Travelogue

Robert Cruickshank graduated this spring with a history major. Respond at [email protected].





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It is an extremely hot place, where rain is occasional and precious. The skies are not blue, but brown -- smoggy skies made possible by uncontrolled growth and a near-absence of public transportation. The metropolis sprawls outward in every direction. Only a few tall buildings gathered next to each other are able to lay claim to being the "downtown" of the region. It is a place populated by conservative folk, conservative in manners as well as in politics. By no means all white suburbanites, they think of themselves in that way, ignoring any diversity in their midst.

I'm talking about Los Angeles, right? No, the unbearable hell I traveled to last week is Phoenix, Ariz. You are forgiven for thinking of Southern California, because the two places are alike in many ways. The differences are not one of place but of time and history, which will become clear as I sketch a picture of this desert paradise-lost.

Every year, I travel to Arizona with my family, visiting relatives in a suburb of Phoenix. It has become a sort of second home for my mother's side of the family and, as such, I've been able to see Phoenix grow and fester, like an open wound, for the better part of a decade.

Phoenix is little but mile upon mile of white stucco houses, punctuated only occasionally by equally bland shopping centers. To say that the place is mind-numbingly boring is an understatement. There is nothing for the area's youth to do, except for the typical soccer leagues, school and church-related activities. The kids can go to the movies, hang out at each other's houses -- playing video games or swimming around in the pool -- but little else. It is all very simple, routine and supervised -- the antithesis of what most kids want to get out of their childhood.

The beautiful Sonora Desert, in which Phoenix lies, has been paved over and planted with all kinds of alien flora. As the region is dominated by Republicans, there is nothing in the way of urban planning, growth control or public transportation. Such things, of course, would amount to an unacceptable government regulation of the free market, and in Arizona, the market is king. As a result, saguaro cacti and the blue skies have been sacrificed, replaced by unnatural expanses of green grass and hazy skies. Some 3 million people live in the region, and that number is expected to nearly double by 2010. Already, new developments are being built in the unspoiled desert outside the Valley of the Sun, with no end in sight to the sprawl.

Not long ago on National Public Radio, I heard a discussion about the Interior West (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah) and the spectacular growth it has experienced lately. One of the guests made a point about how conservative these places had become, as suburban refugees from older metropolises, especially Southern California, sought out a place where they could raise their children, away from the problems of the other areas. This thesis explains Arizona quite well.

What has happened is that suburban families have decided to hide from reality -- hide from diversity -- in the deserts of the American West. Arizona's indigenous Latino and black communities are largely ignored by the newcomers, thought of only as places of crime and poverty. Suburban Arizonans see themselves as a white, Christian, middle-class people (church attendance is higher in Arizona than the national average). They block out all knowledge of diversity to blindly raise their children in their sheltered suburban utopia.

This facade, built of good schools, soccer leagues and mass developments of tract homes, is very thin indeed. The parents of the children for whom all this was built recognize the fragility of their ideal world. One of them told me about a time when their children participated in a youth discussion at their local church. Their kids, who attended a private school, were shocked to hear other young Christians, public-school kids, tell of drug use, alcoholism and attempted suicide. Their kids, who were all in their teens, hadn't ever heard of such things from people their own age and had no idea how to respond to or make sense of it. Their mother told me that she had always hoped to raise her kids in a community where these things weren't around, but that she had come to realize that her kids would one day have to confront these issues, issues which could never be avoided or eliminated.

She, like many Arizona parents, was a child of the '60s and '70s. Many of them grew up in the maelstrom of social and cultural upheaval, and they were the baby boomers who rejected all that the '60s stood for. To them, Arizona is the place where they can return to the idyllic time of the 1950s, before everything was turned upside-down. Ignorance is bliss, but it is also stupid. Arizona today likes to think of itself as locked in the 1950s, but if this is the case, its own version of the 1960s is not far off. The problems of being young and of trying to make a living in a capitalist country cannot be dealt with so easily or simplistically. Sheltering the young from reality accomplishes nothing but making it more difficult for those kids to deal with a harsh world. Indeed, I think it is no coincidence that the Columbine massacre happened in the Interior West, where sheltered ignorance is the norm.

I saw the sun rise over the desert hills one morning and, for once, Phoenix looked truly beautiful. The sun, along with the 110-degree heat, told me that nature was still there. You cannot hide from the problems of human life so easily, just as a metropolis cannot deny the facts of the natural world. I only hope the youth of Arizona will not be forced to find these things out the hard way.

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