Has Phoenix Finally Arrived? Feel the Love

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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.

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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