All of the excitement surrounding the explosion of development in and around the downtown Phoenix corridor has brought with it what seems to be a never ending battle: entrepreneurial vs. corporate; local vs. chain; “the little guy” vs. “the man.” And the debate rages on.
Yet, perhaps the debate is unnecessary. Is it possible to be both corporate and entrepreneurial – or even more of a leap, chain restaurant and local establishment? And, is it conceivable that “the man” has much in common with “the little guy”?
In January 2010, along with my wife and three kids I moved to the Willo Historic District to start a new church in the city’s center. We had no idea what a gem we had “discovered” because we were largely ignorant to the beauty and community that urban Phoenix offered. Like many east valley residents, we didn’t even know an urban Phoenix existed. But when we decided to start a new church we knew we didn’t want to start it in the suburbs – the land of the chain restaurant! We had always felt called to the city, where people from all walks of life meet in a beautiful collision. Where $500 a month apartments share an alley with million dollar homes.
When we moved downtown, we were not disappointed. We found many people like ourselves and many people very different. We met many who were seeking a more walkable, bikeable, almost “small town” experience in the midst of urban development. Others were seeking a place to live for the evening or just to grab something to eat.
Soon after we arrived in the city, we began to see the covert signs of what has now become obvious. Urban Phoenix was not going to be an oxymoron for long. New cafes, restaurants, bike paths, parks, and galleries began popping up out of nowhere.
Our church took a similar path. We started meeting in our living room and we soon rented a historic home just south of Roosevelt on Second Avenue where we opened an art gallery in order to participate in First Friday events. Soon, our church had grown from 12 to 40. Then we “merged” with another local church and before long we were 125 strong.
We were a local movement! We were the entrepreneurs! We leased a spot at 4331 North Central where we crammed all the people into it that we could. We remodeled the building along the way, painting it and carrying for what had once been a rather bleak little spot that no one noticed. We were the little guy – but we wouldn’t be for long, as 125 people became 300, who became 700, who became over 1300. Most assuredly, we had found ourselves squarely in “the man” status.
Having outgrown our earlier space, New City recently purchased the building at 1300 North Central. It had sat empty for a few years, and anything of value had been stripped by vandals or those just trying to survive. It was a quaint mid-century modern building whose best days were no doubt in its rearview mirror – or so it seemed.
But then a group of local “little guys” as well as some corporate “the man” types banded together, raising thousands of dollars with a dream that this building could once again contribute to the city’s flourishing. Even though we had perhaps lost our outward street cred as the local entrepreneur, it was precisely the heart of an entrepreneur that compelled us to make the leap.
Even before our building opened for our first service, though, we began to hear it.
“Well, this isn’t a church for the community now,” I heard someone comment as they toured the building in a pre-opening event. “This will be a ‘regional’ church. It won’t reach this neighborhood.”
Because deep down, I knew I was still the little guy. My blood bleeds Lola, Lux, and Cartel espresso. You can smell Cibo, Bianco, and Pomo garlic on my skin. Throw a little Matt’s Big Breakfast bacon into the mix and you have a walking billboard for all things local. I know my baristas by name, and they know me.
Our heart for the city hadn’t changed. Our love for the underdog remained firm. But, now, as “the man” we have our chance to give, love, and serve this city even more. Instead of sending 10 people, we can send 50. Instead of giving hundreds to a worthy cause, we can now give thousands. Numbers don’t have to cloud the heart; it is the heart behind the numbers that matters.
Growth isn’t always good and people can get displaced on the back of “progress.” Yet much of what I see in urban Phoenix is taking empty lots or abandoned buildings and restoring them to a use that contributes something back into the city. What were once empty lots and empty historic homes on Second Avenue near the New City offices and gallery have recently become new mixed-income apartments as well as restored single family homes.
Will everyone get it right? No. But many will, including some of those who open corporate, chain stores. As much as I tend to prefer “local” establishments (often because I simply think they are better), I still see the value of the local Starbucks that employs people who live in our neighborhoods and go to our state colleges and universities.
When we opened our doors to our new building on February 8, I took great comfort in meeting our very first guest. He arrived quite early, grabbed a cup of Lux coffee, and found a seat near the back. Steve was a homeless man and somehow he saw past the new glass store front, the rotating wood and steel doors, and the video monitors in the lobby. We were his new neighbors and by all appearances he felt welcomed.
This isn’t a church for the local neighborhood? I thought to myself. I’m glad no one told Steve.