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December 06, 2018


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If Phoenix looks starved for love, it's because the city exploded in size while shrinking in the connections that explain who we are as a civic enterprise. Anything and everything seemed possible back in the '60s and '70s, and when the dust settled, it revealed less a maturing city than a place that could be anywhere in a nation where everyone drove and few knew their neighbors apart from the make of their cars.

The unrooted quality of life in Phoenix was ideal for reinvention but it meant the city was shallow in the places where it most needed depth the most. Even today, you catch the plaintive nostalgia for local legends and lore that would suggest some identifiers are better than none at all. I used to enjoy playing the trivia game with other oldtimers until I finally realized that the specialness I thought inherent to Phoenix was just the stray ephemera of a pleasant place inundated by a torrent of remorseless change.

Great cities are the glory of civilization. They celebrate arts, architecture, higher learning, and the impulse to connect past and future. Phoenix doesn't do that much if at all and I no longer see any reason for belaboring its failure. We were a fairly decent city back in the '60s, but that period is over and the coming environmental crises will write the epilogue to a story we could never fully explain to ourselves let alone master. The priests and nobility have mostly abandoned their once-proud basilica. The apocalypse will play out in the ruined sanctuary of our meager love.

Data of interest, from the Census Bureau's 2016-17 American Community Surveys, U.S. Metro Areas


    Seattle -- 82,133 Denver -- 76,643 San Diego -- 76,207 Portland -- 71,931 Phoenix -- 61,506 UNITED STATES -- 61,372


    Seattle -- 60.4 (1st nationally) Portland -- 47.0 (8th) Denver -- 45.7 (10th) San Diego -- 43.6 (11th) UNITED STATES -- 30.3 Phoenix -- 27.4 (37th)

The gap between Phoenix and its western sisters, and especially between Phoenix and Seattle, in both household income and educational attainment, is so strikingly large that it probably can never be closed, no matter what policies Phoenix's leaders adopt going forward.

Take the gap in median household income and multiply it by the number of households, and you will get an idea of just how much less discretionary money households in Phoenix have for supporting schools, libraries, museums, book buying, and the performing arts, as well as charitable organizations. It is a very large number.

Also consider the impact that the gap in educational attainment has on metro-area-wide literacy and numeracy.

Any enterprise requiring a highly educated workforce can only look at Phoenix's numbers and civic culture and decide to locate elsewhere. But certain other enterprises operating large distribution centers requiring low-wage workforces will find Phoenix attractive.

Phoenix has managed to place itself inside a pernicious negative-feedback loop.

Metro Phoenix is an incredibly ignorant city and most residents don’t mind that at all. A good window into the white trash values that guide Arizona.

Reading all these comments and the column itself, I've been nodding along. I'm struck by how difficult it is to change a city's culture once it's been established. Here's what I wonder about, too, as I ponder Phoenix: how has LDS theology, with its emphasis on self reliance and the family as an insular unit impacted this issue? It's a vey private religious culture that is all-consuming and, I suspect, one in which secular concerns - such as philanthropy for the greater good - are not prioritized.

Diane, google it.

A better investment




Diane, your comment opens many profitable avenues for exploration.

All that you say is true. On the other hand, the Saints have often been essential to the public good; e.g., completing the transcontinental railroad.

Ray Killian, head of the Arizona Interstate Stream Commission when my mother worked there was a strong steward for the state's interests. When I was young, the Mormons were known for the support of education and the arts.

The East Valley of recent years has a very different LDS than the Salt Lake City region: Much more insular and hostile to the public good (SLC region has extensive light rail and commuter trains). How all this plays into the metro's continued dependence on extraction/sprawl...I don't know.

Actually, the Mormons (as evidenced by Salt Lake City's support of the classical arts) are quite generous when it comes to civic culture. If Phoenix boxes below its weight class, SLC boxes above. Their ballet, opera and symphony scene is quite robust, keeping it mind its metropolitan area population is very close to that of Tucson's - not Phoenix's.

And Utah is getting ready to do more civic duty by privatizing and building in their pre Trump Wilderness. Onward West young man. Lite rail for the Wilderness.

Arizona is an LDS Colony that only exists for the extraction of political power and contracts and tithes. If Maricopa County was overwhelmingly LDS, it would have nice things.

[I didn't mean to write a paperback book on the subject, but this is a hot issue to me. Apologies in advance.]

Jon, your piece is, as usual, poignant. In the West, Seattle and Phoenix are perfectly relevant contrasts. Phoenix is bigger (about 4.8 million to Seattle-Tacoma's 3.9 million). It is the 3rd largest metro area in the West behind the consolidated LA and SF areas, but Seattle-Tacoma is #4. They're comparable.

And, Jon, you've hit the major starting point for the divergence. One has a tradition of production and the other extraction. In the old days, people went to Seattle to produce things of value to the world, thereby creating wealth for themselves and the masses.

In the old days (more recent than Seattle's), people went to Phoenix to build stuff for the locals (mostly real estate stuff) and create wealth for themselves. “Phoenix” was largely irrelevant to them, aside from the fact that it had nice winters and you could build a palatial estate for yourself for much less than it would cost in a land-restricted place like Seattle. Phoenix was custom-made for an interloping, sprawl-mongering extractor. The fact that this was occurring in a place called “Phoenix” was irrelevant.

Metropolitan Phoenix’s biggest unmet need is love and allegiance. Some people have said that this is because many, if not most, of Phoenix’s movers and shakers have moved there from other places to which they still have allegiances. (Just go to an NHL game when the Redwings are in town and see the local crowd turn on the Coyotes. Or a baseball game when the Cubs are visiting.) But, many movers and shakers in other big cities come from other places. The culture in those places, though, has moved those people to adopt their new hometowns more earnestly.

Maybe this is because the surviving major daily in Metro Phoenix is the “Arizona” Republic. (It must be the biggest city in the world without a newspaper carrying its name.) Or, the old, hackneyed slogan, “The Valley of the Sun,” which was imposed on the city by a real estate huckster in the 1950s. Or, the inexplicable fact that Phoenix’s suburbs appear to take no pride (or see the obvious advantage) in associating with the identity of the central city. This is quite inexplicable in comparison to other major metro areas.

It has been said that maybe this is because one can’t tell where Phoenix ends and the next city begins. (That would seem to be to be conducive to developing a collectivized urban identity. Apparently not.) Anyway, cruise through LA or Chicago or Atlanta and you also don't know where one municipality ends and the next begins. Certainly, each of these suburbs has its own local needs and concerns. The difference is that all those other places have both a collective identity as well as a localized one. The suburbs of Phoenix lack that collectivized, metropolitan identity.

Atlanta, for example is a much smaller city than Phoenix. Smaller than Mesa, actually. It represents just 438,000 of the metro area's 5.9 million people - 7%. (Phoenix is 1.65 million of the metro's 4.8 million - 34%.) Yet virtually everyone in the entire Atlanta area takes pride in the fact that they are "Atlantans."

Phoenicians, with the encouragement of the local media, tend to brand themselves with insipid, imprecise monikers as Valleyites, Arizonans, Glendalians, Mesans and every other parochial identity they can concoct rather than "Phoenicians." That's why our local institutions tend to be dubbed "Arizona," "Valley," "Maricopa," or even "Central Arizona" before they are "Phoenix." It's weird.

I got a promotional email from the Phoenix CBS-TV affiliate saying they serve “7 million Arizonans.” That, of course, is fake news. Arizona has four DMAs (TV markets). It is insulting to, among others, the Tucson market, which has 1 million-plus residents. (Think Buffalo.) But the claim was symptomatic of the fact that Phoenix has a greatly flawed self-identity. It thinks it is Arizona. That we portray "Arizona" to ourselves and the outside world and eschew Phoenix is not good for us for number of reasons.

Aside from “dissing” the other 2.2 million Arizonans who are not in metro Phoenix (that’s more people than 15 states have), alienating other places in Arizona, treating them as if they don't matter or even exist, it diminishes Phoenix’s own identity, lowering its profile and divorcing it from associating with other big, “major league” cities with whom it should be compared. This is all because the movers and shakers in Phoenix don’t realize the harm this causes or they simply don’t care.

Phoenix lacks even a modicum of "urban patriotism." Most of the community institutions don't even acknowledge "Phoenix" at all. The media is “Arizona’s news leader…” or “Arizona Sports…” or “The Arizona Republic.” The arts are “Ballet Arizona” or “The Arizona Opera” (thank goodness for The Phoenix Art Museum and The Phoenix Theater). There’s the “Arizona Humane Society” which has no locations outside of metro Phoenix. The Greater Phoenix Economic Council honored Michael Bidwill of the Cardinals as its chairman a couple of years ago even though his family inflicted perhaps the single worst wound to the region’s economic development brand by yanking Phoenix from the NFL and changing the team’s name to the “Arizona” Cardinals, implying that Phoenix doesn’t deserve to be spoken of in the company of other big major-league markets. It was a statement that “Phoenix” has no brand value at all. (Imagine the Dallas Cowboys casually chucking “Dallas.”) Yet, Bidwill was honored by GPEC.

Phoenix just doesn’t “get” it.

Anyway, Phoenix has an identity crisis of which it is largely unaware. As “Phoenix” goes, so goes Scottsdale, Glendale, Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and the other two dozen suburban communities. They (especially Glendale) absolutely don’t understand this fact.

Seattle sees its place in the world. Phoenix sees its place in Arizona and then maybe the West. It chooses to play small ball. The economy here continues to be extractive (“let’s squeeze all we can out of cheap land on the fringes”).

There is some optimism of late from the tech sector, largely thanks solely to Arizona State University, the nation’s largest school. But even that is less entrepreneurial than it is a matter of tech companies expanding from Seattle and the Bay Area, seeing low occupancy costs and a growing, educated labor pool in Phoenix as a good place to expand the bottom line. Notably, these companies are locating in large part to downtown Phoenix. It is one area of encouragement. It’s causing homebuilders to look inward and build upward because these workers don't want to live in Buckeye. Developers are forced to curtail their urge to rape and pillage. Even though its imposed, it’s a good thing.

Anyway, Phoenix, an intrinsically “lovable” city and metro area, has been shown very little love historically. Until the tide turns and the shakers start to acknowledge its identity, the most overlooked big metro area in America will continue to experience tough going and the gap between the Seattles, Bostons, Denvers, etc. will continue to grow.

P.S. Someone needs to tell Ken Kendrick that moving his baseball team to the northeastern fringe would be a really bad move for him, his team and the fans who live throughout the vast urban sprawl. If attendance is of any interest to him, he should keep his 81 home games a year downtown and, if the City of Phoenix helps him remodel Chase Field, I hope they make it conditional on renaming the team “Phoenix.” It’s the least he can do for his adopted hometown, whether he understands its enormous value to the whole metropolitan area or not.

I don’t disagree with these comments—I’d just like to note there are plenty of people with birds, area codes, and other local emblems proudly tatted on their bodies. While I don’t have a way to quantify this behavior, their love should be taken into consideration.

Thanks for your comments, Phil, about the LDS folks. Makes sense. Before I left Phoenix, my stomping grounds consisted almost exclusively of CenPho. Whenever I did get to Mesa, I was surprised by the some of the changes I saw.

A problem with Phoenix identity is population churn. People move here but don't "stick." When their stints in branch offices are done and they are promoted, or when they have better jobs in the offing elsewhere, they move on. (Even an Arizona Republic publisher pulled up stakes when a job at Gannett HQ was offered.) We cannot expect love or loyalty from those for whom Phoenix is just a stepping stone. Seattle is a destination; Phoenix is a way station.

