Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Phoenix - From the Ashes, Into the Flames

Admitting the banalities of everyday life on the mean streets of our favorite city, as it looms in the distance, I often wonder about the culture and beauty that we have living all around us. It’s hard sometimes to recall that Phoenix is a very young city. Compared to the elderly whitebeards of our country like New York and Boston, Phoenix is a mere adolescent…a teenager maybe?

I have written before about the war on culture taking place down on Mill, in Tempe—that’s Phoenix metro—but things get worse in the furnace that is the Phoenician downtown. It is a city that tends to take after its namesake more often than it should. Like any teenager, our fair city has borne through a constant identity crisis, trying to shoulder up to the big lads, constantly bustling towards the future, and trying its best to leave the past behind.

If the backdrop of “Old” Mill Avenue is any indication of what happens to the architecture that would build the foundations of history for this city, there is a sterile future of glass, concrete, and steel waiting for us over the horizon—rising up constantly out of the burning embers of the former buildings that aspired to give our city character and memory. Constantly throwing off her old clothing for the fads of the new, Phoenix may still be many years from actually maturing into the wisdom of an adult.

On, Mill Avenue Vexations, I pondered about the suddenly ubiquitous appearance of cranes across our skyline.

And, today, almost stunned by the discovery, I found that the Phoenix Times is running an article about the constant rebuilding of Phoenix under her own weight.

Phoenix is the victim of its own vicious cycle, apparently. In a town that tears down and rebuilds every couple of decades, nothing looks old enough or architecturally significant enough to save. Which usually leads to more demolition.

"What we're left with in downtown Phoenix is mostly buildings between 50 to 80 years old," says David Tell, who moved here eight years ago from Michigan and publishes The Midtown Messenger, a newspaper devoted to historic downtown. "In many cases, it's unlovely architecture that doesn't look historic to us, especially if we've moved here from somewhere where 'historic' meant neighborhoods of Victorian homes trimmed with gingerbread and old red brick office buildings. In Phoenix, it's about stucco and monolithic structures, and it's easy to not be impressed by what makes them historic."

The trend here, according to Steve Dreiseszun, president of the Story Preservation Association Steering Committee, has been to knock down those unlovely structures, then get busy aping other cities' design plans while ignoring our own history.

"But we're younger than most similar-sized cities," he says. "And the truth is, we have a foundation of lower, newer architecture than most big cities do. But that's becoming obliterated as we put up more and more tall buildings, because that's what says 'city' to most people."

Is it our doom to have no identity? The city was named so because it had risen from the ashes of the Hohokam civilization—but perhaps it echoes a dangerous truth about the directionless sophomorism of youthful cities.

I will remember.

The dream that is the foundation of Phoenix will live on through us: her writers, artists, adoring fans, and embracing lovers.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Returned to Arizona

The sky is a cloudless cornflower-blue, arching overhead with eggshell brittleness. From everywhere there is heat, even this autumn day, bleeding out of everything and pounding down in torrents of liquid sunlight.

The dust and heat of day are pervasive: they are the original welcoming wagon of Phoenix as anything else, the phalanx that keeps all comers from our door. We fight them back on a daily basis like bad neighbors, running indoors, dodging across the street to keep to the shade as we move along. We spend little time outdoors in the smothering brilliance of the sun and chastise each other to “take water or buy a bottle on the way” every time one of us heads out into the urban desolation alone, even if our route only takes us a mile on foot.

A white car drives past, rumbling Spanish hip-hop as it rides—a low-rider, obviously the prize of its owner as he blasts everyone nearby with his passion for music, it pours through the open windows and fades away as he turns the far corner. I wonder if I'll see the car that has the undercarriage so low that it sprays sparks as it drives. For some reason these things strike me most immediately of Phoenix; they are not things that I would expect to see back in Michigan.

The smells of the city linger all around me, the pleasant aroma of desert plants mixed with city dust, the stinging perfume of diesel fuel and oil simmering on the road in a puddle, and the ever-present scent of mesquite from a barbeque or sage smoldering. Most distinctly, the smell of wood smoke and mesquite remind me of camping trips, lead by a caravan of aunts, uncles, and cousins; battered cars, smelly pickup-trucks, ragged and rattling jeeps; and all the other trappings of a convoy into the brush. The mesquite sticks added to the fire roasted and built a billowing white fog that brought us back from among the grey-green bushes and red rocks to find sizzling burgers and hot beans waiting for us.

But now, the smell issues forth from households and neighborhood cooking parties—I haven’t had a time to return to the desert proper in many years.

Beyond the pocked, oil stained road rises the steel and silver latticework and white smoke towers of Ocotillo, the power plant, below the horizon of houses, blocked from my view, is a carpet of shimmering mirrored plates that follow the sun every morning to evening. Heliotropes grown of silvered gallium-arsenide, photovoltaic cells that drink the sunlight and supplement the energy that powers our lights, runs our televisions, and keeps the crackling heat at bay.

Welcome back to Arizona, to the Valley of the Sun.

Because We'll Miss Him — Dennnis "The Mill Avenue Food Critic"

A memorial celebrating Dennnis Skolnick's life will be held on Sunday, November 5th, at the 6th Street Park in Tempe, right off of Mill Avenue. You can read more about it on the website where a map is provided for those who don't know where the park is.

I have posted before about Dennnis and his untimely passage from this mortal coil. And I will be attending the memorial, if for no other reason but than to see all of the other faces of the other people his warm presence has affected.

If you knew Dennnis and would like to gather with us and give him one last hurrah, come and join us at the park on Sunday.

Sleep, o'sleep without sorrow. 'Til we meet again.

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