If I Go, There Will Be Trouble

Things happen in threes, right?

Veni, Vidi, and Vici. Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, then Michael Jackson. You get the point.

I often say that we are experiencing something special in Phoenix. A tipping point. That when we look back on the turn of the 21st Century we will see a time of unbridled innovation and leading edge creativity coupled with disciplined growth in infrastructure and sound policy-making. My friend thinks I’m crazy. He says that Phoenix has always been, and will always be, at that tipping point.

I disagreed, until this week.

In three different conversations this week, three different people said they were going to be leaving Phoenix in the near future. Things happen in threes, so I guess it’s time to write about it. One was going to Austin, Texas. Another to Seattle, Washington. And another to Denver, Colorado. All had different reasons for where they were landing, but everyone had the same reason for leaving:

“There’s nothing for me in Phoenix.”

The first time I shrugged it off, the second time I got defensive, and the third time I was just outright sad.

Before 1860, Paris was nothing. It wasn’t until then that The City of Lights invested in developing pedestrian activity along the Boulevards by embracing art, culture, and creativity. Before 1910, New York City was just another city. But because of its influx of people emigrating to a new country and a new way of life while holding on to the traditions of their own personal histories, New York became the bastion of “what’s next” in every field; art, music, business, and culture.

Now, think about Phoenix:

Developing infrastructure? Check. With numbers far surpassing expectations, Phoenix now has a successful public transportation system. A fantastic start, at least. Business development along the rail line is booming, and the community is calling for extensions in every direction.

Immigration? Check. Phoenix carries the honorable distinction of being a “majority-minority” city – meaning that over half of our population is made up of people who are not White. It means more than that, though. Namely, that we are provided with a unique opportunity to learn from a myriad of cultures, backgrounds, and experiences.

So where does that leave us? Right, the tipping point. But I’m learning that we don’t have the necessary ingredient to push ourselves to the next level: people who care we’re at the tipping point.

I get it, now. Our chance to get on the other side of civic adolesence leaves on a daily basis.
Our leadership boasts that we are the 5th largest city in the nation and that in 20 years we will climb the list to be the 3rd largest behind New York and Los Angeles. Yet people leave Phoenix every day for Austin, Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, or Portland – taking with them their energy, talent, and ingenuity.

Being a large city is great, but I think it’s important to know that Detroit was the fastest growing city in 1954. Maybe instead of focusing on bringing in new people, we should figure out how to keep the ones we have…

  • There are only so many times you can kick a person when she’s down before she has to start to wonder? WHY THE HELL AM I STAYING HERE?
    I love your passion for my hometown, Sam. I really do. That said, I cannot do this any more. Those of us who think Russell Pierce and Joe Arpaio are crazy are in the minority. Those of us who think Mexicans standing on street corners looking for work deserve fair treatment are in the minority. Those of us who think it is more important to improve our healthcare and education systems (consistently ranking worst nationally) in lieu of spending more money on sports arenas are in the minority.
    I have fought for this city for 30 years.
    I’m done.

  • Take Heart Sam! Many are leaving, but there is a chorus of small voices who love this place, it’s history and it’s potential, and this chorus will gain momentum if we continue to nurture it. Lets continue encouraging each other, spreading the news of the great things happening in this city, and the opportunities to be part of it’s growth. You’ve seen JP’s http://www.localfiend.com right?

  • Kelli – can you at least make brownies before you go? I heard they’re really, really good. 😉

    I’m still trying to figure out who runs this state and what their thought process is. Our governments clamor every day to try and lure big companies to Phoenix, yet they consistently ignore home-grown shops. They want another Silicon Valley, yet conveniently ignore that SV built from within, they didn’t lure anyone anywhere.

    We refuse to spend money on education and then wonder why blue collar workers (not necessarily a bad thing, but not great for huge growth) are such a large part of our workforce. Just yesterday at the CityScape unveiling Gov Brewer and Mayor Gordon were going on and on about all the construction and retail jobs the building would provide. GOOD FLIPPIN’ JOB PEOPLE. Those jobs pay less than $20/hr and don’t grow much.

    I’m convinced the people running things have A) never live anywhere else and B) went to schools funded by AZ money.

