Ranking lists are generally silly notions. They miscast our sense of history and culture by trying to cleave out some hierarchy of persons, events, or contributions of a society or locale in general. But, nevertheless they are popular marketing techniques to sell magazines and commercial time on VH1. I find it is more convenient to cluster a variety of categories that may not be in the same genre, but certainly interconnect in any given environment. It is legitimate to say that Phoenix in 2011 has had a unique metamorphosis in cultural and social events that have allowed the city to become more centralized. This transformation was certainly facilitated by the housing crisis that pushed people to either leave Arizona or start to think seriously about lifestyle. More and more, people are starting to measure happiness not by their material status, but by the quality of their life experiences. Phoenix has begun to provide a cornucopia of options, not that these options were not there before. But, now Phoenicians are starting to take stock of what the city has to offer and entrepreneurs and community leaders are starting to provide more options. One common factor for many of these milestones has certainly been the continued appreciation of the light rail. It is no accident that many of the new cultural opportunities downtown have been occurring along the path of the light rail corridor. So, the following are an unranked collection of milestones that have made a certain shift in the cultural life of the downtown and the opportunities for The Valley at large.
The Crescent Ballroom
If you wanted to see a show of the latest indie bands that did not have the following of Lady Gaga or Radiohead, you would have to commute to The Marquee or The Clubhouse in Tempe. However, Charles Levy, the owner of Stateside Presents, has created a cultural tour de force on Van Buren and Second Ave that is as central as you can get. Over the last few months, Iron and Wine, M83, and Phantogram have played at The Crescent providing a venue that is equally accessible to all valley residents. No longer can Tempe monopolize venues that often cater to college crowds alone. The Crescent provides an experience that can be experienced by all ages in addition to ASU students who can travel to The Crescent on the light rail. It has drawn concert goers attention to the blooming cultural life of restaurants and bars that are opening regularly. The Crescent also boasts a wonderful restaurant itself with Cocina 10 that is assisted by Chris Bianca of Pizza Bianca. The Crescent is continuing a trend of restaurant venues that provide for general admission that allows for an intimate experience with your favorite band.
When considering the very thought of “Brew and Views”, you would think of Portland, Seattle, or at the very closest, Salt Lake. But, now Kelly Aubey has broken ground with Phoenix’s very own Film Bar. There are many categories of Brew and Views, but Film Bar provides a club going ambience to clothe the movie going experience for the Phoenix cineaste who is interested in independent, foreign, and classic films. You can order any number of local brews and enjoy a film while imbibing. It began to screen new independent films and will continue to get the best of independent film into the downtown area that has been neglected by many of the large theatre chains. Kelly Aubey has done a magnificent job filling in that vacuum and has made a welcome addition to film culture. If anyone wants to see most independent films, you would have driven to Scottsdale to the Camelview. Now, the avid west and central Phoenix film goer can wait for it to come to Film Bar and watch it there without the commute.
It is difficult to really place a Bourbon or a Beale Street in Phoenix. Many might argue Roosevelt Row between Grand and 7th Street. However, if one walks between Thomas and McDowell on 16th Street, one will be surprised by the uniquely cultural identity that only the Southwest can offer. There are a growing list of wonderful Mexican grocery stores and restaurants with genuine Mexican cuisine. It boasts one of the premiere Mexican restaurants in the valley named La Condesa that has the most delicious burritos you will ever eat. In addition to this, there is the art gallery known as The Bee Hive that houses art collectives as well as the vintage store The Bee’s Knees. Not to mention, there is the Barrio Cafe and a new coffee house named The White Sage along 16th Street. It also features a growing movement of mural art that is beginning to emerge on the outside walls of Phoenix businesses everywhere. These murals are becoming quite the feature and another unique aspect of the downtown, but 16th Street is at the forefront of the mural movement in Phoenix. At first glance, many xenophobes may witness this area as a heavily ethnic area that they do not belong in. Well, if that is your fear, then you might be right in your own context. However, just because there is a flexscreen sign over a business and Spanish language signs hanging up, does not mean you don’t have a place there. It indicates that businesses are growing and doing it from the bottom up. As bars and restaurants continue to open, this 16th Street stretch will be a unique feature of the city and one that will be a major tourist attraction for diners and art lovers of a Southwest experience.
Phoenix Ale Brewery
You can go to any city to find a multitude of local craft beers, but Phoenix has been lacking in options. The primary brewer of craft beer in Arizona has been welcomely Four Peaks, however a new brewer has opened this year and the ale is sweetly flowing from its spigots. The Phoenix Ale Brewery started production under the stewardship of Greg Fretz and the Godfather of Craftbrewing George Hancock who came out of Pyramid Breweries. They have created a unique selection of local brews with a local pride invested in them, most notably The Camelback India Pale Ale. Their I.P.A. is starting to flow throughout restaurants and bars in the valley, not to mention its Watermelon Wheat. Similar to the Sand Diego Beer Revolution in the 90′s, Phoenix is beginning to develop its own craft brewing identity. The Phoenix Ale Brewery has a larger tasting room as of November and the best time to go is between 3 and 7 PM when food trucks serve food that you can have with your brews.
