Modern life in Maricopa County

by Rob Horning

30 November 2006


Whenever I come back from my annual Arizona vacation I feel a bit like a cliche from a David Brooks column, ready to patronizingly lampoon philistine provincial life and point out obvious atrocities like the local news broadcast (this just in: snow is cold; also: car chase in Dallas ends in collision), the ubiquity of paycheck loan kiosks (some retrofitted into Mexican restaurants that were themselves retrofitted into moribund fast-food chains), the relentless sprawl (it’s practically filled the valley past the Maricopa County line to the south and well into Carefree to the north), and so on. I tend to be seduced by the idea that New York City is the capital of the free world and as its media center originates the cultural ideas that trickle out to places like Phoenix and Tucson. And sometimes this is true; one can see the hangover of trends that have already exhausted themselves back East.

But this time I’ve returned enamored of a different cliche about the postmodernity of edge cities: that in fact Phoenix is an ongoing project in manufacturing the cutting edge suburban lifestyle, in pursuing and distributing the state of the art in middle-class amenities—retail plazas with organic-food markets and parking lots with giant spaces—and New York City is an antiquated version of modern life, one that’s terminally threatened and holds on merely through the tenacity of tradition. Out in Arizona we rented a crossover SUV (the poetically named Chevy HHK) and drove the brand-new freeway loops and did a bunch of shopping and dining in new commercial developments on what used to be the outskirts of town. I felt like a character in a car commercial or something. While everyday life in New York is a thicket of nuisances, dealing with crowds and lines and the ceaseless imperative to rush and put yourself first lest you never get what you’re trying to do done, the ease and convenience of the quotidian in Arizona is palpable, which to me seems a product of the redundancy of shopping centers. Also the expanse of open desert space (while it lasts) allows one to take scorched earth policy toward communities—when it ceases to be convenient, when it starts to feel encrusted with idiosyncratic necessities or complications, one can simply strike out for the latest development on the fringe and partake of the hottest enticements—four-car garages, cathedral ceilings, etc. The driving forces of contemporary consumer capitalism—novelty, convenience, the desire to feel independent from the impact of other’s decisions—seem to culminate in the dynamic system on display in Maricopa County. For me this plays out as a kind of vacation listlessness, some of which must be blamed on my lack of imagination. But since so much of the region seems devoted to convenient transportation and shopping, I feel like there is nothing to do but drive around and shop. Sure, I could leave the valley altogether and go hiking or something but it seems easier to pivot from cable TV to shopping to dining to sleeping. Imagination itself is reconfigured as a nuisance; best to glide along without the trouble of it, finding fullfillment in the safe and predictable, in the pseudo-novelty of new franchises of chain stores and restaurants.

Update: Via The Economist‘s new blog comes this defense of chain stores by Virginia Postrel: “Chains make a large range of choices available in more places. They increase local variety, even as they reduce the differences from place to place. People who mostly stay put get to have experiences once available only to frequent travelers, and this loss of exclusivity is one reason why frequent travelers are the ones who complain.” The idea behind this is that each chain represents some local brainstorm made national or global. (That ingenious idea to have all you can eat breadsticks is now available at the Olive Garden in your town.) Postrel argues that “the contempt for chains represents a brand-obsessed view of place, as if store names were all that mattered to a city’s character.” A fair point, but it still seems to me that the ubiquity and density of chain stores evokes the criticism; the individual chains don’t matter so much as the blanket they spread over a locale, rendering it familiar to travelers and encouraging the idea that interaction with any locale is primarily a matter of shopping. The contempt for chains stems from the fact that it blots out a city’s individual character, which is not merely a matter of driving local companies out of business or obscuring what the local industries consist of. Postrel and The Economist blogger (Megan McArdle?) seem to want to emphasize the vanity of urban planners (and activist consumers) who reject chains as inauthentic and the sound sense of “ordinary Americans” who appreciate their virtues. Perhaps they are right; the development of cities such as Phoenix certainly seems to bear out their assumptions about what Americans prefer; Phoenix suggests what all American cities would be like if they could instantaneously rebuild according to current consumer preferences. And perhaps the accessibility of the various successful retail strategies of so many different chains at once accounts for my feeling of being intoxicated (if not incapacitated) by convenience. The corporate interests behind the chains are able to induce us to accept values amenable to the corporations’ thriving because they offer us the least resistance and we as individuals are ultimately more flexible than corporations (which aren’t as flexible as market theory typically proposes). What we lose is any interest in local idiosyncrasy, or the kind of complication that arises from tradition and history. Phoenix (appropriately named in this regard) allows us to believe that the community in which we live was invented to suit us personally—it flatters our own vanity; the world, for me—because it so compellingly convinces us to reduce ourselves to the consumer desires it is optimized to service.

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