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  • Danielle Foushée

Two Days in Phoenix: A City of Contrasts

I depart from Seattle on a grey and misty day in November 2015, headed to Phoenix, Arizona.[1] I’ve never visited Phoenix before, and this trip is probably the most thought I’ve ever given to this city — aside from wondering why people would choose to live here in the first place. I came for a sculpture conference. Plus, I’ve been visiting cities and towns across the western United States all year to survey their public art. I love art in public places, so of course I want to check out what Phoenix has to offer.

Phoenix’s Metro light rail connects all four Arizona State University campuses. The train departs from Mesa at its east terminal, heads northwest through Tempe and downtown Phoenix, and ends up at Interstate-17 near ASU’s West Campus. The ride from end to end takes about an hour and a half to complete, and spans 28.2 miles. Despite meager service for a region with about five million residents,[2] the train traverses a diverse cross-section of the city. Each station hosts public art installations that commemorate meaningful stories of the adjacent communities.

As soon as I step off the plane, I’m on alert. Lots of airports invest in public art, and Phoenix does too. Their website boasts about a collection with more than 900 works. Many of them are lined up along the wall in a wide pedestrian promenade. Lots of small sculptures are displayed on pedestals encased in plexiglass boxes. I don’t see many travelers slowing down to enjoy them. How many people even notice they’re here?

It’s a perfect winter day in 2018, when some grad students and I leave ASU’s Tempe campus to explore the City of Phoenix via light rail. We meet at the station closest to The Design School. The cerulean Sonoran sky envelops us inside its massive dome. The sun warms our cheeks and a cool breeze drifts across the platform. While we wait for the next train, we study the public artwork embedded sporadically amongst hundreds of standard concrete pavers. Fragments of other people’s stories are engraved into stone tiles; each has a single sentence that starts with “I came here to…” We share our own completed sentences with each other. I tell the students I came here to learn with them.

Does anyone besides me catch a glimpse of the stunning murals that punctuate the otherwise mind numbing, boring-beige and brown terminal? One in particular catches my eye — it’s an interpretation of the ancient mythical phoenix[3] by artist Paul Coze. A monumental eagle-like bird practically bursts from the surface of this 75-foot-long monument — its crimson wings spread wide and royal blue tail feathers pop with spots of gold.

We notice interesting textures around the station, too. The pastel turquoise metal seats are perforated — maybe to keep your bum cool(ish) on hot summer days? Maybe, but it’s probably a more banal reason like keeping liquid from pooling up in the seat. Nobody wants strange liquids on seats in public places. A long grey strip along the platform edge has raised rubber dots to warn people with visual impairment about dangers they can’t see. Shade structures are bisected with wire panels where sad-looking vines struggle to survive. Does the city water[4] these poor plants at all?

As I glide down the escalator to board the airport tram, I have a bird’s eye view of the designs embedded into the terrazzo platform. Whimsical red flowers appear to dance around the station as the speckled tiles glitter like rainbows in the light. I always wedge all my stuff into a carry-on, so I don’t need to waste time at baggage claim.

I catch a taxi outside. Sculptures are scattered throughout the xeriscaped grounds. As we loop around to exit the airport, I enjoy a variety of rusty metal figures reminiscent of the ancient Indigenous flutist, Kokopelli.[5] We speed west on Interstate-10 toward my hotel downtown, and I catch my first glimpse of Phoenix. The sky is so vast, so blue, so overwhelming. Palm trees stick up like lollipops high above the flat horizon. The freeway is lined with long concrete walls illustrated with enormous lizards, giant cacti, and jagged mountains sculpted in relief. Massive magenta bouganvillia add some color along the shoulder. This place is nothing like Seattle.

The train arrives and everyone piles on. Our group takes over the benches facing one another so we can talk about what we see. Just as we settle in, the train lurches westward toward downtown Phoenix. In Tempe most of the passengers are students, some faculty, and other professional-looking folks. Once we reach Washington Street, we notice a shift in who’s riding. Now it’s mostly security guards and airport employees wearing uniforms. People with bicycles — rarely any helmets. Plastic bags and old backpacks dangle from handlebars.

The next morning I step out of the hotel and begin my walk to the convention center where the sculpture conference is getting underway. I couldn’t have imagined a nicer day: the sun is warm, but the air is cool. And not a cloud overhead. The sky is such a deep, rich blue I imagine myself falling in and floating above the city. There are so many perfect palm trees[6] everywhere! They’re so cliché, but I can’t help myself — it feels like paradise.

