Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

December 3, 2004 Phoenix

The drive from the Grand Canyon to Phoenix was a lesson in contrasts. The Canyon was forested, cold, and snowy. The snow disappeared thirty miles down the road, and the landscape was open scrub, views extending for miles in every direction. As I hit I-40 the weather got nasty, swirling snow and ice reducing visibility and making the drive a bit scary. I pulled into a gas station in Prescott where it was pouring down rain and nasty cold. And then in the last ninety miles to Phoenix the temperature rose thirty degrees, the sun came out, the sky turned blue, and the hills were suddenly dotted with tall proud saguaro cactus, like formal sentinels gravely dancing across the landscape. As I pulled into Phoenix palm trees towered over highway and suburban lawns.

I was headed to the home of a fellow vanagonaut, who had answered my emailed plea for a place to park my van for a week when I flew east for Thanksgiving. Staying with Karl and his family turned out to be a delight. Karl is a professional photographer with a quirky sense of humor. He’s a great cook, and makes a really mean cup of strong coffee. We spent hours looking at pictures, his and mine, talking about what made them good or bad, how to crop them, why we liked them or didn’t. We talked for hours. I couldn’t say what all we found to talk about, but we had a great time at it. The next day he drove me to the airport, and I agreed that I would stay on a bit when I returned from Thanksgiving so he could show me some of Phoenix.

Staying on turned out to be no problem. For once it wasn’t my van that broke down – this time it was my computer. Once again I was thrown on the kindness of strangers as I waited for parts. Despite my pleas that he didn’t have to entertain me, Karl took me on an excursion to the outskirts of Phoenix, to show me the town and the mountains surrounding it. We drove to the top of South Mountain, both of us taking photos of landscape, plants, houses, and each other. When a tourist asked Karl to take a picture of him, we joked that he charges for that service, but the tourist didn’t catch it.

Phoenix, unfortunately, is a depressing sort of place. It’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, as people retire there attracted by the climate and, until recently, the relatively cheap housing. Space is plentiful, so new subdivisions march across the desert chewing up miles of brush and spitting them out as cookie-cutter houses, roads, and shopping malls uniformly fitted out with Marshall’s, Home Depot, Chico’s, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Crate and Barrel, Albertson’s, Verizon cellphone stores, fast food joints, and all the other trappings of the American middle class. Except for the cactus and palm trees decorating the parking lots, I could have been anywhere in the country. New is good in Phoenix, pre-owned houses are considered a risk because they might require repairs. A few places are landscaped with cactus and scrub, but most are carpeted with thirsty green lawns and citrus trees laden with fruit, incongruous in the desert environment. Cactuses were twined with spiraling Christmas lights. In the doorway of one fancy suburban house was a sled, a Christmas decoration completely devoid of its meaning in an environment where snow is unknown.

Southern Phoenix has been the wrong side of the tracks for decades, but now even that area is being developed. I biked from Karl’s pleasant neighborhood in the northeastern part of the city, through downtown, to Southern Avenue. Downtown is a tiny area of high-rise offices and a desolate park, surrounded by miles and miles of subdivisions. I stopped for lunch at a Mexican supermarket with a great prepared food counter, where I tried to order in Spanish but couldn’t understand their replies. Then I cruised along Southern Avenue to see what I could see.

Construction, construction, and more construction. Old citrus groves, allowed to die without water, were being ploughed up to plant brown fake-adobe houses, each subdivision surrounded by high walls to keep out riff-raff like me. An old trailer park was walled off from the new houses next door. As I headed west even the roads were just being built, and the heavy traffic was thick with trucks carrying cement and paving materials. Between the construction, the trucks, the dust, and the exhaust, riding a bike on Southern Avenue was truly unpleasant. I turned north, and road through more construction, a long bridge over a dry and dusty riverbed, a long stretch of auto junkyards and light industry that morphed into a lower-class residential neighborhood. There I picked up the trail along a canal filled with water and trash. Phoenix has a lot of these canals, used for flood control and irrigation. Unlike the rivers, they were filled with water. In Karl’s quiet, pleasant neighborhood it was nice to ride by the canal, calm and relaxing. On the other side of town the canal was filthy, the yards next to it filled with trash, the adjacent residences would have passed for old public housing on the east coast.

There is a bit of interest in renovating the “historic downtown” of Phoenix – the rare neighborhoods built before the Second World War, and before the invention of air conditioning led to the incredible growth of this city. Downtown is mostly made of up modern high-rise offices, but a few older buildings are being renovated for loft apartments. There are a few art galleries and studios around the downtown area, which the city hopes to encourage through “arts evenings” when they all have open houses to show their wares. The downtown apartments are incredibly expensive compared to other Phoenix housing; a loft could easily cost as much as a substantial three-bedroom house in a neighborhood like Karl and Stephanie’s. They must be targeting retired people moving out of big houses, or young professionals who don’t yet have to consider the expense or space needs of children.

I’d like to see what Phoenix is like in ten years, to see whether this effort takes off, or whether it just fizzles and the downtown remains as quiet as it is now.

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