Has Phoenix Finally Arrived? Feel the Love

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"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.

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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