Our Old Stomping Grounds in Arizona: Arcosanti, Jerome, and Flagstaff

Ann and I spot a screaming deal for round-trip airfare from Denver to Phoenix. We opt to carry out a desire we’ve had for years: To return to Arizona and see places we had lived in decades ago.

We drive north on I-17 from Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix. The city of Phoenix is a poster child for sprawl, as several decades of publicly-funded highway widenings and the creation of oceans of free parking has dispersed houses across endless miles of desert surrounding Phoenix. As we head north on the Interstate, we cross an exit for Northern Avenue. And doing this gives us a clear view of the extent of Phoenix sprawl, as Northern Avenue in the early days of Phoenix was surely at the northern edge of the city. Today, several miles of residential and commercial sprawl have been smeared across the arid landscape north of Northern Avenue. Indeed, Northern Avenue could probably be called “South Central Avenue” now, given all the costly dispersal.

Ann decides to drive us through Black Canyon City in her search for some needed eye drops. We spot a tiny, lonely, hardly visible Mexican “café” and on a whim, Ann adventurously decides we should sample it for lunch.

The ambience could hardly be worse. The “café” is playfully called the Chihuahua Chill Grill Black City3 AZ Dec 2013Chihuahua Chill Grill, and the restaurant “building” is housed within a tiny trailer sitting on one corner of a vast, empty Family Dollar asphalt parking lot. The “seating” is on small outdoor picnic tables grouped around the trailer, and the “floor” is asphalt. Surrounding the “café” is chain link fencing topped by razor wire. Tumbleweeds and cactus are the neighbors.

What could be worse?

As it turns out, however, the Chihuahua Chill Grill has gotten rave reviews from visitors throughout the world, as the fish tacos and enchiladas are superb. And affordable. We enjoy our filling, delicious lunch there so much that we later decide to stop there again for lunch on our way to Sky Harbor airport at the end of our Arizona tour.

Our first visit is to Arcosanti, where Ann lived briefly in the 1970s.

Arcosanti is an experimental town and molten bronze bell casting community that has been developed by Paolo Soleri, who began construction in 1970, 70 miles north of Phoenix. Soleri started the town to demonstrate how urban conditions could be improved while minimizing the destructive impact on the earth. He taught and influenced generations of architects and urban designers.

My assessment of Arcosanti is one of surprise and great disappointment. I had heard of Arcosanti when I was at school in nearby Flagstaff, and expected it to impress me. But what I find is appalling.

The poured concrete buildings are hideously ugly, bizarre, and utterly unlovable. Why did Soleri not use the timeless adobe architecture that had existed in the region for centuries?Arcosanti8 Dec 2013

In the middle of a very arid, extremely water-scarce region, Arcosanti must draw precious water from a well system. Yet despite the desperate lack of water, Arcosanti has several areas landscaped with grass sod. Unsurprisingly, the grass is being watered by an irrigation system while we are there. Why did Arcosanti not opt for xeriscape landscaping to avoid the need to squander precious water on grass? And why does Arcosanti have an enormous outdoor swimming pool that results in high levels of water evaporation?

The main dining hall for Arcosanti is stunningly cold on the day we spend there. Indeed, all that have gathered for the meal we attend need to wear winter coats as they sit at the indoor dining tables. I notice that the dining hall has enormous, unshaded glass windows facing south and west. Clearly, the design leads to huge heat gain in warmer months, which must turn the space into an oven. Why, then, is Arcosanti designed to be so awful regarding climate control?

Arcosanti is isolated in the middle of the central Arizona desert. Such a location necessitates relatively high levels of motor vehicle trips to support the “community,” which was envisioned to be the home of 5,000 to 6,000 people, but currently has a population of 56. To make a visit to the doctor, a trip to buy clothes, a night at the movie theatre, or an excursion to buy groceries all require long car trips. Why is Arconsanti not location-efficient, so that it closely neighbors such regular needs?

We stay in the “Sky Suite,” which provides grand views of a scenic desert landscape surrounding Arcosanti, as two of the four walls of the suite consist almost entirely of glass. But the glass is unshaded, which surely leads to issues of energy conservation problems and climate control issues, not to mention the lack of privacy. With its high elevation and abundant glass, I feel as if I am in a fishbowl, where everyone around us can look in on us.

After Arcosanti, we drive to the charming, historic hill town of Jerome. Ann lived in Jerome in the late 1970s at the same time I lived in nearby Flagstaff. We stay at the lovely “Surgeon’s House” bed and breakfast, and enjoy a stunning sunset over the valley and canyons to the north of Jerome5 Dec 2013Jerome, and are treated to the best breakfast we have ever eaten on the morning of our departure.

Jerome was founded in the late 19th century on Cleopatra Hill, overlooking the Verde Valley, it is about 100 miles north of Phoenix. Supported by copper mines, it had 10,000 residents in the 1920s. As of the 2010 census, its population was 444.

In the late 19th century, the United Verde Mine, developed by William Clark, extracted ore bearing copper, gold, silver. In total, the copper deposits discovered in the vicinity of Jerome were among the richest ever found in any time or place.

Jerome made news in 1917, when strikes involving the IWW led to the expulsion at gunpoint of about 60 IWW members.

We drive to Oak Creek Canyon on yet another bright, sunny day. Our Wilson Creek trail2 Oak Creek Canyon AZ Dec 2013dayhike is on the incredibly beautiful, picturesque Wilson Creek Trail. In the late 1970s, I would tag along with friends from Flagstaff to go tubing at Slickrock in Oak Creek Canyon. So enjoyable is the hike that Ann and I vow to want to return to Oak Creek a number of times to enjoy the many gorgeous trails there.

Our last Arizona stop is Flagstaff, where Northern Arizona University is found. I was a student at NAU for three years from 1978 through 1981 before transferring to the State University of New York at Plattsburgh to finish a degree in environmental science.

I had not been to Flagstaff in 33 years, and despite having lived there for three years, I did not recognize anything in Flagstaff, or on the university campus.

My favorite drinking and live music nightclub when I was a student was a place called “Shakey Drakes.” It has since become a strip club briefly, and is now a Thai restaurant. My buddies and I drank many pitchers of Schlitz beer there while enjoying performances by our favorite local band – “Loosely Tight.” According to Wikipedia, Loosely Tight was based out of Phoenix, got a lot of airplay on KDKB radio station (our favorite rock station), and the band came to prominence after taking top honors at the 1979 California World Music Festival. My favorite song by Loosely Tight was a song called “Renegade.”

As they say, “you can’t go home again,” as communities change quickly (and old friends move out of town).

For old times sake, I return to my old college dorm – Peterson Hall – and Peterson Jam 1980 and Dec 2013actually remember my old dorm room door. We go into the basement and I “reenact” my being a rock star where I had played air guitar with a plywood guitar in 1980. Later, I stitch together a photo of my 2013 visit to a shot taken of me there in 1980. The white metal trusses on the ceiling match, which provides evidence that the venue is the same.

 

 

Here are the photos we shot during our visits to Arcosanti, Jerome, Oak Creek Canyon, and Flagstaff. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left.

Arcosanti and Jerome:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/ArcosoniAndJeromeAZ

Oak Creek Canyon:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/OakCreekCanyonAZDec2013

Flagstaff:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/FlagstaffDec2013

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