Tear Down Town

Three years since Phoenix New Times ran our "Exploding Downtown" series, the wrecking ball is still taking aim all over downtown, threatening what little history the city has left to preserve. Will Phoenix wind up a cross between Disneyland and Mill Avenue?

This week: Phoenix is too eager to scrape the slate clean, over and over.

When the folks at Hasbro recently released a new edition of Monopoly, the world's most-played board game, they replaced the fictional Atlantic City streets of the original version with real-life American cities. Three cheers for Phoenix, the country's fifth-largest city, for making the grade: Our hometown appears in the pricier "red" section of the board, in the spot formerly known as Kentucky Avenue. But while most cities are proudly illustrated with man-made structures — Atlanta with a photo of its Centennial Olympic Park; St. Louis with its famed Gateway Arch — Phoenix is represented not by an architectural marvel or an historic icon of its city, but by Camelback Mountain. In other words, by something built not by crafty city planners or forward-thinking founding fathers, but by erosion.

Clearly, the Hasbro people are on to us. It's more than a little disconcerting to know that even people who make board games for a living are aware that, when one thinks of Phoenix, one thinks not of grand skyscrapers or gorgeous cityscapes, but of a pile of dirt.

On the other hand, how apropos. Because what iconic structure could possibly illustrate Phoenix in any context? We're not known for our cohesive city planning or our rich history of structural design. Phoenix's architectural past has long been treated like the detritus of an ex-lover we're ashamed of — the mean guy who beat us, stole our money, and farted at the dinner table; the trampy, undereducated gal we stayed with because she had a big rack. Once they finally leave for good, we're so embarrassed we ever dated them that we destroy all evidence of their presence in our lives.

So goes Phoenix, wiped clean by a wrecking ball time and again. Except Phoenix never had a big rack to begin with; has never been a city sexy enough to fool anyone into loving us for long. Instead, we've been a place so concerned with being "small town" that we've put all our energy into reinventing ourselves, into becoming something we've never quite achieved. We've ripped out our foundation again and again, leveling landmarks like St. Mary's School, the Fox Theater and the old Ciné Capri movie house as capriciously as one would toss out a valentine from a former lover.

Long gone are hangouts where generations of Phoenicians gathered, places like boxing ring-turned-music club Madison Square Gardens and popular watering holes like the Kon Tiki, the Mecca Lounge, or Mr. Lucky's. (The late Jane Jacobs insisted, in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that any old building was valuable to a city; presumably this includes buildings that housed discotheques and country-western bars.)

The result is a city that has spent more time struggling than prospering, one that's wobbly with fatigue from its many reinventions. And as downtown Phoenix enters yet another development boom with the advent of light rail, ASU's new campus, and several proposed mega-block residential projects, it's also facing a citywide real estate slowdown. That's an economic conundrum that's been weathered with comparative ease by smaller cities — ones that don't rip out huge chunks of their architectural history every couple of decades. What for Phoenix?

What's with this place, anyhow? Why are we a city compelled to wipe our slate clean every so often, rather than building on an established community? Why is it that our few remaining historic properties seem always to be shivering in the cold shadow of the wrecking ball?

Some say the transient nature of Phoenix culture is the problem; that without a multigenerational stewardship, no building is significant. There's the argument that no structure is historically important until it's at least 50 years old, and there's precious little of Phoenix's post-World War II boom left standing to even consider, so why bother? And there are those — mostly in the building trades — who think that the city has weakened its foundation by scaring off developers with its schizophrenic zoning rules and mad-as-hell ad hoc groups whose zeal for preservation precludes common sense.

What the hell is going on here?

Phoenix is the victim of its own vicious cycle, apparently. In a town that tears down and rebuilds every couple of decades, nothing looks old enough or architecturally significant enough to save. Which usually leads to more demolition.

"What we're left with in downtown Phoenix is mostly buildings between 50 to 80 years old," says David Tell, who moved here eight years ago from Michigan and publishes The Midtown Messenger, a newspaper devoted to historic downtown. "In many cases, it's unlovely architecture that doesn't look historic to us, especially if we've moved here from somewhere where 'historic' meant neighborhoods of Victorian homes trimmed with gingerbread and old red brick office buildings. In Phoenix, it's about stucco and monolithic structures, and it's easy to not be impressed by what makes them historic."

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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