It's an old con going back a century or more — although it was typically the subject of advertising (as seen in the above promotion from the 1950s) rather than of "news" stories.
How can I be so cynical as to call it a con? Two reasons.
First, America had a long tradition of the West being misrepresented as the land of milk and honey by railroads and land barons. In most cases, the reality was disappointing, sometimes disastrously so. In reality, the land was unforgiving, "civilization" was primitive, fraud and lawlessness were common, and many immigrants were ruined.
Second, Phoenix historically had about seven decent-to-nice months and five hellish ones. I say "historically" because that ratio is starting to invert, about which more later. But many snowy places have five rough months and seven that range from livable to quite pleasant. Summer in Minnesota is lovely. So it the Phoenix braggadocio about its "superior" weather has always baffled me.
It is true that many people seek the sun almost pathologically, like the doomed space crew in the 2007 film Sunshine. "You don't have to shovel sunshine!" is a motto that resonates, at least with the 4 million people who seem to be willing to put up with almost anything in Phoenix as long as they get hot weather. I admit my blind spot: As a Phoenician, nothing makes me more depressed than endless sunny days.
You are told that Arizona's economy was based on the Five Cs — copper, cattle, cotton, citrus, and climate. In fact, "climate" is a latecomer to the Cs. Historically, there were four foundational industries, along with the railroads.
That doesn't mean that Phoenix didn't try to attract people with its "healthful" dry, sunny climate from early on. Direct railroad connections helped significantly, especially the Southern Pacific's Northern Main Line that was completed in the 1920s.
But it was a tougher sell when the bludgeon of summer arrived. People spent the night on sleeping porches wrapped in wet sheets (you can still identify the sleeping porches on many older houses — many more houses and territorial-era apartments had this distinctive feature, but they were torn down in the clearcutting of the 1980s and 1990s).
In The House by the Buckeye Road, Helen Humphreys Seargeant recounts nearly collapsing when she stepped from train in Phoenix soon after statehood. My great uncle Charlie couldn't wait to get old enough to flee. The rich businessmen and farmers sent their families to the coast for the summer months. Only a special breed of desert rat could stand the town year-round.
Air conditioning made Phoenix possible as a city, first with evaporative cooling, then with refrigeration for large buildings such as movie theaters starting in the 1920s, and finally with affordable refrigerated cooling for houses after World War II.
As the metropolitan area's economy has narrowed, it has become ever more dependent on tourism and attracting residents with cheap tract houses — all backed by the promise of great weather. "Climate" replaced the other Cs, as well as most of the tech industries painstakingly recruited from the late 1940s through the 1960s.
Behind this is a conceit of "everyone" enjoying a resort lifestyle, from a backyard pool to, well I can't resist, championship golf. This has proved especially magnetic to retirees, most of whom have brought reactionary politics and no sense of obligation to their new place of residence. Because, for many, it's not really "home." That's back in Iowa or Minnesota, where their bodies will be shipped for burial.
The resort mentality carries a toxic downside, making Phoenix a disposable community (one sign is the extremely low rate of giving to arts organizations for a metro of its size). One can do things at a resort he or she would never do "back home," especially when most of the built environment discourages connections, is surrounded by walls, fronted by garage doors, and requires long car trips.
The reality of the climate promise is something different.
To be sure, winter in Phoenix carries a magical quality. There's no getting around it. I realize that by dissenting from the weather-as-complete-advantage orthodoxy that I risk many readers' minds snapping shut.
But Phoenix is not San Diego, a city that is pleasant year-round.
Also, the argument is usually framed as the Twin Cities at sixty-below (I've experienced that) vs. Phoenix. But plenty of places have less extreme winter weather (and their numbers are growing). Even with its humidity, the South is growing. Many southern Midwestern cities are seeing far less snow and ice. Denver can be freezing one day in winter and seventy degrees the next; summers can be quite delightful.
Phoenix is in the middle of a hostile desert that only appears to have been domesticated by air conditioning in cars, houses, workplaces, and light rail (WBIYB), as well as the mighty water works of the Salt River Project and Central Arizona Project.
I remember two episodes in the 2000s, one when a fire at a power station raised questions about reliability of the grid and another when the rupture of a gasoline pipeline led to fuel shortages. Both happened in high summer. Anyone with a brain could detect the palpable fear — this huge, isolated metropolis as an object lesson in human accomplishment but also hubris. Yes, Phoenix is a vulnerable place.
Even with all our creature comforts, the first summer remains a wrenching rite of passage for most people, no matter the mandatory happy talk. My god, I've never felt heat like this before. And it only gets harder with each passing year. It is not something one "gets used to" — that feeling of opening the oven door when you step outside, the low-grade heat exhaustion that constantly lurks. This, along with the poor economy, helps account for so much population churn.
Also, summers are getting hotter and the heat is lasting longer, no matter the blips in one year or another. In my lifetime, the overnight lows have risen at least 10 degrees. This makes it impossible for most of the city to ever cool off during the worst months. The hard frosts that were a feature of old Phoenix in the winter are mostly gone, replaced by such consequences as West Nile-carrying mosquitoes.
And this is local warming, a consequence of ripping out the citrus groves, flower fields, farms, urban oasis and natural desert — and replacing it with asphalt, concrete and gravel on a massive scale.
Climate change promises a much harsher future. Unfortunately, the red-state pols in control of the state deny this settled science, so there is no plan to address it. Ironically, it may make "home" more livable as it turns Phoenix into a hellish nightmare — and one where combating the rising temperatures becomes prohibitively expensive.
"Everything's fine! The hotter the better!" is not an intelligent response. Barring a serious global effort and a reordering of the local "lifestyle," the latter request will be tragically fulfilled.