I found my way back to Heritage Square, a small, tree-lined walking district of historical homes and a museum where some of the old houses have been turned into restaurants and shops, all welcomingly out of place in the middle of downtown Phoenix. It was New Year’s Eve Day in 2009, and I was re-visiting the city on my way through on a kind of vacation-slash-mini-tour. I had been here three years ago when I was going to college in Los Angeles and decided to drive out and explore somewhere new; I wasn’t a musician then, so traveling meant that you could really take your time in a place and get to know it.
I was happy to see that Bar Bianco was still there, though it was closed for the holiday. The sparse and echoey, wood-filled bar was an endearing discovery I had made on my last visit. I had stopped in for a glass of wine in the afternoon and sat by one of the broad, screenless windows letting in a southwestern breeze. Someone just so happened to put Cat Power on the stereo, Moon Pix, one of my favorites, and it made me stay awhile.
As I left Heritage Square, I decided to go searching for a few other local haunts I had last enjoyed in Phoenix, namely Modified Arts and the Willow House Café. On my way there, I passed into the Roosevelt district and stopped at the sight of a sign reading “Museum of Gentrification” in the front yard of an old home. The house sat amongst a strange mix of vacant lots, contemporary urban condos, and the scattered DIY shops and art galleries that characterize the district. A young guy was smoking on the front steps in his pajamas when I approached.
“Is this really a museum?” I asked.
No, the guy said, his roommate just put the sign up as a joke. I asked him for directions to the Phoenix Art Museum near Willow House and to Modified Arts, a mixed use space for music and art shows where I’d gone on my last visit to see a band called Small Sails after reading about them in the local rag. It was a great show and outside the venue that night I met one of the more memorable people I have come to know while traveling. He went by the name of Modified Joe, a Vietnam vet with a penchant for indie music and telling his story. He let me tape record him after some initial trepidation and we talked for a time about politics, living in South America, pesticides, alcoholism, survival. I was inspired by Joe as he was someone who had become so incredibly exposed in the world, though still remained open to people like me. A couple years later, I used a snippet of our conversation as an intro to one of my first songs, “Master & Servant,” his gravely voice setting a raw and rough-hewn tone.
“Modified Arts, yeah, they’re just up the way, but they’re closing for good.”
I left the Museum of Gentrification and headed toward the “real” Museum, feeling pretty bummed that such an amazing place as Modified was closing down. On my way, I happened upon the familiar sight of Willow House, though now it wasn’t the same café at all. Another low-key establishment I had wandered into when I was here last—where people talked of philosophy and a man played fiddle in the front room—Willow House Café was a home away from home during my last stay in Phoenix. But now, Willow House was no more. I kid you not: Hob Nob Coffee had taken over. I suppose the Museum of Gentrification wasn’t so fake after all.
There is a palpable strangeness in Phoenix that goes beyond this redolence of change I was experiencing. The landscape is so vast and indifferent, with no mountains or hills to hem you in and give you a sense of perspective. The sky just goes. There is a void there; a vortex maybe. In this weird, urban desert zone, the police presence is also super heavy—more than just for the holiday. When I came in the night before, I saw half a dozen cop cars as I drove through the county, just hanging out at the side of the road ready to pull people over and doing so. I noticed a lot of high-tech camera surveillance, as well, not just at stoplights but at seemingly random points on the road. You couldn’t help but feel like there was some big eye in the sky fixed right on you.
After deciding that I didn’t have enough time for the Phoenix Art Museum, I made my way back into the Roosevelt district where I had spotted another interesting coffee house by the name of Conspire. Inside it was more than I imagined: community hang, anarchist library, art, craft & wares shop, and political center. I met some really nice people there: we talked about gentrification, the changing neighborhood, how the area we were in is actually pretty diverse, but developers are trying to buy up land, historical houses, and an old folks’ home (no joke) to make room for urban condos. I talked with another guy named No Mas about the police presence in Phoenix and he confirmed my observations.
People are armed in Phoenix, he told me, but crime isn’t rampant. It’s the last of the frontier, the Wild West, he said. But it’s the police you have to worry about. There is a hotline to report human rights violations from Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his squad (DOJ Arpaio Abuse Hotline: 877-613- 2137), against whom many in the town were protesting. Driving through Phoenix, I truly have never seen more cameras and people getting pulled over in any other place. This was not just NYE, I was told by No Mas. This is constant. What was more ominous came later in my trip when a man pointed out to me a tall white pole coming out of the sidewalk that looked something like a lightning rod. This apparatus could apparently triangulate the location of a loud noise in the street like fireworks or a gun shot. Arguments about urban safety aside, the Big Brother aura gave me shivers and too many disconcerting images about the future of a place like this.
At Conspire though, and among the other progressive folks and establishments on N. 5th St., I felt a strong sense of community that is difficult to find in cities sometimes. People were willing to hang and talk and be helpful about almost anything, and it didn’t seem for posturing or show, but was totally genuine. My afternoon on N. 5th felt a bit like the Richard Linklater film, Slacker—fluid, philosophical, full of ideas, stories, political talk, conspiracy theories, adventure- sharing. Smoking. Lots of smoking. And coffee.
I decided to stay in Phoenix for New Year’s Eve instead of driving to Los Angeles, and was happy I did. A DJ and burrito-maker at Conspire told me about a backyard party in Tempe he’d be spinning at complete with a bonfire, art show, food, booze: say no more. When night came, I made my way to the Lost Leaf, a beautiful and well-established bar that practically hides itself in the facade of another old Phoenix house along the same stretch of N. 5th. There I met another wonderful group of people and we drank together and talked for a bit. I told them about the backyard party and they wanted to come, but didn’t have a car; I said I could drive us, but we’d have to squeeze six people into my five-seater Saturn. Meanwhile, I had had a few and was okay to drive, but it was NYE in Phoenix and we knew the risks were heavy.
After some bull-shitting and more smoking outside the Lost Leaf, the consensus was fuck it. We’ll make it happen. And we did, without a hitch. And that night I had one of the best New Year’s Eves of my life that I can remember, not to mention the right mindset to end a decade of strange and portentious changes: Fuck it.