The Flavor of Phoenix

Scattered thoughts, broad generalizations, and questionable claims

I love Arizona and am proud to be an Arizonan. I plan to spend my life here and to contribute as much as I can to making Phoenix a happier, holier, and all-around better place. But I am aware that my state and, particularly, my city, are generally regarded as soulless. There’s something to this criticism.

Older cities tend to have more distinct characters than younger cities, but age isn’t determinative. Nor is any other factor I can think of. Visiting Vancouver and Seattle with a friend a few years ago, we were both struck by the fact that the cities were similarly situated, of similar ages, and possessing similar cultures; however, Seattle (in our opinion) had a palpable identity—a flavor—that Vancouver lacked.

By flavor, I don’t mean culture, history, municipal pride, or anything else like that. I think it involves those things, but it’s something beyond them. I don’t know whether a city can have a reality in Plato’s world of forms, but if so, then Boston, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Seattle are bright and solid there, while Phoenix, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and Vancouver are ethereal and insubstantial at best.

I want Phoenix to have a flavor. I don’t think it has much of one right now, but I think it has potential. I don’t think I can quite identify, let alone actualize, that potential here. Maybe we need a poet (in the broad sense of the term) to do for Phoenix what Willa Cather did for Nebraska and Santa Fe, coaxing its soul from shadowy obscurity into fuller existence. I can’t do that, but I hope somebody can. Here, I hope to start a conversation about the spiritual reality of Phoenix that might someday conjure some flavor out of its bland streets and subdivisions.

I’ll start with the observations of my mother-in-law, who moved here from Nashville this past August. Nashville does not lack what Phoenix lacks. Although the city has competing strains (to name two: the ghostly sense of tragedy that abides as a deep and strangely proud conviction in many Southern places, on one hand, and a new, up-and-coming, eclectic scene of craft beer, hot chicken, and Opryland-type stuff on the other hand), those from Nashville seem to understand very well what Nashville is. And those who visit, while they don’t understand it fully, sense that Nashville exists: it’s not just a collection of people and buildings, but a real thing.

(I mention this because as a transplant, she brings these things with her to Phoenix. I think Phoenix is receptive to the tastes that newcomers bring from their more-savory former places. Phoenix is made up of Southerners, Minnesotans (and their migratory cousins, the snow-birds, from across the North), and many others. If Phoenix has a flavor, this might have something to do with it. To compare it to its incontestable better, one might say it is like New York in this respect.)

She talks about Phoenix a lot. Being a Southern woman, she only says nice things about Phoenix. I don’t know what negative things she thinks about the place (maybe Phoenicians aren’t very subtle; I don’t often look beyond the face value of what she says). But I know the standard complaints: it doesn’t have the kind of history and culture you find in most older big cities; a city this big in the middle of a desert is completely unsustainable (a not entirely fair criticism; Arizona has long led the region in water management, and while far from perfect, it does infinitely better than California); it gets really, really, hot; the huge flat valley suffers from endless, monotonous suburban sprawl (this complaint stings the most, because I feel how true it is. It constantly encroaches on and threatens the idea of Arizona that I had so vividly when I moved here as a child—one of the most vivid ideas I can remember having—but more on that in another post, maybe).

She says that the people in Phoenix are the friendliest she has ever met. I think that’s true, because I’ve heard it from other people, and not always in a positive sense. A New Yorker I knew complained about the aggressively friendly customer service she constantly encountered in Phoenix, and the energy it took to constantly acknowledge people’s weird and unjustified friendliness. As a child, I remember my parents remarking that it was so much easier to get to know people in Phoenix than it was in St. Louis, where families had lived and socialized for generations and where people, on meeting you, would invariably ask, “What high school did you go to?” (that’s a common Nashville question too, but apparently it’s become a thing in St. Louis).

She is continually astounded at our lax liquor laws. She could not believe that I had stocked up on Jim Beam cinnamon-infused whisky at Trader Joe’s for $13.99 a handle. My relatives from Oklahoma are similarly dumbfounded by our devil-may-care approach to liquor regulation. I didn’t realize how lucky we were until I spent the better part of a summer in Pennsylvania.

She is often impressed with our diocese. When we went to a “Catholics in the Public Square” event at St. Mary’s Basilica, she was struck by how openly our clergy and laity spoke about the harder Church teachings on marriage, sexuality, and abortion that most Catholics are afraid to acknowledge or accept. She (like my wife) only learned the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel after moving here. I’d never realized it was less common in other parts of the country. If this is in fact the case, I wonder whether it is because of our Bishop’s persistent focus on spiritual warfare.

My mother-in-law’s observations accord with two notions I have about Phoenix. First, as I mentioned earlier, Phoenix is defined by the fact that its people come from elsewhere. This makes it a constant object of comparisons, both positive and negative. It also mostly lacks those long-standing communities and networks that tend to define older cities, and that are so difficult for newcomers to break into. However, people who come tend to stay. These circumstances, in my experience, make Phoenix an easy place to make good friends.

Second, Phoenix is devoid of any sense of tragedy. It’s a city of new starts, no roots, and 300 sunny days per year. This is not to say that Phoenix doesn’t have serious social, political, and economic problems, or that tragedies do not routinely happen in Phoenix. But we don’t have anything quite like the centuries-old, systemic, racial tensions that overshadow the other side of the Mississippi. As our liquor laws suggest, our knowledge of Prohibition, the evils that led to it, and its ultimate failure comes pretty much exclusively from history books. The Depression didn’t leave much of a mark either, except that most of the “old” buildings downtown are from the 20s or the 40s, but not those in-between years. There simply is no abiding sense of the tragic in Phoenix; rather, there is a deep conviction that things generally turn out well. Perhaps the city’s youthful sense of optimism is ultimately untenable, and Phoenix just hasn’t lived long enough to learn better. Maybe it’s a particularly strong vestige of that mentality that we usually dismiss as naiveté or hubris, but was a realistic outlook for the handful of generations that settled the frontier—a deep-set optimism-realism that has outlived the frontier and become one of the key features distinguishing Americans from those from older, more crowded countries. Or maybe Phoenix really was aptly named, and a special kind of optimism lives here that will just keep coming back.

Again, these are just scattered thoughts, but I hope they lead to something more.

John ThorpeDisplay