November 02, 2010

ASU and the City

by: J Seth Anderson


Today’s post is by J Seth Anderson, a fantastic writer, journalist and fellow urban advocate for the Valley.

Seth (first name is John, but he has always gone by Seth) is not a Phoenix native but dang close! His favorite time of year is summer in Phoenix. Seth lives in a mid-century house in downtown Tempe although he lives and breathes downtown Phoenix historic preservation and development. He writes about downtown Phoenix, historic preservation, politics, and LGBT issues on his own blog Boy Meets Blog. Seth also writes for the new Downtown Phoenix Journal magazine debuting this Thursday, November 4! He is an ASU graduate and has two beagles, Beau and Lacey. Lately, he’s done nothing but play Angry Birds on his cell phone.

I’ve spent all of my life in the southwest with most of my growing up years in suburban Phoenix, Arizona. I was 18 years old when I first visited a real city, a city that was dense, walkable, and urban with active communities with healthy neighborhoods, a real sense of place and importance, and a place where being a pedestrian felt normal, not abnormal. In the suburbs of Phoenix I was never able to walk or bike or bus to a museum, or the movies, or restaurants, or theaters, or civic events. Those amenities were located miles away from the family cookie-cutter McMansion and always required a car. Low density sprawl and near total dependance on a car were normal facts of life and were all I knew for nearly 20 years. Public transportation like trains or subways or walkable city streets were mythical creatures, like unicorns.

Like many Phoenicians I ended up at ASU as an undergraduate. During my years at ASU I was able to travel extensively and visited many remarkable cities that opened my eyes to what Phoenix was lacking. I loved my time at ASU, but one thing I loved the most was the freedom I had living near campus and living almost car free. I loved the simple freedom of being able walk (or bike) around a beautiful campus that was built to a human scale. The iconic Palm Walk, while at times congested and busy, felt exciting. ASU is dotted with a healthy mix of historic buildings like Old Main (dedicated in 1898) which proudly faces the new and ultra modern Fulton Center across the street; the only adobe building on campus, the Moeur Building built in 1939, is a stones throw from the newly renovated Memorial Union. Former dormitories with their stately columns are near newer dormitories that house hundreds of students who live on campus, study on campus, and hang out on campus. There are restaurants, theaters, music halls, a bowling alley, a grocery store, a drug store, a doctors office, a gym, tennis courts, parks, emerald green grass, hundreds of towering trees, libraries, a bookstore, a live snake exhibit (!) and coffee shops. There is always an electric energy on campus where life is buzzing nearly every hour of every day.

After graduation I bought a house nearby and still bike around campus as often as I can. I thought I was just sentimental about my years at ASU, but while cruising down Caddy Mall on my bike it hit me: I am drawn to ASU campus because it is an urban city in microcosm.

Somehow this method of building cities has been ignored in the actual municipalities that surround ASU. What if our elected officials guided city growth and development in the same way the main ASU campus is built, with a focus on pedestrians, not cars, with an appreciation for Arizona’s past by allowing historic structures to co-exist with new construction instead of demolishing buildings in the name of “progress” while also encouraging development of housing in a more central location so people could live near places of employment and enjoy the benefits of walking or biking to work.

My friends ask why I stay in Phoenix. The answer is simple: because I love it and someone has to be on the frontline advocating for the things that will make Phoenix great.

Photo Credit:  Photo by the author.

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8 Responses

  1. Will Novak says:

    I like your closing line, I agree.

    Phoenix is an interesting and exciting place to live because its like a box of unbuilt lego pieces.

    Sure there’s cities that are already built and amazing (Boston, NYC, Chicago), but what fun is that? Thats like looking at your nerdy friends intricate lego model of the Death Star. Its neat to look at but eventually you want to try to make something on your own and Phoenix provides that challenge and opportunity.

  2. J Seth Anderson says:

    Thanks Will.
    I’ve lived in a lot of places, but I love living in Phoenix. In a lot of ways you have to be tough to live here, but you can be anything you want to be in Phoenix and really make a difference. I like the challenge. I’d be bored elsewhere.

  3. […] My post is up here titled ASU and the City. […]

  4. Evan Ward says:

    Phoenix is a ‘blank canvas’, but only because its been so screwed up over time. I’m very optimistic about the future and the Light Rail has a lot to do with that. There are a lot of people on board to make PHX a better place. You can hear their voices at

  5. Thanks Evan! I didn’t know about that website. It looks great!

  6. I’m surprised you were so gentle with ASU given its role in the Sahara demolition. Then again, I know you’re focusing here on the Tempe Campus rather than Downtown.

    I actually like ASU Downtown for the most part, even though several urbanist friends seem to dislike it. Several times I have been Downtown for the farmer’s market, Valley Youth Theater, etc. and have found after walking a block or two that I was suddenly and unexpectedly surrounded by students. That’s exactly how an urban college campus should work: Instead of having a feeling of suddenly entering a separate space, the campus should blend with the surrounding neighborhood. For the most part, ASU does that in Downtown Phoenix.

    I see ASU’s record on historic preservation as mixed. In Tempe, the visitor’s center with the gold dome was demolished, although at least the dome itself was saved and relocated. Downtown, the A.E. England building was in jeopardy for a while, and now the Sahara is gone in anticipation of an unfunded law school.

    What’s most interesting to me is how ASU West, which was a big focus of growth in the late ’80s and the ’90s, now seems to get less attention. That campus is very suburban in style — completely set back from the street and difficult to reach via public transit. I think those limitations make if less attractive than the Tempe and Downtown sites.

  7. Tara says:

    I too am surprised to see you writing about ASU in a positive light. However, I do agree with you about the Tempe Campus. I love being able to ride my bike somewhere to eat, or to walk my dog to Gammage while I stand in line to buy tickets to a show. It’s too bad ASU in Tempe is such a good example of a successful urban city, while the downtown campus keeps building more parking lots.

  8. J Seth Anderson says:

    Hi David,
    You’re right, ASU doesn’t always lead the way. I was mad about the dome in Tempe. (And I certainly have a bone to pick with them about AE England and the Sahara.) But I think that way thinking (i.e. demolishing something to build something new) is the new way of ASU/City thinking. But I don’t think it was always so. The “old” downtown Phoenix was dense, walkable and urban because those were the values. But those values have changed and mutated into the suburban style of development we see now, especially in this state.
    I think at some point in the not too distant past people “got it.” And it’s our job to make sure we bring those values back.

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