Binge Traveling: Phoenix, or The Worst City

A possible test for the presence of even minute traces of ecological awareness in an individual is to ask whether he or she feels a disconnect when golfing in a desert

A couple months ago when I posted about my plans to travel from Minneapolis to Phoenix to transport my grandmother, I was waaaaaay too easy on Phoenix.  Just because I happen to be a pretentious snob doesn’t mean Phoenix doesn’t deserve the scorn I heap upon it, which I should have known thanks to my having visited the town far too many times.  But wrapped up in my own white middle-class critiques, I also wasn’t aware of just how terrible Phoenix is.

It all came flooding back when we arrived, coming from the east on the enormous Beeline Hwy that mysteriously carries heavy traffic through deserted mountains, and then stopping and starting through 15 miles of thick suburbia on 8-lane Shea Blvd, somehow congested at midday on a Monday.  Sure, Phoenix is one of the most auto-dependent cities in the country, and I took pictures of endless parking lots with views of dessicated peaks, and even worse, the serpentine sidewalks that constantly meander around turn lanes and curb cuts.  But I had no idea how truly bad Phoenix was until I read, upon my return to relatively green Minnesota, Bird On Fire.

I wasn’t expecting much from this book, to be honest.  Being from flyoverland, I get defensive when a guy from NYC writes a book about a city that’s not on the coast without even moving there.  And as someone who has gone to somewhat ridiculous lengths to avoid flying to or from Phoenix, I scoffed at how often he had to commute to Phoenix by plane in order to write a book about how damaging to the environment Phoenix is.

South Phoenix Industrial Hellscape

But to tell the truth, I ate it up.  The guy knows his narrative journalism, and peppers the book with characters that have analogues to Minneapolis:  the urban-pioneering artist, the hippie farmer, the vaguely green mayor.  But things started getting heavy when I read the chapter on environmental injustice in South Phoenix, which is home to 85040 or what the author calls “the nation’s dirtiest zip code.”  I’m going to reproduce a few paragraphs that make me feel a little douchey for complaining that someone refused to yield to me in a crosswalk:

CRSP [a coalition of South Phoenix resident organizations] was formed in 1992 after fire gutted a circuit-board manufacturing facility (Quality Printed Circuits) in a South Phoenix neighborhood not far from the riverbed.  In the aftermath of the 12-hour fire, which burned off several thousand pounds of sulfuric acid and hydrogen fluoride, residents complained of a wide range of illnesses… City Hall, it transpired, had granted the company a permit to rebuild in the same neighborhood after a smaller but similar kind of fire burned down its former facility in 1989, and the new permit actually included an exemption for installing overhead sprinklers.  After the 1992 fire, tests of selected homes conducted by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) found evidence of elevated fluoride and zinc concentrations, but the agency concluded that no adverse health impacts would result.  Several years later, more systematic EPA tests found statistically significant levels of these chemicals that were consistent with the symptoms.  Residents had been living for several years with poisons and toxics circulating through the air ducts of homes that lay downwind from the fire.  Many of the houses were subsequently demolished, but lax, or nonexistent, ADEZ inspections of other facilities in South Phoenix all but guaranteed that other fires would break out.

In August 2000, the area saw one of its worst airborne toxic catastrophes when the main warehouse of Central Garden, the Valley’s largest supplier of pool and lawn chemicals, exploded and caught fire.  “It was like the Fourth of July,” recalled Pops [founder of CRSP].  Firemen, motorists, and residents were captured vomiting in the streets on nightly news footage as the blackened fumes billowed far and wide.  The fire burned for two days, hundredes ended up in the hospital, and many died or suffered debilitating ailments in the years following.  Emergency responders had no idea what chemicals they were dealing with, and to this day, no adequate inventeory of the warehouse contents has been compiled.  ADEZ only tested air quality for standard hydrocarbon releases and, five days after the fire, announced that there was no “public health concern” to the residents of South Phoenix.  Yet, a month later, the agency’s water tests, not announced to the public, showed arsenic at 100 times the maximum level allowable for drinking water.  In the fire’s aftermath, community pressure stepped up to legislate electronic reporting of the hazardous contents of facilities.

Something funny in the water, from Bird on Fire

Inspired by the high degree of citizen involvement after the 1992 fire, Pops’s organization looked to other sites that needed preemptive action.  The area’s hazardous waste management facilities (five of the city’s seven were located in South Phoenix) were an obvious target, and one in particular, operated by Innovative Waste Utilization, stood out as a threat to the entire neighborhood.  The former owner of the site, which had several contaminated areas, including one from a significant arsenic spill, had operated for seventeen years without a permanent permit and had been allowed by the ADEZ to store hazardous waste (including DDT and lead) exported from California.  When the new owner applied for an expansion of the facility in 1999, Pops and other activists responded with a civil rights complaint aimed at the ADEQ’s long-term complicity in allowing toxic waste facilities to cluster in their neighborhoods.  The expansion permit process was arrested, but the agency still approved a permit to store hazardous waste.  The company subsequently contracted with the state of California to accept toxic waste collected in West Coast methampetamine busts.  Pops recalled that “the stench in the neighborhood was so vile that we accused the city and county of burning animals in incinerators.”  Over time, employees took to selling the seized chemicals to local meth labs, and the facility was raided in 2003.  “The odor,” Pops reported, “stopped immediately when the place was busted” and then shut down by the ADEZ.  The state legislature, outraged that the agency had finally found some regulatory teeth, debated whether to abolish it.

A state with leaders so dedicated to free markets that they threaten to shut down an agency that infringes on the community’s narcoentrepreneurs is a good indication of what Phoenix is about:  growth.  But is that so different from the Twin Cities?  Minneapolis’ last comp plan was dedicated in the title to delivering growth, which modified by that adjective ‘sustainable’ may mean that the City wants to sustain growth indefinitely.  St Paul’s last mayor, Randy Kelly, had a focus on population growth that was only matched by his dedication to the reelection of George W. Bush.  And those are just the two cities in the metro area that aren’t actually growing.

The Twin Cities don’t necessarily measure well against Phoenix on “green” living.  Their light rail system is around 7 miles longer, with a bus system that provides much better coverage for local routes, if their frequency is comparatively pathetic.  Minneapolis may out-brag Phoenix when it comes to biking, and I’m not sure of either metro’s total mileage, but Phoenix claims 500 miles of bikeways (including routes, signed or unsigned), and based on maps I’d guess they’re fairly comparable.  Phoenix is a truly terrible place to walk, but the Twin Cities are pretty bad themselves, outside of maybe a few core neighborhoods.

So our superiority complex will have to rest on the damaged lungs and carcinogenic water of South Phoenix.  While not without environmental justice issues, the Twin Cities have nothing on the scale of South Phoenix, the dumping ground for all their heavy industry.  Phoenix is notorious for its sprawling form, but it has the framework for a multimodal paradise:  the bones of transit and cycling systems and, as noted in Bird on Fire, vacant land totaling 40% of the land area on which to add dense infill.  The trickier issue will likely be a history of pervasive environmental injustice that’s poisoned relations between different socioeconomic groups as much as it’s poisoned neighborhoods.

Oh yeah, and their primary water source is a river more than 300 miles away.

The humid desert air