Back from a week in Phoenix, some observations:
1. The place still gives off the quality of a fallen souffle. Sure, a few projects are getting press out in some of the more affluent suburbs, but the utter collapse of four years ago still lingers. It's not for lack of trying by the Usual Suspects: Bottom has been hit, a turnaround is only (xx) years away, cheap land and sunshine will continue to be the basis of the economy, blah, blah, blah. But the old growth machine will not sputter back to life for one more run (with championship golf!). Too many crapola tract houses, too much debt, too few well-paying jobs, no speculative bubble driven by liar loans and securitized mortgages sold on a historic scale. What's Plan B? There is none.
2. A lack of seriousness pervades the state. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton tweets, "In Phoenix, we have a full commitment to sustainability: Sky Harbor Airport Dedicates Solar Power System." Space does not allow us to fully deconstruct these 104 characters, but we can make a start. Sky Harbor is a red giant of concrete and air pollution, contributing mightily to the heat island and dirty, unhealthy sky, and this is somehow redeemed by a "solar power system" that will power...the airport? No, the linked news story says it generates "enough to handle half the power needs of the rental car center, east economy parking lots and toll booths." Oh. (A real reporter might want to know if this includes generating electricity for the rental car center air conditioning, too, which seems unlikely, and how long the solar operation will have to run before it "repays" the fossil-fuel inputs it required and may still require).
3. Politics is as crazy as ever. The Resistance shrugs and tries to do good things in small places. Despite some excellent candidates such as Kyrsten Sinema and Andrei Cherny, the Democratic Party is pretty much dead. The elites kowtow to the likes of Jan Brewer & Co. and snicker behind their backs, but the Kooks keep having the last laugh. The Babeu scandal broke while I was there. You can't make this stuff up. And the damage done to the economy, to school-children, to the working poor and the most vulnerable citizens... Gun rights! Economic freedom! Cut taxes! It was so appropriate that one of the last of the reality-denying Republican presidential debates was held here. It's tempting to say the state keeps getting away with its extremism, but that's not quite right. One can't know the talented people who didn't come, the quality investment that bypassed the state, or the child who might have gone on to cure cancer had she not been wrecked by an underfunded school.
4. Central Phoenix is the only place for me, and it's a pleasure to ride light rail (we built it, you bastards) — it was packed every trip I took — and see the old (real) neighborhoods. But I continue to be struck by how little there is in the heart of the nation's sixth-largest city. I wish CityScape well, but it's not even as vibrant as Arizona Center when it first opened. What it is: A very modest suburban office-retail complex, nothing like the architecturally bold, distinctively urbanist game-changer that was promised. Those chain restaurants are getting subsidized to compete against the local outfits such as Portland's that kept faith, pay taxes and are at a competitive disadvantage. Even so, a trip to CityScape early on a Sunday evening yielded nothing but closed businesses — and this is the hotspot of downtown. Life is a long way from returning to downtown, and this continues to put the city at a competitive disadvantage. Again, every city Phoenix is competing against has suburbs, malls, its version of Snottsdale, etc. But they also have vibrant downtowns. Meanwhile, it's nice to see the corner of Seventh Avenue and McDowell being remade into something interesting. But how many restaurants and coffee spots can this place support? One striking absence from the Central Corridor is practical businesses: Shoe stores, a hat shop, a Radio Shack, pet supplies, hardware store, beauty supplies, etc. etc. Sure, you can drive to find many of these things, but that defeats the purpose of a center city, especially the convenience of light rail. You're telling me there's no practical retail business that can operate profitably in the old Circles Records? None? Seriously? Similarly, the lack of major private firms in the core is not good.
5. Life goes on. Even though past surveys have shown that a large percentage of the population would leave if given the opportunity, others are very content with the sun and their piece of endless-driving suburban heaven. A happy few continue to work against the dolorous trends, and I salute them. I met a young man who just moved to central Phoenix from Denver and badly misses his Capitol Hill neighborhood and real downtown. Still, he said, "I felt like I made a difference in Denver and I want to do that here."