Ode to a Phoenix
October 28, 2009 by J Seth Anderson
I must be a glutton for punishment. My passion about Phoenix history burns hot like the Phoenix sun in July and as much as I love the heat, it can harm me if I’m not careful. Studying Phoenix history can do the same. The subject is like a cactus: it’s beautiful, I like to look at it and study it, but if I get too close it will prick me and leave a stinging pain that eventually wears off. Learning new things can have the same effect. But no matter how often it happens, I keep going back for more. I have to understand. The past is the prologue – I must study the past.
Not only must I study history to appease (temporarily) my natural curiosity, I also have to share what I find. To borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins, “consciousness raising” is of the utmost importance. When riding the light rail, I see a city growing out of the awkward teenage years and into young adulthood with a sense of its own identity. I feel the perfect storm blowing winds of change across vacant lots downtown. There is an energy and an excitement about urban Phoenix. The shrill voices from the suburbs still shriek but the rhetoric is foolish and shortsighted. The days of cheap gas and short commutes are long past. The true costs of sprawl and of low density “communities” located in the far-flung suburbs have reared its head in a way we’ve never seen before. It’s about time.
Beneath the city lights, skyscrapers, and our remaining historic buildings lies a fabric of history created and destroyed by lives of countless people. Some may argue that Phoenix has an unromantic past. I disagree. Our romantic past was erased by the wrecking ball before our very eyes, then quickly forgotten. The early years of the city, when Phoenix grew feed for horses at Fort McDowell, are admittedly, unremarkable. But it was during the early booms that the desert, against overwhelming odds, blossomed into Victorian architecture with theatres, opera houses, schools, neighborhoods, museums, and trains. Later Phoenix became addicted to a drug that destroyed it from the inside out- the automobile. Phoenix is still recovering. I don’t like what cars did to western American cities. People need cities where they can walk, people need to be outside, people need to hear voices of strangers. Phoenix lost that element.
I admit freely that I am a Phoenix cheerleader, a self-conscious cheerleader perhaps. I’m smart enough to know that blind adoration is not conducive to creativity. I’m hypersensitive to criticism when it’s unwarranted but will listen when it is. Claims that “there is nothing to do in Phoenix” or “Phoenix has no culture” are the ramblings of the ignorant and lazy and I always dismiss such claims.
Phoenix doesn’t need “a” history, we just must learn our history. This knowledge is essential for the creative and innovative ideas to take root. Mature cities foster their history, they don’t tear it down. Mature cities build on traditions and common language. Our cultural language and literature of the city has yet to be written. I can’t imagine New York without the literary contributions of Edith Wharton, London without Shakespeare, St. Petersburg without Dostoevsky. I believe the best novels set in and about Phoenix are yet to come. (Honestly, there is so much to write about!)
It might be obvious that I’m not a city planner, or a historian, or a local politician. I’m a dreamer, a man of hope and optimism. I see things not as they are but as they could be. I see Phoenix as a beautiful, important, and great city of the 21st Century. The city needs creative vision and a historical perspective to harmonize what Phoenix is and what Phoenix is to become. Phoenix needs more dreamers and doers, artists and scientists to foster an environment of diversity and individuality.
Even though studying our history causes me great pain and sorrow (I mourn the things we had and the things we lost. Have you seen pictures of the Phoenix Fox Theatre? They tore it down to build a bus stop!) I must do it to raise consciousness and hopefully prevent more gutting.
It’s my contribution for my city. It is my city- then, now, and forever.