Many Phoenix visitors barely glimpse downtown as they speed from the airport toward one of the city’s gorgeous resorts, where rounds of golf golf, spa treatments, and exquisite dining await.
I’ll admit I love resorts as much as anyone, but cities in all their concrete glory promise a different kind of charm.
Maybe it’s the tidy sidewalks lined with trees or the tall, sleek buildings with shiny glass windows that make me feel all is well with the world. Or perhaps the cultural opportunities found in cities—the museums, operas, concerts, and galleries—serve as reminders of the finer things in life. Add in the myriad shopping, lodging, and dining choices cities offer, and you can find pretty much whatever you want within a city’s limits.
But it’s the people that make cities exciting, the vast ocean of humanity that swells up and swallows you whole. There’s a sense of community in cities, which you just can’t detect in the suburbs. And one of the best ways to experience a city’s rich diversity is by riding public transportation. I’ve been on subways both in the U.S. and abroad and never tire of people watching while hurtling along to my destination.
Recently I decided to explore Phoenix and nearby Tempe using the region’s new Metro light rail system. How easy would it be for me to get around without a car, I wondered. I also wanted to see how successful, easy to use, and safe the light rail is since our own region is in the start-up phases of what will, I hope, become a far-reaching system stretching ultimately from the oceanfront to the Navy bases and beyond.
Like Hampton Roads, Phoenix is a sprawling metropolitan area with ribbons of highways undulating in every direction. The metro area population is a whopping 4.3 million, and traffic jams are legendary. Fortunately, visionary leaders implemented plans for a 20-mile light rail system that would connect downtown Phoenix to suburbs in the east and west. Construction began in March 2005, and the light rail opened in December 2008. Since then ridership has exceeded projections by 45 percent.
The Metro line is ideal for visitors as it runs near a number of tourist attractions. It’s also extremely affordable, costing just $3.50 for an all-day pass. I chose Tempe, which borders Phoenix to the east, as my home base and stayed at the Four Points Sheraton—about a ten-minute walk from the nearest metro station. Actually while I was visiting Tempe, I didn’t use the metro much because it’s such a compact city and fun to explore by foot.
Tempe is home to Arizona State University, one of the largest universities in the country. Its dorms house more than 9,000 students, and many more attend during the day. In fact, youth rules in Tempe. Everywhere you look students in shorts and sandals head to class—strolling in groups, cruising on their skateboards, or hopping on and off the Metro that links them to classes across campus and across town at satellite locations. In between classes, students flock to pedestrian-friendly Mill Avenue District, home to dozens of restaurants, breweries, boutiques, and galleries. For lunch, I dined al fresco at Tavern on Mill, a reasonably priced locals’ hangout with hearty sandwiches and spicy southwestern fare.
Afterwards I decided to hike up “A” Mountain located at the foot of Mill Avenue next to the old flour mill for which the district is named. A huge “A” emblazoned on the top of the mountain represents the university. “A” Mountain is a steep climb, but worth it once you get to the top and enjoy the views of Tempe, ASU’s campus, and the Sun Devil Stadium. If you look carefully along the trail, you might see some petroglyphs, or rock art, left behind by the Hohokams, who inhabited the region between 1 and 1450 AD. Just across the street from “A” Mountain is Tempe Town Lake, which offers boating and fishing in the summer months and biking, jogging, and strolling year ‘round.
ASU has an astonishing 20 museums on its campus. I managed to visit only one, the ASU Art Museum, and found it a rich treasure trove of contemporary art. During my visit I viewed an interactive exhibit called “Open for Business,” which connected art in the museum with businesses scattered throughout town. The museum’s permanent collection featured works by Georgia O’Keeffe and a variety of Latino artists. On one wall a collection of portraits by different artists challenged the viewer to consider the paintings as separate entities yet discover ways each one mirrored those around it.
