Phoenix Has an Inferiority Complex

New Orleans is sexy. Denver is earthy. Austin rocks, Dallas shops. New York never sleeps. San Francisco is stunning. Los Angeles is star struck. Boston is really smart.

And Phoenix? Phoenix is slumped on the Barcalounger eating potato chips and drinking beer, scratching itself, bored to tears. If Phoenix had a mother, she would say, "Get off your ass and take a shower! Get out of the house! You're young, you're handsome, you've got a lot going on upstairs. For Chrissakes, you're the fifth-largest city in the country. You've got to be able to find something to do."

But Phoenix is depressed. I think the city's having a quarter-life crisis -- you know, that new trend where 25-year-olds decide they're all washed up because they've graduated from college and haven't yet married, had 2.5 kids, bought a lovely house and made a million dollars?

This first occurred to me about a year and a half ago, when urban-studies rock star Richard Florida came to town to talk about the creative class. New Times did a big long project on downtown Phoenix -- why we've never had one, why we need one, what it will take to get one. After Florida left, everyone admitted they hadn't been able to make it all the way through his book, and we all agreed the guy was a real boor, but that he was onto something when he said that cities need more bookstores, coffee shops and art galleries. We scrambled to find the one cool restaurant in Phoenix open after 10 p.m. to take Florida to, after his speech.

Point taken.

It's totally camp to hate Phoenix. In the early '90s, a local artist made tee shirts with booming yellow suns and the slogan "Phoenix Is Boring." Reubens Accomplice, a local band, named an album Blame It on the Scenery. And for years, I had Hunter S. Thompson's opinion of Phoenix pasted to a wall in my office:

"If there is, in fact, a heaven and a hell, all we know for sure is that hell will be a viscously overcrowded version of Phoenix -- a clean, well-lighted place full of sunshine and bromides and fast cars where almost everybody seems vaguely happy, except those who know in their hearts what is missing."

Is Phoenix so bad? Or do we suck because we think we suck? So many times, I've read or heard about how super a city or a neighborhood is, and rushed to check it out. Almost every time, I get there and, yeah, sure, it's kinda cool -- all two blocks of it. I stood on Sixth Street in Austin, in NoLita (north of Little Italy) in Lower Manhattan, at the Highlands in Denver, and thought, well, yeah, this is neat. But where's the rest of it? What's the big fucking deal?

The big fucking deal is the hype. People love Seattle, so go there, and I bet you'll love it, too. It's got the vibe, the rep, the gold. And Phoenix? MTV hasn't even filmed a season of The Real World here. No one wants to live in Phoenix.

Of course, that's not true. People are streaming in here like crazy. They're also streaming out, not as quickly, but they are. And I've always noticed that smart people seem to leave the fastest. Every few years, someone swears the tide is turning, that Phoenix is coming into its own, that good stuff is about to happen. For the first time, I actually sort of believe it. But now I'm worried that no one else does, that Phoenix is so convinced of its ugly-duckling status that nobody will bother to notice that anything's going on.

The other day, I stood in Stinkweeds, Kimber Lanning's record shop in central Phoenix, and she told me about Dominick, a kid she knows from Peoria. He comes into the store once in a while. Recently, he told her he was just back from New York City, had a great time, saw Tim Berne, a really great jazz musician.

Really? Lanning said. Tim Berne was just at Modified Arts, the performance space/art gallery she runs downtown. She didn't see Dominick at that show.

Oh no, the kid replied. Why drive all the way across town to see a band?

Well, it beats flying across the country.

It's not like the kid went to New York just to see Tim Berne, but you get the point.

Go downtown. I remember driving down Roosevelt Street late one night a few years ago, on my way home from someplace, and noticing twinkly white lights on the windows of a building I'd never noticed. Hmmmph, I thought. Looks like someone's opened something. Good luck. Turns out, that was Modified, Lanning's place. This time, it was actually joined by other art and performance spaces, and something's happening in the Roosevelt neighborhood. It's like watching a Polaroid picture develop. Go over to Grand Avenue; you can actually park and spend a hunk of time, walking from gallery to gallery. There's even a place to get coffee. We all joke about how crappy most of the art for sale is, but that's changing, too. Artists from Phoenix are starting to get recognized in New York, but for the most part, they're still ignored here. Lanning swears she heard a statistic that on a given weekend, there are more shows here than in Seattle. I'm not sure I believe that, but there's a lot more going on than most people think.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.