I'm in Phoenix this week for my new novel, The Night Detectives (you can find a schedule of signings on my author Web site). One remarkable thing is how the conversations I have with friends never really change much when it comes to the topic of Phoenix and Arizona. Searching for something new...an effort is under way to produce a "new master plan" for Margaret Hance Park.
The site irritates me at the outset by claiming Hance Park is located "in the heart of down downtown Phoenix," whatever that means. It is in Midtown, a deck sitting atop the Papago Freeway from Third Street to Third Avenue. All together now: Downtown runs from the railroad tracks to Fillmore and from Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street. One could be very liberal and extend it to Roosevelt — no farther. You outlanders would be offended if I said the Loop in Chicago extended to Winnetka; you don't get to rewrite the geography of my hometown.
In any event, the deck park was the compromise when Interstate 10 was rammed through the heart of Phoenix, resulting in the demolition of 3,000 houses, many of them irreplaceable historic homes, as well as the shady Moreland Parkway. Originally, the Wilbur Smith plan called for the freeway to soar 100 feet over Central Avenue and traffic to exit by "helicoils" winding down to Third Avenue and Third Street. So things could have been much worse
An April letter concerning the 32-acre park called it "a compelling site for a new vision" with its central location, light rail station (WBIYB) and closeness to the central library, museums and other attractions. It continues, "Through history, from Barcelona, Paris, London and Mexico City to the parks of the late 19th century work of American Fredrick Olmstead (sic), to the 21st century landmark parks of Chicago's Millennium Park and New York's High Line, parks have defined cities. Great cities have great parks, and great parks make great cities! It is Phoenix's time."
Past time, really. Back in the late 1990s, Phoenix had big hopes for Steele Indian School Park, which was hyped as "a new Central Park." Today, it's a pitiful expanse of sun-blasted grass and concrete, with private interests holding the empty land that boxes it in on Central and Indian School. The whole deal is suspicious — oh for a press curious about something other than those horrid public employees with their communist pensions. Why the federal government didn't simply hand the entire parcel over to the city for a dollar when it closed the Phoenix Indian School only makes the tragedy seem more like a real-estate hustle gone bad.
To be sure, Phoenix lives off the legacy of previous stewards who created Encanto Park, South Mountain Park and Papago Park. These are always at risk, as when scores of old trees were lost to a storm at Encanto (did the city plant new ones?). As for Hance Park, it could have been worse. At least the city didn't throw down the densely packed rocks that have become its signature "landscaping." The future is challenging because of tight city budgets — Your Tax Cuts at Work — a City Council that is indifferent-to-hostile concerning the central core, and lack of wealthy stewards of the kind that bankrolled Chicago's Millennium Park.
If I were a billionaire, I would lean on ADOT to extend the park all the way to Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue. One can dream.
Three goals are within reach.
First, the park needs an abundance of shade trees, as well as keeping the grass it has. This is the oasis part of the city, so going desert is ahistorical and a great way to drive people away. Its model should be Encanto Park. The Arizona ash, acacia, mesquite and cottonwood are all fairly drought-tolerant. But remember, this is the soil of the Salt River Valley. Anything grows here provided it has water. Ficus trees are great, too. Investing water to create an oasis of shade trees in the heart of the city is far better than using it for another housing racket out on the fringes. Shade is essential.
Second, the park requires a visible, 24/7 police or park ranger presence. The white-right apartheid suburbs like Phoenix as a dumping ground for the homeless, the hardcore street people and petty crime. It shouldn't intrude in the park. Also, Phoenicians don't have urban sensibilities, so the appearance of safety will be important in getting them to patronize the park.
Third, rename it. Margaret Hance left a complicated legacy as mayor of Phoenix and she still has plenty of friends. She grew up in what is now Willo and attended Kenilworth School (as did Barry Goldwater, Paul Fannin and Homey). But as mayor Hance was no friend of the central city. Indeed, she presided over the death of downtown and unconscionable damage to the central city. Name a road after her in Arcadia, but not this park.
Others will have plenty of good ideas. Do study best practices elsewhere, especially the park designs of Frederick Law Olmsted. Remember Daniel Burnham: "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work." I hope they go somewhere. But don't forget the essentials: Shade and grass; visible safety, and a name that honors a true central city steward.