Grass from the Ashes (Mar. 17, 1999)

In Phoenix long green means grass. Not the kind you smoke, but the kind flanking business parks, bordering the rarely-used sidewalks of six-lane boulevards, decorating the headquarters of the Arizona Water Resources Administration downtown, growing miraculously around all those canyon dwellings barely visible behind security gates, and, to be sure, richly deployed on the countless golf courses of the area. In the Valley of the Sun grass green is the most conspicuous color of consumption; it's a mightily garish desert statement that talks much louder than cash.

My hosts lived on the lower flanks of Camelback Mountain, a distinctive landmark which is said to resemble the desert beast of burden, with a bare sandstone formations constituting the head and two somewhat higher and sandier looking hills for humps. It is said to be a desirable locale, and the higher one goes on the shoulder of the camel the more expensive the real estate gets. The gated communities are called things like Echo Canyon, Heritage Estates, etc.

In the parking lot of mall near the base of the mountain Camel cigarettes happened to be holding some promotional event, since there was a large balloon of Joe Kamel. At the top of Camelback Mountain there is park, a remnant of the desert which offers some views of the valley, and I asked my host if perhaps big tobacco was planning to sponsor the place, protecting it further development. In return, of course, it would have to be renamed Joe Kamelback Mountain.

Having recently joined the homeowners association, my host didn't seem to find this too funny.

(I then mused silently on the possible benefits of corporate sponsorship of our natural heritage: El Capitan, brought to you by the Prudential; the Kangaroo Rat, whose survival as a species is sponsored by Disney; and even the “air you breath” made possible with a grant from Exxon.)

Saturday evening the seductive desert twilight beckoned and I decided to climb Camelback. My host quickly informed me that it was not possible to walk there from her house, although I could see the nearby summit from the front door.

She quickly got her husband on his cellular phone and he gave me directions to the trailhead parking area. After driving past several gated communities, I came to the park entrance. A metal gate was lowered over the right lane, so I blithely maneuvered around it and through the open gate to its left. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of tires being punctured and the hissing of air.

In this way were my suspicions confirmed-to the tune of $492-that Phoenix has the highest density of tire shredders in the world.

Later I noticed roadsigns everywhere proclaiming that Phoenix is “The Best Run City in the World.” I must admit that the place is certainly very effective at preventing cars from entering their parks at dusk.

My evening expedition thus thwarted, I never did see a real piece of desert during that weekend, as I was always within spitting distance of some insidious irrigation scheme, small or large.

Of course, in the barrio stretching between downtown Phoenix and the airport there is no grass. The few sad attempts at emulating the lawns of white folks are scorched brown long before the monsoons arrive come the 4th of July. Drive twenty minutes from one of those maximum security canyons down into the desiccated ghetto and you find yourself in another country: the language, the flora (sage brush, not bougainvillea), the fauna (scraggly mutts not pedigreed poodles) and even the climate (unhumidified air not the softly welcoming atmosphere which comes with ubiquitous irrigation)-everything is different.

This multicultural geographic Phoenix is nicely encapsulated in advertisements on the city buses. On the inside of the buses the signs are mostly in Spanish and offer stern warnings against carrying handguns on public transportation; the signs on the outside advertise golf lessons. Little more need be said about structures of power in this place and the role of the green stuff in clarifying them and ensuring their survival.

Redevelopment is squeezing this dry slum onto an ever smaller patch of desert. New business complexes push out from city center towards the outer perimeter of the enormous airport-or “air harbor” to use the city's own grandiose designation-which seems to be about the size of Heathrow.

Along the bus route leading from the airport to downtown a giant tract of more than a hundred acres has been razed to make way for what will certainly be some corporate spread. In the middle of this vast field stands a church that from a couple hundred yards off looks like it was built around the turn of the century. The structure is enclosed by a high chain-link fence, presumably to protect it from vandals. One can only assume the church was left standing on account of some impulse toward historic preservation. In the corporate headquarters or upscale mall which will one day surround it, the church will be an odd sight. Probably it will be gutted and transformed into a food court or rock-climbing gym or something like that.

There are only a handful of old buildings left in Phoenix. The stately Masonic temple stands next to a parking garage and a hole in the ground from which something very big will soon rise. The last Victorian mansion looks like some strange neo-Gothic exhibit, or maybe a float from the Rose Parade parked permanently on the edge of a modern world of poured concrete. The juxtaposition is striking, like seeing a Doric temple plunked down on the moon.

A few blocks away the art-deco City Hall from 1930 looks across the street to Cesar Chavez Plaza and the new seat of municipal government, a twenty-story building crowned by a huge sun constructed of chrome and glass. I stood on the steps of the old City Hall for a while and studied its replacement, trying to decide whether it's ugly or not. It is. And not because it is new, but because it is naff: it's that kind of ubiquitous post-Modern architecture which, like the Transamerica Pyramid, embraces the playful and commercial in cloying combination. The Phoenix City Hall renders the facade of a public building as corporate logo or perhaps tourist brochure cover. Think about rigging up some silver-lined faux-fog balloons as an architectural feature to be moored around the dome of the San Francisco Civic Center and you get an idea of the aesthetic orientation of the architects of this Valley of the Sun debacle.

At the bus station one of the old trolleys stands as a quaint reminder of the old days, which in fact were not so long ago. But in the new world of downtown Phoenix the trolley already seems to come from an earlier century. It looks as out of place as the buildings.

At my bus slip, a guy drinking from a quart bottle of Milwaukee's Best half-hidden in a paper bag treated me to a diatribe against the city and state where he'd been born and raised.

"Goodamn right to work state this here,” he informed me. “Everything non-union. They just get these Mexicans to come up here and work for nothing."

He said he was in the pest control business, although it was Monday afternoon and he didn't appear to be on his way to work.

"All this shit here is new, ” he exlaimed waving his bag at nothing and everything. “And there's a lot more going in everyday way the hell out there in the desert.” He raised his eyes for a quick glance at the ring of mountains encircling the Valley of the Sun.

Then came his curse, which approriately enough was a Biblical one.

"What they don't know is that there are termites forty down into the ground all over this desert. As soon as you build something with that shitty new wood, those termites come up to your house and get to work."

He took a swig from his bag.

"None of this is going to last,” he said, and I was glad to hear him say it.

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