Longform

Has Phoenix Finally Arrived? Feel the Love

In Jason Hill's Phoenix, the sun never sets. His paintings of the city — a vibrant Valley National Bank framed by a glowing sky; a dazzling Financial Center with a jet jauntily speeding past — are thousand-watt, high-color beacons that send the same, simple, not-so-subliminal message: Phoenix is cool. Come see for yourself.

Laura Spalding's paintings are more roundabout celebrations of our town. Onto old Arizona license plates and tin trays, she paints skies cluttered with telephone poles and electrical wires. Her cityscapes are testimonies to how amazing it is that Phoenix sprang up in the desert in the first place; homages to how it survived to become a prosperous, distinctive destination.

Georganne Bryant's message is less subtle. Onto black, cotton T-shirts that she sells at her midtown boutique, she has had a local T-shirt artist silk-screen this legend: Love Phoenix or Leave Phoenix.

Something has shifted. Hill and Spalding and Bryant and dozens of others like them are having a public love affair with Phoenix. They're opening cafes and launching Web sites and creating art that speaks of their pride in a city that most of us have gotten pretty good at mocking. Many of these folks would have us believe — and, perhaps, want to believe themselves — that we, the country's fifth-largest city, have finally arrived. That Phoenix has at last, after decades of false starts and near misses, awakened from a slumber that lasted way too long.

If so, it's been roused from its sleep by desert devotees who've been quick to ignore the gaping maw between our new urban core and our sprawling suburbs, who want to forget that we're still being marketed as a sun-and-sand resort by folks who can't figure out what to call downtown in the first place. And yet their single-minded support has resulted in a homegrown boosterism the likes of which our town has never seen.


This newly hopeful vision of Phoenix is one that's pretty easy to support these days, because the fifth-largest city in the country has lately been looking like, well, the fifth-largest city in the country. Chase Field has drawn attention to downtown, home now to historic overlays, new developments, and a visual arts scene that's launched national stars like agricultural artist Matthew Moore and wood carver and painter Hector Ruiz. Arizona State University has gobbled up huge portions of downtown, rehabbing old buildings and erecting new ones as part of its expanding campus. Musicians proudly trumpet Phoenix as their home and, rather than blowing town after making it big, hang around as proud residents.

But why now? Talk to enough people, and you'll hear every possible theory. Some claim that Phoenix finally dragged itself from its own ashes because a handful of artists who'd been living in downtown lofts hung on until slow-witted suburbanites traded trolling malls for the fun of First Friday. Others point to city planners who finally took note of what the grassroots movement had done to reclaim our once-dreary downtown. People in the know like to talk about how Jerry Colangelo singlehandedly lured developers and small business owners to the former cesspool that was downtown. Still others insist that it happened simply because list makers were out of options. Someone had to be the "hot new city," and it was our turn.

Regardless of who gets credit, it appears that Phoenix is finally coming into its own. And if it's taken a while to happen, according to longtime Phoenix booster Kimber Lanning, that's because we're still being marketed in travel ads and Web sites as a desert oasis, home to country club golf courses and banks of saguaro behind which a spectacular sun is setting. "That's been our legacy for decades," says Lanning, who's led the charge toward an improved urban core, first as a small business owner (she started Stinkweeds, a popular record shop, more than a decade ago) and lately as director of Local First Arizona, a nonprofit that promotes locally owned businesses. "For a long time, it was hard to figure out how to change what people thought of when they heard 'Phoenix.'"

Someone has. And they're not attached to an ad firm or working for the chamber of commerce. They're the people who kick-started Phoenix's coolness in the first place, the artists and downtown shop owners who've struggled to sew a sun-drenched silk purse, and who now want to annihilate Phoenix's old-school reputation as a desert oasis, home to year-round putting greens and magical sunsets, and replace it with news of a hipper version of Phoenix — the urban, more cosmopolitan city they helped to create. And if their shouting is a bit premature, who can blame them? Things around here are better than they've ever been, thanks in part to these trailblazers. So what if they — arty types who've toiled for years to get a toehold on a trendier city — are hasty in hollering about Phoenix having "arrived"? Or that they're quick to overlook all that's still wrong around here? It's enough that we've reached not a final destination but rather what wags are calling our "tipping point," a phrase coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2000 book of the same name, in which he described "the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable . . . the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point."

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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