Great Revitalization Projects Start on the Street
On a recent Wednesday morning, I met with some political buddies for breakfast at the recently reopened Ranch Market at Central and Southern. I had originally hoped to dine at Morning Glory, Comedor Guadalajara, El Mesquite, or Matt’s Big Breakfast downtown. The week before we had met at the I-Hop at Baseline and 24th Street.
The Ranch Market is busy even on a weekday at 8 a.m. In what I perceive is the food court there are several rows of picnic tables with people eating breakfast burritos. I wait patiently for my fellow troublemakers, checking my I-Pad for any information that might explain why I am sitting here alone. Finally they are here: several young men who will be the future leaders of our community. The food is delicious. We discuss civic engagement and community empowerment in the Southside, and how to get some. The conversation is lively: these young men teach me something new every time we meet. I offer to buy breakfast for one of my companions: the total bill is less than $8. We get up to leave, setting our next meeting time and place.
As I walk out, it is clear that this is a busy place. The parking lot is pretty full even at 10 a.m. I drive out and it is hard not to notice the changes on South Central over the last few decades. The Pep Boys is gone. There are empty buildings everywhere. There are still carnicerias, a Food City, some auto parts stores, and some little shops that have survived. But something has hit this street like a tsunami.
The current “Great Recession” cannot account for all of this decline. What has happened here started much earlier, when housing developments shot up east and west of Central taking retail shopping with them. The Baseline Corridor Plan, without a South Central Corridor Plan, was a prescription for what you see now along South Central. In other words, what retail there was on South Central left and the new retail coming into the community was encouraged to be on Baseline. At that time, many leaders in the community felt this made sense: developers wanted to build along Baseline, not South Central. Planning large commercial “nodes” on Baseline met with the little opposition. Those folks who questioned this kind of decentralization were told retailers did not want South Central anyway, and that Central would still be the heart of the village because “public buildings” providing “public services” would be built there. In short, any plan that would deliver “sitdown restaurants”–no matter how short sighted–was a good plan. The result so far has meant that the core of our village has been blessed with such public facilities as Phoenix PD command station, the Ed Pastor Transit Center, Travis Williams Family Center, a State Department of Economic Security center and an ADOT Motor Vehicle Division, and that it is now possible to sit down and eat every mile or so along Baseline Road from Tempe to Laveen.
Developing South Central will not be easy, but there are great examples of what has been done in other cities–and even right here in Phoenix. San Francisco’s Mission District is an area that started worse off in many respects than South Central. This area has been transformed from a pretty scary place to a tourism attraction, just from the efforts of the people who lived there and the people who moved into the area. The Mission has much to teach us in regards to gentrification, existing neighborhoods and culture. Also, there is Federal Hill in Providence, Road Island where neighborhood revitalization started with a parish priest who saw his neighborhood in decline and would not stand for it. This neighborhood is now considered the heartbeat of the city. The Italian-American culture has been preserved (you can still get to meet the chicken you are going to have for supper).
Here in Phoenix we have Roosevelt Row: artists, serious foodies with an entrepreneurial spirit and fans looking for a real urban experience have created revitalization, not where planners said it should be or where politicians and developers wanted it to be, but where it had to be, really.
And this brings to mind the recently proposed amusement park that would occupy the area around 19th Ave. and the Lower Buckeye Road. Note that when developers and politicians join together to sell you something that has no root in history, geography, ethnicities or community self vision, you should beware. And, when someone is willing to give these folks a $500 million dollar credit card, run. Great revitalization projects start on the street, not on the drawing board.