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."

"Tipping point" is a phrase one hears often in discussion with those who think Phoenix is almost "there," a place where big things are about to happen. Hill says it; so does Gregory Sale, another local artist for whom our "tipping point" is cause for celebration.

"People aren't apologizing so much anymore about living in Phoenix," he says, "because more of what we're doing to pull ourselves up, especially in the arts community, is blipping the national radar."

But are blips enough? "We are not," Sale admits, "really quite there yet."

Even a Phoenix fan like Jason Hill admits he's still "searching for the city's soul." If his paintings are any indication, he's mostly finding it in our recent past, because its mid-century buildings encapsulate, Hill believes, the futuristic optimism Phoenix was built on.

Hill is part of a growing community of Phoenix boosters who call themselves MoPhos — short for "Modern Phoenix" and a reference to the MoPho home base, modernphoenix.net. Its cofounder, Alison King, says that the MoPhos played a big part in telegraphing the message that Phoenix isn't a desert wasteland; that it's becoming a swell place to settle down, one that's home to affordable acres of the kind of mid-century ranch homes that MoPhos like to live in.

King doesn't want to hog credit for getting the word out, but her Web site's bulletin board is jammed with notes from a community of like-minded, Phoenix-loving desert rats. They're keen on modern architecture. They help one another restore falling-down homes built by Arizona architect Ralph Haver. They cheer Jason Hill for his paintings of Central Avenue's Financial Center, a building Hill loves so much that he thinks it should be our new city icon.

While King's site offers a virtual support system for mid-century modernists, Jonathan Wayne provides a brick-and-mortar version. Wayne owns Red Modern Furniture, a Camelback Road store that's become what he calls "the concierge for people who come here from someplace else." The people who flock to Red, which specializes in higher-end mid-century furnishings and clothing and is housed in a 1954 concrete-and-steel Haver building, are usually looking for more than a Haywood Wakefield dining suite. Wayne points them to the best mid-century neighborhoods, tells them where to dine, and helps them navigate a city distinctly different from the one from which they just relocated.

"If we didn't tell people where to go to find their community, they'd do what people have been doing for years around here: They'd go back where they moved here from," says Wayne, who's surrounded by museum-quality Eames chairs and Calder-inspired lighting fixtures in a store that's set up like the very homes it wants to furnish. "We're trying to unify people, and it's a constant battle, because we're still a city that's putting up a Walgreens every five weeks, rather than focusing on building the more interesting, multi-use facilities that other cities have."

That's a hot-button topic with Hill, who thinks an iconic building is key in a successful city turnaround. "What do you think of when you think of New York?" he asks. "The Empire State Building? How about L.A.? The Hollywood sign? You get the picture. Phoenix is definitely at a tipping point" — there's that phrase again — "but we need to do a better job at projecting a modern, cosmopolitan image to the world."

In the meantime, the jury is still out on whether Phoenix is ready or not. Even the biggest Phoenix fan will admit there remains a disconnect between the burgeoning downtown core, where all the exciting new stuff is happening, and the city's suburban sprawl. Perhaps it's a holdover from the '70s, when downtown was considered an unsafe place, but most Friday nights will find what looks like every cop in the city directing post-game traffic away from Chase Field and onto city freeways and thoroughfares —away from downtown cafes and commerce and back to the safety of outlying housing developments. Certainly light rail (set to begin operating in December) will slow this rush, but not if plans hold to shut down service at midnight. A 24-hour transit system would lose money on its late-night run, but would provide an amenity that Phoenix has never had: access to our city at any hour of the night or day.

That's important in a downtown that offers little in the way of affordable housing, where half-million-dollar loft condos are the order of the day. Pricey downtown real estate means fewer downtown residents and less after-work foot traffic. The result is a downtown that, even on weekend nights, tends to look more like an abandoned movie set of a big city than a lively city center.

The disconnect between suburbanites and our urban core can't last, says Don Keuth, who heads up the Phoenix Community Alliance, a coalition of business leaders who've dedicated themselves to the revitalization of central Phoenix. "Right now, people who don't live there are coming downtown and looking around and saying, 'What is all this?' One day very soon, that'll change to them going back to their communities with news of how the city is changing."

If so, it won't be thanks to anything the city's done. "When a city is marketing itself, there are things you typically do," says Rita Sanders, whose Rita Sanders Advertising and Public Relations Agency has pimped everything from car shows to the Cardinals. "You fly travel writers in from around the country, and you show them the city you want them to write about. You name certain parts of town, and you come up with slogans that help people understand what those parts of town are about. Good, descriptive names. Memorable slogans."

Sanders, whose clients include the City of Phoenix, is cautious about trashing Copper Square, a failed attempt at branding a 90-block downtown retail-and-office district with names and slogans that were anything but descriptive or memorable. But with a little prodding, Sanders will admit that the project was a fiasco.

"Copper Square! Look, I'm in the business 30 years, and even I don't know what that name is supposed to mean. Is it a business district? Is it an entertainment district? Why should I go there? If I've lived in Phoenix a long time, I need a name that's going to make me feel better about going downtown, which didn't used to be a place you sent people you liked to."

Sanders needn't worry about what the name Copper Square means, because, after eight years and millions of dollars spent promoting it, the city has dumped the name and hired a consulting firm to dream up a new name for downtown.

"They gave up too easily," Sanders says. "And now they're starting over again, which is kind of a Phoenix tradition."

