I am back from several days in Arizona for book signings. I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that certain things still pull on me: A spectacular sunset over the Estrellas, a scent of blooms in the air, riding light rail (we built it, you bastards), friends who remained so even after I was kicked out of my columnist gig, and the comforting embrace of the old neighborhood. It's high season for the resorts and I suppose Scottsdale is full of golfers, but that's not the side of the street where I work. Phoenix will always be a home of my heart, but so much of that exists in what's gone. Most of the 4 million people living there have no inkling of this irretrievable loss. Yes, every city changes. But Phoenix threw away so much of what made it unique in all the world, gaining nothing but more people and a questionable future.
Economic depression hangs on the place even during the diminishing number of pleasant months. I read that Don Cardon, head of the governor's new "commerce authority," wants to put together a fund amounting to $500 million to $1 billion to provide loans to companies that will grow in Arizona. This, according to the new story, "at no risk to the state." Good luck with that. The state fumbled its best opportunity to leapfrog by failing to implement the "meds-and-eds" strategy during the 2000s. Now the Legislature plans to further gut funding to universities, the engines of an advanced economy — this has been going on for decades. The state's inward-looking, hostile-to-the-world intolerance and political extremism are kryptonite to attracting talented people. Plainly, Arizona doesn't intend to compete in a knowledge-driven global economy. If there's a strategy, it seems to be the same old routine of economic-development organizations appearing to be busy.
At one book signing, a man asked why people move to Phoenix, given all its downsides. Not in a hostile way, but out of sincere curiosity. A longtime resident, he noted all the ways the metro area's quality of life has declined, not least the hotter and longer summers. How Phoenix has its own version of horrible weather, only in reverse from Minneapolis. My no-doubt inadequate answer: Sunshine, which for many people is enough; a huge supply of relatively cheap housing; the jobs that for decades went along with rapidly rising population, especially in construction and real estate, and massive federal subsidies. This goes well beyond the Salt River Project, CAP, flood control that made it possible to build tract houses on otherwise marginal desert land, etc. Social Security and Medicare, for example, underwrite a huge retiree population along with thousands of jobs in health care. At least somebody is wondering.
The only kind of ritual that Americans seem to understand these days is an award ceremony, and that's what the Tucson event most resembled: a fete of congratulation and warm therapeutic self-affirmation. In the aftermath of yet another horrifying milestone event that changes nothing about how we live or what we do, comes the warm soothing anesthetic gel of okay-ness. I know a lot of people felt uplifted by Mr. Obama's remarks. I give him points for venturing out to that politically toxic city (if that's what the agglomeration of strip malls actually is). What he said struck me as not just lacking in an original thought, but filled with something like pre-owned sentiment.
What I did run into were a number of people who were Second Amendment absolutists, Arpaio fans and staunch supporters of SB 1070, but they were willing to set aside politics and enjoy my mystery novels. I talked to many others who soldier on in the Resistance, committing small and large acts of community-building, but also feeling tired and beaten down.
The overarching ugliness of much of Phoenix (and Tucson) is a constant. All the cheap, tilt-up crap and tract houses have reached such a critical mass that it's hard to blot it out of one's mind and just look at the mountains. The cratering of the center city continues to amaze. All that empty land, much of it from tear-downs. What will ever fill it? All the empty remaining buildings. Why no businesses? The University of Phoenix had a chance to build a signature headquarters in the core of the city whose name it appropriated. Instead, it built out on the freeway by the airport and long stretches of bland warehouses — a typical example of the lack of stewardship that curses Phoenix.
Back in my 'hood, My Florist Cafe is now out of business and I worry for the entire set of historic buildings on that corner of McDowell and Seventh Avenue, as well as the ones across the street, apparently owned by Tom Horne, now empty, too. Will they be demolished, too? CityScape is bringing new restaurants, and Portland's, Fez, Switch, Cibo and Cheuvront are hanging on in the central corridor. The Gold Spot finally has a cafe and coffee spot. But until Phoenix creates more high-paid jobs, and creates them in a business-intensive core, only so many eateries can be supported. It doesn't really matter if the better off suburbs or Scottsdale are doing better. No healthy metropolitan area operates without a strong downtown (or even choices beyond Scottsdale and Scottsdale wannabes). The lack of high-paying jobs metro-wide holds back any housing recovery — and the old liar-loan housing boom ain't coming back.
For all that, I satisfied my Mexican food jones while on this trip back home. Oh, dear, I said, Mexican.