Why is Phoenix so Ugly?

Oh Phoenix, how hard it can be to love you. My hometown is great for tortilla chips and sunshine, but it’s also a sprawling beige wasteland populated by racist NRA members who still think of anal sex as “sodomy.”

A recent Vice article delineates what, exactly, makes Phoenix “the worst place ever.” Reasons include “shopping malls and movie theaters as cultural landmarks” and “Sheriff Joe Arpaio.”

I actually don’t think Phoenix is the worst place ever – in fact, I like Phoenix a whole lot. But I do agree that a lot of our city is a definitely a “sprawling beige wasteland” and that lots needs to happen before the community can become the kind of city it wants to be.

Look at urbandictionary.com, where “Phoenix” was defined, in 2007, as, “the fifth-largest city in America, but in fact, it’s simply a massive expanse of concrete and tract housing.” (Side note: this entire page is full of LOLz).

Architecture indicates what a city thinks about itself. It dictates the way we operate and exist in our physical spaces. So what does it mean if the the Phoenix Metropolitan Area is almost entirely comprised of strip malls, tract houses, and endless suburban sprawl?

We could make an educated guess – a generalization, of course – that Phoenix was built to be a city of convenience and consumerism. It looks like – and again, I’m not naming any names – Phoenix’s urban planners and developers were/are less interested in cultivating a liveable city than in turning profits to fund the next big private golf course.

As a result, in places like Peoria, Chandler, and Anthem, we find large communities in which each house is virtually indistinguishable from the others, just single-story gray stucco boxes. Upon closer examination, you’ll find slight variations – a door on the left side, a door in the middle, maybe a terra cotta planter.

Anyone who’s visited Phoenix/Vegas/Stockton knows what I’m talking about: row after row of cookie-cutter houses leading forever in every direction under a blazing vacant sky. It’s an architectural decision that leaves us feeling, let’s say, “existentially pancaked.”

The colloquial term is “cookie-cutter houses.” The real name is “tract homes.”

By definition, tract homes are “housing consisting of similar houses constructed together on a tract of land” – residential spaces with similar floor plans laid out in an orderly fashion to facilitate quick, inexpensive development. They can extend in miles for every direction – identical lawns, porches, driveways, rooftops.

Tract homes have become a part of our visual lexicon, a symbol of white, homogenous, American suburbia (think Edward Scissorhands or Disney Channel’s seriously underrated original movie “Stuck in the Suburbs”).

As we can see from Vice and urbandictionary, there’s a collective horror about tract housing. It seems to represent the ultimate corporatization of private life; the point in which individuals are reduced to the predictable, pliable consumer we were bred to be, void of originality and too mired in our socialization to know that something is wrong, left only with a vague, pulsing sensation of meaninglessness and discontent.

So, taking this all into account, I did a little research into what tract housing is and why it defines my hometown. And the results were astonishing.

Are you ready?

Okay: The hipster neighborhoods in Phoenix – Willo, Garfield, Coronado, Windsor – are tract houses.

That’s right. These coveted covens of mid-century modern remodels were once considered cookie-cutter.

As it turns out, tract housing is not some concept greasy real estate developers dreamed up in the 80s. It played a huge part in Europe during the land reclamation during the 16-19th centuries and later, during the industrial revolution, tract housing provided cheap, easily-assembled living in coal mining towns for workers and their families.

In the U.S, tract housing really took off after WWII, when the newly-stabilized economy made it possible for more families to own homes.

A company called Levitt and Sons noticed that there was a greater demand for housing than the current infrastructure was supplying. They took a page out of Henry Ford’s big-money manual and built an assembly line that popped out houses like slippery babies. The floor plans were the same. The materials were the same. The workers were trained to just do one thing – like screw in the same bolt on the corner of the kitchen sink baseboard. That made hiring labor easy, since any unskilled dude could turn the same knob over and over.

On August 2, 1929, Levittown was open for business.

There’s a huge advantage to cookie-cutter houses, both today and in the past: they’re cheap. We often use them to build low-income housing.

Owning a home was a cornerstone of the American dream, and Levittown made that possible for people who would never have been able to afford land under the old models of building.

So okay, that’s great. Every city needs affordable housing. But why has Phoenix become, essentially, one giant beige tract house?

As it turns out, Phoenix’s first tract houses were laid down in the 1950s and 1960s. The big architects were John F. Long, John Hall, Henry Coever (the guy behind Arcadia’s mini-mansions) and Ralph Haver.

A lot of these were built fast and cheap. As a result, they fell into disrepair and became, today, “the hood.”

As for Chandler, Peoria, and other communities spread out into the desert, well, Phoenix’s main industry is real estate. As Jon Talton writes on his incredible blog, Rogue Columnist, “In other big cities, real estate is a consequence of the larger economy. In Phoenix, it is the economy.”

So that means that real estate developers are making enormous amounts of money building and selling homes. People move to Phoenix for cheap housing. But once they’re here, what do they do? Phoenix has done a terrible job attracting business and investors (sometimes we can’t even get bands to play here, thanks to our politics). In terms of assets, we’ve got…cheap housing.

Talton writes, “Phoenix merely has a lot of people…in no category besides housing does it effectively compete against peer cities or metros, especially not in the high-quality, high-wage sectors.”

So that means we’re attracting more and more people to our cheap housing and then not providing them with industry. The only way to make money is to keep building homes and finding people to fill them.

So until 2008, the name of the game was expansion: investors built huge developments far out into the desert. At one point, the greater phoenix area averaged 60,000 new homes per year. It was cheap to build and cheap to own. People came in flocks.

It was a nightmare for the environment. No one was thinking about green jobs or eco-flush toilets. Phoenix’s developers knew that bigger was better and big money was best. They bulldozed enormous chunks of the Sonoran, and the further out into the desert they built, the further people drove to get to work. Commuters were logging (many still do) three hours in the car a day just getting to and from the old 9 to 5.

But when the housing crisis hit, all the freshly built cookie cutter homes  were unsellable. They stayed vacant. The gated communities kept no one in and no one out.

And today? I have no idea. I’d love it if someone would tell me.

All I really know about tract houses today is that it’s not cool to live in one. It’s cool to live in a converted flourmill.

Tract homes are the opposite of hip, and in an age where being cool is getting a little tyrannical, I appreciate that.

So props to you tract homes. You really don’t care what anyone else thinks but you.

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