Trendy Arcadia combines the best qualities of Scottsdale and Phoenix – while leaving out the bad stuff. No wonder all of East Phoenix is trying to claim it.

The Arcadia Chronicles

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Lifestyle Issue: January 2017
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A sense of déjà vu comes over you when driving through Arcadia. Maybe it’s because we recognize the East Phoenix neighborhood’s ranch-style homes and grandfatherly trees from the screen. “Arcadia is a very heavily filmed neighborhood,” says Philip Bradstock of the Phoenix Film Office. “A lot of it’s because it looks like Anywhere, USA.”

Maybe that’s it: Arcadia resembles the suburbia of our dreams. Neon green lawns stretch languidly around homes with lipstick-red doors and periwinkle shutters. A little boy wobbles on a new bicycle, past tree branch swings. Fairy lights droop over a road like a jump rope held between the arms of an ancient Aleppo pine and an old olive tree.

Or maybe that’s it: Arcadia evokes fairy tales. One turreted mansion gives the impression its owner will gallop up on a white horse and climb a woman’s hair. Becky Chandler, an assistant baker at Pie Snob near 44th Street and Campbell Avenue, says when she peels apples in the “magical” kitchen, she half expects a unicorn to run past the windows. And that’s in Arcadia Lite – an area adjacent to the original neighborhood that’s mushrooming as more people capitalize on Arcadia’s cachet and seek the Arcadian dream.

But different dreams can clash with each other – preservation versus property rights, mid-century modern versus McMansions, the opening of a cultural icon versus its neighbors’ privacy. All that clashing, and the Arcadian Dream is in danger of disappearing.

Like Arizona, Arcadia was conceived around five (slightly different) Cs: Camelback Mountain, canals, citrus, climate and community. The first two shaped its eventual borders – Camelback Road south to the Arizona Canal, between 44th and (roughly) 68th streets.

Camelback Mountain became its signature centerpiece. “It’s the north on my compass,” says Missy Farr-Kaye, head coach of the ASU women’s golf team and lifelong Arcadian. “If I can see the mountain, I know I’m in my ’hood, and that means a lot to me.”

The mountain creates scenery and a mild microclimate ideal for the original developers’ dream. “Arcadia is to be the ‘Place Beautiful’ of Phoenix,” announced the Jordan & Grace real estate firm circa 1918. They hoped purchasers of the irrigable 5-acre lots would “engage in the growing of citrus fruits.”

They did. Orange groves still green the neighborhood and sweeten the memories of generations of Arcadians. Director Steven Spielberg, who spent part of his childhood here, pretended the fruits were baseballs while practicing pitching. Sarah Levi, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s great-great-granddaughter, visited her family here at the David and Gladys Wright House, where everyone had their own orange tree. One of her favorite memories is candying orange peels with her grandmother.

Each spring, the first whiff of the pungent white blossoms whisks resident Nancy Snowden to 1960s Arcadia, when she’d stroll to dance events at Arcadia High amid the sweet scent and run around barefoot eating fresh-picked citrus by the bagful. In those halcyon days, Snowden recalls, teens water-skied in the Arizona Canal, pulled by cars driving on the bank. She and her friends skimboarded in the irrigation on pieces of plywood – Arcadia’s answer to surfing. “That was the Beach Boys era,” she says. After moving away, Snowden returned in 1992 to find not much had changed: “Arcadia has always seemed to me to have a small-town feel, and still does.”

People run into childhood friends or neighbors while walking their dogs, shopping at Camelback Farmers Market and dining at long-lasting local establishments. When Denver chef Kevin Morrison was looking to bring his award-winning Tacos Tequila Whiskey to Arcadia, his broker told him, “You’ll never get in here. When [businesses] come here, they don’t leave.” Morrison got lucky; his restaurant is slated to open across from The Vig on Indian School Road and 40th Street this March.

Traci Wilbur, who runs Pie Snob in her backyard, credits the small-town feel for her success. “I’m pretty sure that if I’d stayed in Glendale and started this business there, I don’t think it would have been as popular... Everybody knows each other in this neighborhood, and it helps a lot.” So did publicity, she says, from the family-run Arcadia News and the 20-year-old Arcadia Fourth of July Parade.

This family-focused community spirit keeps people in Arcadia. Missy Farr-Kaye has resided her entire life within a five-minute radius. Her three sons went to the same grade school she did. “It’s been a great way to grow up in Phoenix in the same part of town,” she says, “watching how it’s changed and become a sort of hip and trendy place to live.”

The trendiness can be traced to popular eateries La Grande Orange and Postino WineCafe, which opened in 2002. More trailblazers followed, including The Vig and Beckett’s Table. All those places say they’re in Arcadia, though they’re actually in Arcadia Lite, defined by ArcadiaRealEstate.com as a rectangle extending from Camelback to Indian School roads, between 44th and 32nd streets. However, Wilbur says, “I think the definition has become a little bit looser because there are so many great restaurants and such cool places.”