I think this got good coverage particularly by Phil Motta and Jerry McKenzie.
This summer there were maybe 30 folks in my neighborhood. Winter is here and so are 300 more neighbors. Well at least for 5 months and 15 days or so. Currently the Arts are Shuffleboard and String ball. From Mesa Drive to Gold Canyon, they are here by the thousands. Including my Canadian neighbor.
So I am gonna go Luddite and Malthusian here. Arizona is going to continue to Sprawl from the borders of New Mexico to California and also creep south to Mexico. Maybe Thomas got it right, we will breed ourselves out of existence. It will take a lot of Eldon Musk’s to keep the southwest survivable for the millions that want to escape the cold, the tornadoes, the earthquakes, the fires and the risk of your Florida condo sinking into the sandy ocean. Good luck!

I am still here.
Cal Lash from his Way Station in the great Sonoran Desert.
What’s left of it!


Moving west

I believe one potential problem is that most “community leaders” like Bruce Halle and Bob Parsons - and they both deserve more credit than they’ve received in this article - are 1st generation Blionaires.

Philanthropy may require multiple generations to take root. My great-great grandfather, an immigrant from Sweden made lots of money in Mississippi and my great-grandfather, his son-in-Law was the Philanthropist. Unfortunately, my grandfather and his siblings were not able to hold on to the family fortune and my Dad grew up in a financially distressed household.

I’ve been appalled as you all have by people who only donatin to their hometowns or only donate through their corporations. I would love to see someone crack this code.

One could write a similar column about newspapers. After two decades of corporate mismanagement, it seems that newspapers that are on the rebound are the few acquired by rich people – in Washington, Los Angeles and other cities – out of a desire for political influence or noblesse oblige. The Arizona Republic, by contrast, has been hollowed out and homogenized by Gannett – the Borg of corporate journalism.

Mr. Motts, that was very insightful. But if Phoenix develops an identity what will the Anti-Phoenix — Tucson — do?

Motta I mean! Apologies!

If your tired of the big city, may i suggest Moccasin,AZ. A town with a very small footprint.


60 million seems a little obscene?
Will they have an opportunity to sing?

Opera house just a half mile from my joint.

Speaking of Obscene and wealth. Trump wins again. Cons Pelosi and Shumer into a public contest they couldnt win.


The Arizona Opera was founded in 1971 as the Tucson Opera. I remember their early performances - they were quite good. In 1976, they expanded to Phoenix and renamed themselves. Similarly, what we call the Arizona Theater Company was founded in Tucson in 1972 before expanding to Phoenix in 1978.

I used to call Tuscon the Athens of Arizona. That is, it was where the artists, dreamers, and thinkers were. Phoenix was home to the businessmen and real-estate hustlers. By the 1990s, the torch passed to Phoenix as Tucson became increasingly robbed of its charm and rootedness. Today, both cities are Sun Belt mediocrities but large enough to support the arts. I remember the surprise I felt when I went to a Phoenix Little Theater production sometime in the '90s and it was actually good.

Even today, Phoenix is still a branch office town despite its huge size and population. It will never have the gravitas of older cities because it isn't a city so much as a giant suburb. There are, however, good things happening if you love the arts. What isn't happening is the sort of "top this" kind of statement that great cities makes. Phoenix is what it is and there's no reason to damn it for not being a New York or San Francisco. When the inevitable implosion comes, it won't be mourned because it was never truly loved.

Might you describe your picture of the "implosion" of the Phoenix in the
"Valley of the Sun"

Soleri. I'm still here!

So Seattle Opera has opened a $60 million, 105,000-sq-ft headquarters. A few years ago Arizona Opera moved into its new headquarters across the street from Phoenix Art Museum -- a 28,000-sq-ft, former Walsh Bros. warehouse acquired and renovated for $5.2 million.

So at least in the opera pissing war, Seattle has outpissed Phoenix abut 12 to 1.

I've been an AZO season ticket holder since 1996 (and have attended two productions in Seattle, among perhaps a hundred in other places), and some of the best (and occasionally some of the worst) opera I've seen has been in Phoenix.

But generally our local company does an adequate job on very limited budgets and support, and occasionally hits the opera ball out of the park.