As I skirt the perimeter of the conference center, I note several public art installations. There are numerous lifesize bronze dancers dispersed across a concrete plaza outside a theater. I round a corner to find a colorful made of mosaic tile depicting Arizona’s natural environment and elements inspired by the area’s histories. A giant brass scorpion[7] greets me near the convention center entry. I shudder a little as I hurry inside.

The train continues through Phoenix’s Eastlake Park neighborhood, within the boundaries of the old redline district. An occasional palm tree zooms by, but this part of town is mostly full of empty concrete slabs, gravel lots[8] surrounded by chain link fences, dilapidated car repair shops, and abandoned motels left over from the last century. Every orifice is protected by iron bars, even though I wouldn’t expect to find much inside. Before the Civil Rights Era, people of color were only allowed to live and own property in the neighborhoods around Eastlake Park to South Phoenix, along the Salt River floodplain. Nevertheless, the area became home to vibrant Black and Latino communities. Families stayed in their homes for generations.

After spending all morning inside a windowless conference center ballroom, I’m eager to get back outside to explore. Shuttles are taking conference attendees two miles north to the Phoenix Art Museum for the afternoon sessions. Naturally, I decide to walk.[9] I grab a healthy lunch at a nearby café, then embark on my journey. I stumble across a grassy corporate plaza, intoxicated by the sight of dozens of almost identical palm trees aligned in perfect rows. Their round fronds float high above the thick grass lawn, and water features gurgle in pools nearby. “Why do they waste so much water on landscape decorations?” I ask myself.

The ride is uneventful now since there aren’t many people around. I tell my students about when the new Interstate-10 was jammed through this part of town, just a block or two north of the rail line. Neighborhoods were bisected and hundreds of homes were destroyed in the process. Then, to make matters worse, the City of Phoenix planned an airport expansion there to accommodate the ongoing population boom. Officials coerced already racially and economically marginalized residents into selling their homes on the cheap and moving out. More than 2,000 people were displaced, and entire neighborhoods were demolished.

In 2016, the last holdout lost his bid to keep the home his parents built by hand 96 years earlier, and the 700th house was removed.[10] After the city chose a different expansion plan, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) refused to allow new residential developments in the area. In the end, all those families were forced to leave their homes for nothing. What we’re left with is a massive expanse of empty land full of rolling tumbleweeds, spinning dust devils.[11] and plastic bags floating in the wind.

I glance at google maps to get my bearings, and then tuck my phone away. Instead of following a direct route to the museum, I zigzag my way north street by street. I walk a couple blocks and, in an instant, the city transforms from corporate high-rise buildings to a row of historic, multi- colored bungalows. Coffee shops, book stores, and art galleries occupy these old houses. Outside are grassy lawns with people crowded around picnic tables shaded by old trees. I’m surprised and delighted to encounter this lively creative enclave hidden in the middle of Phoenix’s otherwise typical downtown streetscape.

We notice more vehicle traffic as our train approaches downtown Phoenix. The train cars are nearly empty now, but soon fill up[12] again with a wide range of riders. One of the reasons I love the light rail is people-watching: business people, homeless people, working people, sports fans, groups of high school students, families, and people with nothing else to do. Some passengers try not to touch anything, even if they’re standing. A rough-looking guy, maybe 30 years old — wearing stained blue jeans he’s too skinny for and a black t-shirt — testifies about his love for Jesus as he paces the length of the car. We stand up to make room for someone in a wheelchair.

I’m entranced by the contrast between the nearby glass skyscrapers that reflect the blue-water sky, and this colorful little neighborhood. It feels almost like a secret fort.[13] Even though it’s my first time here, I already feel like a member of the club. I love how everything feels totally DIY. Most of the houses and small buildings are completely covered with paintings and graffiti. The lawns and sidewalks are decorated with homemade sculptures and tiny precious objects dangle from the trees. Bicycles are tied to fenceposts.

We squeezed closer together as more passengers get on the train. Whoever designed these rail cars definitely didn’t foresee the number of bicycles people would try to cram on board. I notice all the people wearing ASU gear. All the people wearing leather loafers, carrying briefcases. How many iPhones versus how many Samsungs. Lots of people wear earphones and play video games. Some people have tattoos. One passenger is eating. Another sleeps. Somebody smells.

I stroll around the neighborhood[14] a bit to look at the art up close. There are images of giant skulls decorated with roses; elongated figures in formal wear playing cello, piano, and a trumpet; a giant leopard that looks stitched together like a quilt; and — of course — Bart Simpson. I’ve never seen a place where nearly every surface in the built environment is decorated this way. There’s a building across the street that appears to be an old restaurant. The seats and tables are still outside, but the patio is fenced in and no one is there. A concrete wall on the front of the building has a giant blue portrait of a man’s face — it looks like a cyanotype — and there’s a vibrant orange pattern in the background.

