If you think "everything's fine" or that Phoenix has no troubles that aren't common to other cities, this is not your post. Spoiler alert: Everything is not fine.
We discuss problems and challenges, as well as intelligent responses, frequently in this space. A previous column sought to debunk the excuses, myths and lies about the place. But reading the comments on the most recent post made me wonder: Is Phoenix uniquely troubled? If so, how and why?
Sprawl doesn't explain it. What Kunstler calls "cartoon architecture" has befouled the nation from sea to sea. Good civic design was lost everywhere. The best cities in the country are surrounded by soul-killing suburbs, office "parks," malls, shopping strips, parking lagoons and laced up with freeways.
Car culture, per se, isn't the answer, either. Oklahoma City ranks lowest in non-vehicle commuting, yet the entire metro has long backed a levy that has impressively rebuilt downtown. Freeway-mad Dallas also boasts the nation's largest light-rail system.
Political extremism, you say? It's a tempting cause. And yet, Miami and Houston are world cities in red states. Dallas and Atlanta are powerful corporate centers. Austin is a technology powerhouse. Culture also flourishes in these cities of the New Confederacy. Yes, they are tolerant, blue cities, but so is Phoenix.
Nor does racial and class division suffice. Chicago is riven with these, for example, and yet retains and expands its footprint as a world city. The same is true of Los Angeles and other cities.
The "Big Sort," where people increasingly self-segregate like-with-like, is also a national phenomenon.
So why is Phoenix distinct, even sui generis, in its difficulties? Why does Phoenix not make it into this site's aggregation of city successes and best practices? I'll give it a shot. These are not in order of importance, because I'm unsure of chickens and eggs:
1. Phoenix grew very fast, linear and, critically, cheap. Almost all the good residential construction in the core pre-dated World War II (in 1940, the city's population was 65,414). Thus, there were relatively few quality close-in neighborhoods — or ones that could be brought back from near death. Nothing like, say, Eastover, Myers Park and Dilworth in Charlotte, also a "young city."
The mass subdivisions laid down from the 1950s — a decade in which the city grew by 311 percent — and the years to come were easy to abandon and see middle-class residents move farther out, particularly as disruptions hit. Yet they lack the architectural quality and workmanship that would attract a renaissance, as happened in the prewar neighborhoods that avoided demolition and were restored as beautiful historic districts.
2. Downtown and the Central Corridor weren't just nearly abandoned, they were nearly clear cut. I can't think of another sizable city that was the victim of so much vandalism, encouraged by City Hall. Good bones were eliminated: Places that could have provided inexpensive business space and appealing historic living for the creative class. In their place, in most cases, is empty land.
3. The old stewards died off and weren't replaced. In Seattle, Paul Allen has lavished his billions on the city: Redeveloping Union Station as part of an office complex for tech companies, doing the same in South Lake Union as Amazon's vast headquarters, rehabbing the Cinerama downtown, building the Experience Music Project and even saving the Seahawks from being moved.
And he's just one of dozens in Seattle. They could spend their money on real-estate hustles in greenfield exurbia. But they love the city. Phoenix, alone in my study of big cities, lacks these essential angels.
4. Phoenix lost its major corporate headquarters. Coca-Cola has 9,000 employees in downtown Atlanta. Procter & Gamble has about 12,000 in downtown Cincinnati. Phoenix lost Dial, Valley National Bank, Central Newspapers among others, and never replaced them with companies of similar size and local commitment.
5. It was surrounded by mega-suburbs. Glendale is 14.2 percent the population of Phoenix, but that's pretty big for a single suburb. Glendale, Calif., is 5 percent of the city of Los Angeles.
And Phoenix is surrounded by similarly sized municipalities, plus enormous Mesa. Most do not share Phoenix's goals or needs and they actively compete against the city for jobs.
Put it another way, although it is the largest city between Houston and Los Angeles, Phoenix was less than 36 percent of its metropolitan area population in 2012, a shocking change from even 1990.
This might not matter if the center of economic and political gravity had remained in Phoenix. For example, Dallas is surrounded by suburbs with corporate "campuses," but the city and downtown Dallas retain many assets.
Phoenix has lost almost everything, especially in the private sector. It shifted to north Scottsdale — an especially poisonous competitor — and Chandler. The result is veto power over the city thanks to an anti-urban majority in the Legislature and a constant hollowing out of the core.
Here's another element that bends toward the distinctive: The petty mandarins at city halls in the suburbs even hate the name Phoenix. This is nuts. LA, Chicago, Atlanta, Cincinnati, etc. are smaller than their combined suburbs. But their teams are named after the city. The city is the brand in a global economy. Not so, in [We Dare Not Speak Its Name] even though that name conveys such magic, or should.
6. Phoenix has suburbs within the city. At more than 500 square miles, Phoenix long ago lost any cohesiveness. The in-city suburbs are mere subdivisions, often with more in common politically with the East Valley than with the core. They lack any shared history or distinctiveness (as with Venice in LA).
They do act as a brake on policies that would allow Phoenix to punch at its weight. Resentment against a supposed bias toward downtown is especially toxic. Now they have elected council members who are Krackpots, blocking the modest progress seen in the Rimsza and early Gordon years.
7. Phoenix is sliced and diced by wide highways called "city streets." The mile-by-mile checkerboard of major thoroughfares was built on the remains of irrigation laterals and farm plats. Then they were expanded to six lanes or wider without second thoughts or remorse.
