A recent Travel + Leisure readers’ poll paints an unkind portrait of Phoenix. Are we really that boring and backward?
The good news: We Valley folk are neither as dirty nor as fat as our counterparts in New Orleans, Las Vegas and Atlanta. The bad: Our theater scene sucks, and our fashion sense makes Memphis look like Milan.
Relax, angry-email-writer: Those aren’t our assessments. They come from our colleagues at Travel + Leisure magazine, which recently asked its well-traveled readers to grade 35 American cities for hospitality, quality of dining, climate and other lifestyle metrics. The magazine’s “America’s Favorite Cities” survey included 56 categories, touching on everything from “tech savvy” to “friendliness” to “ethnic food” – a detailed mosaic of urban character and visitability.
Though hardly scientific, the rankings – based on an online survey of an unspecified number of travelers who may have visited a given city only once in their lives – were illuminating. First, they reinforced one thing we already know about Phoenix: People love our winter weather. The Valley finished in the top 10 in four best-time-to-visit categories: Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Winter and Valentine’s Day. (Not surprisingly, we finished dead last as a 4th of July destination, trailing even that bastion of American patriotism: San Juan, Puerto Rico.)
So how did we fare in non-climate-related categories? In a word: crap-tastically. Out of 35 cities, Phoenix/Scottsdale consistently scored in the bottom five for people-appeal, including diversity (33), intelligence (31), off-beat charm (33) and civic pride (35). Our dining scene was similarly drubbed, receiving unappetizing marks for cafés (31), pizza (28), hamburgers (30) and street food (32). Our flea markets? For the dogs, according to Travel + Leisure readers. Our people-watching? Unsightly.
And it wasn’t just outsiders who jumped on the Phoenix-bashing bandwagon. Often, the low marks were mirrored by Valley residents themselves in a locals-only survey. (Example: Both visitors and residents ranked the Valley 31st for classical music.) There were a few extreme disparities. For instance, visitors ranked Phoenix/Scottsdale 33rd for wireless coverage, while residents ranked it 13th. Note to out-of-towners: Stop trying to text on top of Camelback Mountain.
It would probably be healthiest simply to dismiss the Travel + Leisure survey as an amusing but meaningless diversion. But a nagging voice in our head asks: Are we really that boring and backward? Things have seemed so good lately. Our team went to the Super Bowl. We finally got one of those movie theaters that serves beer. Radiohead came to town. Could we possibly be the surly, arts-deprived, cellularly-deluded eaters-of-bad-pizza the magazine’s readers say we are?
We placed several of the most provocative categories under the cold, unflinching gaze of journalistic inquiry to find the answer.
INTELLIGENCE: 31st out of 35
Nobody likes being called dumb, but that was precisely the implication when Travel + Leisure readers wedged us between Las Vegas (30th) and Orlando (32nd) on the not-so-smart index. (Vegas? Ouch.) An observation: There’s a pronounced latitudinal bias when it comes to perceived “smart cities.” The top 10 is dominated by northern towns like Seattle (1st), Minneapolis/St. Paul (2nd) and Boston (3rd) – frigid outposts where the residents clearly have nothing better to do during the long, interminable winters than bury their noses in Derrida and calculus proofs. Meanwhile, we desert-dwellers binge on back episodes of Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. As if. (Even Houston, ground zero for the U.S. space program and home to who-knows-how-many NASA wonks, rated no better than 23rd.)
Paul Beaulieu isn’t buying it. As the head of Greater Phoenix Mensa, Beaulieu measures intelligence, promotes it, celebrates its many forms and manifestations – and he’s convinced the Valley “is one of the most intelligent places in the country.” He points to an emerging bio-tech industry led by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen). He praises a diverse intellectual climate fed by out-of-state retirees and seasonal residents. Most of all, he sees applied intelligence in abundance. “The Greeks were really good at philosophy and the arts,” he analogizes. “They were beautiful writers and poets... and gave the world mathematical structures and innovation in many fields. And then the Romans came along and made it practical and ruled the world. Because they could apply it. That’s what we have in Phoenix – the application of intelligence. California buys its energy from us. We tamed the desert. We build and build. That’s what we do. We have great practical intelligence but perhaps not as much in [the] way of innovation.”
And how about this: Arizona’s rate of one Mensa member per 5,288 residents totally clobbers Texas’ 6,042. Houston, maybe you do have a problem.
