Post Date: June 10, 2015

Loving Phoenix

When I first arrived in Phoenix a decade ago this summer to interview for a job at the Arizona Republic, I ate lunch at the Hooters in Arizona Center.

It’s one thing to want to eat at Hooters. It’s another thing to have to eat at Hooters because there are so few dining options.

While I was slightly annoyed by downtown Phoenix’s then sparse options, I was very excited about the job for which I was being considered – and what I thought it meant for my long-term journalism career.

I have long been passionate about higher education and its potential to expose enrolled students to ideas, individuals, and worlds beyond anything they had ever considered. So when Republic editors let me know that they wanted to interview me to be the Arizona State University reporter, I jumped at the opportunity.

Arizona was the second fastest growing state in the country. And Arizona State University was on its way to being the country’s largest residential university.

By the time I arrived, President Michael Crow had been on the ground for three years following a stint as provost of the Ivy League Columbia University. And he was – for better or worse – hell-bent on transforming ASU from a school mainly known for partying to a highly respected academic institution comparable to some of the country’s best public universities.

And I wanted to tell the story – but only for two years.

As grateful as I was to have a high profile beat at the Republic – the largest daily paper owned by Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country – at 24, I was full of East Coast arrogance. I was raised in Washington, D.C. and studied journalism at a “public ivy” and was hoping to be at the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times or a comparable institution before 30.

I was committed to liking Phoenix – but I didn’t have plans to love it.

But then life happened.

I got married. And then I lost my marriage.

We bought a house. And then we lost our house.

A reorganization eliminated the job for which I’d moved to town, forcing me into a reporting position that was not a great fit for me.

And all of this happened during the economic downturn, meaning that leaving this job likely wasn’t possible even if I wanted to do so. But the truth was I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do exactly. From where I sit now, when I look back on those years, most of it is a blurry haze and I am amazed that I made it through them. Because quite frankly, there were more reasons to cry than to smile.

But by God’s grace, I put my head down, did what I was asked to do and tried to do something that I had never had to do before – I endured.

Things began to improve. I began making more meaningful relationships. My superiors thankfully created a fulfilling and challenging position for me – covering business in Phoenix during the economic downturn. And I was becoming increasingly settled in a faith community – that I discovered in an Arizona Republic article – to help me keep all these things in perspective.

As things improved, attractive opportunities to leave Phoenix surfaced. But by this time, I’d been in Phoenix for more than the originally planned two years and found myself liking Phoenix more than planned. But I was torn between my new reality and my original plan to be “in the big leagues.”

Quite a few conversations helped me process where I was emotionally and rationally, but there is one that stands out most clearly. My good friend Brian Kruckenberg, pastor of New City Church, said, “Your generation – millennials – could stand to learn that when it comes to career, there’s something to be said about longevity.”

Kruck was speaking to the well-earned reputation millennials had for changing jobs nearly as often as they change clothes. And while by that point I’d proven that I wasn’t some noncommittal twentysomething jumping from job to job out of boredom or challenge, I could stand to be more invested in Phoenix.

So I decided to stay. And it was around this time that in reporting on the economic downturn, I found myself writing about how Phoenix nonprofits were responding to the reality that record numbers of Phoenicians were without work, without housing, and honestly, without love.

I thought about how I never planned to love Phoenix and as I began to learn more about Phoenix’s history – in conjunction with the history of urban policy issues nationally – I realized that many of the challenges that Phoenix faced were in part because people had chosen not to love the city.

Poor development policies that saw businesses, faith communities and individuals with means and privilege flee to the suburbs as racial integration became the law of the land left Phoenix’s urban core underserved and deeply challenged. And like most downtowns across the country, Phoenix officials and institutions were trying to rectify decades of a lack of investment.

And I wanted to be on the front lines reporting on this change.

Thankfully, my boss at the time slowly allowed me to write more about these changes that were revolutionizing things in the huge suburb known as Phoenix. And eventually, a reorganization worked in my favor and I was named the downtown Phoenix reporter.

Since then, it is not an exaggeration to say that the difference between Phoenix in 2005 and Phoenix in 2015 is night and day. Perhaps because it was trendy to do so or maybe because people were deeply embarrassed that Phoenix was the nation’s sixth largest city yet with a downtown that was practically nonexistent, but people, institutions, governments, and faith-based organizations began investing in Phoenix’s urban core. People began to truly love the city. And I got to write about it and love it with them.

As is perhaps obvious, it became increasingly difficult to write objectively about Phoenix’s revitalization. I was regularly speaking with so many people about Phoenix’s future – and I began to develop ideas of my own and wanted to be involved in shaping it. But I knew I needed more education to prevent myself from perpetuating many of the problems that had harmed Phoenix in the past. So as hard as it would be, I knew that if I was given the chance to study urban policy issues at the graduate level I would.

So when the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University gave me the opportunity to earn a Master’s in Public Administration, I did not pass up the opportunity.

After a year of studying urban issues on the ground everywhere from Boston to Tokyo, I had the privilege of returning to Phoenix for three weeks in May after completing my degree. To say that my trip was bittersweet is a great understatement. As I sat on the patio at Phoenix Public Market, I looked out on a skyline mostly featuring buildings that did not exist when I arrived in town.

My time away birthed in me a desire not to return to Phoenix but to write about urban policy issues at the national level. Leaving Phoenix behind for D.C. was not easy but it was needed and it was time.

And I can now say that it wasn’t because I thought there was something better, but because Phoenix was better – and I can humbly say that I’d played some role in helping it become that.

Photo: “Downtown Phoenix Skyline at Night” by Alan Stark (via Wikimedia Commons)