Herb Paine: Light Rail Adventure

October 10, 2013

Hopping on a train is not only about getting from one place to another. It’s about the passengers and artifacts along the way that define the city you’re in and give you a sense of place and pulse.

That’s what I expect when I board the light rail for a round-trip adventure down Central Avenue, reputedly Phoenix’s main drag, but what strikes me is not just what I see along the way but what I don’t.

I watch for an urban identity and play my own game of “I spy with my critical eye.”

I spy the signage at Central and McDowell that reads “Arts District,” but it's not clear where that “district” ends or begins – if it embraces the corridor of cultural and historical gems that precede it by a few stops ... the Heard and Phoenix Arts Museums, the Burton Barr Library, or the ironic Trolley Museum, or if it announces Roosevelt Row, another arts corridor whose promise is as yet unfulfilled.

I see no placards in the train compartments that explain the opportunities for discovery that are nearby and why they're significant; no banners suspended from the kokopeli-adorned street lamps that say, “Hey, guess what’s going on around here,” and invite passengers to traverse the parallel roads where venues for theatre and music and biotechnology exist.

Public art graces the stations, but it is nearly easy to miss. Historical markers exist , but they seem like afterthoughts in a city where a history museum could not survive.

Along the way, I note “lots available,” luxury condos and educational outposts and I spy large spaces between these centers of activity with no connection that says, “We are Phoenix.”

These absences do not do justice to the neighborhood leaders and arts advocates and locavores who are trying make something special of this place.

Phoenix is certainly different. There’s none of the storm and stress of LA or New York, the conspicuous history and charm of San Francisco and Boston, or the architectural grandeur of Chicago.

Phoenix seems a city still in search of its own unique identity, full of possibility, but with a pulse that needs extra stimulation and a unifying vision that boots it into the future.

I have come to the end of the line and I'm not sure that the city is on the right track.

Herb Paine is a business strategy consultant and social critic.

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