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December 04, 2015

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Years ago, someone-can't remember who-said Phoenix is the safest city in America to walk, where nobody does. Now, I'd be afraid to be hit with a beer bottle. Phoenix attracted the wrong people for terrible reasons, and now it enjoys the worst of everyone, from California white-flighters to east coast grifters, dumped among a Midwestern expatriate community who are perpetually outraged at all the Mexicans, all of whom they believe to have snuck across the border last week. There's no way forward for the city with its present populace, even with all the great people who live there and actually care about it. Maybe someday the federal government will make itself useful and do something to incentivize the resettlement of the rust belt: enticing so much of our population to shift to the dry side will make the effects of climate change that much more chaotic.

I had a friend some years back who called Phoenix one of the nation's best driving cities. Everything felt easy and open, plus the traffic lights were synchronized. I was shocked to hear him talk this way since I assumed everyone knew what a disaster cars have been to every city's urban fabric. Even the best cities have been severely damaged by ugly freeways and clogged arteries. Downtowns have been moonscaped with parking lots and brutalist garages. Walkable streets became, over time, unwalkable and decayed. American civilization was no longer synonymous with quaint New England villages or dynamic cities but suburban schlock, utterly the same and forgettable wherever you go.

But I knew what my friend meant because I grew up in Phoenix and I remember the sense of freedom that came with a driver's license and a nice car. I didn't care about cities then. What was nice were the new shopping malls where parking was never an issue. It escaped my attention that it was a consumer formula devoid of soul, love, and good design. All I knew was that America was #1 because we were free and prosperous. Phoenix was, at its high point, the very emblem of this freedom (aka, The American Dream). This freedom came with six cylinders or eight, not with nostalgia for visually coherent streetscapes and vibrant downtowns.

Once Phoenix bought the paradigm, it was over. Nothing was going to change its fatal love affair with cars. Nobody serious questioned the new order. It was indisputably the right choice for the nation, and everyone else if they knew what was good for them. Still, it was at this point that the first signs of a resistance appeared in places like San Francisco, Greenwich Village, Berkeley, and Cambridge. Hippies loved old houses, the weirder the better. Authenticity rather than square footage and gigantic master suites became the rage. Then there were the critics like Ada Louise Huxtable who wrote movingly about lost treasures, e.g., Pennsylvania Station. Jane Jacobs wrote her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jackie Kennedy helped save Grand Central Station. At the peak of American prosperity and car love, the tide began to shift ever so slightly back to sanity and real pleasure.

I was living in Denver in the early '70s when I first became aware of the preservation movement. It was decidedly upscale in temperament and aesthetics, but I also discovered the new urban loft movement in its old warehouse district. Before LoDo was even a marketing concept, I found hippies and artists cultivating their urban Edens with extraordinary craft and charm. These seed carriers kept Denver vital and urban when much of its downtown was zombifying into parking lots and Dallas-like skyscrapers.

When I returned to Phoenix, I looked at my hometown with new eyes. Instead of ignoring the antique treasures, I feasted on them. Instead of celebrating Newer and Better, I asked what was so good about stuff you could see in any suburban hellhole. Phoenix was largely resistant to hippies but there was actually a surprising amount of ferment in and around downtown. Tempe had much more because of ASU, of course, and Tucson was even talking about slow growth! These helpful portents were snuffed out by the dominant paradiam, however. The critical mass was never great enough, nor the old cities large enough, for a genuine transformation to occur. Money knew the score and civic boosters were still very attached to bigger, taller, faster, wider.

Today, I can look at the ruination of my beloved hometown and forgive all those philistines and goobers who trashed what was its best and most endearing aspects. Of course, nearly every city in this nation gave up extraordinary treasures for the siren song of driving. Phoenix had quickly depleted its trove and by 1990, there wasn't much left except some historic houses. Maybe something wonderful will happen in the ashes of old Phoenix, something I'm probably too cynical to imagine. Maybe, but unlikely. I do miss the hippies, however. If you see the ghost of one walking down Roosevelt, say hello for me.

I've read you column for years. I find it interesting since I moved from Seattle to Phoenix twenty years ago.

I frequently visit Seattle. Occasionally I rent a car to travel down the 5 to visit friends and family. The I-5 appears to be the same as before I left. I guess that would be a good thing. Last time I visited it took me two and a half hours to travel fifty miles. There was a lane blocked by the Tacoma Dome. I now mostly avoid Seattle (as I type this from a hotel in Maui.)

I work as an airline pilot out of LAX. I am fortunate to visit many major cities on a regular basis. Seattle has some of the worst traffic problems in the US. I'm not sure Seattle's traffic woes will be solved by light rail or the Amtrak. The new Amazon buildings will make traffic even worse.

Phoenix isn't Seattle. Many differences viewed as advantageous are subjective at best. Great blog, I enjoy reading it!