Our train makes its way to the station at ASU’s downtown campus.[15] Civic Space Park spans nearly the entire block on the west side of Central Avenue, and the university occupies several blocks to the east. People are everywhere — sitting in the park, playing volleyball, standing in small groups on the sidewalk. People down on their luck ask for change, anything helps. This might be the most pedestrians I’ve ever seen at one time in Phoenix. At least 30 new passengers step inside to join us. The doors close. I can hear muffled music coming from headphones another passenger is wearing. No one speaks; strangers avoid eye contact.

I walk around to the side of the abandoned restaurant. There’s a mural on the left side of a long wall. On the right side there’s a guy with an ultra-extended paint roller sketching outlines for a new one. The mural on the left quickly becomes one of my favorites of all time. An artist known as Mr. Downtown painted a brightly-colored, cartoony desert landscape. There’s a big white jackrabbit reclining in the foreground. He’s eating a prickly pear taco with one paw. The other is holding up a wooden sign that says, “Welcome to Downtown.” Indeed. I’m inspired.

The students gaze out as I point beyond a cluster of palm trees and tell them about the enormous nested nets[16] that are suspended far above the park. Artist Janet Echelman is world-famous for making her floating, undulating forms. She says they are inspired by fishermen’s nets she saw on the beach in Hong Kong. Best viewed in artificial lighting at night, the circular nets glow in contrasting colors against the black sky. I wonder what the nets are meant to capture.

I strike up a conversation with the guy who’s working on the other mural. I ask him about it. He tells me the taqueria that was here closed for good just the week prior. Developers bought the land and are planning to build a giant new apartment complex. ASU has been expanding into this area, and students need places to live. He’s painting a portrait of a woman and her child, which he already knows will be destroyed in a few weeks’ time.

Our next stop is the Roosevelt Arts District, near where I first met local street artist LC. A couple years earlier, I spotted him painting a mural on the side of Paz,[17] a popular mom-and-pop taqueria that was pushed out of the gentrifying Roosevelt neighborhood in downtown. Everything around here is so hip now — Seattle style — and most of the old houses I came across back then were replaced by expensive cookie cutter apartment complexes with pseudo-sophisticated names like The Stewart, Illuminate, and Proxy 333. Brew pubs and gift shops replaced most of the art galleries, too. Everything is so sparkling and new. A handful of the old standbys are hanging on, but Roosevelt Row’s homey feeling was lost a while ago.

Continuing my trek to the Phoenix Art Museum, I move along. I walk to an island in the middle of 3rd Street, towards a collection of artistic shade shelters and seating[18] made from sheets of stainless steel bent to look like origami. The sign says they’re illuminated at night by solar power. I sit down to survey the view from here. I can see the colorful little bungalows and other old one-story businesses — remnants of another era. And there are several large lots under construction. Tall concrete armatures, rebar, and cranes overhead are silhouetted against the bluest blue sky I’ve ever seen. The towering palm trees[19] are omnipresent, apparently protected from demolition crews.

Some Metro ticket enforcement officers step inside. Within seconds, two or three people dart out another door. A lot of people can’t afford $5 for a day pass — how does anyone expect them to pay a fine on top of that? My students and I didn’t give a second thought to sliding our ATM cards into the ticket machine this morning. I feel a little bit guilty. We show our tickets to the guards, and watch in silence as they work their way up and down the aisle.

Third Street is too wide and busy, so I cut left onto a residential street. Almost immediately, I encounter a broad field of emerald-green grass. It has to be at least a quarter-mile long and half as wide. There are enough trees to provide some shade, and a few folks are tossing balls for their dogs. Then it occurs to me: I’m walking through a park[20] on top of the freeway! I’m surprised there’s no rumble from the traffic underneath my feet. I stroll through the field, avoiding some sketchy-looking dudes congregating by a retaining wall, smoking some weed. A few college-age kids are practicing skateboard tricks on some nearby ADA ramps. I climb a flight of stairs next to Phoenix Central Library and pop out on Central Avenue.

The next stop is Phoenix Art Museum.[21] We decide to get off the train to see what they have in the galleries today. Several folks who appear to be homeless are sitting — leaning against a brick wall outside the CVS on the corner. I smell cigarette smoke. We cross over McDowell, head north on Central, then stroll through the museum’s open breezeway. I pull open the big glass doors, step into the cool, cavernous lobby, and think to myself, “Nothing ever changes here.”

