To many, Phoenix is known for its sprawling suburbs—and that reputation has seldom been seen as a good thing. But metro areas are changing, in many ways for the better, and ours is no exception. But while we rightly celebrate the revitalization of urban cores like downtown Phoenix—signified by hip cafés, luxury condos, award-winning restaurants, and the like—it would be a mistake to overlook how the suburbs are changing as well.
Earlier this year, we linked to a Politico magazine story about the suburbanization of poverty in metro Atlanta, which invited the haunting question: “What happens when poverty spreads to a place that wasn’t built for poor people?” It’s a question that anyone who cares about human flourishing simply has to reckon with. I was reminded of this question while reading a new essay published by The Economist, which considers, among other metro areas, the changing face of the less-than-glamorous Phoenix suburbs:
America’s suburbs are not withering, but many of them have changed, in ways that can seem disturbing. Recent events have made Ferguson a distressing example. It is a suburb that has become mostly black but which retains a mostly white power structure, parts of which strike its black residents as oppressive. Still, other suburbs have adapted more easily. Among them is Levittown in New Jersey, studied by the sociologist Herbert Gans in 1958. When it was built, blacks were banned from living there. It is now known as Willingboro Township and is three-quarters black.
One of the biggest, oldest and poorest suburban developments in America is Maryvale, in Phoenix. It was built at great speed in the 1950s and sold just as quickly. But many of its white inhabitants fled in the 1980s following a strange cluster of leukaemia cases. Maryvale is now home to around 200,000 people, roughly three-quarters of whom are Hispanic. It has a dismal reputation. Most people in Phoenix associate it with “the cancer cluster, crime and poverty,” explains Dwight Amery, a longtime resident. Three-bedroom houses can be bought there for less than $100,000. Maryvale is even said to be roamed by packs of feral chihuahuas.
Many of our readers are undoubtedly familiar with the “dismal reputations” of Maryvale and other communities in metro Phoenix. But as this essay goes on to suggest, the storyline of blight and violence is obviously not the whole story:
Yet the people who moved out of Maryvale did not pile into the city centre; they went to newer, more distant suburbs. And the district’s new Mexican inhabitants are probably better off there than they would be crammed into tower blocks. They have space and freedom—to paint their houses bright green, to build extensions for grandparents, to have barbecues in their front yards, to keep chickens (a few even keep horses). Some run small businesses out of the local shopping mall, which has been turned into a mercado. They probably suffer less crime than they would in a more densely populated area, too. Brookings, which has crunched FBI data, finds that violent crime has dropped steeply in principal cities since the early 1990s—but only to a level twice as high as in either old suburbs or new ones.
In every community there are leaders committed to the wellbeing of their neighbors, eager to collaborate with people of goodwill, creating businesses, planting gardens, painting murals—all efforts to establish a stronger community and to ensure a better future for the next generation.
In 2015, we want to tell more of these stories. We want to celebrate the unsung heroes of Maryvale, of Guadalupe, of Glendale—and of Scottsdale, the Coronado District, and Gilbert alike. In other words, wherever people are working together for the common good, we want to know about it and we want to celebrate it. That’s what we exist to do.
So here’s where you come in. We need you to help us tell these stories. You can do that by introducing us to the unsung heroes in your community. If you have a knack for writing, we may even ask you to be the storyteller. However big or small, please send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Header Photo: Aerial shot of Maryvale, Arizona by Doc Searls (via Wikimedia Commons)
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