A prominent civic planner wondered to me a few years ago why La Grande Orange had done so well while other efforts had failed. A big reason: 40th Street is only two-lanes wide there, a rarity. Few things are more harmful to inviting, walkable, human-scale cities than huge avenues (and I'm not talking about the grand boulevards of Haussmann's magnificent Paris; Phoenix's streets highways are only designed to move traffic).
8. Federal dependency. Modern Phoenix was created by Washington, D.C., with everything from water and flood control to cheap electricity for air conditioning, Air Force bases and Social Security checks to retirees.
Leaders from the 1940s through the 1960s knew this wasn't enough, so they made aggressive efforts to recruit technology and aerospace companies. But this didn't stick: Population growth alone seemed enough.
Meanwhile, aside from light rail (WBIYB), the city never pivoted to gaining high-quality federal assets, such as major employment centers (as in Denver) or research dollars (as in the Bay Area and Houston). And too many Phoenicians believe all this was built by rugged individualism.
9. Lack of political pluralism and engagement. Phoenix is alone among cities of its size (and similar-size metros) in the dearth of non-"conservative" political activism or counter-balancing and competing forces.
Private-sector unions went away when the railroads declined and right-to-work became law. Municipal workers now hold an outsized influence. Hispanics lack any power centers to match their population; Latino organizations are dependent on City Hall for funding, and thus want to keep the peace. The environmental movement is Sandy Bahr and a handful of others.
The intended democratization reforms of Terry Goddard created fractious "village" and neighborhood boards, but these are almost always playing small ball or acting as a veto of visionary projects.
Election turnout is shamefully low. Put it all together, and there's nothing to offset the energy and ardent commitment of the Kookocracy. Or the apathy-ocracy.
10. Real estate became the driving industry. In other big cities, real estate is a consequence of the larger economy. In Phoenix, it is the economy. And it is without imagination or vision. Every schlock building or tract house looks like every other.
Another offshoot is the constant spec development of retail. This pits city against suburbs in pursuit of precious sales-tax dollars, leaving behind acres of blight and empty big boxes, shopping strips and car lots.
Now, with its vast political and economic power, the real-estate machine works against the interests of the city. It fights building a high-wage, creative-class economy to match the city's size, especially in the core. There is not one powerful developer driving the Central Corridor.
11. Corruption without benefits. Chicago is a notoriously corrupt city. It still gets a great city in spite (or because) of this. Phoenix has its own corruption — always had it. But it provides no community benefits as an offshoot.
12. Massive illegal migration. Unlike Los Angeles, Phoenix lacked the economic or social depth to handle the hundreds of thousands of new Latino migrants that arrived starting in the 1980s. They propped up the growth machine, but exacted a huge toll on schools, social services and existing Mexican-American neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, unlike almost every other city of its size, Phoenix failed to attract large numbers of other, highly skilled immigrants. In those cities, such cohorts have proved to be essential to reinvention. Instead, the low-skilled illegal immigrants provided the Kooks with their political lifeblood.
13. Phoenix was never the center of anything. My little farm town was isolated and remained so even as it grew into the nation's sixth most populous city.
Denver is still the first city of the intermountain West, a title it has held since the 19th century. Dallas has been a center of corporate power, wealth and distribution since the 1890s. Houston has long been an alpha world city thanks to the worldwide oil industry and its (federally dredged) seaport. Cincinnati retains the bones of once being among America's most important cities. Charlotte leaped to become the nation's second-largest banking center.
Phoenix merely has a lot of people and a few economic assets that would be impressive for, say, Tulsa. In no category besides housing does it effectively compete against peer cities or metros, especially not in the high-quality, high-wage sectors. Besting Fresno or El Paso is meaningless in today's global economy. So is the number of tract houses or golf courses or how rich you feel in north Scottsdale.
Almost any major city is home to major research universities and elite liberal arts colleges. Not Phoenix, until very late, and really only to satellite campuses of ASU. Philadelphia, the nation's fifth-largest city, is home to Penn and Temple among some 20 four-year universities.
14. Resort culture. Too many Phoenicians don't really love the city the way Portlanders love Portland or St. Louisans love St. Louis. Home is somewhere else. In a resort, anything is permissible, especially the behavior one would never do back home. Connections are fragile to non-existent. It is a disposable community.
15. Bad timing. Phoenix grew into a big city during the worst time for architecture, civic design and place making. Thus, it had few of the good bones from the City Beautiful Movement or the grand buildings of the late 19th century.
Charlotte is the only similar example, growing large after 1960 — but Charlotte had Bank of America's Hugh McColl Jr., an urbanist, who was determined to make a great downtown. And, as stated above, Charlotte has more desirable neighborhoods close to the core.
Phoenix came out on the wrong end of many other bad bets and turning points. More major corporate headquarters didn't naturally follow Greyhound in the late 1960s.
The Come-to-Jesus moment in the 1991 crash didn't cause a course correction for the better. Instead, the real-estate boyz abandoned the Central Corridor and the cluster strategy was allowed to languish and die. Thus, as other cities reinvented themselves (notably Seattle), Phoenix didn't.
These are my best guesses about what makes Phoenix unique among very large cities in its problems. Its size only acts as an accelerant. I'd be interested in your ideas.
Want to know more about the rich history of Phoenix? Read the columns in the Phoenix 101 archive.