I've been writing about Phoenix and Arizona for 15 years now, first as a columnist for the Arizona Republic and then in this space.
We've had some victories to be sure, and I'll take a little credit for being in the fight, often against the worst kind of civic thugs and wreckers. Among them: revitalizing central Phoenix, building the new Convention Center, winning T-Gen and making a start, albeit so slow, on the Phoenix Biomedical Campus, creating the downtown ASU campus, and light rail (WBIYB). Under Michael Crow, ASU gained stature and I was writing in support all the way.
I worked hard to provide history and context to a place rich in both, but where so many people think they don't exist — indeed, that they are dangerous. Amid the rackets, my job was not to be a cheerleader for the short hustle but to call balls and strikes.
And yet, nothing much has changed in the big picture. We keep losing.
Despite a brief moment of hope when St. Janet became governor, the extreme right has become more dominant than ever. The charter school racket. Cutting public school funding while giving tax breaks to private schools and money to rich districts. The private prison racket. The refusal to consider sustainability in the face of climate change. Continuing to depend on sprawl real estate as the main engine of growth. Further profaning the deserts and forests. It's a long list. And nothing changes. Indeed, it gets worse.
I was reminded of this as Roosevelt Row, a work by the Resistance against terrific odds, has received city approval to form a business improvement district. But wait: A legislator from Gilbert has introduced a bill to sandbag such districts — and backdate it to specifically target Roosevelt Row. Republicans claim to favor "local control," but this is only really true when they have control. Perhaps some of the district boundaries should be renegotiated — but to kill it outright, retroactively, and discourage other urban betterments?
I was reminded again when I came across a paper from the Brookings Institution and CEOs for Cities about the lessons from Seattle that other cities could use. I wrote about it Sunday in my Seattle Times column. This 2000 report was widely circulated and discussed at the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and elsewhere at the time, providing a roadmap to ensure Phoenix punched at its weight with good jobs and advanced industries. It went nowhere. The short hustle on real estate won.
Phoenix and Arizona were ground zero in the worst downturn since the Great Depression. And nothing changed. The same game — with championship golf! — is still the only game in town. If this catastrophic reckoning didn't change minds and wake people up, what would?
Elections have consequences and the Republicans continue to win. The Democratic Party in Arizona, the party of Hayden, McFarland, and the Udalls, is an empty shell. And no price is paid for policies that keep Arizona near the bottom of almost every measure of economic and social well-being. The ship hasn't come in from endless tax cuts, gutted education, and failure to invest in advanced infrastructure. It never will. Neither has the vaunted growth machine restarted.
The population growth that was supposed to turn Arizona purple instead bolstered the status quo — people self-selected, a tendency aggravated by the thinned-out, walled-off sprawl. And with Latino voting continuing to be so low, nothing will change.
Arizona is a national joke or horror story, without the panache of the "FLA-man" escapades on Twitter. But, hey Minnesota, it's sunny and warm in winter. (Just wait).
If I had been smart 15 years ago, if I had been solely focused on keeping my job, I would have done everything differently. I would have written rhapsodies about the "master planned communities" and, like the idiot David Brooks, seen the future at Verrado. I would have focused on Scottsdale and the suburbs and the playerz and the fake metrics that showed "everything's fine" and, especially, how it was sunny. I would have done all that and more, and never, ever, fought (and named) the Real Estate Industrial Complex and Kookocracy, advocated for downtown and light rail or, my biggest sin, written the penetrating truth about water. I would have never written the history whose study is so subversive and threatening.
But I didn't do that. I believed it would be immoral and unseemly; being a newspaper columnist is a public trust. On a more visceral level, I was shocked by the damage that had been done to the state and by how Phoenix was so far behind other large cities, including ones in which I had lived (and remember, San Diego's ascent began under a Republican mayor, Pete Wilson). I was raised on the mythos that Arizona and Phoenix were created by people working together to build a civilization, each generation standing on the shoulders of the last. I believed I owed. Yes, I know that sounds naive. So I called it as I saw it and paid the price.
I would be a liar if I said it didn't beat me down. The accumulated losses and the sore winners. The craziness and hate. Losing the magical Phoenix oasis to gravel and concrete.
What to do?
It would be tempting to make Rogue Columnist exclusively into a history site. Why not, when nothing really changes except for the tiny, granular victories of the Resistance?
But somebody needs to call bullshit, and not only about the targets that lie safely inside the invisible fence. I've been waiting for that void to be filled. No disrespect, but it hasn't happened, certainly not on a consistent basis or with the sophistication and institutional knowledge needed. Indeed demanded for a place so populous and whose challenges will have national consequences.
So here I am. Traffic keeps growing, although the comments have slowed down. I will struggle, however, to make the unchangable new. Perhaps calling it out is necessary as an end in itself. The site also has many national readers, so I will continue to produce columns on issues outside Arizona.
One last thing: There's a meme out there among the denialists, boosters, and collaborators that one doesn't have standing to write about Phoenix and Arizona unless one "loves" them. I had a little fun with this in a popular 2009 column. But it is actually a poisonous sentiment. Journalists and columnists are not here to "love" their subjects — indeed, that is a liability to serious work in an important calling.