I had grand plans for my recent visit but spent most of my time sicker than I've been in years. Little time was left to catch up, but some observations:
The fabric of the old city continues to be torn away. The block of buildings on the southeast corner of Seventh Street and Roosevelt has been leveled with, of course, nothing to replace it. The last I recall, one building was a llantera (tire) outlet with American and Mexican flags painted on the outer wall. Now only the concrete foundation is left. A little farther south is a 1920s-era gas station, but would even this be preserved?
The demolished structures, which dated from the same era, were part of an actual city commercial streetscape that extended contiguously along Seventh Street. One saw the same on Seventh Avenue, Grand Avenue and Van Buren Street. It's almost all gone now, replaced by dreary new suburban boxes, each surrounded by Holy Surface Parking Lots. Or replaced by blighted empty lots. It is, as Jim Kunstler would say, not a landscape worth caring about and obviously nobody with money and power cared for generations. But the loss of variety, density and urban fabric on these approaches to downtown, along with the absurd widening of these streets, is a piece of astonishing civic malpractice. What a lost opportunity.
Not that many people even have the beginning of a beginning of awareness.When I was confined to the tender mercies of Mr. Joe's, an astounding number of people with whom I talked lived in Gilbert. They just worked at Mr. Joe's. All were from little towns (or subdivisions outside little towns) in the Midwest. None knew anything about Phoenix. None were curious. Most didn't even particularly like Arizona. They certainly don't know where their water comes from. When I mentioned to one woman a location that was "on the other side of Park Central," she looked at me with the comprehension of a cow watching cars speed by on the other side of a fence.
The core continues to slowly lose its oasis. At Third Street and Earll Drive, a forgettable midrise glass box, once occupied by Mountain Bell, was torn down in the 2000s. But at least it was surrounded by grass and shade. Now the site is home to a bleak Cigna building surrounded by rocks, as well as the Holy Surface Parking Lot. This is a gash into an interesting little historic neighborhood nearby and another helpful tool in raising temperatures in the urban heat island. What was needed was to preserve and add to the shade trees, while requiring a building that was urban, not suburban. Instead, it looks like something vomited up from a developer's off-the-shelf crapola file overnight.
It's still delightful to ride light rail (WBIYB). Every time I board a train it's full. The lack of transit-oriented development is disheartening. But make a list in that regard. How, for example, can the Luhrs Building and Tower be empty at street level?? Back to light rail: Why don't the stations give directions to downtown Phoenix? Platforms say Mesa or 19th and Montebello, but not downtown. Very strange, or is it part of the geography of nowhere in Phoenix ("the Valley")? Also, ticket-buying isn't easy when the sun is beating down on dispensers. And why no equivalent of the Orca Card, essentially a debit card you can fill and ride any form of transit?
For an afternoon, I lived like most Phoenicians and drove, drove, drove. I am spoiled both by Seattle and even the usual life I lead in central Phoenix. I think: How can people live this way? I'm sure they think the same of me. Ending up at Scottsdale Road and Frank Lloyd Wright (wouldn't he love how this has turned out), I was struck by the relentless destructiveness of the Real Estate Industrial Complex. A big "auto mall" is going up, leaving behind empty car dealerships down on McDowell. The pieces are just shuffled around to make a quick buck in the latest real-estate hustle. Just a few years ago, this was mostly undeveloped land. When I was in high school, it was empty desert — we launched model rockets southwest of Bell and Scottsdale Road. Now, it's just more suburban crap. And this is Scottsdale. The buildings might have an extra layer of Tuscan-Moorish fakery on the front, but it's basically the same throwaway automobile suburb one finds all over the state.
Back in my part of town, friends are excited about all the new restaurants that have opened in the center city. Me, too. But one has to wonder how many eateries can be supported when the center city isn't adding jobs, particularly well-paying ones. As far as I can tell, no strategy is in place to address this. If anything, City Council is moving to an anti-downtown sentiment, although Mayor Greg Stanton still supports strengthening the core. By the end of my trip, I was exhausted from my downturn and barely on the mend. Phoenix felt the same way. The difference between us was that antibiotics took care of my trouble, while Arizona is still left with the craziness of Brewer, Arpaio, et al.