Thanks to those cool places, Arcadia Lite’s commercial area combines the best of Old Town Scottsdale and Downtown Phoenix – fab food, indie shops, yoga studios – minus the former’s meat-market scene and the latter’s hipsterer-than-thou vibe. It also possesses something neither of those hotspots quite achieves: a communal culture that’s all about living the laid-back good life.

No wonder everyone’s jumping on the Arcadia bandwagon. When Wilbur moved to Arcadia Lite 15 years ago, old-timers wagged their fingers at anyone who called that area Arcadia. Now they don’t bat an eye. At a recent Arizona Republic Arizona Storytellers event, Dustin Hazer, co-owner of Helio Basin Brewing Co., joked that their 40th Street and Thomas Road location was at the edge of the “ever-expanding Arcadia” taking over Central Phoenix. Even some businesses outside Arcadia Lite are claiming the name, including Arcadia Ice Arena on 38th Street and Thomas and Arcadia Wellness Center on 28th Street and Camelback. The new-ish Arcadia Coves apartment complex is located well south of Thomas Road on 44th Street, almost to the I-10 freeway.

But the increasing popularity is bringing change –and tension – to utopia.

The essence of Arcadia – the elements that separate it from every other neighborhood in the Valley – is its views of Camelback Mountain coupled with its agrarian character. The very word “arcadian” means pastoral, after all. That’s why its original homes were meant to be modest in size, leaving room for spacious landscapes, and low-slung, allowing everyone to enjoy mountain views.

But Arcadia has no historic designation, so construction is loosely regulated. Drive around Arcadia, and you’ll see many graceful midcentury homes and thoughtful updates, lovingly landscaped. However, many classic Arizona-style homes have been razed and replaced with mansions that resemble European imports. They obstruct neighbors’ views of Camelback Mountain and overwhelm the lots at the expense of bucolic yards.

“Arcadia is so wonderful, it’s so beautiful, but its character is quickly eroding,” says Alison King, founder of architecture website Modern Phoenix. “I have heard concerns and complaints of two-story houses looking down into people’s backyards. They’re feeling that this wasn’t what they signed up for when they bought a one-story ranch house in a beautiful agricultural neighborhood.”

Through tours and education, King hopes to “encourage folks who love and appreciate their homes” to put them on the National Register of Historic Places or Phoenix Historic Property Register. Unfortunately, she says, “I have not had any luck with people in the strict definition of Arcadia to listen to that message in terms of preserving modernism… [But] the multi-family homes in Arcadia Lite are very interested in putting their homes on the register.”

King believes Arcadia will probably never be designated a historic neighborhood. Because of the tear downs, there’s too much architectural inconsistency. Plus, Proposition 207, a 2006 property rights initiative, put the onus on neighborhoods to historically designate themselves. And residents disagree on how much they want the government involved in property issues. “So it’s up to the citizens,” King says, “to willingly stand up for the culture they want to preserve.”

One place King is standing up for is Arcadia’s most famous – and controversial – house.

Swirling like a sprouting seed unfurling from the ground, the David and Gladys Wright House was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for his son David in 1950. After the Wrights died, the house fell into the hands of a developer who planned to demolish it. In 2012, Zach Rawling, a homebuilder and lawyer, bought the home for $2.4 million, saving it from the wrecking ball. His plan: open the house as a museum hosting educational programs, cultural events such as concerts, and a maximum of 12 weddings a year.

But many neighbors are protesting the museum, starting a petition on PreserveArcadia.com, which pleads, “Stop the madness!” They worry it will create traffic, parking problems, crowds and noise that will disturb Arcadia’s peaceful character and reduce property values.

Rawling, who grew up nearby and moved to Arcadia after buying the house, says, “We want our neighbors to have no awareness of the building unless they decide to step inside the gate and visit.” The house will be surrounded by 6 acres of open space and hundreds of mature trees, creating a visual and auditory buffer. The only public entrance is off Camelback Road; visitors will use an existing church parking lot. Rawling says that for a year, the house hosted weekday tours, plus occasional concerts or yoga sessions, and neighbors only knew about the events if they checked social media.

Rawling says the house is important because it unites the elements of Arizona’s and Arcadia’s stories: Camelback Mountain, climate, Hohokam canals, SRP canals, citrus groves, agriculture, sustainability in the desert. “It’s the entire history of the Valley in one place... This is a great point of departure for looking backward at the values and ideas that maybe should drive us going forward.”

Tours have ceased while Rawling restores the house, seeks an institutional partner and gets city approval. Meanwhile, questions remain. Could this house, now a point of contention, become a point of connection? Can Arcadia’s history and community be preserved? One can dream.

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