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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