That evening I dined at La Bocca, a gourmet pizzeria and wine bar, where I happily sat by myself on the terrace watching humanity stroll by. I decided Tempe is a very cool place to visit and could even see myself living there. Its compact center, youthful vibe, and cultural and recreational offerings combine to create a pleasant quality of life.
NATIVE AMERICAN MYTHS
The next morning I got off to an early start because I had a full itinerary for the day. Buying my Metro ticket was a breeze, and figuring out which line to take was also easy since there are only two directions. The Metro cars are sleek and modern with large windows to watch the world go by. We zipped across Tempe Town Lake and then cruised on past the airport, where an extension is underway to link the airport to the main line. I noticed other tourists aboard the light rail, smiling and enjoying the ride.
I hopped off at the Arizona Science Center, a family favorite with lots of interactive exhibits and hands-on learning experiences. A plethora of school groups greeted me in the lobby, so I sought solace in the center’s planetarium, where a colorful presentation showed the connection between constellations and Native American myths. Back in the center, I strolled around watching enthusiastic kids rush from one exhibit to another. A popular stop was Forces of Nature, where you can experience a hurricane, a wildfire, an earthquake, and more. A temporary exhibit called “Race: Are We So Different?” examined how our preconceptions affect our perceptions of those we meet.
After a quick ride on the Metro, I joined Deb Krol, director of communications at the Heard Museum, for lunch. We sat in the museum’s cozy courtyard where the warm sun poured down and a splashing fountain provided ambiance. After telling me the history of the Heard, which boasts one of the country’s most prominent collections of Native American art and artifacts, Deb told me a little bit about the museum’s mission. “We make a concerted effort to bring the first-person voice to our exhibits,” she explained.
This mission became clear when I explored the exhibit “Remembering our Indian School Days,” which recounts—often in the words of those who attended—what it was like to be removed from your family and sent to an Indian School sometimes thousands of miles away, where you weren’t able to speak your language or follow your traditions. Like children everywhere, most of those who attended adapted and grew fond of their school experiences. Others, unable to cope with the enormous changes, met ill-fated ends after running away. It’s a poignant exhibit, one that will stay with you long after you leave.
Other popular exhibits include the katsina dolls, a large collection of Native American dolls used primarily as teaching tools, given at various stages of life to represent virtues, such as fidelity and spirituality. The dolls themselves vary from tribe to tribe and include some that aren’t very friendly. Soyoko, a Hopi katsina doll, was an ogre woman who was used to threaten misbehaving children. If you were naughty, she would swallow you whole!
I had a little time before dinner so I visited the Phoenix Public Market, a downtown farmers’ market where a display of fresh produce, jams, and homemade goodies made me hungry. Nearby the Urban Grocery and Wine Bar offered a tempting array of gourmet foods as well as a unique selection of Arizona wines. I tried a glass of Stronghold Mangus, a balanced blend of cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, and merlot, which I enjoyed outside on the patio.
Dinner that night at the nearby Pasta Bar was terrific—I tried the carbonara—and afterwards I walked off the carbs at the Phoenix Art Museum, which offers late hours and free admission on Wednesdays. The museum’s collection ranged across the centuries and around the globe. I loved a hauntingly beautiful piece in the contemporary gallery by L.A. artist Jennifer Steinkamp. A life-sized digital representation of a tree is projected onto a blank wall and then blends slowly into a different version. A total of 13 different slides depict the tree in motion over time, each one suggesting a season, a mood, a moment. The never-ending transformations reminded me of my favorite Buddhist saying, “Everything is impermanent.” Yet new beginnings are always possible.
As I headed back to Tempe on the Metro to prepare for my flight the next morning, I reflected on the forward-thinking visionaries who set in motion this city’s rapid transit system, a modern marvel that welcomes the future and reduces our country’s dependence on oil. I remembered the poignant stories of the Native Americans who adapted to their new lives and survived, even thrived, under less than ideal circumstances. Finally I thought about the juxtaposition of the old and new in Phoenix and how lessons are found all around us, if only we take the time to look.
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