Best Of :: People & Places
Musicians seem drawn to using public transit systems as a backdrop for performances. We've seen many a street rat busking in NYC and D.C. subways while strumming their acoustic gee-tars. Maybe it's the captive audience or Americana's deep-rooted bonds shared by trains and tunes. Either way, we figured that once the Valley's light-rail system launched last December, it wouldn't be too long until we heard live music at stations. The folks behind the Train Tracks did us one better and have been booking Phoenix indie acts to play unplugged versions of their songs on light-rail cars since February. Conjured up by a cabal of CenPho left-brain types (including Inside Creative Minds filmmaker Tray Goodman and Modified Arts/Stinkweeds' Kimber Lanning) the weekly online video series records acoustic performances by such local scene favorites as Courtney Marie Andrews, Yourchestra, and Sugar Thieves during rush hour. It's similar to London's Black Cab Sessions (albeit not in a back of a taxi), in which everything's done in one take. Every three months, those who get the best response are invited to compete in a quarterly First Friday battle of the bands at the Phoenix Art Museum. The winner will get stage time at next year's Tempe Musical Festival. Sounds good to us, as long as they don't ask us for spare change.
Though nobody knows her real name, "Cake Lady," as downtowners have affectionately dubbed her, continues to contribute to central Phoenix lore. In short, there's a woman about town who occasionally shows up at gatherings (a music performance, an art exhibit) looking for free stuff, especially cake. The consensus is that she reads New Times (a smart woman, indeed) and then calls ahead to inquire about the possibility of free goodies. She's been spotted only a couple of times, including years ago at a birthday party at the now-defunct Paper Heart, where she briefly showed up, then dashed out the door with a bunch of cake to go. Hey, Cake Lady, share some next time!
Yes, you're reading that right. No, we're not heat-addled.
Summer in Phoenix rules.
We first noticed this seeming contraction one day several years ago when all the traffic on Indian School Road dried up. Poof! It was like a scene from I Am Legend or Vanilla Sky. And it made us ponder the other positives of a season in which temps can hit the 120s in the shade and you can get a third-degree burn on your butt just by getting in your car.
The sunsets. The storms. The long light of evenings. The short lines at our favorite hangs. The full-moon hikes. The abundant parking at Piestewa Peak. The pool parties. The misters. The cheap resort rates. The free Sunday-afternoon films at the Phoenix Art Museum.
More than specific pleasures, though, our late-blooming appreciation of Phoenix summer has to do with the sense of inclusion we feel from Memorial Day through late September. For 120-odd days, it's our town — not the fifth-largest city in America. It feels like a community.
It's hot, but it's home.
It was weird, right? This year, summer didn't really start 'til July. Sure, we had a hot day here and there, but any true Phoenician knows to brace for the heat starting in, oh, March. Not so in 2009, and June was particularly balmy. If you don't believe us, check out the stats: We haven't had this many days under 100 in the month of June (only 13!) since 1927. Which only made July the cruelest month — when, as if on cue, the temperature soared.
Here at New Times, we know maps. We've spent countless hours trying to assemble them for our own various purposes. That's why we have such an appreciation for the Small Wonders map, published by Local First Arizona, designed to promote local businesses in both central/downtown Phoenix and Tempe. Consider this our thank you note for the labor of love it took to create these fold-out, easy-to-use, eye-pleasing guides to our favorite stuff in the city. It was surely no small feat to produce them.
Depending on whom you ask, the year-old Metro light rail may or may not be the most over-hyped project in Phoenix history. But no matter what you think of the billion-dollar (and counting!) project, you have to admit the view of the Phoenix skyline from the bridge going over Tempe Town Lake is pretty amazing, especially at dusk. From the confines of the always overpacked or nearly empty train car, you get a glimpse of Phoenix at its best. The downtown towers reach ever higher, their steady ascent seemingly fueled by the mysterious desert waters around you, but they never quite catch their backdrop, South Mountain. As the copper-colored star fades into the purplish haze of an Arizona sunset, even the most curmudgeonly rail-hater has to be impressed by the beautiful scene framed through the windows of this ambitious transportation project.
We are so over Mill Avenue. We are so over Mill, in fact, that we're even done complaining about it. These days, we're just feeling a little sad over what are becoming such distant memories of the heyday of Arizona State's main drag — just about the only spot in metropolitan Phoenix that ever had hope of hopping.
In the past year, things got even worse. Tempe Marketplace sucked pretty much what was left of the retail off Mill. Even Coffee Plantation bailed. Now, it's mostly a lot of empty storefronts and buildings a, testament to the worst of the failed local economy.
