A converted home in central Phoenix offers a much-needed cultural exchange with international visitors.
You can’t see the house for the trees, but it’s there, nestled behind towering, well-coiffed greenery, its front yard transformed into an earthen amphitheater, where people perform everything from readings of banned plays to songs about the Mexico border. A well-trodden pathway leads to the brick house, home of the Phoenix Hostel & Cultural Center, which savvy travelers say is one of the best-kept secrets in the city.
Prominent metal band Rage Against the Machine played in the backyard a couple years ago. So did festival-headlining French music artist Manu Chao. French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux, who counts Radiohead singer Thom Yorke as one of her biggest fans, also stayed here. Museum-approved graffiti artist DOSE led a mural project on the property (see right).
Established in 1991, Phoenix Hostel & Cultural Center is something of an anomaly in a metro region well-equipped for mainstream visitors – 16 million annually, according the City of Phoenix – but less so for culturally-minded, low-budget global travelers. It’s one of only two hostels in the Valley – the other is Camel Backpackers Hostel near the Arizona State Fairgrounds – and the oldest hostel in the state. While other states boast multiple Hostelling International “accredited” hostels, including California (15) and New York (19), Phoenix Hostel is the only such operation in Arizona, subject to regular audits on everything from energy efficiency to cleanliness and safety. (Accreditation also ensures listing in the oft-consulted H.I. directory.)
While hostels are traditionally known as multi-bunk way stations for backpackers, PH & CC elevates itself with a strong socio-political bent and “cultural center” component, hosting nightly events ranging from backyard ping-pong to “teach-ins” about African-American activist Assata Shakur. The clientele further bucks stereotypes; instead of primarily hosting 20-something backpackers, the hostel also sees a large percentage of 45-and-older professionals. “We get some incredible elder guests that have just traveled the whole world,” hostel owner Mary Stephens says. “It’s a really special place. It really redefines the possibilities that you see for your own life.”
Stephens – who teaches cultural performance at ASU, where she’s a doctoral candidate in theater and politics – took over the hostel from her mother about three years ago and grew it from a simple, family-owned rest stop into a cross-cultural community center. She drew inspiration from Mexico City, where she’d spent some time at government-subsidized casas de cultura (culture houses), where young people gather in renovated buildings to read, watch theater, play music, drink wine and socialize. Her version of the casa de cultura has been so popular, the hostel will stay open during the summer this year, for the first time in more than a decade, Stephens says. Throughout the season, guests can go on daily, hostel-organized tours to places like Desert Botanical Garden and the Musical Instrument Museum. Stephens estimates the hostel’s annual guest count at around 3,000 people.
A private room at the Phoenix Hostel costs a mere $35 a night, and anybody can stay there. “It’s a small business. You don’t do it because you make a lot of money,” Stephens says. “We do it because we love to sit here with our guests and talk. The things that you learn, the things that you share, the intimacy – it’s the next-best thing to travel. When I’m not traveling, the world is coming through my door.”
1026 N. Ninth St., Phoenix, 602-254-9803, phxhostel.org