In this city of loss called Phoenix, where do we even begin to mourn? The closure of the Borders store at the Biltmore gives a new generation something to miss, and a chain bookstore at that. Once the Biltmore Fashion Park was a unique shopping center of outdoor courts, shady trees, grass and low-rise, mid-century architecture. A few years ago, the odious Westcor/Macerich redid it to look like every other crapola shopping mall in suburban Phoenix. Ruined. Who cares if they decide to build a mega-mall in Goodyear — it will just be another lookalike ruin for the near future of this unsustainable place, a ruin no archeo-tourists will ever care to visit. The few who do will wonder how such a wealthy society could have squandered so many resources on such grotesquery (as they will wonder about the sprawl outside Denver, Seattle, Atlanta, etc.).
When I was growing up, the corner of McDowell and Seventh Avenue was but one of the many business districts that flourished in the area (Central was crowded with businesses from downtown to Camelback; McDowell along its length, the same with Thomas; the Gold Spot building on Roosevelt and Third Avenue was aging but busy). On the southwest corner was Val DeSpain's Chevron station and a Circle K, along with a forbidden tavern. Northwest was a gas station. The northeast corner held a distinctive, solid brick business building full of local retailers, including a barber and liquor store, then My Florist — a real flower shop — with its magical neon sign. The southeast corner was a treat: A Ryan-Evans Drug Store anchored a building with several shops, including the Best Cleaners and a Sprouse-Reitz five-and-ten store. The latter had a smashing red-tile front, while the drug store had its name proclaimed in neon. Each store in this strip had its own distinct front.
When I got back to Phoenix in 2000, most of the corner was in disrepair, the remaining buildings holding junk shops and a massively ugly Circle K box holding down the northwest side. But there seemed to be hope with David Lacy rehabbing My Florist as a restaurant. It was a huge success, a forerunner of midtown and downtown eateries to come (and go). The inside was beautifully appointed and at night the grand piano accompanied diners. It was never my florist: I found the menu unappealing, rather attuned to people who didn't really like to eat, and the servers were surly. Portland's and Cheuvront were more my style. But lots of people loved My Florist, many of whom had never even realized that the gems of the nearby historic districts existed. Is is safe to go down there?, some asked at first, living in the soulless suburbs where most of the lurid violence really takes place.
Across the street is an even sadder story. The distinctive 1940s facades of that building are long gone, some genius covering the whole thing with the ubiquitous faux brown stucco that uglies up so much of Phoenix now. For years, people drove by never realizing what a treasure it once was. It was (is) apparently owned by Tom Horne, the ambitious right-wing politician, attorney general and pretty good pianist. I can imagine scenarios, many of them bad. The southwest corner was nicely redone with a Starbucks and Pei Wei, but that's a heart-stopping exception. The more likely dangers are on display on East Roosevelt, which was once crammed with inviting small retailers from First to Seventh Streets. These would have been great bones for a real Roosevelt Row or, gasp, businesses other than galleries, coffee spots and restaurants that actually catered to people's daily needs. Instead, most were torn down, replaced by blighted, empty lots held by land bankers...probably forever.
We might not even blame only Horne for this (although he can be blamed for so much else). The way it usually works in Phoenix is that property is sold with a new project set to go; financing or whatever falls through and the new owner just demolishes the place. And it sits. For decades in many cases. McDowell between Central and Seventh Avenue has already lost so many of its businesses, with Bert Easley's Fun Shop a blessed exception. A digression: Yet another mistake here was widening these streets from a manageable four lanes into their Soviet Beltway current size, not only adding to the heat island and discouraging pedestrians but making the latter endeavor potentially death-dealing.
This blog discusses many big and weighty topics, but this corner is important, too. It's a marker as to whether Phoenix can ever get its act together and stop the creeping blight and empty land that are a cancer. They're a sign of terrible public policy, venal absentee land owners, lack of stewards, too few central city employers, and too few entrepreneurs who have both good ideas and the capital and expertise to make them succeed. However lovely the historic districts (until too many idiots throw down gravel and cactus), they lack the complete walkability and convenience that could make them world-beaters. Without setting off phxSUNSfan, I am in walking distance of shoe-repair shops, a great hat store, copy places, office supply stores, shoe shops, gift emporiums, a cool military surplus place, stationary store, art-and-architecture bookshop, other bookstores, a hardware store, etc. — just things for everyday living and more, many locally owned and distinctive. And that's not even getting into all the big amenities of downtown. (Yeah, yeah, Seattle sucks...). The same is true in other cities that win the competition for talent and capital — and offer choice from suburbia. In central Phoenix, you are forced to drive, or be really creative and patient with light rail. And yet, in my lifetime and I'm not ancient, we had all those things nearby in central Phoenix. This current state of affairs is not a sign of Phoenix's modernity — Phoenix: 21st Century City — but of its civic sickness.
I've had my spats with some of the historic preservationists and neighborhood soviets; sometimes I think they choose the wrong battles and miss the big picture; walling off the eastern entrances to Willo, "gated community-style," was a special abomination. But if ever there was a call to the ramparts, the future of this corner is it. It's a small thing. But it's a big thing. Riding light rail, you see endless empty lots except for the mile between McDowell and Thomas, where, miraculously, things have held together. It's a beautiful stretch, showing what central Phoenix could be. The exception is the northwest corner of Central and McDowell, where the AT&T offices once stood. Now, across from the stunning Phoenix Art Museum, is a large, hideous vacant lot. It's been vacant for decades. It will be for decades more.
Time to take a stand, Phoenix. Or quit whining when we discuss these failures on this blog.