In 2016, Phoenix overtook Philadelphia to become America’s fifth largest city. In response to the news, the city’s WHYY public radio station ran a scorching post that dismissed Phoenix’s growth as little more than the result of “buying up insane quantities of land,” a luxury that reporter Mark Dent made clear was not available to the City of Brotherly Love. “We’re on an entirely different playing field,” he huffed, “a land-locked, dense, actually urban playing field.” Rather than “one big, sprawling strip mall,” Philly was a “bustling city.” “On paper,” he concluded, addressing the Sonoran metropolis, “You will soon enjoy the distinction of being one of America’s top five biggest cities. In the mind of any person who doesn’t live in a desert, you will not even be close.”
The people of Philadelphia remain, as ever, extremely well-adjusted. Over at the Arizona Republic, reporter Brenna Goth was circumspect in responding to this and other broadsides from incensed Pennsylvanians. “Big doesn’t equal urban,” Goth wrote, admitting that “those looking for a ‘big city’ don’t mean a place with more residents or square miles. People associate them with skyscrapers and trains and more than one busker playing electric guitar downtown on a Friday night.” “Will Phoenix ever have the cachet of cities such as Philadelphia, Seattle or San Francisco,” she wondered. “Is that even our goal?”
Though settlement in Phoenix’s Salt River Valley dates back a millennium to when the Hohokam people had over 100,000 acres of its land under irrigation, the history of urban development there really didn’t get cranking until the mid-20th Century, with over 200,000 people arriving between 1955 and 1960 alone. A civic booster named Raymond Carlson ascribed the astounding growth of the city at the time to the simple fact that folks from the East Coast and Midwest “have decided that living in the sun is a lot more fun.” The fun, in truth, was mostly attributable to the novel amenities that made it possible to avoid the sun; as a Vice President of the city’s preeminent Valley Bank told a Saturday Evening Post Reporter around the same time, “I awake in my air-conditioned home in the morning… I dress and get into my air-conditioned automobile and drive to the air-conditioned garage in the basement of this building. I work in an air-conditioned office, eat in an air-conditioned restaurant and perhaps go to an air-conditioned theater.”
By the time Edward Abbey wrote his 1976 article in the New York Times decrying Phoenix as a “blob” akin to the hideous creature from a certain fifties monster flick, the city’s population had swelled past 1.3 million. In Abbey’s imagining, it was “a mad amoeba escaped from a laboratory. Pink and palpitating, running amuck, urged on by the Chamber of Commerce, and growing, ever‐GROWING, this thing threatens to devour the planet. I forget how they stopped it. Maybe they didn’t.” WHYY’s Mark Dent shared in the casting of Phoenix’s sprawl as unnatural, pointing to an online schematic of its borders that “recommends people call the City Clerk Department to see if anything new has been annexed and the map is already outdated. In other words, they’re cheating growing so fast they’re not bothering to keep up with themselves.”
All of this criticism boils down to a crucial question: Is Phoenix a “real” city? Or, more broadly, what even is a “real” city? The perception of largely suburban Western metropolises as not cities but enormous, oozing things has hardly shifted since Abbey’s time. If Phoenix has any utility to outsiders at all, it’s as a cultureless void. The city serves as a backdrop for Kristen Bell’s character on The Good Place to guzzle margaritas and undercut her trashy friends, or else as a potent counterweight to the bustling chaos of Vietnam in G.B. Tran’s graphic memoir Vietnamerica. In that book, Tran’s parents live in an anonymous, yellow-tinted ranch house nestled into a carpet of other anonymous, yellow-tinted ranch houses, their heart-breaking refugee story swallowed up into American banality.
Even as a majority of Americans now live in suburban environments, the national consciousness of life in those places has only marginally evolved over the past half century, and the critique of them from the urban Northeast hasn’t budged. No matter how many people live in sprawling cities like Phoenix, they’ll never be real. Real cities have subways. Real cities have sidewalks populated by cute café tables and houses that press up against each other like piano keys. Their bars, like their laundromats, remain lit up long into the night. The seasons change in real cities, as inexorably as the rent climbs. Cities like Phoenix? Too hot, too diffuse, too quiet.
In her rejoinder, the Republic’s Brianna Goth wrote that “In terms of development, Phoenix looks more like a real city than it has in decades. Since… 2010, new apartments, university buildings and residents have transformed downtown. Neighborhoods outside the urban core are bustling with hubs of bars and restaurants.” The real estate site Curbed agreed, profiling a native Phoenician who, after several years in Los Angeles, returned to the city in 2011 to find “dense urban development finally taking root. Light rail stops criss-crossed downtown, energetic bars and restaurants drew people onto the sidewalks, an arts district was thriving, and downtown campuses brought students to an area dominated by office workers and government bureaucrats.”
It’s not hard to imagine a Philadelphian reading such attempts at narrative changing with a sneer. Oh, Phoenix built itself a light rail? That’s cute. Some galleries downtown? Townhouses? A food scene? Too bad— none of that’s real. When you’re Phoenix, you don’t get to be real. You’re just a blob. If you want to join the tens of thousands of people moving there every year, you better prepare to be absorbed into national anonymity. Funny then, that so many people seem perfectly content with such a fate. I guess it’s better to be ignored than to have to spend another year in Philadelphia.
Apologies are in order for such a protracted delay between my last newsletter and this one! Beyond writing a weekly media criticism column for Harper’s in the interim, I reviewed Amos Barshad’s No One Man Should Have All That Power and Dreyer’s English for The Nation, María Sonia Cristoff’s masterful False Calm for The Harvard Review, and groused about how baseball statheads are propping up the game’s billionaire owners in The Baffler. Oh, and for all you current and reformed New Englanders out there, I also wrote about Boston’s transit crisis and a kooky proposal to solve it for Boston magazine. Point is, I’ve been a little busy. But the good news is I’m planning to get back into a regular groove with this thing, and will make sure to at least get another one out to you clambering hoards before the summer ends.
Quick shout out to the great Will Stephenson and the exceptional essay of his that ran in the April/May Believer. The subject is his distant relative Archibald Butt (!), a Teddy Roosevelt confidant and noted dandy who perished with the Titanic in 1912. Bringing a fresh perspective to a disaster as over-trodden as the Titanic is just about impossible, but between the peculiar life of Butt and the sharply organized structure, this piece just sings.
Thanks for reading and subscribing. You can find me on my website, or staring enviously at the succulent display on that new bougie restaurant’s patio.