Authentic Phoenix can still be found at Durant's.
The impending closure of Baker Nursery and Mary Coyle's raises an issue beyond losing beloved businesses or even the extreme struggle faced by locally owned firms in Phoenix. It cuts to something essential to a real city even if it is difficult to define: authenticity.
Critics may dismiss this as nostalgia, a cheap emotion for a golden past that never was (this is one way Very Serious People invalidate my arguments now). Or some academic fad of the latte-quaffing creative class elitists. Instead, it is critical to a city's success.
"Authentic" in connection with a city involves historic roots, local ownership, places that are valued, human scale and encouraging human interaction, aesthetics, a distinctive vibe ("cool"), and a strong degree of critical mass and density. The asteroid belts of suburbia with their chain restaurants and malls are not authentic — they annihilate it. No wonder educated young people, many empty nest boomers and world talent want to move to authentic cities.
As these losses continue (and Mary Coyle's had been dead to some since it left its 15th Ave. and Thomas location to flee north of Camelback), it's more than the city cratering or looking like Everyplace America. It is the death of a tangable part of the civilization, a concept beyond the MBAs that run the country or the real-estate grifters that run Phoenix. A point comes where too much driving is required to reach this or that "iconic" survivor.
Seattle is so authentic that the natives argue over the authenticity of assets that most cities have long since lost or never had. The boom there is wiping away many well-liked places, but the authenticity remains. San Francisco, LA, Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Miami, Cincinnati, Denver — all authentic big cities.
Sprawl, massive industry consolidation and technology tend to make most places in America into a bland sameness — the cartoon landscape not worth caring about described by Jim Kunstler. This is intentional "branding." And I suppose most people like it or they wouldn't have allowed it. Perhaps they didn't realize that every dollar spent and every mile driven was a "vote" against their authentic, unique community.
Also, rich people are usually disconnected from place today. If I were living off my "investments," I'd set up a bookstore in one of the midcentury domes of the old "punchcard" building on Central and a jazz club in the other and run them both. Talk about a great life! I would never need to make a profit (but I probably would). But this is not how the rich think.
Because this is a Phoenix-centric blog, we will not linger to mourn the loss of authentic Tulsa or authentic Akron, Wichita or Muncie, although I'm sure they existed.
Believe it or not, Phoenix was once very authentic in good ways (and some bad, such as the old mob). It had a real and dense central business district packed with local stores. A real streetscape. It had quirks and kinks and oddities. Traditions.
This was a town of great bars catering to all tastes across the generations, such as the Clown's Den, Rocky's Hideaway, Chez Nous, the Band Box, The Islands, the French Quarter and the Ivanhoe. And there were wonderful local drive-ins. We had a skid row that was both forbidding but also full of character in the Deuce. The classic 1960s Phoenix coffee shops such as Helsing's. Central Avenue, where people cruised and shopped at Park Central. Don't forget the revolving neon sign above the Valley National Bank Building (an Art Deco beauty that is still, still (!) empty — in what other major city would that happen?). Neon was everywhere.
Of course there was the priceless urban-rural interface which produced such beauty. And each town of the Valley had its own distinct character. But I emphasize the urban features above because they brought people together and provided bones that could have been reinvented again and again — had most of it not been demolished.
The city's Western character also gradually died. Although the Parada del Sol continues in Scottsdale, it was once second fiddle. The big rodeo and cowboy parade was the Phoenix Rodeo of Rodeos, sponsored by the Jaycees. This was a major event on the rodeo circuit, a reminder of the importance of cattle to the economy, and every year a queen was crowned. A "jail" was set up downtown, where business leaders, politicians and local celebs were locked up for an hour for charity. Denver maintains the National Western Stock Show. The Calgary Stampede remains a huge event. But in 1997, the Rodeo of Rodeos was canceled after a 70-year history.
In Seattle, most of First Avenue was once a skid row. Now most of it is very upscale but still full of character partly thanks to the buildings that weren't torn down. Or there's Beth's Cafe (going 60 years) or, of course, Pike Place Market. The latter only exists because of decades of civic commitment and stewards with means, what's lacking in Phoenix. Seattle residents are more prosperous but does that help ensure an authentic, real city — or is it a consequence of having it, a virtuous cycle attracting talent and people who love the place?
Authentic isn't encased in amber. It evolves.
Nobody moves to Seattle for the weather. Nobody moves to Seattle because it's cheap.
Gradually, authentic Phoenix has been lost because too many people came who wanted to use it up and throw it away, play real-estate hustle or employ it as a stool-sample lab experiment for right-wing ideology. Others were just working too hard to keep their heads above water. The message was sometimes quite overt: This is the way it is. If you want "authenticity," whatever the hell that is, leave!
To be sure, the group Local First Arizona fights to preserve locally owned retail. Please support them. The Resistance fights heroically to preserve historic buildings and recreate the core. Thank goodness for them. But the damage has been extraordinary, among the worst for a major city in America.
Old Scottsdale is what tries to pass for authentic, but it's surrounded by Snottsdale Silicone Valley. And while Old Town has some gems (Poisoned Pen, Los Olivos), I can't tell how much of it is embalmed with money and how much in danger of collapse. In any event, a place whose biggest public policy complaint is lack of parking spaces is not authentic. Nor is a place...how to put this delicately...so rich and white and full of parvenus.
Driving kills authenticity unless you're cruisin' Central. There will be no Authenticity Corridor running from Chandler to north Scottsdale along the 101. All across the metropolitan area, things look as if they were stamped out of a cookie cutter. Is this Chandler or far north Phoenix or Peoria or Su-prise?
What's left of authentic Phoenix is scattered. A few places are well-tended, such as the Arizona Biltmore (hardly available for foot traffic) and the historic districts north of downtown. Most of the physical bones of the authentic city are likely in the same danger as Baker's.
How does one rebuild it after its gone? I don't know. CityScape is fine for what it is. But walk half a block and you're in the aftermath of a plague die-off without the zombies. And even where there's "energy," it's more Scottsdale plastic.
Durant's is authentic. And you can reach it by light rail (WBIYB). But don't misunderstand. The authenticity that makes a city great is more about people, what they build and how they love a place, than any individual establishment. Phoenix has way too many restaurants and not enough well-paying productive jobs.
And that, dear readers, is an authentic problem.
UPDATE: Closures include the Big Apple, Rustler's Rooste, Pinnacle Peak Patio, the Landmark Restaurant in Mesa....
Want to learn about Phoenix's rich history? Check out the original columns in Rogue's Phoenix 101 archive.