The most telling aspect of Phoenix being surpassed by Philadelphia as the fifth-largest city in America — news that was broken first on Thursday by this humble blog — was the utter silence at the time in the local media. The Arizona Republic story on the Census numbers merely stated that Philadelphia had "retained" its position as No. 5. That's it. The situation was far different in the early 2000s when the Census Bureau officially stated that Phoenix had overtaken the City of Brotherly Love. The Republic had front-page growthgasm stories. My pal Montini, who came from near Pittsburgh so already had a grudge against the big city in eastern Pennsylvania, wrote a gloating, twist-the-knife column with a "Yo, Philly," headline. Now...silence. Cue chirping crickets. Philadelphians were not fooled. One tweeted: "Suck it, Phoenix." Indeed. (Update: the Republic finally produced a non-page-one story on Sunday...or was it Monday?).
When Phoenix began its brief reign as No. 5, the local triumphalism was loud and deep. I tagged along with Mayor Phil Gordon and City Council members who traveled to Philadelphia to meet with their counterparts. The latter were full of praise for my hometown, full of contrition about their corrupt, underclass-ridden city. Full of hubris, we had a grand time in the Center City's restaurants, shopping, parks, historical landmarks and architectural splendor. Back home, top officials talked about Phoenix inevitably overtaking Houston as No. 4 and soon catching up with Chicago. I am not making this up. "Then we'll be a world city," said one economic development leader, and then, presumably, Phoenix would magically create all the elements of such a place.
I take no pleasure in this development, although I warned about it last year. It's hard to shake the culture one grew up in. Bored in school in the 1960s, I would draw maps of the Salt River Valley and sketch avenues, freeways and developments yet to come. It was as inevitable in my ten-year-old brain as in those of John F. Long and the other Phoenix leaders that we would, indeed, become something great. As if a mass of people alone would make that happen. It's tempting to shrug this milestone off. A blow to what little prestige Phoenix enjoyed, to be sure, but what do these rankings really matter? In fact, this is a profound turning point — and not merely because the Texas cities have yet to have their counts revealed and Sheryl Sculley's San Antonio might still surpass Phoenix and knock it down another notch. (Addendum: Phoenix is officially No. 6: San Antonio came in at 1,327,407; this is cold comfort).
This might not matter if population growth was not the only economic development strategy, if such an honorable term can be applied, of Phoenix and Arizona. Seattle's numbers have yet to be announced, but they will probably be around 600,000 in the city's 83 square miles. In 1960, Seattle had 557,000. Denver will probably be around the same size; in 1960, it was 494,000, just ahead of Phoenix. Both cities, Western competitors of Phoenix, have broad economies, corporate headquarters, high incomes, and are magnets for talent and capital. They add population slowly. It's not their main focus. And as we have discussed before on this blog, raw population is a double-edged sword, bringing costs as well as benefits, particularly when the growth is in the demographic cohorts that have flocked to Phoenix. The city's carrying costs have only increased as the economy has narrowed, remaining assets have fled to the suburbs, the city is increasingly weighed down by an underclass and the working poor, infrastructure ages, and it lacks the means and leadership to address urban problems. This burden has grown to crisis proportions with the loss of revenue because of the recession.
Obviously the Great Recession and resulting Phoenix depression took their toll. Despite underfunded state assessments of unemployment and the spin of Bob Robb and Elliott Pollack, the state likely saw an out-migration from a mid-decade high. After all, it was ground zero of the housing crash, America's last big factory town (making houses), and depending on untold thousands more jobs associated with housing, from home improvement to mortgage boiler rooms. Poof. Gone. Phoenix has always suffered from high population churn; nobody counts out-migration. So thousands of people likely left for opportunities elsewhere. I also find the poo-pooing of a potential undercount unconvincing. The climate of anti-Hispanic hate exemplified by the Jim Crow SB 1070 came along at precisely the moment when Census takers were out. Phoenix may well be the No. 5 city, but thousands of residents were afraid to fill out their Census forms. It wouldn't be the first time that the poor and marginal were left out of Census counts. Then there's the white-right antipathy to the Census that goes back to the birth of the John Birch Society.
