I visited Phoenix a few weeks ago and I stayed with my parents in their home in Chandler, Arizona, a suburb of the city. I wrote the following in my journal about my experience of living in Chandler. I thought you might be interested in the unvarnished thoughts of someone who has lived in suburban Phoenix, then in Central Phoenix and is now living in the central Portland.
[Excerpt from my journal entry from April 18, 2013…]
“Trying to live an urban life in Phoenix is just depressing. Living a suburban life in Phoenix is perfect though. It makes so much sense. In Chandler, I don’t expect to be able to walk anywhere. The huge streets and the huge parking lots make sense. I don’t expect to have public spaces and public transportation at my disposal. All I expect to do in Chandler is to go from my mother’s home to a shopping center or some other destination in my car. I don’t expect to have an “in between life” – that is to say an interesting experience between destinations. I don’t expect to see people when I step out the door. I don’t expect there to be musicians on the street or panhandlers or passersby like I see and experience here in Portland. I expect only to see other cars going to and fro from the vantage point of my own car.
When I was living in Central Phoenix, I expected a more urban experience. I wanted a more urban experience than what I had in the suburbs of Phoenix. I thought I might get it if I moved closer to the center of the city. But therein lies the rub. It turns out that I didn’t have a much more urban experience in Central Phoenix than I did in Chandler or when I lived in Mesa. I still didn’t see people on the street in Central Phoenix. I still only saw cars going to and fro. Granted, Central Phoenix does feel slightly more urban than Chandler. There is the Light Rail after all. And occasionally you will find an intersection that has people on all four corners waiting to cross the street. But on the whole, Central Phoenix isn’t that much more urban than Chandler. Living in Central Phoenix, I still got in my car and went from place to place in my car with no “in between” life. Because I am an urbanist, I attempted to use my car as little as possible and I biked to a lot of destinations and my “in between” experience was enhanced. I would see the odd pedestrian walking and the rare cyclist. But mostly I would just see waves and waves of cars on the large roads.
So this last time I was in Phoenix, visiting after living a couple of months in Portland, I realized Phoenix does suburbia exceedingly well. But it offers almost no urban life. And what passes for urban life in Phoenix is really a slightly less suburban version of suburbia. This makes me wonder – instead of trying to swim against the tide of decades of infrastructure and decades of suburban culture and values, why not just embrace suburbia full force? Why not just say – Central Phoenix is a less suburban version of full-out suburbia but it is still a version of it. Instead of trying to do the equivalent of forcing a square peg into a round hole and striving to create an urban life in Phoenix, why not accept the suburban nature of the city and start from there? But for those who want a real urban living experience, I’m afraid you won’t find it in Phoenix. The only place you might find it is in your dreams of how Phoenix will be in ten or twenty years. Until there is an interesting “in between life”, Phoenix, Central Phoenix and Downtown Phoenix will just be different versions of suburbia.”
Photo credit: The vibrant “in-between” life on Hawthorne in southeast Portland, where I live now. Photo by the author.Tags: in between life, phoenix, suburban, urban