Meandering up Central Avenue, I observe a another shift in the city’s vibe. Transients assemble in small groups outside the library.[22] I assume they’re looking for a safe place to spend the day. Maybe they can wash up in the public restrooms. Cars zoom past on the wide boulevard. The road is five lanes deep and light rail tracks run up the middle. People wait at bus stops. I glance ahead and spot my destination. Picking up the pace, I move quickly along the museum’s monumental concrete façade. I make a mental note of yet another perfect row of tall palm trees as I pivot onto the museum grounds. A giant red dinosaur inside a red cage greets me as I walk toward the entrance. I pull open the big glass doors, step into the cool, cavernous lobby, and think to myself, “This place is magical.”



[1] Over 1300 years ago, the Hohokam people hand-built sophisticated irrigation systems that channeled water from the Salt, Verde, and Agua Fria Rivers into what is now known as the Valley of the Sun: Metro Phoenix. The Hohokam disappeared without a trace around the year 1400 CE — no one has pinpointed a cause. Europeans arrived later and discovered the remains of this infrastructure. In the mid 1800s, European immigrant Phillip Duppa created a homestead on the spot. He named the new town Phoenix, because he envisioned a new city emerging from the dust of its previous inhabitants. (Postel 2012)

[2] Federal investment in infrastructure after World War II was intended to better connect the eastern United States to the west. Phoenix’s status and population grew with interstate highway construction, two new military bases, and the adoption of a new pro-business city government. By 2020, the region grew 769% from its population of 65,000 only 80 years ago. (Rex 2000)

[3] The earliest document ever found that mentions an avian Phoenix was written around the 7th Century BCE, by the Greek poet Hesoid. But stories of a mystical Phoenix proliferated in oral storytelling throughout antiquity — across many cultures and religious traditions. Pliny the Elder, a philosopher and soldier of the Roman Empire, later described the Phoenix’s appearance (Nigg 2016), which is reproduced in the mural at Phoenix’s airport.

[4] The Southwest is always worried about its water supplies. Cities, towns, and farms across seven states siphon off so much water from the Colorado River that nothing reaches its mouth at the northern tip of Mexico’s Gulf of California. The Colorado River is dammed in 15 places, with hundreds more along its tributaries (Migiro 18). All this infrastructure can’t capture water that isn’t there however. Today, Lake Mead is filled at only 40% of its total capacity (James 2020). And drainage into Lake Powell in fall 2020 was only 18% of normal (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation 2020). Adding to the region’s troubles are lax regulations on agriculture’s use of groundwater, which doesn’t naturally replenish itself (Allhands 2019).

[5] Kokopelli is a prominent character in Anasazi petroglyphs dating back 1500 years. He is known as a traveler, storyteller, and trickster. His flute arouses the senses, and promises fertility and abundance. Products and services named after Kokopelli are widespread in the Southwestern United States, and often trivialize his spritual significance in Native American culture (Rogers 2007).

[6] In the U.S., date palm trees only grow in the Sonoran Desert and Southern California. The federal government imported date palms in the late 1800s in an effort to boost farming in the region (Malloy n.d.). Phoenix’s legendary Sphinx Date Ranch harvested the tree’s sweet fruits and gifted them to the rich and powerful around the world until the late 1960s (Sphinx Date Ranch n.d.). Now, ASU’s vast date palm farm — the second largest in North America — continues the tradition with its annual date-picking festival (Arizona State University n.d.).

[7] Of the 30 scorpion species found in Arizona, the bark scorpion is one of the most commonly seen, and the most deadly. Bark scorpions have a unique climbing ability, and they often make their way into urban structures looking for cooler temperatures. Scorpions’ shells illuminate in ultraviolet light. To find them in the wild, naturalists search with a black light to see them glowing in the dark (Prchal n.d.).

[8] The urban heat island effect is a serious problem in Phoenix. It simply can’t cool off at night when, like in 2020, it suffers from 140+ days over 100°F every year (Livingston 2020). Heat radiates in layers of asphalt and pavement covering nearly half the city’s surface area. In May, ASU climate scientist Ariane Middel’s robot MaRTy recorded a mind-blowing surface temperature of 165° on campus (Kutz 2020). In August, Maricopa County officials reported 243 deaths with suspected heat-related causes (Holmes 2020).

[9] Phoenix is known as one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. for walkers, with 113 people killed in 2018 alone (Philip 2019). Despite its poor record of pedestrian fatalities, in 2019 the Phoenix City Council voted against implementing “Vision Zero” (Schmitt 2019), a well-respected traffic safety initiative that has been adopted by cities around the world.

[10] Around the same time, Phoenix’s flight paths were changed to save time and increase fuel efficiency. The new paths meant planes were now flying above historic neighborhoods with mostly affluent residents. Several neighborhood associations banded together with the city to sue the FAA over the increased noise, air traffic, and pollution. The court sided with the plaintiffs and ordered flight paths to be reverted back to their original locations (Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport 2017).

