Talk about burying the lede. Last week's Arizona Republic story on the Census started out by reporting on how "Hispanics led Arizona's changing population over the past decade." It's only if one reads deeper, which most people don't, that the real news is found. This was the decade in which Phoenix set its trajectory to become a "majority minority" city. Phoenix added 140,000 Hispanic residents — and this is the official number, for a Census taken during the white-right and the Badged Ego's persecution of brown people. The city also saw the Anglo population decline by 64,000.
Read that again. Read it a third time, and realize, along with the failure to maintain the fifth-largest city position, that Phoenix has finally reached perhaps the most profound tipping point in its history.
You know that during the boom, I was told by more than one smug north Scottsdale toff that "Phoenix will become the Mexican Detroit." My response was usually along the lines of, "We'll be the center of the most important industry in the world, with high-skilled and high-paid jobs, and the richness of Hispanic culture to boot? Sign me up." Or, being a realist about the disaster that has pummeled Detroit for decades, "Do you think that will be good for your property values, even up in Troon North?" They didn't care. I do.
It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. Modern Phoenix was conceived as the most Anglo of Western cities. It (sadly) kept its barrios and black neighborhoods in the shadows, and the Anglo population was always the super-majority. Phoenix was also governed and built from the 1950s onward as an anti-city, especially taking into account what its leaders saw as the terrible mistakes made in the cities of the east and Midwest. Thus, city politics were non-partisan, business-led, bland. Annexation was used aggressively to keep from being surrounded by suburbs that would draw off affluent residents and tax revenues. A steady migration of middle-class whites, drawn to new housing and "clean industries" helped Phoenix for decades avoid the poisoned racial climate that ruined many major cities in the 1960s. The city's one kinda-riot in 1968, around 16th Street and Washington, was quickly hushed up by Gene Pulliam, Tom Chauncey and the boys.
Now, the payoff from sprawl, from "boomburbs," from "more land than brains." The payoff from low-wage jobs, an economy that cratered into house-building and "services," with an insatiable demand for immigrant labor.
If only this meant Phoenix would be 500 square miles of Olvera Street in LA or Mexico City norte. But of course that's not the reality. Phoenix was never built as an entry-point into the American Dream. The economy is narrow, capital flows even more so. It has disproportionately attracted not software developers or physicians from the world, but low-skilled, non-English-speaking immigrants from Mexico. Nearly 29 percent of city residents were foreign born in 2009, compared with 16.8 percent in the metro area and up from 19.5 percent in the city in 2000. This makes them no less precious to God, but it is a human capital challenge of huge proportions and neither Phoenix nor Arizona is even acknowledging it. Even in the best of circumstances, the old ladders — the factory jobs that allowed immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century to rise — are gone. American meritocracy is fading. The barriers to reaching prosperity in an advanced 21st century economy for these individuals are nearly insurmountable. In a world where mastery of English is the ticket to advancement, 38.2 percent of Phoenicians speak a language other than English at home. To make the human capital crisis worse, Arizona policies are hostile to funding the education and infrastructure that would provide economic mobility for this now-substantial cohort. Instead, Hispanics are "the enemy" to the political establishment, and an easily exploitable workforce — "in their place" — for business. Hispanic voter participation is shockingly low. Thus, no leveraging of numbers into political power.
With more than 1.4 million people, one can find many flavors of Phoenix; it even has its own white "suburbs" in places such as Desert Ridge. But the drag is already being felt. In 2009, 24 percent of the city's residents had bachelor's degrees. That compares with a national average of 27.5 percent and is nearly two points below the Arizona average. In competing Western peer cities: 39.3 percent in Denver; 40.2 percent in Portland; 54.3 percent in Seattle. Income, however you slice it, lags significantly. Median household income: $48,881 vs. a national $51,425 (Denver, $45,438; Seattle, $58,990; Portland, $48,053). Per-capita income: $23,851 vs. a national $27,041 (Denver $29,844; Seattle, $40.228; Portland $29,160). These are city comparisons, not metro areas. It's also significant because the city of Phoenix for decades outperformed Arizona in income measures. No more.
The old major headquarters which played a critical role in civic leadership are gone. What's left of quality economic assets have largely fled to the suburbs, especially the Scottsdale airpark. The exceptions, such as Barrow Neurological Institute, are too few, or, like Sky Harbor, also benefit the suburbs. With Intel, Chandler has an astonishing median household income of $70,413. Similarly, white flight and Big Sort relocations from the Midwest and California have placed more and more of the affluent in places such as north Scottsdale, Gilbert, Chandler and Goodyear, with no loyalty to the city of Phoenix and conflicting interests (yet oversized power) in the state Legislature. Their economic assets are too paltry to support such a populous metro area. Cultural institutions are starved of funding compared with similar cities. Phoenix, with its miles of older tract houses turning into linear slums, with its aging infrastructure, is increasingly the place for the working poor. Families below the poverty line rose to 13.7 percent in 2009 from 11.5 percent in 2000.
I saw this at work while living in Phoenix during most of the '00s. Unlike other cities in which I had lived, Phoenix's central core did not revive outside of some major public projects. Instead, the footprint of the poor, Hispanic cohort grew. The core was unable to draw substantial private investment and lost private-sector jobs. Neighborhoods such as Garfield, Oakland and St. Matthews did not gentrify. Vast tracts along the light-rail line are empty and blighted. The people with means shop in Scottsdale. Now, Philadelphia has a huge underclass and a glittering Center City. This is seen on a smaller scale in cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. But Phoenix lacks such a central core. What it does have are increasing urban problems, carrying costs and an underclass. It faces statewide political leadership that will block the measures needed to help the city, indeed glorying in its decline.
Some might seek solace in San Antonio, the nation's seventh-largest city. It underperforms Phoenix in nearly all these areas (e.g. only 23.4 percent of residents have a bachelor's degree, and income is lower, although the percentage of families in poverty was 14.8 percent and the foreign-born population 13.4 percent). Unlike Phoenix, it has a robust Hispanic political power base on the west side, whose influence goes back decades. But this is cold comfort, and not only because Phoenix lacks San Antonio's huge military establishment and steady flow of tax dollars, and Arizona lacks Texas' oil-and-corporate economy. The same cohort faces the same obstacles. Quality cities in the new century are competing against Singapore, Shanghai, Amsterdam, Toronto and others for the most valued and precious — and highly mobile assets — talent and capital.
Let me be clear: Phoenix's growing Hispanic flavor is not a problem in itself. It could be a rich cultural and human capital launching pad. But not with the public policies in place, nor with the attitudes — whether denial/cheerleading or outright suburban apartheid racism — in place. The recession has no doubt made the situation worse, but it's not an excuse. Phoenix has hit the tipping point, and the future will not be rescued by a revival of the growth machine.