Brotherly Love Fest

You'd think he raped your mother. But all journalist Don Russell did was write an editorial about what a crummy city Phoenix is. Russell, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, was merely responding to reports that Phoenix may soon usurp Philly as the fifth largest city in the nation. His July 9 editorial tagged us as "a bland spread of chemical-fertilized lawn in the middle of the desert," and went on to list our fair city's various afflictions: ozone pollution, scary summer weather, Bishop O'Brien. Since then, Russell has been dodging mean-spirited threats and piles of hate mail from angry Phoenicians who are wildly proud of their intemperate, unsophisticated home in the desert.

New Times: I'm not so crazy about Phoenix, either. But what's the big deal about who's on top?

Don Russell: I guess there's a certain amount of bragging rights that go with it. But it's not a huge issue. It's a fun topic during a slow news time.

NT: You wrote a lot of mean things about Phoenix. Here's one you missed: Southwestern cuisine. Here's another: turquoise jewelry. And better yet: public transportation.

Russell: I should have bashed you guys on the turquoise jewelry thing, you're right. But you know, the mass transit issue is a big one, because it goes to the root of what makes a city a real city. In my mind, people live together in cities because they have a shared interest in the success of their home, and there's no better sign of that than public transportation, a necessity in any real city. And the fact that Phoenix has such a pathetic mass transit system is completely contrary to the notion of what makes a good, workable city. The idea that everyone needs an SUV to get to work is atrocious.

NT: We're putting in a light rail system. Although I still haven't figured out what we'll use it to get to.

Russell: That's it exactly. Where will you go? I've been to a number of cities that have put in a light rail, and they start out connecting to convention centers -- which doesn't serve the people who live there; it's only good for tourists.

NT: Say something shitty about Philadelphia.

Russell: The weather here is lousy. It's very humid. And you know, everyone who reacted to my bash on Phoenix would say, "It may be hot here, but it's a dry heat!" Which I'm guessing is what they tell you upon entering Hell, too.

NT: Yeah, it's a dry heat. But so is the surface of the sun.

Russell: Seriously, though, Philadelphia has problems, too. And E.J. [Montini of the Arizona Republic] picked up on some of them. And so do I. I have a front-page story today about how the Eagles are trying to ban fans from bringing food into their stadium today. Which is an arrogant act on the part of the team owners.

NT: That sounds perfectly awful. Have you ever been to Phoenix?

Russell: No. It would ruin my objectivity. But I love cities, and I visit them a lot. One day I'll make it to Phoenix.

NT: Well, wear shorts. It never, ever cools down here. It's 8:30 in the morning right now, and it's already 100 degrees out. But we're enjoying a cold snap: Yesterday we topped out at only 117.

Russell: Jesus. That's brutal! You know, when I wrote that the favorite building material in Phoenix is vinyl siding, a lot of people wrote in that it's too hot there for vinyl siding -- that it actually melts.

NT: Yeah. You categorized Phoenix as an "accumulation of crummy vinyl-sided houses," but you never once mentioned faux adobe.

Russell: My mistake. But for the record, if I had to live surrounded by faux adobe, I would kill myself.

NT: You also wrote that we have no local traditions. You obviously haven't heard about the Chandler Ostrich Festival.

Russell: I missed that one. Is that a biggie? I'll try to make it out there when that's going on.

NT: But beware of bark beetles. You wrote that Phoenix is number one in bark-beetle infestations.

Russell: My statistics were the result of copious research. I've taken shots at a lot of other cities, and I've got it down to a science on how to find the very worst things about a city.

NT: Well, I've never seen a bark beetle. And I don't know that bark beetles are keeping people from moving here.

Russell: On the contrary, they're lining up to play golf. So many Phoenicians who replied to my piece seemed very proud that the city has more golf courses per capita than anywhere else in the world. Which is no way to judge a city. Anyway, golf is a suburban sport, and all I can say is, "Don't you people have anything better to do than golf?"

NT: You could have really riffed on the golf course thing, because we live in the desert and it costs millions of dollars in water every year to keep those tees green.

Russell: I've heard that flying into Phoenix is a sickening sight, because you look down and it's desert for miles and then there's this huge patch of green. And it's all done with water that's taken from the Colorado River.

NT: Maybe the people in Colorado aren't very thirsty. Here, let me try to defend Phoenix: You claim that we're No. 1 in high school dropouts. But have you seen some of the schools here? You'd be fleeing, too.

Russell: They're that bad, huh? But I guess bad schools are a problem in most big cities. No city funds schools as well as it should, and Philadelphia has its share of dropouts, too.

NT: You write that we're the number three city for teen pregnancies. But maybe that's because Phoenix kids are so sophisticated and forward-thinking that they're anxious to get started with their adult lives.

Russell: I honestly didn't consider that. It's not a statistic that turned up in any of my research material.

NT: What's a mummer?

Russell: We have a parade on New Year's Day that's sort of our version of your Ostrich Festival. And people -- mummers -- dress up as clowns, or in fancy dress, or in ostrich feathers, and they march up Broad Street, and there's some drinking that goes along with that. It's a lot of fun, but lately it's been losing a lot of appeal.

NT: Speaking of drinking, you're the beer columnist for the Daily News. What's a beer columnist?

Russell: It's the best job at the paper. I've been writing about beer for eight years now, and in fact I was voted the North American Beer Writer of the Year last year. I write about microbrews and, you know, beer culture -- anything to do with beer drinking. And I have a great expense account.

NT: Does any of this "fifth largest city" stuff really matter?

Russell: To some people it does, because where you live says a lot about who you are. It's a personal slam against your character when someone questions where you live.

NT: But it's not like we founded these cities, or organized them. We just live in them.

Russell: I disagree. I've lived in Philadelphia all my life. And true Philadelphians are what make this city, because people from here tend to stay here. This is a city where saying you're a Philadelphian is a true way of defining yourself.

NT: I shudder to think what living in Phoenix says about someone.

Russell: If it doesn't say very much, it's partly because Phoenix is a young city, one that has yet to define itself as a real city. People defend your city by pointing out that land is very available, and housing is very affordable. Which can bite you in the ass, because you can end up with suburban sprawl and clogged freeways.

NT: Yeah, but Phoenix is "The Best Run City in the World." And we have the billboards to prove it.

Russell: To me, that's such a small-town mentality. To boast that you're the best run city in the world is just patting yourself on the back for an inconsequential award. Buying a stadium by enacting a sales tax without a public vote is the antithesis of a well-run government. And by the way, Phoenix was tied for Best Run City in 1993, with the town of Christchurch in New Zealand. Some competition.

NT: Okay, but how about this: Cher's Farewell Tour has been to Phoenix three times this year! How many times has she been to Philadelphia?

Russell: I know of one time for sure. There was a bizarre incident with a 400-pound fan who got evicted from the concert for shouting at Cher or something like that. But you're right: Phoenix is definitely the Cher capital of the world. But don't get too smug about it. Phoenix may grow to be number one, but if nature has its way -- and it usually does -- Phoenix won't stay number one for long.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela