Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


All that you can't leave behind

I have never made it a secret that I do not like Phoenix. I have written about it several times, and I'm not about to stop now. But this post is not about my hatred of Phoenix. This post is about my sadness with Phoenix.

A few weeks ago I went downtown on a Sunday. We rarely go downtown, because downtown is a ghost town, but I wanted to use up my roll of pictures and I was thinking about a post like this even back then (see how far I plan ahead?). So I wandered around, taking pictures, and I thought about why Phoenix has turned into what it is and why the people here allowed it to happen and what that says about our values.

Yes, it's another rant about what's wrong with the country by Greg! But not really, just some observations about who we are and what we want. By "what we want" I don't mean what we say we want, but what we show we want by our actions. Actions, so I've heard, speak louder than words, after all.

How does this relate to Phoenix? Well, surprisingly enough, downtown Phoenix could be a pretty cool place. It has a distinctly olde-timey feel to it, and a concerted effort by the populace and the politicians could make it a central hub, a place where things happen. I contrast every downtown I go to with Portland's, where there was a plan that was carried through and adhered to. I have read that downtown Portland has fallen on hard times since Bush's recession, but when I lived there, it was a vibrant place, a place where you wanted to go because there was always something interesting going on. Downtown Phoenix is not such a place.

I mentioned that Phoenix has an olde-timey feel to it. Here are some of the buildings in the downtown core:

This is the Maricopa County Courthouse. It's a spectacular building, inside and out. Obviously, the exterior is majestic, but inside, it's all marble and dark wood and polished floors, an example of a time when buildings were made to impress the hell out of people rather than sparkle. I have nothing against modern architecture, but this building gives you the feeling of weighty matter being discussed and important matters being decided. It's a beautiful place, and it's smack in the middle of downtown. Posted by Picasa

This is the front of the Luhrs Tower, which was built in 1923-24. When it was constructed it was the tallest building in Arizona. Look at the craftmanship around the door. You just don't get that kind of work anymore. Posted by Picasa

This is the Luhrs Building and the Luhrs Tower. They were both built by George Luhrs, a Phoenix businessman. Posted by Picasa

This is my favorite - the Hotel San Carlos. There is something magical about old hotels, before the chains moved in. All the big movie stars used to stay here - you can stay in the Mae West suite, and out front is a star in the sidewalk with Ingrid Bergman's signature on it. It's a beautiful building, and evokes a time when buildings, things, and people had more class. I don't mean they were better, they just had more class. Posted by Picasa

All of these buildings are right downtown (there are others, too). There is no reason that Phoenix should not promote this area more. However, when I was there, it was a Sunday, which meant it was dead. There are no restaurants open on a Sunday afternoon (besides fast food places). I mean no sandwich-shop-type places, not upscale places. The only reason I saw any people was because the Diamondbacks game as going to start soon so people were moving toward the ballpark. I walked in a giant rectangle around the core and saw very few people simply out and about, because businesses were shut down. The whole downtown has an aura of seediness, as well - I saw plenty of boarded-up windows, there was a lot of construction projects that were obviously abandoned in the late-summer heat, but it didn't help the ambiance, and a depressing pall hung over the town. Maybe it's the heat - it certainly depresses me. But here's the thing - later on I drove back to my corner of the basin and everything was humming. People were driving to the strip malls and going into stores and doing their daily business. It wasn't necessarily the fact that it was Sunday, it was the fact that the downtown area has been abandoned.

I'm a historian, and naturally skew toward liking old things while being suspicious of all this new-fangled tech. I'm not crazy, though - I have no problem knocking things down to make way for the new. However, I worry about this mad rush to the future. The people of Phoenix, it seems, are in a huge hurry to leave the past behind. We're a city of immigrants here, after all - refugees from the Northeast, the Southeast, the Northwest - anywhere that has a crappy winter and lots of humidity. Why should the people who move here and set up shop in Goodyear or Queen Creek or Scottsdale or Surprise give a rat's ass about downtown Phoenix? They have everything they want in their little sector of the basin. The furthest I have to travel to fulfill any craving I have is maybe ten miles. What the hell do I care about downtown Phoenix?

Well, I do. I read the newspaper articles about making downtown vibrant again with great interest. I think to myself that the biggest reason downtown is a ghost town is a lack of water. Downtown Tempe is a vibrant place, partly due to the presence of Arizona State, but also because they dammed the Salt River and created Tempe Town Lake, and people can go to the parks along the water and enjoy themselves. Portland took huge advantage of the Willamette running through the city. Show me a downtown that has recovered its viability and I'll show you one near water. So Phoenix faces an uphill challenge.

It's more than that, though. This place does not want a past, because of what I wrote above about us coming from different places. Downtown Phoenix was built by the pioneers in this place, and they needed to live near it because of the same reasons any downtown existed - easy communications and proximity to everything else. We don't need that anymore, so we are spreading out. That's the future, and I understand it, but are we losing anything by it? It's often said that the reason densely populated cities vote liberal more often is because they are confronted with different types of people all the time and are therefore more tolerant. Maybe that's true, maybe not. We're segregating ourselves with our spreading. We're losing any connection with our past and the people who made this country and built these magnificent buildings. This is especially true in places like Phoenix. In Philadelphia (and, I imagine, other older eastern cities), they cling to the past obsessively because the future looks bleak. I don't want that. Philadelphia has finally realized that it is dying and it needs to be innovative, but I hope it doesn't lose sight of its glorious past. There is no reason that it can't enter the 21st century and still preserve places like Elfreth's Alley. Although the mall is convenient, there's nothing like going to the Meier & Frank building at Sixth and Alder in downtown Portland. It's a wonderful store, and shopping there is an experience you just can't get at the mall.

We can strike a balance between the old and the new. It's frustrating that, like everything else in this extreme world, it seems like it's one or the other - historical societies want to preserve EVERYTHING, even if it's a blight on the landscape, while others want to destroy EVERYTHING even if it still has value. Downtown Phoenix is an example of what happens when you allow the future to take over completely - the soul dies. Not to be too metaphysical, but Phoenix has no soul. When we come here (I'm not saying I'm guiltless) we immediately try to turn it into our world, when its world is perfectly fine. This is a place of the Wild West, of gold and copper mines, of the desert and the harshness of nature. It was also a place of culture and relaxation, and although we have kept the relaxation part of it, we have lost the culture. These days Mike Tyson and Britney Spears and Todd McFarlane and Alice Cooper and Tony Hawk are our celebrities. Nothing against those people, but they're not Clark Gable. As we move toward the future, we need to realize that a people without a past are a people without a soul. I don't like it here, true, and I want to move, but it saddens me when I realize what it could have been and what it has become.


Blogger N said...

Sounds a lot like Dallas, which I also have a love/hate relationship with. Downtown is so weak here, too.

plofnlf - the mound of dirt created when a mole digs a hole

15/9/05 9:36 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

I suppose it would be necessary for the city planners, developers, the citizens, and retailers to decide that there is some value in reviving the downtown. Developers, though, are only interested in making a quick buck, and retailers generally want cheap space, so that is why we have soulless strip shopping centers and urban sprawl.

I have heard good things about Portland's downtown, such as that they have made it more inviting and more pedestrian friendly. I was in Dallas a few months ago, for the first time in years, and I was impressed with DART. I thought the Historic District in downtown was nice. I particularly enjoyed Rj Mexican Cuisine.

Slightly related to this subject, the Carfree Cities website puts forth a cool layout for a pedestrian friendly city.

17/9/05 8:27 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

That's a neat site, Matthew - I'll have to dig through it a bit. It's all about what people want, and I don't blame developers and retailers for spreading out, but I do blame people for wanting the quick convenience the sprawl provides instead of considering what it will mean. It's just like the post about Prop. 200 - unintended consequences. People are starting to realize how nice a good downtown area can be, but it may be too late for some places.

Portland's downtown, at least, was designed with pedestrians in mind, and they have never expanded the blocks, so it's very easy to get around. I would love to move back there and try to keep it vibrant.

I really enjoy N's definitions. I will join him:

nvjtvo - a traditional Native American ceremony.

17/9/05 3:16 PM  

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