September 28, 2011

And an Urbanist Shall Lead Us

This is not the beer culture we were looking for .
As someone studying the whys and what-fors of beer culture, I've been doing some catch up work on reading some of my favorite Phoenix urban bloggers. I've often said that our beer culture's development corresponds to the same reasons why there is a Walgreens, Water Store and Nail Salon every 2 square miles in the newest "master planned" developments. The conveyor belt of strip malls and Power Centers is a reflection of our preference for the automobile. As a commuter city that favors the personal mobility of the car, we've made some obvious trade offs when it comes to enjoying beer. The most obvious negotiation is the tap-dancing that we do when we take up the wheel after enjoying alcoholic beverages.

Car favoritism influences our disconnected beer culture in subtle yet profound ways too. We used to have dozens of warehouses in the sports districts that now are home to US Airways Center and the Chase Ballpark. Phoenix was a way station for the fruits and vegetables that made their way from California's Imperial Valley and Yuma's Lettuce Belt on their journey east. With the gradual move from rail cars to trucks as the preferred means of moving produce and with the mistaken belief that the sports complexes needed more car parking, warehouses gave way to parking lots.

There's famously no parking at Wrigley, Fenway or Madison Square Garden and that doesn't seem to stop fans. There is certainly much more before and after game nightlife at those places then there is outside of Chase Ballpark. A downtown Phoenix property owner can turn over a great deal of cash in the short term on a parking lot at the expense of perhaps incubating some mixed use businesses in a funky warehouse. Restaurants, bars, breweries, retail all put a high value on such spaces, but we have too few of them here. Have you noticed the extreme efficiency the city undertakes to whisk you and your car out of downtown after a game?

There are people here in the Valley that are devoted to resisting such things. They know about walkable distances, curbscape, and the effect parking lots have on disrupting the connective tissue of a community. While it may be obvious that they understand buildings and their uses, they are as interested in the spaces in between buildings. They have an eye for detail and they understand the subtle and nuanced things that make our lives better and our experiences richer.

I was struck by a post by Taz Loomins on Blooming Rock called The Life Thats' Passing Phoenix By As We Sit In Our Cars. I've met Taz. She does not drink alcohol, let alone craft beer (and I hope that she won't be offended by the context) but she so vividly describes the deficit driving in the city creates when compared to walking.
In contrast to the exciting energy of walking in the city, I noticed this morning how isolated I felt in my car.  I was in the very same spot as when I was walking, but my experience of the city was completley different.  In fact, I hardly experienced the city at all, other than the necessary awareness of my surroundings required to drive safely.  The sounds of the city were completely silenced within  my sealed, air-conditioned vehicle.  I could not smell the city smells or hear the sounds of cars outside.  It felt as if I were in a bubble, as if I were by myself, when in fact I was sharing the road with many other people, who I’m sure, also felt as if they were alone.
This is the kind of experiential deficit that happens in Phoenix because we are such a car-centric city.  The visceral experience of walking in the city is a world that seems unavailable to us Phoenicians as we’ve become so addicted to the convenience of cars.  Today, such a hot summer day, may not be the best day for a post like this.  But the heat is just an excuse that we use to forgo the connective experience of city walking in order to lead convenient, easy, anonymous lives in our cars.
I sought beer culture because I felt that same experiential deficit. You are reading this because you know of the richer experience that I am talking about and you sometimes feel for people that have yet to even understand what they are missing. If you are a lover of  good beer you have to be a fan of walking a city and engaging all of your senses. If you are one of my urban friends, think about walking into a bustling vibrant pub and selecting the least objectionable beer they offer. You've just selected the automobile of beers and you are driving away from the full sensory engagement that beer can offer you.

Please read what Taz has to say. She asks that you perform an exercise in walking in the city. You could easily take one of her points into consideration when thinking about beer or urban living, "Take note of what’s missing."

Here are just a few blogs that I read that inform my opinions on Phoenix life. There are many others. I hope that some of them will chime in and correct any mistakes I've made.

If you're coming at this blog from the beer side, I hope you take the time to check some of them out. If you're an urban enthusiast, please take some time to introduce yourself to us, let us know who to read and I'll be happy to tip a beer with you.


  1. Great comparison, Rob. I appreciate it when people put their thoughts out there for others to chew on, so to speak. I'm sure a lot of folks have the same sentiments, but to go a few steps further in actually publishing them means quite a bit. A life of shared experiences is so much more fulfilling than a life of anonymity. I love the simple metaphors Taz always seems to illustrate in her writing. Cheers to growing leadership and vision in Phoenix.

  2. Now I know why I love my jeep and the roof is normally off almost every day of the year. The haboob really affected my ability to have it off. Time to fix that!

  3. Thanks for the mention Rob :-) And great post. Of course I am not offended by the context. I love how you've used beer culture to analyze our city, that's pretty awesome. @Valerie, thanks for your kind words too!

  4. I started bike commuting last spring, and by mid-summer, I was skipping the light rail leg of the commute and peddling 7 miles each way from my home downtown to my office in east Phoenix. I was talking to my massage therapist on the phone tonight, and he said it sounded like I'd found my spiritual practice. You see SO much more when you're out of a car. And you are mindful of everything around you, because your existence depends upon it. Oh, and I also like beer!:)

  5. Thanks for the mention of my site. This post made me think: Right now, we seem to have innumerable light rail pub crawls. That's great. As a supporter and user of light rail, I'm glad to see how people have taken to Phoenix's 20-mile line. Nevertheless, the next step is more neighborhood pub crawls that can be accomplished via walking (or bicycle for those who prefer that mode). Of course, to get to that point, we need more walkable neighborhoods in which pubs and breweries can cluster, which I take to be the point of your post.

  6. This is an issue that deeply fascinates me and brings together two of my passions--beer and public policy. The way cities evolve isn't as organic as people sometimes imagine. Urban planning is a huge piece of the pie. I'll speak generally since I know nothing about Phoenix. In many (most?) cities, law strongly favors low-density construction and sometimes prevents high-density. Some cities limit building height, mandate lot size and distances between homes, and they usually give absurd breaks to builders of parking lots--on land that might otherwise fetch orders of magnitude more dollars-per-foot of income in a building.

    They furthermore strongly favor development that caters to cars. This means a streamlining of road space into car gorges, which has the effect of cutting off neighborhoods. Plotting neighborhoods based in the cu-de-sac model may (but probably doesn't) improve safety, but it pretty much mandates car use. Finally, cities that encourage retail islands like malls to keep residential neighborhoods business-free (through zoning laws), further dictate the kind of private/public split that force car use.

    It's absolutely not clear that this kind of development is beloved by even such car-centric populations like those in Phoenix. When cities push for more density and integration, there's always an outcry, but it is exactly the densest neighborhoods that become the most popular. Make it pleasant, safe, and convenient to live near downtown and people will flock there.

    And adding a corner brewpub doesn't hurt, either.

  7. An interesting post..thank you for introducing the other blogs, they have great stuff too