Friends in my old 'hood, the historic districts north of downtown Phoenix, have asked me to write about a change in the approach paths to Sky Harbor International Airport that is bringing airplanes lower and louder over these neighborhoods.
When I lived in Ocean Beach in San Diego, everybody knew when it was 6 a.m. That's because flight operations were commencing at Lindbergh Field whose one runway took outbound planes directly over our neighborhood. I lived a block-and-a-half from the beach, in a cool district the tourists usually missed — but the airplane noise came with the bargain.
Cities are noisy. As I write from the 10th floor of my downtown Seattle condo, I hear traffic, sirens, people yelling and, yes, airplanes approaching Sea-Tac (albeit from a higher altitude). During the daytime there is construction noise from one of the scores of new skyscrapers going up. The sounds are one of the energizing things about living in the heart of a city.
Central Phoenix, by contrast, is uncommonly quiet. There's the hum of the Papago Freeway. At night, the Santa Fe train whistles that remind me of my boyhood (one hardly hears the Union Pacific now compared to when it was the Southern Pacific years ago and Phoenix was a major point on its main line). Otherwise, especially if you are a block in from a major arterial, it is perhaps the quietest place in the metro area. It is much quieter than when I was a boy and central Phoenix was vibrant.
The FAA is making these changes elsewhere. It was tested in Seattle, where it brought much protest, especially from some of the tony city neighborhoods to the north. So Phoenix is not being picked on...perhaps.
To riff off "Drifter" below, Arizona's congressional delegation in the main, and especially the Republicans, doesn't look after the state's interests. Some, especially the senators, do nothing for the state. This is Ed Pastor's district, but he is retiring...so what's the deal, Rep. Pastor? Some activists may see these neighborhoods as the "rich" parts of the district and worthy of being dumped on the way Phoenix has misused the southside for a century. But the historic districts vote and they vote blue.
If the residents of the historic districts seem prickly, they have a right to be. The city allowed that freeway to be rammed through incomparable neighborhoods. It wasn't only that large numbers of historic houses and the Moreland Parkway were bulldozed. The ghastly intention to build a one-hundred-foot-high freeway sent the area into a nearly three-decade tailspin.The result was middle-class flight and the inability to get mortgages, much less loans to rehab these amazing properties. Once completed, the Papago forever shredded the historic fabric of the old neighborhood, too.
The far less desrtuctive alternative of connecting I-10 with the Maricopa Freeway at the Durango Curve was brushed aside by city leaders that didn't care about these places that are so worth caring about.
At the same time, city leaders were happily locating halfway houses and assorted treatment programs here, sometimes in some of the most historically valuable old houses. These are the same people that encouraged massive teardowns of historic buildings elsewhere, annihilating the connective texture of the old city. They widened Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street into mini-freeways from their human-scaled former selves, costing yet more houses dating back a century. They wanted to tear down Kenilworth School.
It was only through the advocacy of residents who saw a future there, and urban pioneers who moved in to make a stand, that these areas were saved from this civic vandalism and became coveted historic districts.
Back when I lived on Holly Street — and before the "Willo Soviet" gated off the street like some shabby-parvenu place in Snottsdale — the airport van would pick me up last. (This was pre-light-rail WBIYB). The van was full and people were agog. "Such beautiful houses!" "I love this neighborhood!" "...didn't know such places existed in Phoenix!" "My Realtor never showed me this!"
This achievement belongs to the people who fought for these districts, rehabbed the houses, and (in most cases, thank god) kept the historic oasis. They have a right to be prickly. With the exception of a mayor such as Terry Goddard, City Hall doesn't usually have their interests in mind. City Manager Ed Zuercher is a central Phoenix resident. But few of the Council get it, particularly as the heart of the city. The heart under increasing strain as most economic activity and investment insanely shifts out to the fringes.
Now, the neighborhood associations can sometimes be hijacked by a cabal (see the ill-advised fencing off of Willo to the east referenced above). These are not HOAs as in the suburbs, but they do have a voice at City Hall thanks to the "democratizing" reforms of Goddard. But the complaints about the planes are not this.
As my friend Rick Giase put it:
This greatly impacts my and surrounding historic neighborhoods. Instead of following the riverbed west and fly over industrial areas for 7-8 miles and then veering north to northeast, they now have the planes immediately turn and fly a path following Grand Avenue. This routes the planes over many historic neighborhoods. There was no announcement or neighborhood hearings to alert the communities of this change. As you can imagine this level of noise pollution is having a huge negative impact on the neighborhoods. People are annoyed, infuriated and outraged.
I can imagine. And I hope the FAA will cut these still at-risk Phoenix gems a break. After all, this is essentially outsourcing the noise of the well-off fliers in Scottsdale and other high-income areas — just as we outsource our carbon emissions to China.
At least in Seattle, the FAA made the changes to lessen pollution from commercial jetliners (among the worst emitters of greenhouse gases). Not surprisingly, it may also help the bottom line of the airlines. How much this really creates "greener skies" and what the total trade-offs are is unclear.
In the case of Phoenix, the FAA cited murky "safety and efficiency" as the cause, and officials pleaded "quelle surprise!" about neighborhood complaints. I suspect the local FAA bunch all lives in the suburbs and doesn't even think human habitation occurs "down there" (sweep of hand westerly off the runway).
Considering Sky Harbor under the old flight paths never had a major crash, very rare among big-city airports, the "safety" part of the explanation doesn't hold up. Routing these airplanes over more residential areas does decrease safety.
I am also skeptical when Phoenix officials plead helplessness in this case...
Here's one thing I learned today: America spent $26 billion preparing the Iraqi security forces that melted before a bunch of psychopaths in pickup trucks and a few tanks. This is a fraction of the trillions we've spent on military adventures since 2002. But it would have built many high-speed rail (HSR) lines.
When I was young, there were three conventional trains daily between Phoenix and Los Angeles on the old Southern Pacific northern main line. Today, Phoenix lacks even Amtrak service, by far the largest American city to do so.
But imagine high-speed rail between Phoenix and LA. City to city in about two hours. It is on "city pairs" where HSR is particularly effective in competing against airlines. Or rather, freeing them up from short-ish hops for longer routes. This is happening in Europe, Japan, China and more countries. Only Americans think they have an advanced transportation system when they are actually stuck in 1971.
Imagine how many short-hop Sky Harbor flights could be eliminated by HSR — and trains are far better for the environment.
Hell, I'd be happy to have some of that war money to rebuild our conventional passenger rail system, extend it and give it predictable funding free of ideological attacks in Congress. Every transportation system is subsidized, even and especially the Holy Automobile.
Oh, to have some options from the prison-intake experience that flying in America has become. The advertised flying time means nothing. First, there's the commute time to the airport, then the hassle of the "homeland" security checkpoint, then potential long waits on the tarmac and backups in an overburdened and outmoded (Your Tax Cuts at Work!) air traffic control system... It adds up.
And driving is not only increasingly wearying on overloaded freeways but the worst domestic source of CO2 emissions along with airplanes.
When I take trains from Seattle to Portland, the state-funded Amtrak Cascades, it's a delight: One can read, sight-see, work, indulge in some healthy slow time, and avoid the horrid traffic on I-5; and buses don't give the same travel experience.
So the anti-airplane-noise protesters, wherever they may be, should consider this, too. We need a more balanced transportation system. The problem is much more than noise. You're just hearing it for the first time.