Over Thanksgiving, I went to Phoenix to visit my uncle and grandma. I made the following observations:
1.) As a city, Phoenix kind of sucks. Not that it’s a bad place to live….there’s nice weather half the year, you can get a pretty nice house at a decent price and life proceeds at a much more agreeable pace than it does in D.C. Bureaucratic stuffiness and legions of type A superhuman yuppies? Not the Phoenix scene. Instead, there are lots of families, old people and a generous sprinkling of outdoor enthusiasts.
But it’s really not much of a city. The streets are mostly empty of people and full of palm trees. There are strip malls and highways galore, and the place is basically a bunch of connecting suburbs strung casually together and conjuring a sunny seventies vibe. To call “downtown” Phoenix a downtown is to do real downtowns a grave injustice, because there really aren’t many buildings. Or people. As an East Coaster, it’s always a shock to visit a city not bursting with pedestrians. I could walk for 20 minutes around my uncle’s neighborhood without seeing a single soul. It’s like the twilight zone. A very peaceful, quiet and sunny twilight zone. The Scottsdale and Biltmore neighborhoods are a tribute to the clean-cut and perfectly pleasant, if generic town center movement. It’s weird. I can see the appeal, but as an east coaster, it’s a little disconcerting.
But the strangest thing to me was the absence of an arts/culture/hipster scene. I mean, the towns of Tempe and Scottsdale have an “arts scene” but not the rough around the edges, scruffy, edgy café scene you might find in other major cities. DC looks like an arts town by comparison.
2.) The Latino community, specifically the Mexican community, has a much bigger presence in Phoenix than it does in D.C. Latinos make up 40 percent of the population in Phoenix. Latino culture is visible in a way that it isn’t in D.C, from the Spanish-style homes and countless Mexican restaurants to the many Latino neighborhoods and Spanish-inspired community/place names (think El Camino, La Paloma, etc.) I drove south down 7th and Broadway and after passing “downtown,” it was almost like I’d crossed the border into Mexico. All around me were Latino auto shops, churches and grocery stores. You get little pockets of that kind of thing in the D.C area, but not the way you do in Phoenix.
3.) There’s something very special about the southwestern sunrise and sunset. Maybe it’s because it’s pretty much always sunny and cloudless, but I couldn’t get enough. It’s a little strange to be in a place where the sky is pretty much always pure blue, uncorrupted by clouds or haze. It might be different in summer, but the weather is perfect in winter.
4.) As much as I love Virginia and the bucolic, subtle beauty of the Appalachian Mountains, the southwest is playing a whole other game when it comes to natural beauty. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. I never thought I’d like a desert landscape, but I found myself absolutely loving life on every hike I took. Everything is much more dramatic, stark and challenging, and I begrudgingly admit that Virginia has nothing on Arizona when it comes to striking landscapes.
I felt unexpectedly at home in the southwest and was surprised by how much I liked it. Phoenix might not be the city for me, but I can’t wait to go back and keep exploring Arizona and the rest of the Southwest. Being out west makes you realize how claustrophobic and stuffy the northeast can feel.