Architecture and Design

No, Mesa Isn't the Southwest's Best Big City

Contrary to what Time Inc.'s Money magazine would have you believe, Mesa is not the best big city to inhabit in the Southwest.

Mesa, you should know, is not the best big city to inhabit in the state of Arizona. Nor, hate to break it to ya, is it the best "big city" to call home among Phoenix's far-reaching suburbs. 

In its recently released list of America's five best big cities, ranking the top places to live with a population of at least 300,00 in the West, Southwest, Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest, Mesa won the designation alongside Denver, Pittsburgh, Tampa, and Omaha. What's in the title exactly? Money considered factors including "a robust job market, affordable housing... accessibility to health care, culture, and open space," with bonus points awarded for having low crime and strong public schools. Sounds like reasonable enough criteria. But umbrage should be taken with the results — particularly the Southwestern one. 

Before addressing the question that naturally springs to the mind of anyone who has spent time in both Mesa and also America's Southwest region, we'll note that Mesa is not the worst city to live in among the numerous options one finds in the Southwest, a region that doesn't really have set borders. It is far better than bad, but crowning it the best makes for a bizarre coronation.

That obvious question, however, is: Hey, wait, are you joking?

Because it seems like you might be joking. 

The Southwest is a thing, undoubtedly. But what that thing consists of varies quite dramatically depending on whom you ask. Could be all of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah, according to a judicious some. More conservative estimations count just Arizona, southern pieces of Utah and Colorado, western New Mexico, and a chunk of west Texas.

Of course, Mesa would be in the running. It's the third most populated city in Arizona, behind Phoenix and Tucson. A big city, per Money, is any with more than 300,000 people. Mesa easily surpasses this count, with an estimated 461,000 people.

This population requirement quickly rules out the majority of Arizona's 91 cities and towns, including Tempe, Gilbert, Glendale, Chandler, and even Scottsdale, which Money mentioned in comparison to Mesa regarding its golf course prowess. Okay, fine.

Covering 133 square miles, Mesa is without a doubt big. But its population density, which comes in at about 3,536 people per square mile, is lacking compared to the other cities included on Money's list. Pittsburgh has 5,540 people per square mile, Denver 4,044. For context, and if we were to run with the broader definition of the Southwest, it's helpful to know that Los Angeles has 8,282 people per square mile. 

Speaking of people, here are a few associated with Mesa who are all too familiar to locals: Russell Pearce (the recalled ex-state Senate President who thought it would be cool to forcibly sterilize women on Medicaid), Ryan Giroux (the white supremacist who shot six people in Mesa last year), and Travis Alexander (the man Jodi Arias murdered in his Mesa home).

Yes, these people do not reflect the city's greater population. But they are not insignificant in considering it as a place to move. In favor of balance, we'll note that emo rock hero Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World and Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters both hail from Mesa. Neither one still lives in Mesa, however.

This isn't to say that Mesa is without charm. Quite the contrary. The East Valley suburb is home to what some might argue is the Valley's best arts destination that also has the distinction of being the region's largest arts and entertainment complex: Mesa Arts Center. MAC routinely hosts concerts and theatrical productions in a lovely facility, and the center includes Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum, a bastion of Arizona art. There's culture to be had, and Mesa looks on its way to becoming one of the metropolitan area's top arts hubs. The city's most notable independent music venue, The Nile, recently got its liquor license. A new stretch of the Valley-spanning Light Rail opened just days prior to this writing, and the city seems keen on expanding its public art offerings particularly when it comes to murals.

In its reasoning for choosing Mesa as the Southwest's best big city, Money touts its golf courses, some well-ranked schools, and low housing prices.

We won't argue those points, but we will say that public schools are generally not great in Arizona and great real estate offerings can also be found across the Valley. Forbes recently named Phoenix among the best cities to invest in housing in 2015. 

Mesa's shortcomings, then, are easy to spot when looking for, oh, things people generally associate with big cities. These include but are not limited to bustling nightlife available every night of the week, a burgeoning creative class, numerous places to see both visual and performing art (and interact with people making it), beautiful hotels, established alternative transportation options, world-class shopping, an array of museums and cultural institutions, and plenty of stellar restaurants.

Is Mesa a family-friendly place where you could buy a nice house and probably be pretty happy? Yes. Does that make it a better big city than Phoenix or Tucson? 

Quite simply, no.

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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski