On Roosevelt Row, the New Walkable Residence of Phoenix, Arizona

EAST ROOSEVELT STREET is haunted by its past. Walk across the erstwhile drug-addled neighbourhood in downtown Phoenix, just a few blocks south of the I-10 highway and the postmodern central library, and you’d never guess you’re close to the city’s sophisticated historic downtown – there are too many empty dirt lots, front yards filled with trash and fences made from wobbly chainlink or corroded wood. “No one’s ever wanted to live here until now,” says Michael Lanier, who runs a local plant shop called the Bosque. “When I told my mom I was moving here, she cried. She was like, ‘I’ll pay your rent if you move anywhere else.’”

east roosevelt street downtown phoenix

But Lanier did move here, and he wasn’t alone. East Roosevelt – known as Roosevelt Row, or simply RoRo – has transformed into what The New York Times called a “the city’s cutting-edge art destination.” It’s community-focused, densely populated and covered in graffiti; there are independent coffee shops, organic grocery markets, all-night bars and strictly local art galleries, none of which existed 15 years ago.

RoRo is the city’s first real walkable neighbourhood, and locals are flocking to it so quickly that rental rates have soared to become the most expensive in Phoenix, trumping even well-moneyed Scottsdale. When my girlfriend and I visited in the fall, we saw apartments and townhouses rising at a furious pace, construction crews repaving whole streets, and city workers installing bike parking behind a yoga studio. It’s a neighbourhood under construction, pushing past the ragged clothes still left behind on public benches by the homeless who, for now, still quietly occupy the streets.

It’s hard to stress how weird this all feels for a city so famously unwalkable. For decades, Phoenix has been defined by archetypes of American sprawl: snaking highways, segregated suburbs, a concentrated downtown business district. You’d be crazy to live there and not own a car.

That point was made clear days earlier, when we caught a local TV news story about a new environmental-arts group that temporarily transformed downtown parking spots into miniature green spaces. When the program cut back to the two anchors, one burst out laughing: “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard of.”

***

You can read the full article at the Globe and Mail, where it appeared in the Jan. 26 edition of Globe Travel.

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