Speaking of the white-right, their paranoia will only grow. Those Hispanics who did complete the Census showed an increase of 46 percent from 2000, totalling 1.6 million out of a state population of 6.4 million. That's now 30 percent of the state's population. The Anglo population grew by only 20 percent. "The Mexicans don't vote." But what if that changes?
Arizona grew by 24.6 percent in this troubled decade, far below the 40-percent growth of the 1990s. One must go back to the war years of the 1940s to find such a low performance. This would actually be good news if the state had an economy that didn't depend on adding 100,000 new residents every year. With a real economy and real leadership, it would represent a welcome pause where years of infrastructure deficits could be made up. It might be a whack across the head with a two-by-four to rethink the misbegotten sunshine-and-growth complacency of past decades. None of that is happening. Instead, the Kookocracy wants to hamstring city development fees in hopes of restarting the real estate machine.
Being No. 5 was never enough in itself, proud as I was for Phoenix, hopeful as I was that it would cause some big-city serious thinking. And indeed, light rail and numerous downtown projects were moving ahead mid-decade; most importantly, it seemed the city would use the downtown biomedical campus, ASU and UofA to create an economic engine that would allow Phoenix to leapfrog. As my friend, Mary Jo Waits, then at the Morrison Institute, said, "Imagine if the cure for cancer were discovered in Phoenix." It was not to be.
At the time, I added to the pressure that would eventually lead to my ouster as a Republic columnist by writing in July 2006 about all the ways Phoenix was not No. 5:
- Houston, No. 4 in population, was home to 23 Fortune 500 companies. Philly had seven inside its city limits, the same number as No. 20 Charlotte. Phoenix hosted only two Fortune 500 headquarters. Not one Phoenix company made the Hispanic Business top 100 companies.
- That year, No. 6 San Diego brought in $319 million in venture capital in the first quarter; Phoenix, $5 million.
- The fifth best showing in the Beacon Hill Institutes's exhaustive and definitive report on competitiveness went to Denver (Seattle No. 1); Phoenix dragged in at 30th.
- Phoenix ranked 29 in median family income, while the fifth best ranking went to San Diego.
- In air quality, congestion, land-use planning, the green economy and public transit, SustainLane ranked Oakland No. 5 (Portland No. 1) and Phoenix No. 22.
- Seattle, the nation's 23rd most populous city, gave $60 per capita to the arts, while Phoenix provided only $12.
- Cincinnati was ranked the fifth most-literate city in a survey by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (Minneapolis No. 1, Seattle No. 2). The report on educational attainment, library resources, booksellers, magazine publishing and newspaper circulation listed Phoenix as No. 60.
- No 5 in people with a bachelor's degree was Minneapolis (Seattle No. 1), while Phoenix stood in 49th place. No Phoenix university made the US News & World Report list of the 120 best national universities. Atlanta, Philadelphia and San Diego each had two institutions.
- Pittsburgh, not even a top 40 city in population, enjoyed the fifth-best health care system, with 46 hospitals and 336 physicians per 100,000 people. Phoenix: 38 hospitals and 199 docs per 100,000.
- In biotech, the Brookings Institution ranked Seattle No. 5 and San Diego fifth in National Institutes of Health funding. Phoenix wasn't even in the same county as the ballpark.
All these critical performance measures have only fallen for Phoenix since then, propelled by complacency, the Kookocracy, failure to put in place policies to enhance competitiveness and the Great Recession.
Meanwhile, the growthgasms continue. Pinal County's population more than doubled (pumping precious groundwater, lacking employment centers and infrastructure)! Maricopa grew by 4,000 percent (to 43,482 people commuting long distances on two-lane roads, adding to sprawl, pollution and unsustainable water consumption)! Gilbert's population nearly doubled (full of tribal Mormons, a bastion of the extreme white-right, adamantly opposed to regional transportation — beyond freeways — and other urban solutions)! The West Valley grew by 70 percent, 300,000 people (no transit, poor infrastructure, destroying precious cropland and adding to the heat island)! Yavapai County, up 26 percent to 211,033 (profaning some of the most magical country with subdivisions, no infrastructure and, say it again, unsustainable water supplies)!
Even the most denial-pickled alcoholic might look at this and have a, em, moment of clarity. From the goings-on at the state Legislature and even Phoenix City Hall, it looks as if the realization of hitting bottom is a long way off. Tragically, the consequences aren't.