The Insecure Critic
Today I let myself get upset about something that I don’t care about. I was watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and saw his expose of John McCain’s flagrant flip-flop on the medieval Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that is now being debated in Congress (by the way, for a great synopsis of McCain’s “opinion” on the matter, go to PoliFact).
I’m not sure if it is the pressure from his upcoming primary challenge from local blowhard and intellectual broccoli J.D. Hayworth, or if he truly despises gay people, but McCain’s reversal of opinion on the draconian military policy — in the face of every leader of the Armed Forces asking that the ban be lifted — is at best inexplicable, and at worst inexcusable.
There’s only one problem. As a person whose political and economic philosophy is somewhere between Ludwig Von Mises and Emma Goldman, I am completely opposed to the very existence of an organized coercive force like the military. I shouldn’t be offended by a ridiculous opinion about a military that I don’t really even think should exist. Yet somehow I am. Sure, I could wrap it all up in a bow of justification by saying that I see the change in the policy as a reflection of a general change in society to be more accepting of gay people. This is precisely how I found myself so unhappy with the results of gay marriage propositions in several states like Arizona and California, and happy with the results in places like Iowa. In my deep philosophical core, I don’t believe that a coercive state should have the ability to place its imprimatur on any relationship, gay or straight, but I still see these decisions as a reflection of society’s acceptance (or lack of acceptance) of gay people.
This has turned so-called gay issues into a guilty pleasure. Not a guilty pleasure like listening to Lady Gaga with the sunroof open, but a sort of philosophical guilty pleasure — a chance to feel like I am part of a play that is taking place on a stage that I don’t even believe should exist.
I do the same intellectual tap dance every time I ride public transit. I absolutely love the convenience of getting on the train and taking it where I need to go. But, I can’t help but think that every time I get on the train, I am actually pulling a couple of dollars out of the public till in the form of subsidies from the government that are required to keep the trains running. If it were up to me in my mad Austrian world, John Galt and I would form a private company to provide fast, clean transportation through the city at a market rate. Alas, that isn’t the world I live in. Instead, I live in a world in which I get on a train that is paid for by the tax dollars of a family in Missouri trying to make a house payment on one income because a family member lost a good-paying job at a factory. Now that is an odd ethical dilemma for a single, financially OK, city-dwelling guy like me.
Call it cognitive dissonance or just the ravings of a madman, but I have somehow figured out how to live out a few guilty intellectual pleasures while maintaining my sanity, and getting to Downtown without the need to drive through the First Friday hullabaloo.
This week I finally broke down and bought an iPhone. I bought it because it just works. For the last few months, I have been rotating between Android phones, then bought an iPod Touch and a Verizon MiFi so that I could have an iPhone-like experience without actually giving in to the AT&T machine. By the time I put my phone, iPod Touch, MiFi, my wallet and my keys in my pockets as I walked out of the house, they were literally overflowing. God help me if I tried to squeeze a Metro pass or some change in there.
Sure, my Android phone plus iPod Touch plus MiFi combination had the features I needed to check in on Yelp, read Facebook posts and check my Google Voice messages, but it was a real pain in the ass to find a place for everything, not to mention the trouble that went into managing three different sets of batteries.
This electronic experience caused me to reflect on my recent post about why people move away from Phoenix to places like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. I think the reason people move from Phoenix to these cities is because, like an iPhone, they just work. In Portland you just jump on the streetcar to get wherever you want to go in the central city. Need to go further? Hop on the extensive light rail system. Restaurants, bars, and shopping are all oriented around public transit and dense neighborhoods. It just works.
In Phoenix, things are a bit more like the Android phone, iPod Touch, MiFi combo. Sure you can make it to a dense neighborhood, but that is a rare experience, and almost considered an oddity by those who aren’t committed to the city’s central core. Public transport connections outside of the single light rail line are sparse and unreliable. And don’t even get me started about the light rail segment between Phoenix and Tempe, on which I am generally asked to disembark and get on the next train at least 30% of the time.
Is this a standard Phoenix bitch session? Not at all. There is a charm to the Android ecosystem. It is complicated, it asks a lot of you and you feel clever when you master it. But, it is a hell of a lot easier to just get the phone that everyone has, that everyone has apps for and just works.
The goal of a thriving Downtown in Phoenix should be to make our town an iPhone. Get businesses, people, leaders, kids, neighbors and friends talking about how we can make living, working and shopping Downtown an enjoyable experience. And, for the love of God, let’s keep the trains running on time.
