Recently I was in Oregon, chatting with a young stranger from Indiana (I think). When he asked me where I was from, I said Phoenix and he immediately expressed sympathy. I didn’t exactly jump on the defense. Technically my driver’s license says “Mesa, Arizona” anyway, but you know, Scottsdale, Tempe, Glendale, Chandler, they’re all more or less suburbs of Phoenix, right? Outsiders wouldn’t know the difference.
While that may not be entirely true, stereotypes do have their roots somewhere and strange circumstances have led some people to move from much more interesting places to Phoenix for good. But then there are those who’ve fled Arizona altogether never to look back.
It’s rare to find someone of my generation or older who was born and raised here. I was born in a latitude and climate much more suitable to my light complexion. In 1980 I was born in Potsdam, New York. My mom loves to tell me how it was twenty below zero the day I was born. Shoveling snow for six months out of the year was a way of life up there and some people chose to stay from cradle to grave.
Then, in 1982, my dad’s work led us to Norman, Oklahoma. Five years later, we went a little further south to Fort Worth, Texas. Finally, right before the dawn of 1992, we made one final move to Mesa, Arizona.
Not every kid adapts well to moving to a new state but I for one loved it. I loved the adventure and the chance to reinvent myself.
But in the angst of my teenage years, I became very unsettled and yearned to move on. At college fairs I only collected brochures from out-of-state universities; the further away the better.
I wanted to return to a place where the grass was literally green. In fact, it would be nice if the place had any grass at all! But there were other motivations for leaving as well. I mean, I never fit in – anywhere. Not even with my family. I fought with them far too often. They gave me everything a kid could want but I just couldn’t bear to live with them any longer. I didn’t doubt they loved me but I always felt they were too overprotective and controlling. I wouldn’t figure out why such friction existed between my family and me until many years and therapy sessions later. But that’s another story for another time….
I had the luxury of traveling a lot during my youth. In 1993 I flew by myself for the first time to Florida to attend Space Camp. I was 13 and loved feeling independent.
In 1998 I traveled throughout the Northwest and Midwest United States for 10 weeks with the an evangelical Christian singing group called the Continentals. It was the longest I’d ever been away from home and, though I dealt with difficult emotions that summer, none of them could be defined as “homesickness.”
I graduated high school in 1999 and went straight to a private Christian university in southern California the fall of that same year. It’s a long story but I ultimately transferred to Northern Arizona University my sophomore year after going on a mission trip to Romania for 5 weeks. Then, in 2002, I went to France for what was supposed to be a year but, thanks to my first full-blown manic episode (followed by my so oft told involuntary hospitalization), I was repatriated about 3 months early.
My mental illness brought me right back to where I started from: my parents’ house. It seemed as though while all my peers were moving forward in their education and careers, I’d fallen a thousand steps back and I hated every bit of it!
I wound up graduating from Arizona State University, the one place I’d sworn I’d never attend because of its proximity to home. With ASU I took one last journey abroad to Quebec, Canada to learn a slightly different kind of French. Then, after graduating, I fought to find a job that would pay enough for me to live on my own. But my BA in French and study abroad experiences were not very marketable, so I began to feel frustrated and sought a more permanent escape. If my friends can live happily and independently, why can’t I?
Three years of erratic moods and self-harming behaviors eventually forced me to move in with my parents – again. It was humiliating.
Time passed. Between psychotherapy and medication I learned to see the world differently and I learned to accept and even love my weird family. A time or two I even tried to break the disability cycle and search for gainful employment, but it wasn’t happening. Meanwhile my parents began to suffer from age related physical ailments and from time to time, I’d take on the role of caregiver.
Memories of the travels of my youth (especially those 9 months in France) began to detach from my emotions and the sense of urgency I used to feel to go as far away as possible, diminished. Sure, I kept up the language, but now I know that even if I never set a foot in Europe again, I’ll be content.
Based on all I’ve read and seen about what makes a city great, I should feel a sense of shame and disgust for Phoenix and all its surrounding cities. To begin with, this is the desert. Water was scarce when the population was almost non-existent and now that we’ve got more than 1.4 million people around here, you can only imagine the environmental impact.
Then, of course, there’s our car-dependency problem. Public transportation has improved a little of the years but it’s still slow and, especially during the summer months, we don’t have much incentive to abandon our air-conditioned chariots. Besides, Phoenix mostly developed after the invention of the automobile resulting in urban sprawl, long commutes, freeway congestion (especially during rush hour), and massive parking lots.
Indoor shopping malls are still a thing here. In the summer time we’d die without places to walk around where air conditioning is blasting through the vents. Sometimes you walk in 112 degree heat only to go inside a building where it’s so cold you need a sweater. If you want to exercise in the summer, you either need to wake up at 3 in the morning or join a nice, air-conditioned gym. Let’s face it, Phoenix would never be as big as it is if it weren’t for the invention of modern air conditioning.
Lastly there’s the architecture. Old cities tend to have a distinct style. Their buildings, walls, monuments, and streets all tell a story and give their city a separate identity. But here in the urban sprawl of Phoenix, there are rows of tract houses near national fast-food chains, retail shops, and grocery stores not to mention the Super Wal-Mart’s and Targets, Circle K’s and Shell Stations, Chili’s, Village Inn, Denny’s and Starbucks at every convenient location. They’re usually in or near strip malls strategically located at major free exits and crossroads. They all look the same – like giant cubes of cement. They’re the evil corporations who kill local businesses.
There are exceptions and I’ll likely write about those later. Off-hand I’d say downtown Phoenix, Old Town Scottsdale, and downtown Mesa have made major strides in recent years toward creating a sense of place and a sense of community in the Valley.
But with all these reasons to despise Phoenix, why do I find myself wanting to stay? Am I a victim of Stockholm Syndrome or is it possible I’ve found a way to love Phoenix?
To be continued….