1. Phoenix is finally cool.
Photo: Jerry Ferguson
This post was proudly produced in partnership with Visit Phoenix.
A lot of long-time Phoenix locals will tell you the same thing: “There didn’t used to be a lot going on here.” A lot of people worked downtown, but lived and played elsewhere. In 1998, Phoenix city planners even developed a “traffic management plan” that’s main purpose was to get people out of the city as fast as possible.
But now everybody wants back in, and Phoenix is undergoing a pretty hip revival because of it.
“Ten years ago you would come here for a game or a concert and then you’d get out,” says Trish Lanteigne, media relations coordinator for Visit Phoenix and long-time local in the Valley. “But now a lot of the businesses that exist outside of the city are either relocating here or opening up a second location.”
A lot of these new and relocating businesses are taking up in residential houses that may have otherwise been left abandoned or demolished. Songbird Coffee and Tea House just relocated to a 111-year old house on Roosevelt Street in Phoenix’s Arts District, and The DeSoto Central Market just opened in an old Chrysler showroom after receiving $250,000 in grant funding — so what was once an empty warehouse in the middle of town is now a vibrant meeting place for the community.
Plus on Fridays there’s now a massive congregation of food trucks in the nearby Phoenix Public Market’s parking lot.
Phoenix is using an estimated $3.5 million in federal grants to make improvements to the city. Sidewalks are now wider, bike lanes are everywhere, and 300 more shade trees have just been planted — so now we can all walk under rows of Texas elm, Dutch ebony, and pistashe.
There are benches and chairs outside of almost every business and the city practices something called “alley activation,” where artists are encouraged to use the alleyways as canvases and locals are encouraged to use them as gathering spaces. The idea is to turn “brown space” into “green space” and because of it Phoenix is quickly transforming into the next cool and colorful place to be.
2. Yeah it’s the desert, but farming is alive and well.
One big misconception about the state of Arizona is that nothing will grow here. That’s wrong, everything grows here. Hundreds of different strains of peppers, beets, heirloom tomatoes, all the types of lettuce you could possibly crunch — it’s all here.
Perry and Brenda Rea, founders of the Queen Creek Olive Mill, are even proving that Arizona is apparently the perfect place for olive trees.
Large-scale operations like Agritopia, a 166-acre “urban farm” in Gilbert and Singh Farmer’s Market in Scottsdale are proving that people care about how their food is grown and they want to be around the people who grow it. These farms have become the place to hang out on a weekend afternoon: People come to tour the grounds, see a concert, or go to a communal dinner.
3. And yeah, you can still swim and paddle here too — on rivers and lakes that all connect to each other. No big deal.
The Tonto National Forest is the fifth largest in the United States, and although it spans over the Sonoran Desert, the land area is actually very diverse. There’s Salt River Canyon, Roosevelt Dam, plus six big cold water reservoirs to paddle in.
You can get a pass and go in by yourself, or you can go the adrenaline-inducing way by Desert Splash Adventures float plane — the pilot will fly you low through the canyon while you listen to inspirational pop music on your headsets and secretly cry from conflicting feelings of joy and fear.
4. Tempe is basically a city devoted to millennials and college students.
Where I went to college in Maine, we had two bars and neither one had acceptable food. Tempe is basically a never-neverland playground for 20-somethings. Downtown is packed with hip places to be. The clearly bicycle-themed Handlebar has the best outdoor patio and beer cocktails, while World of Beer always has at least 50 brews on tap from around the globe.
Street performers and buskers are always out on the sidewalks, and between 70 and 80 percent of the businesses are locally owned — many by ASU alum, proving that everyone seems to stick around after college.
Plus everyone travels by bicycle, scooter, or longboard, you can hike up ‘A’ Mountain in 20 minutes flat, and there’s a freakin’ manmade lake right in the center of town.
There’s no way you can graduate from Arizona State University and not be tan, fit, and know an exorbitant amount about beer.
5. Everybody loves the outdoors here.
“We all move here for the lifestyle,” says Phil, a top guide at Arizona Outback Adventures.
And he’s right. In the Valley, people respect that you want to be doing things outside. Cars move way over for road bicyclists, hikers don’t pass each other without giving a warm hello, and locals carry extra water just in case they meet someone who didn’t bring enough. There’s no trash on the trail or in the parking lot here, and most locals can name every kind of cacti or edible plant.
People move to the Valley because the desert has a lot to offer them — so they respect and nurture it. Not every place in the United States can say that.
6. The whole place is covered in street murals.
Phoenix, especially, can’t get enough of them. Walk through the Arts District and you’ll see Billie Holiday belting it on the side of Revolver Records. You’ll see giant sunflowers blowing in the wind on MonOrchid — remembering the vacant city lot that the students at Bioscience High transformed into a 2-acre crop of sunflowers in 2011.
Murals really are everywhere you look in Phoenix, some pay homage to the Valley’s rich Native American history, while others nod toward the diverse and prominent Latin community. There’s street art calling attention to the importance of water conservation, mental health resources, whatever it is — there’s a mural for it.
Street artists like Breeze and El Mac are not only household names here, they’re active voices in the community — regularly attending events and speaking on the power art has to evoke change and joy in the neighborhoods.
Greg Esser, co-founder of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, says that artists are encouraged to “just find a wall and paint it.” If tags or vandalism show up during the night, artists cover them up within days. If a mural starts to fade, artists restore it or create something new.
7. There’s a Light Rail here.
So the Valley is a little spread out, but luckily the Valley Metro Rail will take you pretty much anywhere you need to go. It has a 20-mile transit system connecting Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Glendale, and Chandler.
8. Three last words: Pop-Up Park
This is when a park just shows up for a day in an otherwise unused space around town. There’s outdoor games, food trucks, often yoga and music — and last November more than 800 people showed up to one just to eat pie.
This post was proudly produced in partnership with Visit Phoenix.