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A disturbing revelation: Downtown Phoenix has recently become ... nice

I went to Phoenix, and it was good.

That is one string of words I never thought I'd produce. I've always loathed Phoenix and all it stands for—or, more precisely, all it rolls over for—and I've clung like a starving limpet to Tucson since I first got my cut-off-clad ass to the UA in 1973. I liked the look of Tucson the first time I saw it, a couple of years before, peering down from Interstate 10 into tracts of pokey adobes with bracingly Bermuda-grass-free yards. Honest dirt. Anybody growing up in newly scraped Tempe—a Hallmark Home town—could relate.

That would have been on our one and only family expedition to Nogales, circa 1970. My parents, along with my brother, Charlie, and I, sailed through in our pale blue Ford Galaxy. That car is long since a scattered corpse, along with Dad and my poor, dead brother. Only Mom and I and the dusty barrios remain.

But back to nice Phoenix, pretty Phoenix, livable Phoenix. Phoenix at 75 degrees and breezy, with intermittent showers. Of course, all of that is a snare and a delusion, because much of what's wrong with the place is the hellish climate. Tucson may get hot, but Phoenix is where for half the year, you burn yourself every time you touch your car. Summer hurts there.

But we happened to be there two weeks ago, for probably the three nicest days of the year—cool, bright, orange trees blooming, all smog blown far, far away. The locals were walking around, taking deep breaths and smiling, saying, "Wow, can you believe this?" A reminder, in case we needed one, that it is not always thus.

Honestly, though, there were so many good things. On the drive up—120 minutes during which, usually, you want to stick something sharp in your eye—the desert was green, because Maricopa County got even more rain than we did this blessed winter. (Thank you, Lord El Niño. We are your own people forever and ever. Just keep doing it.) Right along the road, the California poppies and lupine started at Marana, thickening up near Picacho Peak. Further north, the trimmings shifted into mostly desert marigold and brittlebush, with the odd velvety green ocotillo. Even the pathetic saguaros out in the usually blasted flats looked glossy and sated. This state of things was unspeakably cheering.

And downtown Phoenix, I have to say, impressed. The freeways have done what freeways do—encourage the metropolitan area to metastasize (like it would ever do anything else, given Arizona's habits and allegiances)—but they've also linked up the center so that surface-street traffic has become reasonable. When I was growing up, it took a stunningly tedious, start-and-stop 45 minutes to get anywhere—the heat-shimmering grid of central Phoenix streets is imprinted like catechism somewhere deep in my hippocampus—but all the crazed, massive movement is now on the freeways, while the central surface feels sane and unrushed.

Years ago, when I spent a couple of summers in Los Angeles, I was blown away by how town-sized the local streets are—I'd sort of thought that you had to get on the freeway to buy cottage cheese. (I'd grown up, you see, just one house in from the uncrossable fury of Rural Road.) But when you're in Pasadena or Santa Monica, you toddle along on dinky little capillary veins, while the big flow barrels down the arteries. That's what downtown Phoenix is now like. Yes, Phoenix has all the vices of L.A., but it's also picked up some of its virtues.

Furthermore, it functions like a real city, governed by grown-ups. There are no potholes (where I was, anyway, right around Central Avenue and Van Buren Street), and the traffic lights and signage are excellent. Oh yeah, and there's the light rail. Buses, with riders, all over. Really nice landscaping. Even attempts at embracing local history and flashes of charm and hipness here and there amid all the new, massive Frank Lloyd Wright-meets-Nebuchadnezzar-style buildings. (In downtown Phoenix, even the CVS pharmacy looks like a Sumerian king's tomb. The massive, stony style certainly beats the schlocky Pueblo vocabulary—vigas, we need more fake vigas over here!—that dominated when I was young, but, still, the origins of the Mesopotamian look are, to me, mysterious.)

And, most amazing of all, we spotted a few touristy-looking pedestrians. People on foot! In Phoenix! And not disabled or obviously drunk. Truly, wonders will never cease.

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