A Dispatch from Tempe

I mentioned earlier this week the infrastructural deficit observable in certain locations in sub-Saharan Africa – recent days have allowed me to observe that same phenomenon at work in the Southwestern United States. I’m in Tempe, Arizona, for eight weeks of language school, and it’s painfully obvious to this New Englander that the place is, compared to New York or Boston, empty (and of what is here, nothing is older than maybe 1950). The relative import of Arizona’s infrastructure deficit compared to that of, say, Kenya’s is of course vastly smaller – in Kenya it means a lot of stuff just isn’t there, whereas in Arizona all it means is that none of it is old and appealing and all of it is new(ish) and sterile. Clearly on the list of problems to have, this falls pretty firmly into the “good ones to have” category.

Unfortunately for me, that doesn’t make Tempe any more appealing a place to live. A quick look at the city’s population growth does a good job explaining why. Starting in 1940, the city grows anywhere from ~30% to 100% (or more) each decade, before the great Sun Belt migration took its foot off the accelerator somewhere around 1990. This happened to coincide directly with the rise of suburbia, freeways, and the car, and all of it unfolded against a backdrop of basically limitless space. According to Wikipedia, Tempe’s population density is just over 4k people per square mile, while New York City’s is almost 28k. Maybe you’d expect New York to be a bit denser anyway since it’s a much larger city, but that it carries a whopping seven times more people per square mile than Tempe indicates a fundamentally different relationship with urban space. Namely, that when this iteration was created, it wasn’t dealing with the limitation imposed by previous ones.

Part of the reason Tempe is low and flat and sprawling may also be that it is balls hot in this part of the world, and cooling tall apartment blocks might be vastly more expensive than cooling thousands of small one-story bungalows (one might walk around in that heat and question the benefits of building a city in a place like Tempe in the first place, but then again as a species we don’t seem to make great choices in the city location department, e.g. Astana, New Orleans, to name two ill-advised arrangements, and anyway this post is written by a guy who voluntarily spent multiple winters in the middle-of-nowhere Vermont).*

Between Tempe’s heat-induced desire to have its buildings cling to the earth as much as possible and the city’s ill-fortune to have its most explosive population growth coincide with one of the bleakest periods in American urban development, the result is a thoroughly unappealing place to live (though at least some of the people here seem to like it – one suspects a sort of residential Stockholm Syndrome). You can barely walk anywhere worth going, because everything was designed to be driven to in the comfort of your climate-controlled car, and because everything’s new (compared to New York or Boston) there’s no sense of tradition or rootedness – everything looks like a strip mall and all the restaurants are chains. Even places which, on the interior would fit right in with the hipsters in Portland, Maine, on the exterior look like they belong next to the Blockbuster on Route 9 in Natick. It kinda ruins the vibe. Still, it’s only been a few days, and on the plus side, I’m already the most tan I’ve been in years. Maybe in another seven weeks I’ll be so sun-addled that the almost total absence of bars that aren’t sports bars won’t seem like such an issue.**

*If Tempe did have skyscrapers like New York one can also imagine the streets turning into fairly unbearable canyons of heat, so it’s not at all clear Manhattan-esque levels of density would be optimal
**It would take a lot to get me to move here in any real capacity, but I don’t want the post to be 
too misleading – Tempe is gross but I’m actually kind of enjoying it anyway