Statistics back you up, Joe: Seattle's congestion has doubled in only a few years, and it ranks around seventh worst (D.C. drivers spend two weeks a year in traffic), but it's one of those cities I could feel sorry for the traffic engineers. Seattle is some tough geography to plant a contemporary car dependent metropolis, but it could be worse; I read somewhere once (and it might even be true!)that Seattle was founded as a fluke of railroad politics, and that the logical choice for the terminus was Grays Harbor, which is a deepwater port that's right on the ocean. If you ever wondered why Kurt Cobain stuck gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, try spending a week in Aberdeen/Hoquiam (If you're from Seattle, I'm sure you've been there)., the poor guy had to grow up there.

What the planet needs is more people.
T.M.

Its obvious that few here have lived where your nearest neighbor was a mile or so away. Sad U all didn't get to walk to school thru the beautiful soft snow as the moisture prepared the soil for the coming summers flowers and grassland beauty. An occasional hare darting across your path and fox tracks in the snow. The silence so quiet you could here your frosty breathe.
I could reminisce on and on but so as not to bore you I will end with; I had those experiences and I have also lived in in the densities of rat filled quagmires called cities. That's why I keep moving deeper into the Desert. Searching for Cactus ED.

PS: While it may seem childish I again recommend a 1946 novel called CITY by the award winning Clifford Simak. "And the dogs sat around the campfire and discussed the possible existence of Man."

I didn't mean to offend those small furry mammals with long tails. I use the word "RAT" broadly to take in all fleshy creatures that cluster up in piled high density.

My one room school house still exists as a community center. They did remove one of the two outhouses and tore down the horse barn. I can't recall any kid that came to school in a car.

As I have often said, comparisons between Phoenix and Seattle are almost impossible, or the facts seem cruel toward Phoenix and sure to bring out the "We have sunshine!!!" defensiveness, because the two places are so very different.

But with experience in both, let me add my perspectives to the comments above (and thanks for the kind words about Rogue Columnist, Joe).

For me, Seattle’s geography is a blessing. Only so much land limits sprawl and encourages density. Although building I-5 destroyed neighborhoods and did nothing for the city itself, other freeway building was constrained by public opinion. So I-90 and State Route 520 link the city to the sprawlish Eastside via floating bridges, other proposed freeways were never built.

The result is much more balance by Seattle not being built entirely around the automobile. This translates differently to the beholder.

Someone who wants to own a large house on a big lot out in the suburbs — and the national traffic engineering elite and hence media — see “congestion.” Because, if he or she chooses this way of living, they will indeed spend more time behind the wheel than counterparts in Phoenix. On the other hand, “congestion” for single-occupancy driving is a tax, as it were, that somewhat offsets all the subsidies that automobile culture receives.

But many people, and a growing number, want to live in the city close to the Northwest’s largest employment center, downtown Seattle. They want to walk or bicycle to work. Something like 48 percent or more of commuters take transit. The city and even metropolitan area have a large and convenient bus network. Light rail runs into neighborhoods in south Seattle and to the airport; soon it will open to the University District, a huge leap.

In addition, commuters can take Sound Transit commuter trains south to Tacoma and north to Everett with par-and-ride lots along the way. The state-funded Amtrak Cascades offer additional train service from Seattle to Tacoma, Portland and Eugene among other stops south, and to Vancouver, B.C., to the north. On top of this, we have Amtrak long-distance trains to Chicago and San Francisco and LA (and San Diego).

On the trains especially, but also the buses, you can work, read, chat, listen to music or podcasts, relax. The contrast with a blood-pressure-raising car commute anywhere is striking (and must sound almost un-American to many readers. I get that. Like Soleri, I accepted the car life without question when I was younger).

Seattle provides not only the famous destinations that make it enormously popular with tourists and bored suburbanites, but also wonderful ways of everyday living for residents — if you can and will give up your car. Downtown remains the gravitational center of the city and metro. Every city neighborhood has its own character, as well as amenities that make living easy, walkable and attractive.

In other words, a car-based “lifestyle” is not mandatory in Seattle. Having lived in Seattle for eight years, it would be extremely difficult for me to return to car dependency in another city. Even in Phoenix, my life is largely arranged around light rail (WBYB). Driving from Midtown to Biltmore for basic shopping seems like a lifetime when the downtown Seattle shopping district begins a block from my condo. Pike Place Market is four blocks away.

Seattle is in the midst of tremendous angst over “suffering” one of the biggest economic booms in its history and relatively large population growth in its context. There are tremendous debates over increasing density. The South Lake Union district beside downtown has been turned into a dense corporate and research hub anchored by Amazon — about 70,000 well-paid headquarters jobs are expected. The three Amazon headquarters towers are going up outside my window. There’s worry over the city losing its authenticity. And some complain about a “war on cars” as the city makes bike lanes. Other cities should be so fortunate to be enduring such “problems.”

In 1969, Seattle had a chance to get a heavy-rail subway system almost entirely funded by the federal government. Voters turned it down — the funds built MARTA in Atlanta — and the city has suffered and been backfilling the consequences ever since. Voters thought they would prevent further growth by saying no — they were very wrong.

