The biggest kick in the head on this trip back home came when I drove past Kenilworth School, where I went from first through eighth grade. Other alumni include Senators Barry Goldwater and Paul Fannin.
When I was there in the 1960s, the stately building was surrounded by grass and trees (watered by flood irrigation), including the mature palms that lined Third Avenue. Teachers could park on the streets, although a number of them walked because they lived nearby. The houses were all landscaped with lawns, trees, flowers, and hedges. In addition to making the neighborhood attractive and walkable, this helped cool it. We went back to school without air conditioning in September.
Kenilworth avoided aggressive attempts to demolish it when the unnecessary Papago Freeway inner loop was rammed through the neighborhood in the 1980s. It also survived the curving of Third Avenue, which destroyed the grid designed to give the neighborhood a pleasing aspect. And the mammoth widening of Seventh Avenue to feed the freeway.
Now a bunch of rocks have been thrown down in front of the school. A driveway and even larger parking lot have been added where the grassy playground once stood. Where we would lie on the cool ground, watch jet contrails, and dream the dreams of youth. The dissonance is painful. The classical revival building set amid all this ugliness is similar to a diamond lying in a pile of manure.
The trouble is that I am one of the few people who would even notice. Like Carson McCullers, "I must go home periodically to renew my sense of horror." But I am increasingly a foreigner here.
I've written before about how wrongheaded the "We live in a desert" mantra is, spoken with self-congratulatory cluelessness by newcomers who have no sense of old Phoenix as a historic oasis. Or why we need that oasis more than ever. You can read that here.
But, wow. Somebody worked hard to ruin the setting of one of the city's most beautiful surviving buildings. As usual, the car plays a big part. I think of how lovely North High was when its campus was a lush garden. Now most of it is covered in asphalt for parking.
Then the gravel. God, people. That's not how the Sonoran Desert looks. Gravel is one of the products that makes the aggregates industry so profitable (and politically powerful).
So few people remember how beautiful Phoenix once was, they are a tiny band of strangers, outsiders. I am from here, a fourth-generation Phoenician. But the place is increasingly a foreign land to me.
I turned onto the Papago Freeway at Fifth Avenue to see a Spring Training game in Peoria. Even though it was after six, the congestion was horrific. I used to come home on Third from the Arizona Republic, headed toward shady Willo, look down on this traffic and say, "Enjoy your lifestyle!"
But today I had another foreigner's thought. Most of these cars are probably only passing through.
With Chandler's relatively successful Price Corridor, new offices in Tempe, the development of Eastmark in far southeast Mesa, the offices of Scottsdale — many of these vehicles hold worker bees headed to their tract houses on the far west side. And some are going the other way from the warehouses there. Sure, some are in the city limits, and some back-office operations have come to far north Phoenix. But the central core? They're passing through.
Not only is this a sign of Phoenix becoming the hole in the doughnut, but the very relevancy of the nation's sixth most populous city is in question. See the results of the most recent election. Phoenix has in-city suburbs that vote red. But the election was profoundly hostile to the city. This continues a trend that has resulted in legislation that hamstrings urban progress.
(Downtown did nicely subvert "Arizona's Super Bowl" by becoming the center of media and many activities, with "Phoenix" on datelines and TV screens, as it should be. Wish that could happen more often. Downtown Phoenix is the center of the metropolitan area more than ever).
I hate to spend my money outside the city — sorry, but it has come to this if one expects Phoenix to prosper. But it couldn't be helped with Spring Training. So out to the Peoria Sports Complex, past the Stadium in the Cotton Field, endless lookalike chain stores and restaurants.
One was especially amusing, "American Lifestyle Furniture." Aside from the louche connotation of "lifestyle," I wondered, what does this mean? Sit in one of these chairs and invade another country? Let your infrastructure fall apart, your space program wither, your schools turned into a racket? Or was this part of Dick Cheney's "the American lifestyle is non-negotiable," as in endless driving, use of fossil fuels, a 1971 transportation system, and destroying the land through sprawl? Does anybody even think about this as they speed past? Only the foreigners.
Spring training, of course, is big business now. Very fancy and expensive stadiums stadiums have been built far out, except for the Brewers in Maryvale, there on borrowed time. The crowds were 99 percent white. And it's a vital part of metro Phoenix's tourism economy. It only bothers a foreigner that the sweet, intimate Spring Training of old is a casualty. Business, you know.
Then back to Midtown at night, when the city looks best. I pulled up next to a car with the vanity license plate "Exorcist." A bad-ass dude stared at me, homicide eyes. I assessed him in return until the light changed. I turned. He went straight.
Many demons need to be cast out from this migropolis, but how many people even realize it?
Postscript: I wanted to make a couple of more points. First, old Phoenix was indeed a magical place. It had plenty of problems and was seeding the troubles to come. But it was an eden, imperfect though it was.
Second, I often hear people trying to dismiss me by saying "every place changes." Sure. Denver changed a great deal from the time I lived there in the early 1990s, but the city is infinitely better. The same is true of Seattle and even Charlotte. Certainly San Diego. Oklahoma City's central core is stunningly revived (and much of the best preserved) from when I first encountered it in the 1980s.
Only Phoenix in my experience is a big city that has changed so much for the worse, lost so much of its magic. Dayton was ravaged by the deindustrialization of America and sprawl, but it's not a big city. So sure, Phoenix is sunny. I was once so much more.