  • I wouldn’t say that “Phoenix now has a successful public transportation system” just because we have one static Lightrail route. Yes, it is a good start, but just a start. I live in North Phoenix. Can I get downtown easily and conveniently using public transportation? No way.

    Looking at the new businesses that have opened and are planning to open downtown, I think we’re on the right track for creating a better downtown destination. I can only stay positive and hope that the city will evolve into a greater community that will attract and keep more creative and innovative people engaged and content with living here.

  • I don’t buy it. beard is too impatient. There are plenty who care, but maybe we aren’t loud enough to be heard. it didn’t take a couple years for Phoenix to fall, and it won’t take it a mere couple of years to rise. It’s a process, and it will take awhile. The bare bones are there. it takes all of us who DO care to do what we can, where we can, and try to urge people to not just quit and leave, but help build it up… to what it can become.

    Some people don’t have the patience or the stomach for it. Fair enough. But I didn’t start a business downtown because I thought I would immediately profit and things would be all rosy immediately. I did it because I wanted to help local artists and I wanted to help all the good people down here on Roosevelt row and Grand Avenue build something special. In the five years I’ve been down there on 3rd St, at Red Dog Gallery I’ve seen incredible changes.

    the folks who have been down here for decades, the true pioneers, have seen so much more, good and bad. I am incredibly optimistic for the future. … but also realistic about what can happen and how long it might take, and what we may have to lose in gaining our future. Edison once said that success is 10% inspiration and 90 % perspiration… or as Woody Allen said, 80% of success is just showing up. Corny, but true. you can’t succeed if you don’t show up. you can’t succeed if you don’t work. or if you quit. or leave.
    I’m not buying that the best and the brightest are leaving in droves. Sure, some are. But plenty are still here, hanging on by their fingernails, tending their gardens, still working and still showing up.

  • I wonder if the issue is that Arizona has problems, or that Arizonans would rather leave than fix them.

    Instead of jumping the fence to where the grass looks greener, at least a handful of locals have recently opted turn on the sprinklers and water the lawn that we already have. That’s given me a lot of encouragement in the last few years, and that movement is gaining significant momentum.

    It’s a tiny minority of people willing to sacrifice to turn this state around — instead of just heading for another city where’s someone’s already done the hard work for them — but those people are out there, and they’re doing great things.

    I’m not in Arizona for the 99% of people who complain about the state but never lift a finger to do anything about it. I’m here for the 1% who are getting off their butts and actually doing something. They make it worth staying, and I’ve already seen amazing changes here as a result of their efforts.

  • Sam Feldman

    Interesting point – but plenty of evidence proves the opposite point. We still have a significant influx of new residents, even as we lose others. I’ve always thought that someone with “energy, talent, and ingenuity” would create their own community, or join the communities that currently exist. Detroit is an interesting analogy – but Phoenix is not dependent on one industry like Detroit was for automobiles. I think my main problem with people that leave is that they think Phoenix can or should become a Portland, New York, Austin, etc. Shouldn’t we focus on building our own identity instead of attempting to mimic others’ identities? If their goal differs, if they would be happier in those other cities, that’s ok. We will sincerely miss their talent and effort for this city, but we will continue here. And there are plenty of people with energy, talent and ingenuity left in Phoenix that still have hope for a better Phoenix. That’s who we should be focusing on – not trying to keep the ones who want to leave.

  • A large force of will and intention would need to come from leadership for your tipping point, Sam.
    Phoenix was a great place to live for the greed decade when people pored in to buy big, ugly box homes with no money down and drove giant SUVs to get their nails done. Those days are done. Expansion of light rail has been canceled, constructions jobs gone dry, newcomers losing their boom-related jobs and all upside-down on the homes they purchased. Now, ASU is proud of a new plan to graduate a semi-educated population in three years, our leaders refuse to make the decisions that would allow us to educate K-12 to even get into these 3-yr colleges, and a ‘creative class’ leaving because they’re just tired of waiting for Phoenix to realize its own treasures.

    I have my fingers crossed that the next generation (you!) will take over soon enough to stop this bullet train of bad jobs, bad politicians, bad bad bad sheriff, bad funding of important initiatives and just plain bad ideas from shutting the town down. Of course, you need to work fast because we may be out of water before you have a chance to create the culture change needed to save the city.

