The Cool Index

Page 4 of 9

Years from now, people like Malcolm Gladwell may very well point to Lux Coffeebar and Sloane McFarland as the tipping point of a cultural renaissance in Phoenix.

Other cities have such legends. The birthplace of cool in Denver is the City Spirit Café. In Providence, Rhode Island, it's an artists' collective called AS22. In Boston it's an artist named Sarah Hutt.

It's easy to identify a tipping point, after the fact. What's difficult is knowing you're on the verge of one, and figuring out how to get there.

Gladwell, who has spent more time in Phoenix than Richard Florida has, is surprised to hear that the "cool" question is even being asked. He came to town recently to write a story, he says, and booked a room at the San Carlos Hotel because he figured he should stay downtown. He wound up moving to a resort in Scottsdale, which didn't make him any happier.

Gladwell definitely would have missed the sign for Lux.

Phoenix won't ever be Paris, he says with confidence, but yeah, maybe the place could one day have an urban bohemian feel. The tipping point in creating a vibrant city, he says, comes when creative people decide to stay. But good things have to happen first, creating a chicken-and-egg dilemma similar to that involving downtown living space and downtown businesses. (In other words, no one wants to live downtown because there's nothing to do downtown, and no businesses want to locate downtown because no one lives there.)

"When you're not embarrassed to say, I'm from Phoenix,' then people will start to stay," Gladwell says. "The biggest issue with cities like Phoenix that are trying to develop this kind of downtown culture is that the kind of people who need to live there leave."

If people like Sloane McFarland are staying, Gladwell says, that's the first step. The second step: more people like Sloane McFarland. Many more. And there has to be density. Right now, the cool spots around town -- 15th Avenue and Grand, Central and Indian School, Third Street and Roosevelt -- hug the outskirts of what is traditionally considered the downtown core of Phoenix. With cool businesses emerging organically around the city, the question becomes: What is the role of government in encouraging this unique commerce, in pushing it past the tipping point? (See accompanying story on page 11.) Gladwell warns that incentives are not the be-all.

"The thing about financial incentives is, that's not the stumbling block to these people," he says. "People out to create ground swells aren't in it for the money. They are people who are trying to live a certain way and have a certain cultural satisfaction in life."

In fact, almost every creative entrepreneur interviewed says he or she did not receive breaks from the city and would not want them even if they had been available. But if the concentration Gladwell wants is to exist, some sort of incentives do need to be available for would-be self-starters who need a little push. Other cities have been successful at taking the seeds of creativity planted by the Sloane McFarlands and nurturing them past a tipping point.

The next sign of a tipping point, Gladwell says, is that word will spread outside the city so that people will come to Phoenix the way they come to Austin, Texas, or Portland, Oregon -- because those cities are viewed as cool.

From his desk in New York City, Gladwell confirms that Phoenix is definitely not there yet.

In 1999, one of the few signs of life on Roosevelt Street was the 307, a beloved, beyond-a-dive, now-defunct transvestite bar. And then quietly, one night, tiny white Christmas lights appeared on the bars of the windows of a small brick building across the street.

Kimber Lanning had opened Modified Arts. Art spaces have come and gone in downtown Phoenix for years, but Lanning was a serious businesswoman with a proven track record. And she had a plan.

Lanning grew up on the west side and moved out of her parents' house in 1985 to study architecture at Arizona State University. She went from knowing everyone in high school to knowing no one at ASU. She listened to Black Flag and Bad Religion and couldn't stand her classmates, so after a year and a half she dropped out to open a record store in Mesa. Today, Stinkweeds, which is now located on Apache Boulevard in Tempe, is widely considered the edgiest independent record store in town.

It drove Lanning nuts when bands would pass through town without playing, so she let them play at Stinkweeds for $5 a head, and let the bands keep the money. She wanted a real music venue, so she opened Modified, and, with art in the family (her mother runs a gallery in Sedona), Lanning created gallery space in Modified, too.

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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.