I recently figured out why I think living in neighborhoods with real streets is so important. Before I get started, I want to disclaim that I am not an urban planner, New Urbanism expert, population density wonk or really even that good at reading a map. I’m not some nut job who wants to turn every navigable roadway into a tree-lined pedestrian mall. I am just an average guy who loves living in the city.
I was telling my friend, a Gilbertian, that I walked from my friend’s house at Century Plaza to join friends at Fez. As I was telling her about my short walk, I noticed that I knew the names of all the streets between the two locations, and that I had a pretty good idea of what was located on each. This is in stark contrast to the experience of visiting my friend in her comfortably cul-de-sac’d neighborhood with one way in and one way out. My friend in Gilbert couldn’t name any of the other streets within a block of hers, because there was rarely, if ever, a reason to drive on them. As long as she knows her way on and off of the arterial road (in this case it is euphemistically called “Drive”) she is fine.
I used to think that what made the city special was the convenience of walking to and from the coffee shop and bumping into my pierced, artistic friends who just happened to be there at the same time. In fact, what I realized is that one of the biggest distinctions between Downtown and the suburbs is the way you drive in them. When I come home to my place in the city, I can choose one of 25 ways to get to my driveway. There is a complete grid of streets from which I can chose the most labyrinthine combination of turns to get to my destination, if I want to. I can choose how I want to experience my neighborhood in my car. I can choose what businesses I want to drive past, which types of buildings I want to drive by and which coffeehouses I want to drop in on.
In contrast, the suburban experience is all about control. Neighborhoods only have one way in and one way out. There is only one freeway exit within a reasonable distance of home. And, because you can only take arterial streets to get to your destination, you are cursed to drive past the same chain restaurants and stores that you would see on any other suburban arterial street anywhere else in the country. The suburban experience controls where you shop, where you drive, what it looks like. The suburbs tell you how you are supposed to experience your neighborhood.
The controlled experience of the suburbs is especially ironic since suburbs were originally designed for the freedom of country living within the reach of city dwellers. Just the opposite has happened. The suburbs are restricted places, and the core of the city is liberated.
Of course, of you already live Downtown, you know this. What I would encourage you to do is to take a different way home every day this week and experience your city the way people who live on streets with names like “Vista Del Mar” could never dream to.
I’ve always been a fan of the other guy. When all of my friends wanted to go to Disney on vacation, I wanted to go to Universal Studios. I used Linux, yes Linux, as my home computer operating system way before it was cool. I played soccer when everyone else played football. And now, I realized, I have fallen in love with another “other.” I am officially in love with the other Downtown.
I solemnly swear that I won’t let this turn into one of those “First Fridays aren’t cool anymore” posts, but I do feel obligated to give a little bit of that as background. There were really two signals for me that First Friday wasn’t what it was five years ago. The first was when “the city” took over. I don’t mean the city of Phoenix literally, but when they turned what was a casual collage of artists and quirky creators into a sea of industrial tents, hemmed in by traffic barricades and crowded with police, a big part of what made First Friday special died. The second signal that First Friday was in decline was when people started referring to it as the “artwalk.” These weren’t Downtowners, mind you, but people from the suburbs who would ask me, during the first week of the month, if I was attending the artwalk. Yuck. The artwalk, an activity during which a collection of bourgeois pseudo-art-admirers stroll from one Gilbert Ortega location to another, was nothing like the grungy, dingy First Friday that I loved.
It has been saved, though. The salvation of First Friday is Grand Avenue. My renewed love affair with Grand started on December First Friday, when I attended the opening party at Fractal, which is an awesome collaborative space located in Bragg’s Pie Factory. They say that getting there is half the fun, and that was certainly true this evening. I drove from my home in Biltcadia to my personal park and ride (a.k.a. the parking garage at a friend’s condo) and took the train down to the art museum to catch the trolley to Grand. Well, I will spare the gory details, but it was 57 minutes later when I arrived, after missing a train by 30 seconds, waiting for the next one, standing outside waiting for the trolley at the art museum for 15 minutes, and so on.
When I finally got off the trolley in front of Sapna Café, I was instantly reminded of what a First Friday experience was supposed to be like. It was a lot of different people walking down the street: crazy dudes on souped-up scooters, chicks on kick-ass bikes and lots of piercings. There was no one walking around who looked like the only reason they ended up on this street was because a hotel concierge handed them a map. It was a sense of random, unintentional, but amazing community. No one had a tent full of clocks made out of computer hard drives that they were selling under the watchful eye of a security team; instead, people were being themselves with other people who were being themselves.
