The urbanist Yuri Artibise left Phoenix last year, returning to Vancouver. It's part of a continuing brain drain, although to be sure such assets as ASU continue to bring in new creatives. I don't know where the tally stands, but I fear Phoenix continues to lose more than it attracts. Architect Taz Loomans recently conducted an interesting "exit interview" with Artibise. It made me realize that it's been five years since I got the first inkling that the Arizona Republic would take away my column, which would eventuate in me leaving town. So I thought I'd use Loomans' questions as a test for myself.
What do you miss most about Phoenix? My good friends. (I tried to select one "most"; for more, see my additions in the comments section).
What did Phoenix have that Seattle doesn’t? It is the repository of so much of my history, so many of my hopes. My mother and grandmother, long dead, are so alive on the streets of Willo, Roosevelt and Storey. The church where I was baptised is still going, as is my grade school, still in its inspiring, grand building, and enchanting Encanto Park. Union Station, where I spent countless hours as a child watching trains and dreaming of far-away places. The streets I worked as a paramedic, learning too much too young. The different mountain vistas that always orient me. Phoenix is the home of my heart, a place so mangled, mismanaged, raped and pillaged, but still worth fighting for. No matter how long I am gone, when I return I can drive the streets and walk the neighborhoods as if I had never left. The ghosts of the Hohokam still speak to me on winter nights when the cold wind blows from the High Country and the peculiar acoustics of the valley mingle train whistles and voices of the beloved dead.
What do you miss least about Phoenix? The weather. I hate the heat. Also, the ongoing, heedless destruction of the Sonoran Desert for sprawl, foolish inter-city competition for assets, political extremism and lack of the ability to create urban solutions to the vast array of urban problems besetting the entire metro area.
From the perspective of someone who lived here and now has left, what do you think Phoenix’s biggest pitfalls are? First, the Legislature. In addition: Too many people move to Phoenix to be left alone, bringing the "resort mentality" that says you'll engage in all sorts of destructive and apathetic behavior because it's not "home." It's a place to use up and move on, rather than to cherish, enhance and preserve. Lack of a large educated, literate population. Lack of genuine pluralism that holds political extremism in check. Lack of urban values on the part of most residents. Lack of a diverse economy with large numbers of high-paying jobs. Ignorance of local history and the lessons therein. Too many people are mean, crazy and armed, and too many are lacking in compassion to the last, the least and the lost. The Real Estate Industrial Complex and the entire "more land than brains" pathology. The prevailing mindset that Phoenix should keep expanding out, depending on single-family housing construction and population growth, while hiding the truth about the water situation, is intellectually criminal. The large underclass with no economic opportunity is made more of a drag by underfunded schools and racism. And complete obliviousness to Phoenix's vulnerability to climate change and scarcity of water, oil, etc. that will define the new century. Time is not on Phoenix's side. A sense of urgency is needed.
From the perspective of someone who lived here and now has left, what do you think Phoenix’s biggest opportunities are? Phoenix's biggest opportunity is to begin retreating from most of suburbia and build a high-quality, dense, transit-rich and shady city within the footprint of the Salt River Project. It could also become a player in healthcare and research if it could focus on the Phoenix Biosciences Campus and turn it into a Texas Medical Center. It could leverage its proximity Mexico for economic development, as well as seeking foreign direct investment from Asia. Phoenix could build a major rail/air logistics hub tied into Southern California. It could and must build a real downtown, down-zone the Central Corridor to make it friendly for development of low- and midrise development, even single-family housing (period revival!), creating walkable, live-work-play neighborhoods along light rail.
Would you ever come back to live Phoenix, given the opportunity? Why or why not? Yes, although the powers that be, such as they are, would not have me.
What can we learn from Seattle here in Phoenix? Constant reinvention. The value of attracting world talent and diversity, as well as having a powerful, diverse economy. The need for large corporate players and leaders who can knock heads and write checks. The benefits of density and critical mass. A populace heavily engaged in building community and serving the public good: A "we" society instead of a "me" society. Tolerance. Diverse, aggressive media. An intellectual environment thanks to such things as Town Hall. A conservation ethic. A powerful non-profit sector led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which, of course, chose to build its headquarters in central Seattle). Metro Seattle has plenty of ugly sprawl, just like Phoenix, with the huge externalities ignored and, as Jim Kunstler would say, a gigantic misallocation of resources. If you choose to live in the 'burbs, you'll spend plenty of time stuck in traffic. It's also a big tourist town, just like Phoenix. But it also has a vibrant downtown, with plenty of walkable city neighborhoods that have shops right up on the sidewalk, each with its own distinctive vibe, look and history. Transit is abundant. Multiple trains connect Seattle with other cities. I don't have to own a car. Phoenix lacks this, and doesn't realize the competitive disadvantage this conveys.
What can Seattle learn from Phoenix? Many "don't do this" worst practices, especially allowing the suburbs to loot the city and be engaged in constant cannibalization, as well as attracting a self-selecting population that is extreme or apathetic (it's why I am happy for people to think it rains all the time and is cold as hell here). Now, the deliberateness and relative speed with which Phoenix and Tempe led the building of a 20-mile light-rail line is a model for Seattle, a city that loves to endlessly deliberate. The people who continue to make a stand for the better, from Jim Ballinger at the Phoenix Art Museum and Michael Crow at ASU, to Kimber Lanning, Greg Esser, Cindy Dach et al on Roosevelt Row, to Kit Danley's Neighborhood Ministries should inspire any city.