It's clear that Phoenix's new booster club doesn't care whether downtown has a new name. They're not willing to wait for Don Keuth's "one day very soon." Look around the next time you're in a crowd, and you might spot someone wearing an "I Heart Phoenix" lapel pin. Poke around on the Internet, and you'll find pages of blogs devoted to digging the Valley of the Sun. Keep an eye peeled in traffic, and you'll likely spy one of Bryant's "Love Phoenix or Leave Phoenix!" bumper stickers fixed to someone's tailgate.

There's a brand-new backlash against Phoenix-bashing, and Bryant is its self-appointed spokeswoman.

"I was just so tired of all the whining," she says from behind the counter of Frances, the two-year-old Camelback boutique where she sells handmade belt buckles and vintage clothing and garden supplies. "I'd be in my store and people would come in — and I get people from age 10 to age 70 in here — and they'd be complaining about what a hole this town is. I thought people weren't looking deeper into what was happening here. There's a lot of great stuff going on. But do these people ever go anywhere south of Camelback? Do they ever leave Scottsdale? I am telling you, they do not."

Bryant, who grew up in Tucson and has lived in Phoenix for 25 years, wanted people to shut the hell up about her town. That her "Love Phoenix or Leave Phoenix" shirts and bumper stickers are such big hits is another indication that bashing Phoenix is as old and tired as an Acquanetta joke.

"That 'I hate Phoenix' message used to come from a bunch of pissed-off 19-year-olds who were wishing they lived in New York," Kimber Lanning says. "And it's true, there didn't used to be so much to love about this place. But now you've got people who've defined who we are as a city, who rolled up their sleeves, figured out how to deal with city policy, and grew the parts of this place that we love."

It certainly took long enough. Of course, all those years Phoenix pretended to be a Marlboro ad didn't help matters any. Decades' worth of illustrations of our city, whether painted or line-drawn or charcoal-sketched, seemed always to depict a Saguaro cactus perched moodily against a brown, hilly skyline, or a crusty cowpoke admiring a brilliant sunset. Usually there was a bleached cow skull or the silhouette of a horse in there somewhere. And for a long and especially dire period, a bandanna-wearing, howling coyote.

These images sent a plain message: Come to Phoenix, and you get to wear cowboy boots all the time. You can have a cactus in your yard. There are wild animals here, but it's okay — they wear cotton-blend fashion accessories.

Not anymore. These days, local artists are receiving national attention with striking send-ups of stereotypical Western art. Painter Steven Yazzie has spoofed bandanna-wearing wildlife in a series of portraits of coyotes posing moodily on contemporary furniture, and his oil-on-canvas Asshole pokes fun at both the Scottsdale art scene and Arizona's Old West reputation. Randy Slack's paintings of peeling, run-down street signage document Phoenix before its latest face lift, while artists like Jason Hill and Laura Spalding present a more urban, more accurate depiction of the city, one that actually looks like what you'll find once you get here.

Hill relocated from Portland six years ago, arriving at what he calls "the end of Phoenix's ghost town phase," when downtown was still largely deserted. He remembers seeing the Financial Center at Central and Osborn for the first time; it "blew his mind." He remembers thinking, "Why are these beautifully designed offices on Central Avenue sitting empty, while generic office parks on the edge of town are filled to capacity?" Conversations Hill had with longtime residents only strengthened his suspicion that there was an unhealthy disconnect between Phoenicians and the city's urban core. His friends in Portland were begging him to come home.

Hill's unique, hand-painted photographs and prints reveal an urban landscape burning brightly from behind its own cattle-and-cowpokes mythology. His surreal, color-drenched views of midtown bowling alleys and space-age Sunnyslope banks telegraph a truer Phoenix to folks who think we're still a cow town. And his love affair with the Financial Center has brought us a series of acrylic-enhanced images that speak of a city established not on a tumbleweed-strewn desert plain, but on the cusp of the technological age. His art speaks of a city with a unique sense of place, a tranquil, organized urban environment that was standing tall back when all those postcards and cigarette ads wanted outsiders to believe we were a parched, sand-colored wasteland.

Artist Laura Spalding wasn't fooled by all the cowboy stuff in the first place. She came here from Chicago to go to ASU about a decade ago, and stayed to paint mundane fixtures of city life: power lines snaking through sunny suburban skies; stark traffic lights against a smoggy sunset. Like Hill's, hers is a more sincere picture of Phoenix, one that flies in the face of yesterday's cowboy claptrap.

"The idea behind these paintings was just to admit that we live here," Spalding says, "and not in some quaint old artist's notion of a desert landscape. If you stand in the middle of Phoenix, you're not going to see a cactus wren and a prickly pair. You're going to see streetlights and the tops of palm trees against an urban skyline. That's what Phoenix actually looks like."

These sincere snapshots of the city are helping to overhaul Phoenix's antiquated image. Greg Esser thinks so, anyway. He ought to know; Esser once ran the city's public arts program and, along with wife Cindy Dach, now owns several successful spots along what's known as Roosevelt Row, a former blighted area that's now a thriving block of mixed-use bungalows, home to artist studios, boutiques, and galleries. He and Dach are high on a list of Phoenix boosters who've been instrumental in resurrecting downtown.

"Instead of marketing our tourist assets, like golfing and sunny weather, we're acknowledging that people live here year-round," Esser says of the grassroots movement that's helped to haul Phoenix into the 21st century. "We're talking about our ability to grow things the community wants, rather than what visitors might spend tourism dollars on before going back home."

Georganne Bryant isn't worried. She thinks the "Leave Phoenix" part of her message will eventually always be trumped by the "Love Phoenix" part. She sees a new day dawning, one in which people come to Phoenix to play golf and go home only long enough to pack their belongings and move here. "It's a kind of energy — you can feel that something's happening here," she says. "A year from now, people will get here and see what we have going on," she says, "and they won't want to be anyplace else."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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