Snapshots of a City, and New-Found Love for a Hometown

I've never been much for book clubs or New Year's resolutions.

Invite me to your book club meeting and tell me we're reading Ann Patchett's latest novel, and even if I've had that book sitting on my nightstand for months — even if I'm already halfway through it — suddenly I won't be able to pick the thing up. Similarly, after 45 years, I know myself all too well: If I promise myself on January 1 that I'll do the dishes every night before I go to bed, by the end of the first week of the year, you won't be able to get anywhere near my kitchen sink without risk of an avalanche.

I'm just not good at following directions, even my own. Particularly my own. And so most years, I don't even bother to make a New Year's resolution, let alone keep it.

But 2011 was different. That year marked the 20th anniversary of my return to Phoenix, a place where I was born and raised, a place I fled as soon as I was able. A place I returned to for two weeks in 1991 and — well, you can guess the rest.

A place I never much liked.

I like to tell people I have made my peace with Phoenix. I wrote a cover story about it for New Times ("Phoenix Has an Inferiority Complex," May 12, 2005). I've edited the paper's "Best of Phoenix" supplement for years, and in almost two decades at the paper have written dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of "Best of" entries and, yes, I can tell you where to get the best steak or the best martini in Phoenix, but the truth is that after all these years, I still had a grudge against my hometown.

Enough, I thought, as 2011 approached. I'm not going anywhere. I'm tired of this. Why, I wondered, is it that when I go to cities like Manhattan or Portland or even Tucson I step off the plane or get out of the car and immediately begin romanticizing the place? Why do I get all weak-kneed over Hotel Congress in Tucson or the Bagdad Theater in Portland when the Orpheum in downtown Phoenix is just as dreamy? I've asked myself dozens of times and I just can't figure out why a farmers market in a mall parking lot in Denver is urban and funky when the same thing in Phoenix feels weak.

But what, I wondered, if I was forced to face that question every single day? What if I had to come up with something — big or small or even really insignificant — that I loved about Phoenix every day. In fact, the less significant the better, because for me it's the little things — a cross-stitch in the elevator of the Portland Ace Hotel that says "If You'd Taken the Stairs You'd Already Be There"; the way cement always seems to sparkle in the San Francisco sunlight — that make a city larger than life.

So nothing big. A daily affirmation of sorts.

Yuck. I've never been one for daily affirmations. I don't stop to smell the roses, I don't tiptoe through the tulips. The only time I ever stop to watch the sunset is once a year, during our annual family trip to the beach.

But I didn't have any better ideas, so thus, the I Heart Phoenix Project was born. These days it's (way too) easy to start your own blog, so I did. I got on WordPress, chose a template, typed in theiheartphoenixproject and wrote an "about" section that concluded:

My husband and I are raising two daughters . . . and I'd rather share the love than the hate with them, even though I do believe a healthy dose of cynicism is hardly a bad thing.

This town could use a little TLC, and that's what I intend to give it for the next year. Maybe not every day. I don't want to set expectations too high.

But I do promise to cast no aspersions — not here, anyway.

My first post was easy, a poster of a bear with a bloody heart designed by local artist Sebastien Millon, his own off-kilter tribute to the city. I didn't admit that I actually was in Los Angeles on January 1 — not the most auspicious beginning to a blog devoted to loving Phoenix.

I figured I'd write most of my posts, but around that time I discovered the Hipstamatic app on the iPhone and suddenly it was more fun — and a lot quicker — to snap a photo and write a headline. For months I kept it up, documenting my path across town (which I quickly realized was far too beaten) and forcing myself to find something every day that I love about Phoenix: the hand-drawn signs at Cartel Coffee Lab in Tempe; the kissing citrus mural at La Grande Orange; a fire pit at the Arizona Biltmore where you can make s'mores; Grand Avenue artist Beatrice Moore's crazy inedible wedding cakes.