Ever since we’ve moved here, I’ve been missing my former city of Flagstaff (and Nashville before that). It’s not just the heat, although that is pretty unbearable. And it’s not just that this desert landscape still registers not as what it is but as what it is not – namely not the lush, verdant Tennessee that I grew up with. It’s difficult to articulate, especially to folks who haven’t had the displeasure of living here, but it’s a lot of little things that add up to making it a tough place to like. It’s so big and spread out that the scale of the place can make it feel like you need to pack a lunch to get anywhere. There is an absence of the rhythm of distinct seasons. And there’s no real sense of place or identity for Phoenix. I guess some cities, like Tempe, have made strides to carve out some sense of place, but it seems very inorganic and artificial. Tempe seems to think of itself as a college town. To some degree I suppose that’s true…but the words ‘college town’ evoke something very different to me than a major public university with more than 70,000 students.
All of that makes it hard to find people you have stuff in common with (which was especially difficult for me when I worked for tiny nonprofit museums). And it’s disharmonious for me to live in a place characterized by sprawl, exurbs, and materialism when those aren’t my values. I could give you all sorts of anecdotes that strive to illustrate why I don’t really feel like this is home, but I fear that those might just sound like I’m grumpy. Besides, what I think is perhaps more telling is the bullseye observation from the New York Times 36 Hours in Phoenix piece that states, “Even long-timers have a tough time explaining the city’s appeal.”
The root of the problem is that there are no anchors. You’re not anchored by your city. Even the (smaller) cities like Tempe that comprise the greater Phoenix metropolitan area are still so large that it’s hard to carve out a sense of community or find your like-minded peeps. Tempe has a population of about 160,000 – a big difference from Flagstaff’s 50,000. And that’s not even taking into consideration the other 4 million people here in the greater metropolitan area. You’re not anchored by any larger sense of shared values.
You’re not anchored by work. In the 6 years I’ve lived here, I’ve worked for 3 places that had fewer than 4 employees each, and, not surprisingly, found I had little to nothing in common with most of those coworkers. I now work at ASU, which has more than 10,000 employees, but in a department of 6 that barely intersects with any of the remaining 9,994 folks, making it hard to meet people. And I worked for one museum that, by virtue of having greater than 1 but fewer than 10,000 coworkers gave me a fighting chance of having something in common with my coworkers.
You’re not anchored by your neighborhood. All the homes, by law in Tempe, have 6′ cinder block walls around each yard, making every home a fortress of solitude that outwardly symbolizes the insularity of folks here. In fact, the only people I can think of who do like it here are anchored by family who live here too.
I don’t mean to sound all negative – there are things that I do love here: some awesome restaurants, the wildflowers during the rainy winters, the ability to take walks all winter long, the friends I’ve made here, the people I share a home with, and the, um…well…hmmm.