But don't call code on the patient quite yet. Just recently, we've started hearing word that things might finally turn around on Mill. The new director of Downtown Tempe Community Inc., Nancy Hormann, is rumored to be a real live wire (in a good way) and MADCAP Theaters (www.madcaptheaters.com) has moved into the old Harkins movie house at Centerpoint, planning to turn it into alternative performance spaces. Then we heard that Tempe finally has its own farmers market, Market on Mill (www.marketonmill.org).
At this rate, Mill Avenue might just get there. And that would have us dancing in the streets.
Driving in the Valley is usually pretty bo-ring, with its straight streets and backdrop of baby-puke-colored strip malls. That's why we're all about cruising the Loop 202, not only for its connectedness to the East Valley and Southeast Valley, but because of something normally not found in the States: roundabouts. We especially like to get our Euro on at the two circular structures at the McKellips Road interchange in Mesa. The traffic calmers are also located at Brown Road and University Drive, but the two on eastbound McKellips win, hands-down, due to kick-butt views of the Superstition Mountains, Four Peaks, and Red Mountain.
In a city built on a grid, it's no surprise that one of the few major stretches of twisty, kooky street is the best block in town. The winding road that is Seventh Avenue between Indian School and Camelback practically foretold this neighborhood's quirky style and severe case of The Funk. When city assessors were scoping out Phoenix and drawing lines that would become streets, a miscalculation created what came to be endearingly dubbed "the curve." Now home to a slew of restaurants, bars, vintage shops, music stores, and a pet shop named The Pampered Parrot, this block boasts some of the best shopping in central Phoenix. Unlike other parts of town, where older buildings are so yesterday, here they're celebrated, restored, and renamed to reflect their history. Like the Wagon Wheel building, which houses Melrose Pharmacy; Copper Star Coffee, where patrons fill up on caffeine instead of gas; or Exposed Gallery, where you'll find art hanging in what was once a giant vault. Melrose on Seventh always seems to have something going on, and that's why it is, indeed, the best stretch around.
If you doubt that Phoenix has come a long way, baby, check out this winner. Montebello and 19th Avenue used to be a dusty spot overlooking a sketchy mall with boarded-up businesses and a parking lot with more potholes than asphalt. Now, it's prime people-watching for the thousands who park and ride on Metro light rail every day. Naysayers who thought the light rail was little more than an urban pipe dream need look no further. Hipsters, bike riders, and suburban families line up en masse to board the trains. This park-and-ride spot is so successful that it's caused management of the new SuperTarget to post reminders that their parking lot is for shoppers, not mass transit riders. A public-transit success in this city? From this well-kept and furiously busy corner, you can watch it happen.
Though we'd love to give this category's award to a gorgeous Art Deco plaza or turn-of-the-century Gothic building, we're learning to embrace the realities of our fair city — which often means new construction. The developers of Mesa's Dana Park ventured beyond the modern cookie-cutter plan to create a new breed of strip mall that resembles an upscale Main Street. Yes, you'll find a host of chain stores here, such as Ann Taylor Loft and Apple, but there's also a handful of small businesses, including an ice cream parlor and two adorable children's boutiques. We admit we mainly come to Dana Park for the larger stores' clearance sections. The plaza isn't as busy as Scottsdale Fashion Square, so the clearance section at the Dana Park Anthropologie is bigger and better, not having been picked over. With fountains, a palatial white exterior, and shimmering ceiling-to-floor curtains flanking one retailer's grand entranceway, you can almost forget Dana Park is a strip mall. Almost.
Fans of old houses and cool architecture have grown accustomed to two types of home tours: those hosted by downtown's historic neighborhoods, like Encanto Palmcroft and F.Q. Story, and those private affairs hosted by snooty-boots homeowners who want to show off the glass-and-cement masterpiece they've just dropped onto the desert of north Scottsdale. And then there's the annual Modern Phoenix Expo and Home Tour, which used to be one of the city's best-kept secrets but sold out this year in a matter of days and is now considered the hot ticket among Mid-Century aficionados. That's because instead of throwing open the doors to one lovely old neighborhood, the MoPhos provide a walking tour of a half-dozen or so modern homes in the Uptown Phoenix and Arcadia neighborhoods, including structures designed by Ralph Haver, Al Beadle, Calvin Straub, and Ned Sawyer, to name a few.
And they don't stop there. The tour, which typically takes place in April, includes an expo that gives participants an interactive view into restored Mid-Century homes, and at which local architects and experts discuss the importance of documenting the Valley's endangered pool of world-class Mid-Century Modern architecture. No wonder the event is now so popular. Make your reservation for next year now.