Gnosis Architectural Tour
A unique experience that provided for venture into the unknown was The Architects Home tour sponsored by Gnosis in cooperation with Taliesin West. Certainly not all of the homes lend themselves to a practical living experience that is even affordable. However, there are a few dwellings that were well worth the tour that provided for visits into neighborhoods like the Garfield and Coronado District. Indeed, the tour allowed for viewers to get a new appreciation of unique areas of the city and have a broader sense of their communities and local businesses. At the same time, many of the spaces particularly the work by Derek Pasieka’s 300M demonstrates the ability to live downtown affordably with local services. The downtown movement that is being led by entrepreneurs is going to be dependent on access to affordable housing that is not on either the very high-end or the low-end. Architects like Derek Pasieka and Lila Cohen are demonstrating that it is possible and can be done with existing structures without having to scrape and rebuild. Lila Cohen and her partner Teina Manu took 425 square foot home and was able to convert into an object of art for less than $5 a square foot. As it stands, Phoenix consists of 40% empty or dark spaces that invite the New Urbanist to enter these areas and do something new with it. Certainly, not everyone can be expected to live downtown, but the perception of downtown as a habitable, walkable, and safe living area alone is an important accomplishment.
Annual Strong Beer Festival
After being located in Mesa for nearly a decade, over the past two years the Arizona Brewer’s Guild has made the move downtown. This year saw the festival enter Steele Indian Park near Central and Indian School. Although, it was a rainy event this last February, it is coming back to the park bringing a growing list of national breweries including Arizona’s own. In the year of the centennial, Arizona can have some pride with an additional social event that provides for community bound by a pint. Once more, beer festivals may seem like something that the Northwest of the United States has monopolized. But. Arizona now can boast its own driven by breweries like Four Peaks and Phoenix Ale Brewery for Phoenicians and Arizonans at large to come together.
Zombie Walk 2011
The primary drive for the downtown have been events and festivals that businesses can benefit from directly like The Art Walk. The Zombie Walk 2011 saw its largest turnout in its third year. It represented the ability for the city and law enforcement officials to cooperate in a positive way for an event that could be potentially problematic. However, The Zombie Walk proved the ability to draw residents from around the valley to celebrate together, albeit a touch in cheek event. However, whenever an event with this draw can get people to the downtown area, the Zombie Walk would be a model success for other events. This is why it would behoove other events like music festivals, sporting events, or the Phoenix Film Festival to seek downtown as the hub for their events.
Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver Co-Headlining
Phoenix was able to play host to a unique single event this year that took place nowhere else. Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and The Walkmen performed together at the Comerica Theatre for a collection that proved to be a mini-music festival. This concert was the most amazing sets of music that the city saw in one place and only Phoenix was able to experience. In addition, if you were able to get tickets early enough, you could have entered the “general admission” experience that Comerica prepared in the front that reflected Comerica’s recognition of new general admission venues like The Crescent Ballroom or The Compound Grill. Although, Fleet Foxes had come earlier in the year to Tuscon at the Rialto, but they returned to continue to tour their new album Hopelessness Blues. This was only doubled by Bon Iver’s performance after the Fleet Foxes and overwhemed the croud with renditions that were organic and used no electronic backups. What you hear on the album by both performers is what you get on the album and it was a sumptuous experience.
Bird on Fire
Can anyone say platitudes? Not that I am not a guilty of a few in my own life, but it becomes somewhat concerning when the author, Andrew Ross, in question does not live here. Having said that though, the book has become quite the center of attention out there in social media and enumerable editorials. It serves several purposes, it has historic angle that many can pull unique information from about Phoenix’s past, most notably the city could have been called Pumpkinville. Additionally, he brushed over a few interesting details about Phoenix and its horizontal spread, which is not the worse in the United States. As you read the book, it spotlights many of our PHX stars like Greg Esser of Roosevelt Row and narrates the story of much of the social activism of the last twenty years. The book has been touted by Phoenix’s newly elected mayor Greg Stanton and has become a center of serious conversation in Arizona’s centennial. Although the book exudes a presumptuousness about Phoenix and it’s residents, it starts a very important discussion about what Phoenix will look like and avoiding past mistakes of real estate, environmental damage, and reviving central Phoenix as a cultural beacon for the rest of the Southwest.