Why did the chicken cross the road? Well, what’s more interesting is where the chicken crossed the road. I’ve just finished eating hash browns to die for at Matt’s Big Breakfast, the kind of diner any small town would be proud of. Matt’s is the type of place that serves huge helpings of tasty farm-fresh food (‘Our eggs are cage-free and cracked to order’) and has locals queuing for up to two hours to come in, eat the food, and hang out.
As I leave I see a chicken crossing the road, one that’s definitely cage-free. It’s clearly into Slow Travel, as it makes its unconcerned way back to a worried-looking rooster that’s pacing behind the bars on a patch of ground behind a Montessori School across a vacant lot from Matt’s.
What makes this remarkable is that this isn’t small-town America. It’s Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix. Phoenix is the 6th-biggest city in the USA and, with about 1.5 million people, the biggest state capital in the country. So how come a chicken is safely crossing the road in downtown, and people have two hours to wait in line for a cheese omelet? It’s because Phoenix is in transformation.
Matt’s is on North 1st Street, a block from Central Avenue, almost the geographical center of the city. The high-rise office buildings are visible a few blocks away, just as the Arizona mountains pop into view on the horizon as you travel around. For years Phoenix’s downtown was a place where bankers worked by day but by night you could almost see the tumbleweeds blowing around the deserted streets. No more. Since 2006 the city has pumped over $4 billion into developing downtown as a place where you might want to hang out at Matt’s, or at the end of the day in cocktail bars or restaurants. A light-rail system has been put in, and a downtown campus built for Arizona State University.
Bankers may not be able to spare a couple of hours to queue for Matt’s, but students and artists can, and that’s who’s been attracted by the new scene that’s developing here. Once I’m safely past the chicken and onto Roosevelt Street, a block north of Matt’s, I’m joining a tour of the Roosevelt Row Arts District led by Greg Esser, an artist himself and one of the driving forces behind the development of this neighborhood of 1920s-1940s homes.
Greg stresses that he sees this as an artists’ district, not an arts district, though. I can see why. Arts district brings to mind a scene of chichi galleries, craft stores smelling of patchouli oil and candles, and middle-class shop owners selling upscale artsy souvenirs to middle-class tourists. Ro-Ro, as they call it, isn’t like that. Instead it has a kind-of hippy-grunge vibe, best illustrated by the funky murals that decorate the buildings – skeletons and skulls, screaming graffiti, gentle rainbows, boxers, subtle monochromes, a bright red cherry with a bomb fuse burning, Marilyn Monroe looking sultry… and a giant rooster. It makes me wonder if this is what Greenwich Village was like in the 50s, or Haight-Ashbury in the 60s.
‘These murals are less than ten years old,’ Greg explains. ‘What happened was that this area was re-zoned as a high-rise district, where the business district of downtown would spread out, so lots of low-rise buildings were torn down, which is why you have all these open spaces and vacant lots between the buildings. But the economy tanked and the high-rise development never happened. So some of us got together and decided to do something about it.’
What they did is a delight to see, an explosion of color and energy. Greg leads us into a gallery cum photography studio, and past a vacant lot where the Halt Gallery isn’t a chichi shop but is based in old shipping container.
‘This lot’s going to be developed as apartments soon,’ says Greg, ‘which is good as we want more people living in the area. When that starts to happen we’ll just move the gallery to the lot across the street. We’re also trying to cultivate a neighborhood where you can live without a car.’
I start to fantasize about moving here, and walking from gallery to record store to bookshop to café to restaurant to a live-music bar and then back home again. Then get up the next morning, say hello to the chicken, and join the queue for Matt’s Big Breakfast. It would be quite a life, in the heart of Phoenix, which is doing what phoenixes do: transforming itself and rising again.