OFFBEAT: 33rd out of 35
“I’m a normal guy with a weird mind,” Lance Greathouse says. Known for his flame-throwing barbecue-grill conversions, 4WD wheelchairs, machine-gun-mounted robots and other mutant creations, the Phoenix-based industrial artist and guerilla engineer says the Valley has more than its fair share of free-thinking misfits. “Not as many as San Francisco, mind you,” he stipulates, name-checking the survey’s 5th-ranked city. “But if you start digging, you’ll always find something. And I would say we have a wider range of weird. In San Francisco, it’s Burning Man weird. In L.A., it’s Hollywood weird. We’ve got some of that, plus Good Ol’ Boy weird.”
Greathouse, who operates Greathouse Labs out of his north Valley home, notes something else about the Travel + Leisure list: It seems to conflate “liberal” with “offbeat.” The top five offbeat cities are New Orleans; Santa Fe; Austin; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco – lefty strongholds, all. That unfairly short-changes the conservative crowd. Is not Sheriff Joe – the jailer who famously attired his inmates in pink underwear – “offbeat”? Or Lori Klein, the state lawmaker and gun-rights stalwart who playfully pointed a loaded gun at an Arizona Republic reporter – isn’t she offbeat?
We’ve also got the Idiotarod race and the annual No Pants AZ Light Rail Ride – a day in January in which participants enjoy Phoenix public transit without pants. Pure insanity.
ARCHITECTURE/COOL BUILDINGS: 34th out of 35
The fact that Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked in the Valley for more than 20 years – leaving behind much tangible evidence of his genius, including Taliesin West and the design school that bears his name – would alone seem to give us an architectural leg up on Lincoln Log metropolises like Salt Lake City and Atlanta. Not so, according to the survey. The only city we beat: radically nondescript Anchorage.
Former ASU architecture dean John Meunier, a Harvard- and Cambridge-trained educator who currently works as a professor at the university, insists the ranking is wildly off the mark. According to Meunier, the Valley’s ungainly geography simply makes local architecture harder to appreciate. “The problem is we have a very dispersed city,” he says. “There’s wonderful architecture here. Taliesin West is a world masterpiece. Paolo Soleri is very important in the Valley. We have a group of [designers] admired nationally, including Will Bruder. We have a parade of wonderful libraries, and many fantastic mid-century historic structures. But you have to be an aficionado to appreciate this stuff because it’s so dispersed.”
Meunier points to the city’s 1988 bond initiative as an important turning point for Phoenix urban design. The bond sale created funding for a flurry of transformative Downtown development, including the Arizona Science Center, Burton Barr Central Library, and Phoenix Theatre. “I would say [the Valley] is at least as fortunate with architecture as Seattle,” he says, name-checking the list’s 14th most architecturally-endowed city.
Phoenix might have migrated to the forefront of America’s architectural cities, Meunier says, had former Mayor Terry Goddard not run for Arizona governor in 1990. As mayor, Goddard organized an international contest to design a Downtown convention center that solicited entries from some of the world’s top design luminaries. But when he abdicated his mayoralty to run for governor, the project collapsed – along with the many design projects Meunier believes would have accompanied it. “It was one of the great tragedies of recent history,” he says. “We certainly haven’t had that kind of political leadership since Terry left. We were on track to be a 21st-century Chicago, but the ball was firmly dropped.”
PIZZA: 28th out of 35
We’ll concede that local street food (32nd) is underserved – rigid and wrong-headed zoning laws continue to bedevil the food truck industry. And our improving ethnic food scene (27th) could use a Burmese-bistro booster-shot or two. But pizza? Need we remind Travel + Leisure’s learned readers that Phoenix is home to Pizzeria Bianco, declared “America’s best pizza” by no less an authority than Oprah Winfrey? Along with Cibo, The Parlor, Humble Pie and Federal Pizza, this fact catapults Phoenix past the likes of Memphis (20th), Nashville (17th) and Las Vegas (14th) on the awesome-pie-index. We’re nouveau-pizza pimps.
The survey also consigned Phoenix/Scottsdale to 25th in fine dining. Preposterous. Our stable of James Beard Award-winners alone (eight and counting – Kevin Binkley still hasn’t won, which is slightly insane) puts us way ahead of Kansas City and Honolulu (three James Beard winners each) – both of which placed higher. Once again, blame our sprawl for the poor showing; the 45-mile divide between Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak and Michael O’Dowd’s five-diamond Kai – to randomly pick a pair of Valley dining gems – obviously outmatched the survey participants’ culinary depth-perception.
