Phoenix’s transformation into big city has benefits, burdens

[Source: Yuri Artibise, Grady Gammage Jr., and Nancy Welch, Morrison Institute] — Columnist Gregory Rodriguez wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times: “No city is more burdened by its myth than LA.  That’s because ours, crafted by regional boosters even before the birth of LA as a modern American city, is the ultimate myth: Los Angeles as paradise.  It makes the gulf between the ideal and the real deeper here than anywhere else.”

Other than its eponymous pyrotechnic bird, Phoenix has not been a city of deep myth.  Only a few movies have been set here.  The closest thing to a signature song is about a guy driving away from LA, musing on what his lost love will be doing “by the time I get to Phoenix.”  Yet, Phoenix and Los Angeles have an apparent shared heritage: huge water projects, real-estate developers, parking lots, palm trees, and faux Spanish architecture.

Our city seems so obviously the younger sister of a Hollywood starlet that comparison and emulation are inevitable.  The Phoenix/LA conceit is deep-seated, chronic, and nearly always offered as something to avoid.  Consider just part of a collection from a 1996 Phoenix Gazette column by Bill Hart:

  • “Do you want this to be another Detroit or New York or, worse yet, another Los Angeles?” – Former Gov. Howard Pyle, 1987
  • “We don’t want to be another Los Angeles.  Nobody wants that.” – Jim Marsh, former director, Arizona Department of Commerce, 1991
  • In a recent poll, 90% of Arizonans said it would be bad if Phoenix became more like Los Angeles. – The Arizona Republic, 1991
  • “Phoenix still can avoid becoming another Los Angeles by building a balanced transportation system.” – David Baron, director, Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, 1993
  • There are things that can be done to stop the Valley’s slide toward becoming another Los Angeles. – The Republic, 1994

Phoenix, a city often accused of having no identity, certainly has long known what it doesn’t want to be.  What is it we are so afraid of?  All big cities have mixed images, but the uber-negative view of Los Angeles is grounded in three attributes: smog, congestion, and sprawl.  These problems and the comparisons between Phoenix and LA are worth a closer examination.  [Note: to read the full op-ed piece, click here.]

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