Somebody on Facebook posted a T-shirt that said, "If you can't handle Phoenix at 122 degrees, you don't deserve Phoenix at 78 degrees." OK, then. Nothing to see here, move along.
When you're forced to rip off majestic cataclysm Detroit's mordant humor ("Detroit: Where the weak are killed and eaten"), you have issues as a city. The biggest one, climate change, is getting the least attention.
As day after day was hitting record high temperatures and at least four hikers were killed by the heat in Arizona, and untold numbers needing rescue that endangered the lives of first responders (been there, done that, and no, the view doesn't offer comfort when you're lugging some tenderfoot down a mountainside in a Stokes basket), when the heat was so severe it prompted an airliner to turn back because of fears of its tires blowing out on the broiling runway at Sky Harbor, with a possible serial killer on the loose in Maryvale... Amid all this, Phoenix received an unexpected gift.
It came in the form of a New York Times story headlined, "Phoenix focuses on rebuilding its downtown, wooing Silicon Valley."
Here was a godsend that none of the usual it's a dry heat, you don't have to shovel sunshine, I hike Camelback on the hottest days (moron), championship golf local-yokel booster Pravda propaganda could never match. The Newspaper of Record gave us a (if one didn't look too closely) glowing vote of confidence. What climate change? We're gonna be a tech hotspot!
All journalists make rookie mistakes and have articles from their cub reporter days that they wish would vanish from the morgue (mea maxima culpa). But this story is an embarrassing mashup, a strange patchwork of surface reporting, a few interviews, and an utter lack of context and sometimes even facts. And this is from an institution with the skilled editors of the New York Times.
For example, the reporter lays out the city's notorious dull-unsustainable-stripmall reputation in a long lead-in followed by this:
Phoenix is the way it is largely because of where it is, in a sprawling desert. It became a place of huge growth, where people from colder climes flocked for affordable single-family homes where air conditioning was de rigueur and not a single garage had to make room for a snow blower.
Where to begin? Phoenix is "the way it is" because of the many billions of dollars in federal investment, from dams to Cold War defense plants, because it is uniquely situated where rivers converge in the world's wettest desert, because it sits in one of the world's great fertile valleys, which was destroyed by highly subsidized sprawl. But even this doesn't get at the fundamental disconnect between the sentence's intention (?) and downtown. Phoenix once had a real downtown and it was consciously destroyed. That story is easily found by anyone who cares to use the "tubes," as the late Ted Stevens would say, in this series of Rogue columns.
Without this context, it is impossible to understand Phoenix's predicament and what is necessary to tap potential opportunities. We also learn nothing about the blood sport of economic competition between city and mega-suburbs, about the power of the Real Estate Industrial Complex which is always working to locate or relocate economic assets to the fringes.
Nowhere does the article mention the metro area's very low percentage of adults with bachelor's degrees or higher, a sine qua non for attracting the high end of the tech sector (not call centers). Nowhere do we wrestle with the internationally infamous politics of Arizona and the High Sheriff for Life of Maricopa County. And how they specifically target cities. Extremism doesn't attract Silicon Valley, top talent, and capital for a quality economy. Here, for example, are the kinds of cities actually luring Bay Area companies, engineers, and startups.
And to the extent that it deals with the larger economy, the story would have benefited from some history: the legacy semiconductor industry at risk, failure of the "cluster strategy" of the 1990s, the blunders and self-serving sabotage that kept the downtown Biosciences Campus from becoming the Texas Medical Center-style world-beater it could be, lack of venture capital, lost opportunity to be the world center of solar research and corporate power...(how much time do you have?).
If you're still with me, some will think I'm just sunning on the parade again. But good press doesn't solve real problems. Phoenix is playing in the bigs and it is still punching far below its weight. Aspirations are fine (and downtown is better than it was circa 2000, although far below its peer competitors), but achieving them requires the energy, will, and strategic sense that come from a good look in the mirror.
So I'll leave where I started. Nowhere does the Times article delve into the consequences of climate change for Phoenix, something on display in these record temperatures. We've dealt with this before here (see this, for example). It's not merely that global warming is going to have profound effects on the Southwest, it makes for a very dicey future for big cities. Arizona suffers from population overshoot and is doing nothing to address or even acknowledge it.
It's easy to live in denial going from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned chain store or restaurant or office. What happens when the power goes out?
And, sure, these are problems that may confront Dallas and Houston, too. But they have more money and power (and oil). I'll leave Texas to others.