Best Alley Art 2021 | Oak Street Alley | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

Cruising Down Central Avenue

You’re cruising Central, headed south. Because you’ve lived in Phoenix longer than you care to remember, you’re seeing not just the buildings on either side of this wide expanse of road, but what used to stand in their places as well. You’ve been here so long, you remember when driving up and down this street, looking to hook up, was a weekend activity of every baby boomer in town.

Here on your right is Park Central Mall. Its recent facelift gives Phoenix’s first outdoor shopping mall a Midcentury Modern feel, but you’re not fooled. You recall when there were actual department stores there, where today there’s a collection of business offices, a handful of chain restaurants, and — huzzah! — a Starbucks. One thing they got right was returning the Walter Emory Sun Worshipper statue, a long-ago Park Central mainstay, to the property. Even if it is on the wrong side of the mall.

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Walking around the city's best museums and galleries, you'll rarely find works by as many Phoenix-based artists as you will during a stroll along Oak Street Alley. Dozens of artists have been painting murals in this Coronado neighborhood alley for many years now, providing an evolving exhibition that reveals the diverse styles and themes embraced by local muralists. Some address heavy topics like gun violence. Others memorialize historic figures or musicians. And a very special one elevates the light that a little girl who died of cancer continues to shine on her community. Oak Street Alley includes work by some of the city's best-loved artists, including La Morena, Maggie Keane, Thomas "Breeze" Marcus, and JB Snyder. For both the casual art lover and the dedicated mural spotter, it's a place spilling over with inspiration — and more than a few kickass selfie backdrops.

During a year dominated by the pandemic and divisive political rhetoric, Tree of Life stood out. Created by Tucson artist Daniel Martin Diaz, the piece — a trio of cut-steel sculptures anchored by an 11-foot-tall red tile mural with tree imagery blending organic and scientific forms — served as a monument to healing, growth, and community. It's particularly striking within the wider context of national conversations and protests about monuments, because it serves as a monument to the desert, as well as the people past and present who give it life. In addition, the piece inspires viewers to explore the artist's larger body of work, leading them on a journey through his imaginings of physical and metaphysical worlds.

For travelers who'll never enter a traditional art space in Phoenix, Vanished Tempest provides a glimpse into the city's contemporary art scene, opening a window onto the creativity in our midst. The installation, which opened inside Terminal 3 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in June, features a group of paintings created by Phoenix artist Laura Spalding Best on silver trays and candy dishes. Best painted vignettes that amplify the intersection of natural and urban landscapes, such as a palm tree seemingly rooted in concrete, prompting people passing through Phoenix to consider both the beauty and the hidden complexities of desert life. Her artwork leaves travelers wanting to learn more about our city and the curious ways it's navigated by both visitors and locals.

As new construction goes up all around it, Burton Barr Central Library continues to stand out, reminding people that great buildings are more than big boxes. Walls of windows allow patrons to look over the urban landscape, even as shelves filled with books invite them to look inward and keep learning. Through lecture series and other programs, Burton Barr Central Library promotes Phoenix's diversity. With dedicated spaces for youth and makers, a first-floor gallery, and a rare book room, the library amplifies the importance of not only reading, but community as well.

Nowadays, most people can watch movies on the devices they keep in their pockets or sit at home in front of a TV screen scrolling through countless film options, which means a movie theater has to bring something extra to the equation to really make an impact. Majestic Theaters, first launched several years ago as Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, offers themed events tied to classic films, luxury seating few can afford to realize in their own homes, and culinary choices that range from comfort food to more sophisticated fare. Special event screenings happen at several theaters across the Valley, meaning people have more places and times to see the specialty films that appeal to their sense of nostalgia or play. Props like glow sticks create an atmosphere that's hard to capture in your own home. Movie-going as a spirited, social enterprise is on full display at Majestic Theaters, where you can feel like a kid but still experience films with some heavy grown-up vibes.

This year, FilmBar gave cinema fans new ways to engage with films by adding a smaller secondary screening space at its brick-and-mortar movie house in downtown Phoenix and screening films in partnership with other spaces around the Valley. Patrons saw classic movies inside the historic Orpheum Theatre, lent their vocals to Big Gay Singalong screenings for movie musicals and other fan favorites at its outdoor satellite at the new Pemberton PHX, and saw the launch of FilmBar's partnership with the Nile Theater for a series of record/movie swaps and film screenings. Even as people have more options for watching movies in the comfort of their home alone on a comfy couch, FilmBar is finding new ways to show the value of films for creating and sustaining community.

The last permanent drive-in movie theater in Arizona was offering outdoor cinema long before other drive-in movie locations started popping up around the Valley during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 1979, guests have watched thousands of new movies under the glow of Glendale 9's outdoor screens and enjoyed the old-school concessions stand, which is shaped like an octagon and includes all the staples (popcorn, cotton candy) of the moviegoing experience. Glendale 9 was one of the first drive-ins nationally to upgrade its movie audio from boxy speakers that hung on car windows to FM frequencies on people's car stereos, and it continues to premiere new movies every week.

It's not just that the miniature cityscape of Phoenix now on display at Tempe's LEGOLAND Discovery Center is made from nearly 2 million plastic LEGO bricks. The other thing that makes master model builder Alec Posta's whimsical creation so very special is the inclusion of Phoenix's perpetually torn-up streets. The numerous construction scenes are a nice touch in the diorama, created by a team of builders in both 1:72 scale and 1:48 scale. The cityscape extends into Tempe and beyond, so Chase Tower and St. Mary's Basilica are joined by the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook and the Cardinals Stadium. Want to show out-of-town visitors your city? Take them to the Arizona Mills shopping center, point to Posta's clever creation, and you're done.

Dominique Chatterjee
Desert at Lux

It's hard for a first-timer to find Lux Central. There's no sign, and Google Maps will send you to what looks like an empty building on Central Avenue. The entrance is around back, and you'll know you're there because you'll start to see effortlessly glamorous people who all look hipper and happier than you could ever hope to be. Although being surrounded by all these pretty people makes us feel ugly and unstylish, we still like going to Lux Central. As a cafe, it's something of a five-tool player, offering coffee, baked goods, brunch, dinner, and booze, and staying open late (midnight on weekdays, 2 a.m. on the weekends). That means that pretty much anytime you stop in, you'll find a decent crowd of people whose clothes and tattoos and haircuts and mannerisms you can study in the hopes of becoming cooler.

We like the light rail; we're glad it's there, it's good for the city, etc. But we don't often think to take it to the airport, even though it stops there. We tend to be too hurried to get to our flight on time to add another transportation variable into the mix. But with Uber prices surging one afternoon this year ($35 from the Garfield neighborhood to Sky Harbor, are you kidding?), we trudged with our suitcase to the closest stop and boarded the train. After a long walk from the 44th Street stop, you must board the PHX Sky Train, which ferries you to your terminal. We'd never had the pleasure. We were sweaty and tense about flying during a pandemic, but for about five minutes on the Sky Train, standing up and clutching a pole, a calm fell over us. This dinky little vessel travels along an elevated track, dipping and twisting gently, like a slow-motion roller coaster. It even offers modest views — the mountains to the south, the city to the north. By the time we arrived at Terminal 4, our forehead sweat had dried and our spirits had lifted. We tried it again a few months later. Same outcome: inner peace via the Sky Train. The Uber savings aren't bad either.

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