Monday, January 17, 2011

What I Learned in the Arid Zone

Forty-eight hours in Phoenix, Arizona enabled me to see a lot. Not everything, mind you, considering that Phoenix is the fifth-largest city in the United States, but sometimes all you need to really see something is to have no prior experience with it. This was the first time I'd travelled to the core of the American Southwest, and everything there was new. Like, for example, the prickly pear cacti; they were everywhere in Phoenix, from Papago Park to the landscaping around skyscrapers, and yet I could never bring myself to totally accept them. They just looked too fake to be real, like plastic props on a soundstage.

Yesterday, I got the same feeling from downtown Phoenix itself. It had the vibe common to many American downtowns I've visited - a feeling of emptiness, of people having thrown plastic covers over all the buildings so they don't collect dust until they get back from wherever they've gone. Like the people think there's no reason to go there if it doesn't involve work in one of the skyscrapers, most of which appear to house bank offices, or an event at Chase Field or US Airways Center.

Sure, I know that there's a downtown mall in the Arizona Center as a potential trip generator, but even a couple of blocks away its presence was imperceptible - businesses were closed for the day and vehicular and pedestrian traffic were almost nonexistent. There's hardly any residential presence there, if any - the only condo towers I ever saw in my time there were a pair in downtown Tempe. It definitely didn't feel like the downtown of a major metropolis - it's too small to anchor the rest of the city, far too small. Even New Westminster's downtown feels far more active than Phoenix's on a Sunday, and it's a city of sixty thousand that experiences frequent rain in winter.

Looking toward downtown Phoenix from Hole in the Rock, Papago Park

It's because Phoenix, and the entire Valley of the Sun, is a land of sprawl. I had plenty of time to look out the windows during landing and takeoff, and there were no clouds to obscure my view of a metropolitan area that seemed to be composed almost entirely of residential subdivisions, cul-de-sacs, air-conditioned shopping malls, and golf courses - no "second downtowns" like North York along Yonge Street, hardly any apartment buildings more than a couple of stories tall. That tells in the demographics: the Valley of the Sun has a population of 4.3 million people in 37,744 square kilometers, more than half the size of Nova Scotia. In comparison, Metro Vancouver's 2.1 million people occupy a mere 2,877 square kilometers, while the 5.5 million who call the Greater Toronto Area home only take up 7,124 square kilometers.

This might have made perfect sense in decades past, constantly building out new developments so people could own their dream homes in the land of endless sun, when they would keep on pumping the oil forever and everything would be right as rain. Therein, of course, lies the problem. Phoenix has an additional complication that neither Vancouver nor Toronto have to worry about, as it is in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Fully ninety percent of its water is drawn from three rivers - one of which is the Colorado, which has not reliably reached the sea for years now. In the course of my walkabouts I would come across immaculate grass landscaping or vast suburban tracts, and think - where the hell is all the water coming from?

It may be a historical irony that Detroit's motto includes the phrase "resurget cineribus," Latin for "it shall rise from the ashes" - appropriate, considering the decivilization program it's currently embarking upon. But it's the phoenix that really rises from the ashes... and having been there, I saw nothing to dissuade me from my belief that Phoenix may well be the Detroit of the 21st century. Hollowed out not entirely by economics - although the real estate industry there did take an understandably huge hit back in 2008 - but by environmental pressures. It wouldn't be the first time in history that the local population was forced out due to drought. Hell, that's how it got its name, from being built on the ruins of a previous civilization.

Some parts of it feel quiet enough to be abandoned already.

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