  • Josh

    You bring up some good points… it is always a predicament when you need people to create something really meaningful and you need something meaningful to draw people in. I am experiencing a similar thing where I work. RN Pathways is trying to create a confidential space where nurses can network with other nurses (only nurses). I has the potential to be a really awesome resource for nurses across the country… the kicker is that it takes a lot of nurses getting involved and conversing/participating to make it work. So, I think that it helps to look at the examples you brought into the conversation (Paris, New York) and try to embody what those cities did/do right: culture. This takes a lot more participation than most Phoenix residents are used to (after all, how did we let our education system go down the drain???), but definitely possible. Keep writing Sam!

  • Sam,

    Thank you for raising this issue which such honesty! As someone who has been on both sides of that conversation, it can be a tough place to be; either hearing a friend might move away from the city you love or, being the one saying you just don’t know if Phoenix is the place you want to live.

    Now keep in mind, I believe, like you, that Phoenix is a great city. Phoenix is rich with emerging leaders who are working to make Phoenix Metro, and our state, vibrant for everyone. And for every “emerging leader”, there are a host of nonprofit, public, or business sector executives who have been working hard for years on making Phoenix great.

    And, keep in mind, there are a great many families who have lived here for generations. And there are lot of people who are quite happy living here, I know lots of them! Not everyone talks about what’s missing in Phoenix.

    As for me, after 7 years of living here, and growing here, I can’t see our family leaving anytime soon. I think Phoenix will be a great place to raise Omar. There is so much for Omar and our family to do. Personally, I love Phoenix because I can drive 15 minutes from my front door to South Mountain Park, where I can ride any one of dozens of trails for miles in the open desert.

    But I have had my doubts. Many times I wondered if I wanted to stay living here forever. Or at least for a long while. I, with others I know, have spent time asking “Is Phoenix the right place for me?”.

    The funny thing is, most of the people talking about leaving really like Phoenix. They have a hard time with wanting to leave. It’s hard to say why Phoenix doesn’t catch the 20 – 30 something’s creative class in its grasp.

    And that’s sad. I would hate to see some of my close friends, who I have grown up with professionally, leave for other communities. I would give them all the support I could, but it would bum me out big time. I want to live in a community with friends around. Friends can hard to come by sometimes in our wired in generation. Sometimes we need to “wire out”!

    But I digress.

    So one practical idea: Phoenix needs a vibrant Light Rail corridor. We need to create a small business tax subsidy program for businesses operating within 1 mile of a Light Rail Line. Let’s create the longest corridor of locally owned small-businesses in the country, from one end of light rail to the other!

    If we create a tax incentive to build along Light Rail we would encourage business ownership by our residents. It creates local jobs, local products, and local investors. Businesses could be anything – bike taxis, coffee shops, software stores, grocery stores. You just have to be Arizona owned and operated.

    Phoenix has enough big box stores. The smaller your business income the larger percentage decrease in your taxes. But, it phases out after 5 years.

    And while we are at it, let’s create a tax discount for nonprofit organizations with operations within the light rail corridor. I like that =)

    Anyway, Sam, sorry for the ramble, you obviously hit a note with me. And, what I think we really need are more friendships and connections. Especially face to face – conversations, parties, volunteering. We need to all go hang out.

    So, if we want to push past that tipping point, and I believe we will, it will only happen when one or two of those three people Sam talked to decides to stay. Decides to put down roots, and work alongside others to make sure its a happy place to be.

  • I’m definitely in the optimistic camp on this one. Tyler is right about the lack of help we’re getting from government, but I look at it like this: Despite how city officials and planners seem to neglect helping small businesses (in fact, from what we hear from small business owners downtown, it often seems like the City is actively FIGHTING them), they’re still opening! And thriving! During all the downsizing and worry over CityScape, we’ve had several new restaurants and open downtown, and more are in the works.

    I think Sam is absolutely right: It’s about the people, all of us. It is up to US to push us over this hump once and for all. I have been so happy to find so many people who are passionate about our city, and it makes me so excited every time I talk to any one of you. It will grow, we just have to help it. We have to keep telling people why we love it here, and help them see what we see.

