I have a love-hate relationship with Phoenix, Arizona. No, that’s too strong. I have a like-frown relationship. Living in its ever-expanding confines for an entire quarter of Arizona’s statehood, I never truly warmed up to it, the way one comes to love San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans or Manhattan. There is a kind of numbing neutrality to Phoenix. It isn’t as bad as all that, but neither is there much to get excited about. It is a city with little personality.
I don’t mean that to sound too negative. There is much I miss. I loved my job; I can’t imagine being happier in employment than I was for most of my time at The Arizona Republic, or having better colleagues. When I retired, I didn’t so much leave the newspaper, as instead, the newspaper left me. It was going in directions that had less and less use for what I provided. It was time to go. But what happened to The Republic is true of newspapers all across the nation. It is journalism that left me.
There are things I miss, besides the occasional meal at the Golden Greek or El Bravo.
I sorely regretted leaving Ballet Arizona. By the time I left, ballet had become the art form I most loved. Ib Andersen had raised the local company up to a level that competed with the major troupes around the country, and even around the world. I miss the art museum and its staff (now, most of them are gone, too), I miss the symphony and the chamber music. I miss the lunches I shared with Phoenix Chorale’s Charles Bruffy. (Congratulations on yet another Emmy).
My wife and I have friends in the city and we miss them dearly.
But the city itself? Not so much. And here, I mean the whole metro area. It is hard to make any distinction between Phoenix, Glendale, Mesa, Scottsdale and Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, Fountain Hills: It all turned into endless suburbia, 60 miles from east to west and 45 miles from north to south, and it continues to metastasize. The last time I drove south to Maricopa, it seemed like more of the same.
The weather was brutal, the traffic brutish, the city politics banal (and state politics worse: delusional). New gated subdivisions gobbled up huge spreads of desert. Have you driven down Dynamite Road lately? Shopping malls, freeways, mobile-phone towers, endless Circle Ks and 7-Elevens, red-tile roofs, and stucco, stucco, stucco.
But there were places I could retreat and find some character. South Phoenix, with its poor neighborhoods, houses with sun-warped wood and flaking paint, with its panaderias and tiendas. The gravel roads before they were chewed and digested into Macmansions; the old canals, not yet channelized and rinded with concrete; the farther expanses of the city limit where there are still working farms; and the old warehouses south of the railroad tracks. I like seeing the older stores painted garish colors, and the black-painted bars on windows and doors. My favorite Mexican food found at the hole-in-the-wall storefronts where the clients are all Hispanic and they still serve tongue and tripe, and where the frying is still done in lard. It isn’t so much that these things are old and I feel nostalgia, but rather that these things still have character, personality; they are not whitewashed into the great Osterized American culture. They battle the blandness of television and the chamber of commerce.
In the next several blog entries, I plan to take a trip around the state, beginning in the Valley of the Sun, to see how much I can turn up of the lost and forgotten, the real flavor of the state, the part of it that I miss and wish I could experience all over again. I’ll move south through Tucson then west and north, traveling counter-clockwise around the state. Most of this virtual trip will be in photographs, with a few words stuck in here and there. They are the parts that to me feel alive and wriggling, even when abandoned or forgotten — the played out mines, the baked arroyos, the Native American ruins, the dusty places just outside of towns. This is the Arizona I miss when I remember my years there.
This Arizona is completely personal and subjective. But I suspect many of you harbor similar feelings, similar places in your psyches, whether it be in Ohio, Quebec, Idaho or Mazatlan. This is the Arizona that remains alive to me.
Here are some of those things and places: