach wrote a book about downtown Phoenix's most notorious murderer, Winnie Ruth Judd. Bommersbach ought to lecture at the museum about Winnie Ruth Judd. Ex-Corporation Commissioner Jim Irvin should introduce a hologram exhibit featuring Charles Keating, Don Bolles, Joe Arpaio, Bishop O'Brien. This could be the sort of museum that the average person might actually enjoy.

We also have amazing sports history here. I'd love to see some place with tapes of Charles Barkley interviews. Or Mark Grace explaining how a rookie is designated to sleep with an ugly woman to break a team slump (a rookie is currently needed to step forward).

There are several hundred professional athletes who reside here in the Valley. They should all be showing local kids how to play ball. (It wasn't all that long ago when ballplayers worked as teamsters and salesmen in the off-season to make ends meet. Those days are gone, but kids still have needs in the off-season.)

Skate parks are a necessity.

Our sister city in Mexico is Hermosillo. How in God's name did that happen? Have any of you seen Hermosillo? Hellhole is the description that springs to mind. You can have as many sister cities as you want. Why not Oaxaca?

Oaxaca has a downtown, one of the nicest zocolos in all of Mexico. There are points of similarity, or points of exchange, we would benefit from. Like Phoenix, they have a remarkable history that predates the arrival of Europeans. We have Pueblo Grande, they have Monte Alban. Like us, Oaxaca has an indigenous population. Like us, they have world-renowned art galleries. They, too, have a spectacular botanical garden. They have a huge number of language schools where we could send students, where we could send teachers to renew their skills. They have a distinct cuisine and cooking schools with which ex-governor and current pastry chef J. Fife Symington III could set up exchanges for cooks. Oaxaca has local music and dance that will kick your butt.

Certain airports now feature those odd-looking, and surely Swedish, chairs where massage therapists will smooth out the cricks for 15 minutes. This sort of sidewalk solicitation should be peppered throughout the downtown.

When I see the old folks at the Westward Ho and the big Catholic Church headquarters downtown, I think bingo. How about open-air, nighttime bingo in the Civic Plaza?

With states rushing to pass legislation banning gay marriages, downtown Phoenix ought to encourage and sanction civil unions for lesbians and homosexuals. Florida uses tolerance for gays as an indicator of diversity. A day spa would be nice, too. Lots of flowers.

Lighting is important at night. Color helps.

Recently, we ran a piece in New Times on a group of local clothing designers. In New York City, designers are incubated, taught about merchandising, given great space in which to work. The project is funded by the Lower East Side Business Improvement District. Clothing is produced on site. We could do that.

A couple of months ago, everyone was agog because a columnist in Philadelphia attacked the Valley of the Sun and Phoenix for all of its shortcomings. The defense one read in newspapers and listened to on talk radio was that we had more golf courses than anywhere in the world. Jeez.

I think we should market downtown Phoenix as a crossroads, a trading post of ideas and culture, in the middle of historic human migration.

It has been suggested that the strains of cannibalism amongst prehistoric Anasazi people in northern Arizona, first reported by ASU anthropology professor Christy Turner, were introduced locally by ancestors of the Aztecs. With the indigenous history already here, with the phenomenal growth of Phoenix since World War II, with the waves of human migration from Latin America more recently, we have something much more compelling than historic buildings.

We ought to have as an ethos the story of people on the move.

The fact that we exploded with the introduction of air conditioning is interesting. Land fraud, instant culture, suburbs. Pat McMahon did a show for KAET that portrayed Phoenix's modern boom. And Alan Dutton's coffee-table book Arizona Then & Now is a collection of photographs of particular sites, before and after growth. Feast your eyes on the old Adams Hotel and look at what replaced it.

The story of Latin American migration -- from the sanctuary movement, to the deaths in the desert, to the infrastructure that wouldn't exist without immigrants -- is part of our legacy.

We ought to trumpet indigenous art from throughout the Americas. We should become the curators of migration. The vast majority of us are from somewhere else.

Of course, a lot of this is just riffing. Dreaming, really. The compelling thing about Richard Florida is that he demonstrates how dreaming with purpose generates jobs, as well as a sense of place.

The folks on the blue-ribbon task force and the four foundations underwriting the commission have set themselves Olympian standards. Citing a potential 32,000 new jobs in biosciences, there is speculative talk of needing $140 million promotional budget per year for 10 years.

With a goal of luring 120 new businesses to Arizona in the neurological sciences -- cancer therapeutics and bioengineering -- the challenge to the foundations is to change the very face of the state. The role of arts and culture is deemed critical.

But in the extensive research already conducted, Richard Florida is prominently quoted and promptly misunderstood.

For example, in the seminal document called "The Arts in Arizona," research sponsored by Arizona's four foundations linked the new economy to a healthy Arts and Culture environment.

But the 47 individuals interviewed were all prominent executive directors, CEOs, presidents, senior vice presidents, managing directors and trustees.

These are all accomplished people, most of whom run highbrow cultural facilities -- and all of whom are safely tucked in at night by 9 p.m. Unless they're at a board meeting.

There were no young people interviewed. There were no discernible members of the creative class interviewed. There were no advocates for a vibrant downtown with street culture.

If you think this means that we have an Us vs. Them divide, you are missing the point.

Good things are afoot.

Mohraz with the Piper Trust clearly sees a more panoramic future and cautions that the foundations are only just beginning their work.

Richard Florida has much to add. Come listen.

You're invited.

E-mail, or call 602-229-8404.


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