  • Oh and to the person that mentioned the identity crisis, the fact that we’re not Austin/SF/Seattle, etc…. I see that as a HUGE problem for Phoenix. When I list other big cities:

    New York
    San Francisco

    Each of those cities has a very specific identity associated with them. Even if you haven’t been there, you probably have an idea of what those cities are like, where they came from, what they’re about. I don’t think Phoenix has a “personality” that people across the country know about, and I know that we can’t make that happen, it will just take a while.

    At least people don’t think we’re the Wild West anymore though….

  • Let’s do lunch again Sam….Phoenician’s need to eat lunch more together I think.

  • The concept of a “tipping point” is one that I think is somewhat overstated. We live in a world in which so much is accomplished by committee that it’s really hard to attribute change to a specific person, time, or event. Our media news cycle may be fast, but real change is slow and gradual. Whatever changes improve our already good city will be realized over years, maybe even decades, and their impact may not be clear until long after they’ve occurred. Maybe there will be an identified tipping point, or maybe history will just seems like a series of gradual trends.

    As for those people who leave, I wouldn’t worry too much. If someone can’t have a positive, or at least neutral, attitude about where he or she lives, then it’s best to move on and not become a force of negativity. There will be plenty of newcomers to replace the departed soon enough, and many will come from the very cites you mention. At work, I’ve hired creative, educated people from all over the country. Relocation to Phoenix has seldom been a negative for them.

  • Aaron – I don’t think tax incentives will work. We shouldn’t FORCE businesses to build anywhere. I want businesses who are viable enough to survive without help.

    The city and the state need to stop trying to lure big businesses here, they should be investing in what we have. What was Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley? Nothing. Same with Mountain View, Redmond, etc. Build on what we have. Promote it.

  • MJFritz

    Small Business does not equal restaurants, just saying… A seperate debate but Phoenix lacks the unique “services” of small biz. There is no shortage of overpriced cafe-style dining in the city. We are a Walmart city that would be lost without the means to mass shop at large scale retail stores. Leaving little room for everday neighborhood needs. Small business is a diversity – – – that stretches beyond menu style.

  • Tyler and MJ, absolutely it’s small business support I am talking about. And, I am talking about supporting businesses of all kinds. You open a blogging office in my Light Rail Small Business Zone, and boom. You get a discount. You open condos or an apartment complex, and you are an Arizona Small Business owner, boom, you get a tax incentive.

    Bike shops, insurance agents, florists, clothing makers….I just think it would be cool to have that all built around and along Light Rail. You want urban density? Build it around public transportation. The whole length of light rail.

    That will make “Phoenix”, whatever anyone means by that, a stronger, small business focused economy, centralized on a 21st century public transportation system.

  • I feel your pain, Sam. In the last few years, the majority of the people who i once called “my community” have left or are planning to leave (some to Korea, some to San Fran, MOST to Bend, OR…). I find it hard to disagree with Kelli’s comment…Arizona is being run by people who are amongst the worst decision-makers/human beings i’ve ever seen or heard about in the country. I find myself asking, “This State/County/City does not represent me as a person, in any way.”

    One analogy i can make for Phoenix (and its past, present and future) is this one: When the Diamondbacks play the Cubs, Cardinals, Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox…even Brewers, the stadium is overrun with fans of those teams. They are better, more educated fans. They make fun of us for needing the Jumbotron to know when to cheer or for leaving in the 8th inning of a no-hitter (as they did when Curt Schilling took one into the 8th back in the day) or for needing Rallybacks, Game Hosts or incessant promotions where even the starting lineup has corporate sponsorship. The hometown fans looks dumb and the whole process reeks of insincerity. When i talk to those fans, they live, work, play and raise their families in Arizona, but their hearts are elsewhere and they never buy in to what Phoenix is, because the whole thing looks insincere and doesn’t represent them.

    I think that is indicative of the trouble this city has, from top to bottom. Our politicians live and work here, but their hearts (and brains) are elsewhere. Same goes for our workers, be they blue-collar, white-collar, or Mexican. The natives of Phoenix (all 7 of them) and the people who are committed to this town, much like the D-Backs fans, can struggle mightily to cheer their hometown and be heard, but in the end, the Cubs fans win.

    I’ve lived in Phoenix for 24 years, and more and more, i fear that the only thing keeping me around is lethargy.

  • Steve

    For the first few years when you went to a D-backs game, you never saw anyone wearing team clothes. It was mostly Suns stuff. PHX warms slowly, and only warms to winners.