The galleries on Grand have some amazing art. There are some kick-ass installation pieces, found items and even crafty stuff, in case you’re into that. But, the thing I loved best was witnessing the transformation of a neighborhood. The rows of warehouses are coming to life as a new community of artists, idea people, drunks and a few crazies — all of the things that it takes for a real neighborhood to work. And, I hope there will always be some warehouses, some seedy hookers and some homeless people walking around, because that is part of what keeps a place grounded.
This wasn’t my first time on Grand. I have hung out at the Paisley a time or two, and even had a crazy night at Chez Nous before it shut down. But, on this night, I saw the grungy, amazing soul of what a Downtown arts community is supposed to look like. It is in the double-digit avenues, and it is awesome.
After a brief hiatus, the Insecure Critic column is back with the same poignant, insightful, selective insecurities as before, but with a new focus: examining the city in which he lives, the issues that he faces and the people and places he encounters.
When I got home from my recent trip to Ohio to visit family for the holidays, it struck me: Phoenix is home to me now. I know that may seem obvious since I have lived almost a third of my life here, but it hadn’t hit me until this trip that I was most at home in the desert. When I first moved to the Valley in 2000, transferring jobs with a former employer, I never saw the move as something permanent. I expected to stay here for a few years then move on. Something has kept me here, though.
If I boil it down to the basics, there are three things that keep me here: the special places that make Phoenix unique, the interesting blend of people you will find here and the paradoxical beauty of the desert.
While some people say that there isn’t anything to do in Phoenix, I find I have the opposite problem. When family comes to visit from out of town, we have trouble getting everything done in time. For example, the Heard Museum is unlike any museum I’ve ever been to, with its unique collection of Native American art. Every time I visit, all I can think is, “Why don’t I come here more often?” I also love the experience of taking someone into You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies at the Phoenix Art Museum for the first time. Sure, neither of those places is MoMA, but they offer things that are uniquely Phoenix.
Not to get all museum crazy, but the other thing that I absolutely love in Phoenix is the Desert Botanical Garden. It is fun, interesting, beautiful, romantic and inspiring. I also highly recommend the guided tours they offer — I’m personally not much of a guided tour kind of guy, but I went on one last time I was at the garden, and it was fascinating.
I just realized that I am starting to sound like one of those cheesy tourist guides that you find on the nightstand at the Airport Hilton, so I apologize, but there is a reason that the Convention and Visitors Bureau recommends these places: they really are world class, and they are right in Phoenix.
Anyway, my other favorite places in Phoenix are our unique, local restaurants. There is nowhere else that you can find Matt’s Big Breakfast or Postino. I’m not sure of another place that I could find a bar as chill as The Lost Leaf or service as ambivalent as that at Carly’s.
I love the people in Phoenix; sure, when you have a populace that consistently elects the craziest sheriff in the country time after time, you have to wonder about the general mental state of the people, but I appreciate the distinct Arizona culture. As someone with a libertarian political view that borders on anarchist, I like the sort of “live and let live” attitude that tends to prevail in Phoenix. I see it in the way people interact in social situations, the way people behave at work and the way laws are written. Yes, this means that in Arizona your pet project, whether it is bike paths, or publicly funded solar panels, is less likely to be showered with tax dollars, but it also means that people in general respect your ability to make your own decisions. I like that.
I have met some of the most thoughtful, intelligent, clever people I have ever known right here in Phoenix, and I am sure I am going to meet many more.
I remember the first time I was told this maxim about our desert by a priest at a church I attended long ago: The miracle of the desert is finding beauty where you would never expect to see it. It is so true. The most barren and desolate mountain has an uncanny majesty as it stands against the bands of color in the Phoenix sunset. There is inspiration in seeing the tiny blossoms of a desert plant surrounded by acres and acres of dry, dusty land. It is a reminder that the most beautiful and meaningful things often come to us in hardship and difficulty. The desert speaks to me.
Am I a diehard evangelist for Phoenix, or am I vowing to stay here until I die? Absolutely not. But, by the same token, I will never be one of those people who constantly bitches about Phoenix, about how awful the transit, weather, people, politics or education is here, and how they can’t wait to move to San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland or Seattle, as though someone were holding a gun to their head forcing them to stay here. If someone offered me a dream job in Boston or Chicago, of course I would move. But, I’m happy where I am now.