STYLE: 27th out of 35
“I think this list is mostly bogus,” Phoenix fashionista Kristy Roschke says after getting an eyeful of the Travel + Leisure style rankings. Despite its reputation as a high-end retail fashion destination, Phoenix/Scottsdale somehow finds itself sandwiched between Kansas City and Portland on the list – and not even the good Portland. Portland, Maine.
To a style-minded soul like Roschke – co-creator of the Valley-based website styletutor.net – the ranking beggars belief. Unless, of course, barbecue-spattered khakis and lobster bibs become all the rage in Paris this season. And here comes Kate Upton here at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, ravishing in flared rubber fisherman boots and a formless wool pullover by Valentino. Mmm. Quintessential Portland style.
Roschke name-checks fashion-forward haberdashers like Jam and Bunky Boutique as evidence of the Valley’s style eminence. “Anybody who spends more than 30 minutes [in the Valley] knows that we’re more fashionable than folks in the Midwest,” says Roschke, who grew up in Missouri and remembers the Kohl’s-frequenting “sweater and jean folk” who defined local style. “And I can’t imagine that Portland, Maine has anything along the lines of Scottsdale Fashion Week.”
The Phoenix-based educator acknowledges the Valley has “style issues,” i.e. the “Tommy Bahama and flip-flops crowd” and “a fair amount of the Scottsdale bar look,” but believes the poor Travel + Leisure ranking is a byproduct of other issues. “I think we get dung for lacking diversity. And that’s fair because we’re not diverse. But it makes people overlook what Phoenix does have to offer – not just in terms of style and fashion, but also other areas like culture and intelligence. All they see is SB 1070 and bringing guns into bars.”
Such controversies have corrupted the average American’s view of Arizona, Roschke says. She scoffs at the notion that Seattle, which won top marks for “friendliness” in the survey, is demonstrably more friendly than Phoenix/Scottsdale, which placed 28th. “I’ve been to Seattle and frankly found them kind of sullen. Like, if you don’t have piercings and tattoos, you’re not worth their time.”
WILD WEEKEND: 28th out of 35
We’ll admit: This one kind of stings. Ask Charles Barkley, Vince Vaughn, DMX, Mark Grace or any of the high-profile people pulled over for suspected impairment in the Valley how hard it is to have a “wild weekend” in greater Phoenix. To be clear: We’re not glorifying DUIs. But c’mon. Along with our 30th ranking for “singles/bar scene,” it mystifies us.
“As far as bar scenes go, we’re definitely in the Top 10,” says former East Valley Tribune nightlife writer Kelly Wilson, who’s traveled and soiree’d extensively. “And a lot of that is Old Town Scottsdale. You’ve got laid-back bars. You’ve got the DJ scene. You’ve got live music and clubs. There’s something for everyone in Old Town. And it’s all packed into a small radius, so you can bar-hop on foot.”
Here’s how ridiculous this ranking is: Anchorage, Alaska – a city that bases its “wildness” index on how many moose-sightings one can rack up over a given weekend – beat us by five spots.
CIVIC PRIDE: 35th out of 35
This one might have been called “Biggest Inferiority Complex.” Granted, the ranking is based on out-of-state opinions, but even our in-state ranking was alarmingly low at No. 30.
Phoenix-bashing pundits have played a role. Renegade culture critic Hunter S. Thompson once wrote: “If there is, in fact, a heaven and hell, all we know for sure is that hell will be a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix – a clean and well-lighted place full of sunshine and bromides and fast cars where almost everybody seems vaguely happy, except those who know in their hearts that something is missing.” Recently, TV funnyman Jon Stewart called Arizona the “meth lab of democracy.”
Maybe the problem is that Phoenicians too often read their own press. Sure, Phoenix is too young to have attired itself in urban amenities like really historic buildings or rich stores of culture and fine dining. But that’s changing. You’ll find the evidence every month in this magazine. Look, we’re no San Francisco when it comes to food and freakiness. We’ll always lag several sartorial seasons behind New York. Seattle roasts us in the coffee department, and Boston would probably smoke us at Scrabble. But nor are we Detroit – which, incidentally, wasn’t featured in the survey. And we excel in outdoor activities, laid-back lifestyle, natural desert beauty and cost of living. The bottom line: You win some, you lose some. And we’re OK with that.