Sunday, November 5, 2000
Arizona Republic features Richard Grayson's State Lines column, "On Living Where There's No There"
The Arizona Republic today (Sunday, November 5, 2000) features a State Lines column by Richard Grayson, "On Living Where There's No There."
ON LIVING WHERE THERE'S NO THERE THERE
By Richard Grayson
A few weeks after moving to Arizona last spring, I was sitting in the café of a Valley megabookstore, staring out the window at the multiscreen theater and big-box stores on the other side of the shopping center. About to drive home, I fretted about the heavy traffic I'd be facing on the Florida Turnpike.
Then I noticed the mountains.
Shaken, I realized I was in the Ahwatukee Foothills and not in Boca Raton.
Less than a year away from official AARP-dom, I had just experienced my first "senior moment."
Upon further reflection, however, I recognized that my mistake was quite natural, considering I was in a "power center" which almost exactly resembled one I frequented near my former home in South Florida - down to the layout of the Barnes & Noble and the number of theaters (24) with stadium seating in the AMC megaplex.
Actually, everything was pretty much the same as in other shopping centers I'd been to in recent years, from Saratoga, Calif. and Garden City, N.Y. to Billings, Mont. and Willow Grove, Pa. Oh sure, the misters cooling off outdoor diners at the trendy restaurants should have clued me in as to the desert locale, but the slight variation from the norm only seemed to emphasize the similarity.
That was the moment I knew Arizona was home.
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like every other place.
I live in a garden apartment in Mesa, just off the Superstition Freeway at Dobson Road. It is very similar to the garden apartment I lived in last year in Davie, Fla., just off an exit of Interstate 595. As in Florida, my "rental community" here has swimming pools, a tennis court and a clubhouse. Nearby are subdivisions of "executive homes" on cul-de-sacs and artificial lakes. Palm trees line the wide, traffic-clogged streets. My day-to-day environment is essentially identical to the one I experienced 2,300 miles away: a suburban neighborhood whose density has made it de facto urban. There's a bus stop nearby to use in case my car breaks down, and a Starbucks is literally our next-door neighbor. I live amid the stucco and concrete of what architecture critic Melvin Webber, describing emerging metro areas of the West, has called a "non-place urban realm."
I can walk to the same supermarket (Albertsons) and bank (Bank of America) as I could in my former suburban Fort Lauderdale neighborhood. I'm still within a five-minute drive of a regional mall, golf course, library, park, and dozens of strip malls - though I must admit that in Florida I did live a lot closer to the local branch of the University of Phoenix.
If I'm in need of "shoppertainment" in the form of outlet stores, video arcades, foreign tourists, mall TV and dining amid mechanical denizens of the rain forest, I can take myself to nearby Arizona Mills, a carbon copy of the Sawgrass Mills by my old stamping grounds.
In Scottsdale I can use my Neiman-Marcus credit card and find that once exclusively Southern confection, Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
I now get my hair cut at the same worldwide chain that I've patronized in Gainesville, Fla., and Sheridan, Wyo. A short drive to Tempe and I can purchase my gourmet frozen dinners at the same Trader Joe's where I've shopped in Silicon Valley and on Long Island, and I pick up organic produce at the same Whole Foods Market I've patronized in South Florida, as well as in the suburbs of Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia. Although I subscribe to a different local paper here, I also continue to get home delivery of The New York Times.
Adjusting to life here was a snap. After all, not only did I already own a pair of Arizona jeans and regularly consume AriZona Iced Tea (the diet green variety, mostly), but when I lived in Manhattan in the 1980s, I'd eaten at the fabulously fashionable Arizona 206. In our global economy, what more needs to be done? After all, on Planet Consumer, whatever is unique to a region is reduced to mere buyable kitsch - like the saguaro-shaped pencils on sale at the local Walgreens.
