The Economist, July 26, 2007
MICHAEL ZISTATSIS, a restaurateur in downtown Phoenix, used to be excited by the prospects that only a gentrifying city, more foot traffic and wealthy new locals can bring. His business had been growing steadily for years. But now things have changed. City planners decreed that there should be a light railway linking Phoenix to neighbouring cities such as Scottsdale. The construction work, which is currently ripping up miles of downtown Phoenix, makes walking and parking almost impossible; so few feel motivated to shop or dine there. Proprietors like Mr Zistatsis, whose clientele has dropped by 30% since 2005, feel distinctly miffed. And they are not the only ones losing faith in Phoenix, a victim of ill-managed city planning.
Phoenix was once hailed as a model city. It grew fast. Its streets were new and shiny, and housing was cheap. Beginning in 1950, the National Civic League voted Phoenix an “All-American City” four times. In 1993 an international competition rated Phoenix, along with Christchurch, New Zealand, the world’s best-governed city. Forbes recently ranked it as America’s second-best job market, thanks to its buoyant property market and rapid urban growth. In the past five years metropolitan Phoenix’s population has grown by almost a fifth, to over 4m.
But in the past few years the awards have mostly dried up and things have started to go wrong. Burglary, theft and car crime are among the highest in the country. Newcomers who left Los Angeles to avoid smog and commuter traffic find that both are little better in Phoenix, and the area scores embarrassingly low in national education ratings. In October the Morgan Quitno Press, a research group, credited Arizona with the worst public education in the country, thanks to overcrowded classrooms, poor test scores and low salaries for teachers. Why the decline?
Kristin Koptiuch, an associate professor of anthropology at Arizona State University (ASU), thinks one problem is that minorities are being locked out of government and city planning, which then saps the area of the ethnic neighbourhoods that give structure to Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Phoenix’s Native-American art shops and taco restaurants offer pockets of variety, but generic food chains such as International House of Pancakes and Pizza Hut still dominate. The property market is white-dominated too, Ms Koptiuch says, with its suburbs policed by homeowners’ associations which insist on a certain uniformity of style. Latinos make up one-third of Phoenix’s population, but from the outside appearance of the place you wouldn’t know it.
Scott Decker, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU, cites methamphetamines smuggled in from Mexico as a prime cause of rising crime. But the larger problem is that rapid urban growth has overwhelmed existing prisons, courts, defence lawyers and police. Phoenix’s newcomers are largely “snowbirds” (people avoiding the cold weather up north), sports fans and Californians; their frequent absences and lack of knowledge of their own area make their properties easy prey. “Policing Phoenix has become very hard,” Mr Decker notes.
Locals also moan that Phoenicians are becoming more antisocial. Patricia Gober, the author of a book called “Metropolitan Phoenix: Place Making and Community Building in the Desert”, says this is because everyone has come from somewhere else. Without a shared history, she says, people feel no sense of place. Throw in scorching summers and a lack of public spaces, and the environment becomes antagonistic.
City planners are aware of all this and are trying to help. They promise the light-rail construction work will end soon (which should please Mr Zistatsis), are campaigning against meth, and are planning ten new schools for international study. But Phoenix’s growing pains seem unlikely to end any time soon.