One more thing: Seattle was always a city of commerce on the make. It has a natural deep-water harbor. It built a constellation of major headquarters becoming the business center of the Northwest. When the Northern Pacific went to Tacoma, Seattle leaders pushed to get their own transcontinental railroad — they got that plus two more, and another reaching it by trackage rights. The city held two very successful world’s fairs. It has a genius for reinvention. Seattle’s success was no accident.

"Success" is such a subjective word. Sorta reminds me of the current interpretations of Sustainability. A number of which are rube con games. Welcome to the circus sucker.

Some might define success as when the planet takes its revenge and reduces the "human" population to a number much less than 7 billion. Seattle floats to where Japan used to exist.
Well gotta go, time to help the Wiley Coyote toss down some Sajuaro seeds. And if you haven't been to the Desert Botanical Gardens at Papago Park. You should. Only negative is the occasional National guard helicopter. Time to move them out of Papago Park.

Land area:

Seattle city: 84 square miles
Phoenix city: 517

Seattle metro: 5,872
Phoenix metro: 14,566

Washington state land use regs and a robust environmental ethic and agricultural sector ensure many more real towns separated by empty space.


Maybe? We will see what the Donald quacks about that when he becomes Caesar.

And what about the new I-11 corridor about to get a priority designation in the new transportation bill? The route through metro PHX has been engineered by the real estate industrial complex to avoid existing - even brand new 6 lane corridors like loop 303 - in favor of a westerly route through native Sonoran desert - creating new sprawl development opportunities, in effect, funding a Loop 404!

It's true that Seattle's success was no accident: its downtown is spectacular, and Phoenix hasn't even got one, for instance, but Phoenix isn't days closer by ship to Asia than L.A., and Seattle is (time is money), and no boom was coming to Phoenix after Nixon and Kissinger rented us out to China.
I believe we're going to be dragged kicking and screaming away from our cars sooner rather than later, and Seattle is way, way, better prepared to do that than Phoenix, because it's compact, and it can find the will to do things collectively.

John Cote. The developer dream has always been for LA and Phoenix and Las Vegas city limits to come together. After all that desert is just one big ugly brown nothing. Daily I still hear people say of the desert, but "there is nothing out there."
Pat hope your right about cars but I think the Tesla crowd with electric and driverless Google cars is here. Look mom " No Hands"

In the early 1990's I met Ed Hall, who I understood was the principal freeway and street planner for the City of Phoenix. He said he was lured to Phoenix in the early 1960's after his work on the freeway system in San Diego, which was perceived to be a model at the time. He had a large plaque on his wall celebrating his service to Phoenix as the "Father of the Squaw Peak Parkway". (please excuse the historical reference) When I met him he was a proud and humble public servant who had endured so many public meetings and controversies about the future of the city. He said he was also involved in siting for I-10 and in efforts to pave secondary streets in the urban core. His archives offer substantive details on his work in San Diego and Phoenix that would inform more detailed scrutiny http://www.azarchivesonline.org/xtf/view?docId=ead/asu/hall_acc.xml;query=ed%20hall;brand=default

I'm glad you brought up Ed Hall, Rob. He was the moving force behind the wide streets and adamantly anti-transit.

Pat, I also hope you are correct about cars but gasoline at $2 per gallon and going down along with record sales of SUVs to millennials and others, what will the impetus for the death of cars to occur? The "enlightened" Republican forever House of Representatives or the 30 plus Republican governors?

Somewhat OT, here's a review of my new Phoenix history:

http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/arts/jon-taltons-brief-history-of-phoenix-is-nostalgic-without-romance-or-schmaltz-7862089

Glad to see a good review in the New Times.

I really enjoyed Soleri's post in this thread and I have taken the time upon reading the post and the comments to reflect upon what transportation means to ME personally. And I do believe this is a great driving city, and to me I take that as a real positive.

As someone who grew up in a suburban/urban setting, but also spent significant time in very rural settings...I think from the rural part of my mindset, roads are progress, roads are opportunity, that's how you get from A to B, roads are what connect you to the neighboring ranch or people who live in town, it's how you get out and explore the area, the region, the continent.

And, from a suburban mindset, well, it's all 2-lane roads once you get into your little corner of it, and I enjoy the landscaping and the quietude and the interior and exterior space of my home, which bring me peace.

Certainly, Jon is correct that the price is heavily paid with miles of concrete to get you from your job to your quiet cul-de-sac or narrow lane. That's why I think it's reasonable to ask people to vote to fund large projects, and so forth. It's their tax dollars and if the community feels strongly for or against a proposal, that's democracy as previously discussed with Portland and as Jon cites here with Seattle, as cities that went the opposite way than Phoenix did.

I think ultimately people want what they want, and if enough people are passionate about downtown, and transit, and walkability, then those things will happen. It seems to be an urban trend and I do believe central Phoenix will continue to revitalize/gentrify over the coming decades. That will be lovely for the people who enjoy that lifestyle, and meanwhile those who want to live in a different style may pursue jobs closer to their homes or move closer to their jobs to lessen the time spent in traffic as congestion changes over time.

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