But if you're expecting a lecture filled with terms like "soulless interchangeability," "unremitting déjà vu," and "sterile artifice," you won't get it from me. The sameness is exactly what I love about my part of Arizona. I like the fact that the only way I can tell I am entering a new neighborhood is when the fast-food outlets and chain stores start to repeat themselves. To a guy who's moved around as much as I have, the uniformity represents stability. The conformity makes me comfortable.
Of course it wasn't simply a familiar environment I craved. An important reason I chose to move to Phoenix was its diversity. Before coming here, I looked at Valley phone directories to check for ample numbers of Patels and Nguyens, Rodriguezes and Changs. I need a place where supermarkets carry kimchi and kasha, quinoa and collard greens, platanos y boniatos. Where there is a large enough gay community to accommodate lesbian Scrabble leagues, gay Realtors councils, and bitter longstanding feuds. Where there are synagogues representing all major branches of Judaism, including atheism. Where I can find an Ethiopian restaurant, Caribbean music, Iranian movies, an active Green Party and local punk and hip-hop scenes.
When a childhood friend from Brooklyn, who is Sikh, informed me that within a few blocks of her Coronado district home there were two different gurudwaras, I knew the Valley had the diversity I wanted.
Whatever natural beauty Arizona has to offer is not evident in my daily life. It would probably be lost on me if it were. Having grown up in New York City, I would not care if the whole world were paved over.
My formative years occurred in an environment not altogether different from the "non-place urban realm" of Sun Belt suburbia. Our house was in a remote part of Brooklyn, a 15-minute drive to the nearest subway stop; an hour's trip to Manhattan was always called "going to the city." We had a backyard swimming pool, and I was eager to learn to drive as soon as possible.
Although our neighborhood did leave me with a sensibility equidistant between that of Seinfeld and The Sopranos, it was also a neighborhood that didn't have a name until the 1970 opening of Kings Plaza, the Big Apple's first enclosed mall, just a three-block walk from our house. It featured the same anchor department stores I can find at Fiesta Mall.
Although I loved living in Manhattan as an adult, my annual visits confirm that even that quintessential urban locale is morphing into something else. The sleazy but vibrant honky-tonk of Times Square has been replaced by an environment as safe and artificial as Main Street in Walt Disney World. Other once-distinctive neighborhoods are looking more and more like everywhere else as they are invaded by the same chain stores all around me in Mesa.
Three years ago, in order to write a new book, I left a job as an attorney in Gainesville - where I lived off an interstate highway exit in a garden apartment across the street from a series of power centers complete with the mandatory Albertsons, Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, T.G.I. Friday's, and Red Lobster. For a while I lived at artists' colonies and mooched off suburban friends, mostly women I knew from my 1970s undergraduate days and their tolerant husbands. In exchange for being a charming conversationalist and doing such genuinely enjoyable tasks as picking up dry cleaning and dinner sushi, looking in on elderly grandparents at nursing homes, walking Yorkshire terriers, and accompanying third-graders on class field trips, I got a spare bedroom ("the Lincoln bedroom," my friend Nina calls it) or a futon in the den. I did my writing at Burger Kings and Borders bookstores across Power Center Nation.
The artists' colonies - Villa Montalvo, the Ucross Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation - generously gave me the luxury of time and a room of my own to write. While I enjoyed being close to such fine examples of the natural world as the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the majestic landscape of Wyoming's high plains, and one of the last pieces of pristine prairie in the suburbs of Chicago, I often found myself abandoning nature in favor of the coffee bars of Silicon Valley, the McDonald's counter at the Wal-Mart in Sheridan, or the food court in the Northbrook Mall - places where I would sit with my iced tea or Diet Coke and scribble away to my heart's desire. The truth is I did my best work in these palaces of conspicuous consumption. Writing about American culture circa Y2K, I need bland commercial conformity for inspiration.
Arizona provides me with more than enough inspiration.
So I am happy to be an Arizonan. For now.
Like many other state residents, I don't expect to be living here for the rest of my life. On the other hand, I'll probably be moving to a place that looks just about the same.