I was friends with a Chinese chemist when I lived in Phoenix who worked for University of Phoenix founder John Sperling at his anti-aging business, Kronos. It was located at 44th St & Camelback and offered a host of longevity strategies for its clientele, of whom Sperling was the most prominent. This chemist mentioned casually to me that Sperling, in his upper 80s at that time, had the testosterone level of a 20 year old man but with the joints of a 90 year old.

I was thinking about that last night when I decided to investigate Sperling's story a little more. The Wikipedia summary offers some tantalizing biographical details about him. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Sperling#cite_note-bartlett-19

Long story short, Sperling was as liberal as George Soros. He was anti-drug prohibition, pro-marijuana, and unabashedly pro-Blue America in its epic cultural showdown with Red America. He co-edited a book about it called The Great Divide: Retro vs Metro America.

I mention all this not to dispute Rogue's critique of Sperling's lack of civic stewardship vis a vis Phoenix but to express my own wonder about Sperling himself. I can't find any mention of Sperling's decision to move to Phoenix, sad to say. Still, of all the characters and oddballs that Phoenix can lay claim to, Sperling may well be the most fascinating.

Sperling called it, when he said the US is two countries. For more info try his books. "Rebel with a Cause" would be a good start.

Sperling and Soros both get bad mouthed for making money while appearing to being kooks and leftists.


Wealth and the PLANET

Soros and Sperling vs the Bush boys.


I worked for and knew John Sperling in the very early days of the University of Phoenix, when it thought its future was in providing education and training to working adults via arrangements with corporate clients such as Intel. (The temptation of being able to transform vast amounts of federally guaranteed student loan money into revenue for the U of P and its stakeholders proved irresistible, but that is another story.)

Sperling was an economics prof at San Jose State University when, in the early 70s, he came up with his idea of packaging evening business courses aimed at working adults, hiring part-time instructors from the business community to teach them, and contracting with established institutions of higher education to offer the packages. He ran afoul of California's accrediting organization, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), which did not look favorably on his use of nontraditional "faculty" and commodification of education.

Sperling, however, had correctly identified a problem with higher education at the time -- it was pegged to 18- to 22-year-olds, with limited availability to people already in the workplace.

He always saw himself as an underdog, and as David to WASC's Goliath, and he relocated his idea and operation to Arizona for one simple reason: A more relaxed regulatory environment.

When I worked for him, there was still considerable idealism about the idea that you could serve working-adult learners and the companies that employed them, and make a profit doing so. This was before University of Phoenix's parent company, Apollo Group, issued stock and became a mill for transferring billions of taxpayer dollars to the pockets of Apollo's owners while leaving students on the hook for nondischargeable educational-loan debt.

John and Peter Sperling did indeed become billionaires on the backs of hundreds of thousands of students who succumbed to U of P's aggressive sales tactics.

I liked John despite his persecution complex. He escaped an impoverished background in rural Missouri through education (BA Reed College, MA Cal Berkeley, PhD Cambridge) and then battled unrelentingly for his idea.

That the idea ultimately took the form of what became an exploitative business victimizing customer-students with high debt, low graduation rates, and college degrees of very low value would be grist for a most interesting analysis in a most interesting biography of the man, should someone undertake writing one. Maybe hustling for profits and education aren't so compatible after all.

The University of Phoenix ultimately became an extractive industry, though in its case it was taxpayers and students, rather than mountains, that were being mined. Once tapped out, the extractors moved on, leaving desolation behind.

Sperling may have landed his idea in an entirely appropriate place.

(Mr. Motta can comment on the damage done to the Phoenix brand by the University of Phoenix hustle.)

And, by the way, Mr. Motta's comments above have reminded me that when I worked for the City of Glendale, the mayor issued instructions that in no case, in our communications with the public, were we to talk about Glendale being a part of "metro Phoenix." In fact, it would be better if the P-word were not used at all.

I will confess to more than a little schadenfreude when the deal struck with the Cardinals over naming rights ended up with "University of Phoenix" getting plastered in 20-foot-high letters on the exterior of Glendale's shiny new stadium.

Profile of Sperling from Reed College's magazine:


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