[11] The soil in the Sonoran Desert hosts a fungus called Coccidioides that causes a disease known as Valley Fever. When dust from the desert floor becomes airborne, people can easily inhale the spores and become sick with flu or pneumonia-type symptoms. Most people recover with treatment, but it sometimes causes meningitis or even death (Mayo Clinic 2020).

[12] Phoenix’s light rail service is so limited, each train is typically only two cars long, for an optimal capacity of 350 people (Valley Metro n.d.). Voters approved funding to expand the system at least four times since 2000 (Wanek-Libman 2019), despite continual interference by NIMBYs and corporate interests. Eventually, a new Metro line will extend down Central Avenue into South Phoenix.

[13] Interstate-10 destroyed as many as 3000 homes across the northern edge of downtown Phoenix, and people left in droves for the suburbs. By the 1990s, the neighborhood now known as Roosevelt Row had been left to languish. Artists found ideal studio spaces in abandoned buildings and began to forge a new community. They started the monthly “First Fridays” art festival in 1994 (The Roosevelt Neighborhood n.d.) — still popular nearly 30 years later —marking the initial spark for the area's resurgence.

[14] Everyone knew big changes were coming in 2014 when Roosevelt Row was acknowledged by USA Today as one of the best arts districts in the country (Mahoney 2014). Six years later, the neighborhood has been transformed by developers, restaurateurs, and new residents with bougie tastes. When local artists opened Carly’s Bistro in 2005, theirs was one of the only restaurants anywhere around (Morris 2020). Now there are at least 100 places to eat and drink. And, at the end of 2020, nearly 7000 new housing units are either under construction or in planning (Hurdle-Bradford 2020).

[15] Since ASU’s downtown campus opened in 2008, the area has been changing radically. The university’s student population reached nearly 12,000 in 2020 (Arizona State University n.d.) — and it continues to grow. Before the current rash of reinvestment, downtown had been a blighted shell of itself since the 1960s when most of its middle class residents moved to the outer edges of the city.

[16] The City of Phoenix adopted “Percent for Art Funding” into its official code in 2003 (City of Phoenix n.d.). One percent of the budget for all capital programs must be allocated to the production of public art. The city spent $2.9 million to produce and install Janet Echelman’s piece, “Her Secret is Patience,” in 2009 (Echelman n.d.).

[17] When the original Paz closed, the proprietor was promised a spot in the new development to reestablish his business (Goth 2015). A restaurant called Paz Cantina did open on street-level in the new high rise. But the new one didn't have the same owner or chef (Saria 2018), and the vibe went from artsy and relaxed to rowdy sports-bar.

[18] By 2018, the 3rd Street median had become a popular camping spot for people experiencing homelessness. Some said they felt safer here than at the notoriously violent shelter a couple miles away. City officials cited a policy against urban camping when they threatened to arrest individuals who loitered. They blocked the area from public use until they could post signs and install brighter night lighting (Ruelas 2018).

[19] There are 14 species of date palms in a genus called Phoenix. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the date palm is the nesting place of the magical Phoenix bird (Ovid 1986). Associated with rebirth, abundance, fertility, and wisdom, the cultural significance of date palm trees reaches back as far as 3,000 BCE (Cioffi 2019).

[20] After watching freeway construction kill neighborhoods across the country and in other areas of Phoenix, downtown residents fought to stop the destruction of their neighborhoods. Interstate-10, originally announced in 1957, was ultimately built across downtown. Many of the city’s oldest homes were destroyed and nearly 9000 people were displaced. As a consolation prize, they built six blocks of the freeway below grade and installed Hance Park, a 32-acre public green space on top (Bourque 2020).

[21] In the 1990s while artists worked at the grassroots level to resuccetate downtown, The Phoenix Art Museum (Phoenix Art Museum n.d.) expanded its footprint to include a public theater, a research library, a museum restaurant, and more gallery space. The arts are playing a significant role in the latest rebirth of downtown Phoenix. Today, neighborhoods adjacent to the museum are often cited as the most desirable in the whole city (Carpenter 2018).

[22] In 2017, a monsoon-season “microburst” created strong winds that physically lifted Central Library’s roof off the building, which sucked in a big dust cloud on the top floor. In a chain reaction, the fire system detected the dust, interpreted it as smoke, and activated the sprinkler system (Guzzon 2017). The entire library was flooded and had to be closed for two years for renovations.



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—. n.d. Facts and Figures. Accessed 11 14, 2020.

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