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Vanishing Places and Vanishing People

March 30, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

Vanishing Phoenix to me encompasses far more than buildings.

I feel that this blog is responsible for speaking for all things that could go by the wayside in our great city. And this includes the people.

As the city expands, evolves, modernizes at every turn, we musn’t forget the people which give Phoenix its true character. We must look around us and allow anyone and everyone to enter into our lives, not just the wealthy gentrifiers.

Wednesday night, I left the Downtown Devil Discussion on public spaces to inhabit another public space: the light rail.

Every day I ride the rail to and from my home in Tempe, and I truly cherish it. Not only does the trip provide me with time to prepare for or decompress from a long day of school and work, it places me in an environment which always allows for serendipitous encounters—the true sign of a wonderful, prosperous public space.

This particular day, it was later in the evening, and I had spent an exhausting day Downtown; I just wanted to get home.

At this time of night, especially during the week, an eclectic array of passengers is to be expected. Here is when the forgotten people of the city take their leave from the core for the long ride home.

I had my bike for the day, so I stationed myself amid the bike racks in the center of the rail car. To my right sat a middle-aged black man, missing teeth, clearly weathered by the world he had experienced. At his knees he propped up a soiled mountain bike attached to a toddler trailer, stocked with two sizable djembes.

Across from me sat a white man in his 30s, laying his head exhaustedly on the window of the train, moving quickly from wakefulness to sleep. Down the car, I spotted a young white boy, heavy and dirty, looking around innocently, though clearly faced with a difficult world.

As we crossed the bridge over Tempe Town Lake, the boy moved into our section, looking excitedly at the view out the window, leading the middle-aged man to comment on the bridges’ lit beauty in the night. The man added that he was returning from performing at a Downtown march in support of Trayvon Martin, the slain Florida teen who has brought the entire nation to talk once more about race relations in America.

The man had skipped his usual Wednesday-night drum circle gig at the Lake, dismally noting the minimal turnout at the march. He smiled at my attention, and quickly invited me to come by sometime and view his performance.

At Mill, with the help of the boy (especially happy to help) and I, the man maneuvered his bike out of the train and thanked us for his service. The train lurched onward.

Now united by our aid of the man, the boy eagerly began to converse with me, along the way noting his dire state and asking me for a dollar to get himself a bus ticket home, which I happily obliged. Aside, he asked if the rail security had come through, admitting his own lack of a rail ticket.

By this time, the younger man had awakened, and smiled genuinely at the boy and I. He began asking me questions, initiating a good-natured dialogue between the two of us: me sharing my college life, and he sharing his work at the Banner Good Samaritan hospital near Downtown.

Most times he asked a question, the precocious boy chimed in with his own answer, illuminating his own life in the process.

The man elaborated on his joy in working with the people at the hospital; that despite the busyness of his job, he knew he was providing something valuable, and was able to interact with truly invested people.

The train stopped once more, and in stepped two security guards, ready to check tickets. The boy fearfully exited before they could expose his sad lacking, my dollar in hand.

Further along, the man noted the architecture of the hospital in which he worked, seeming to pick up on my mention of urban planning earlier.

“A lot of people criticize it, but it’s really pretty functional. It has a clover design from above with an elevator tower in the center.”

There was clearly more to this man than met my (weary) eye.

“It was actually done by a very famous architect [Bertrand Goldman and Associates, Chicago] and its blueprints are in the Chicago Art Museum.”

He certainly had my attention.

From there, our conversation continued on the topic architecture. He brought up the current Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum. The man effortlessly moved from one loving description to another, expressing awe at the incredible array of original drawings of Wright’s on display, lingering on his amazement at the full city plans [Broadacre City] put together by Wright during his creative peak.

I couldn’t help myself. I probed more deeply into his interest in architecture. At this, he sheepishly backtracked, recounting a bit of his family’s story, noting the perspective it provided in his life, and lamenting his need for practicality.

Sadly, as the rail requires, my stop arrived, and I was forced to take my own leave. He shared his name, and I departed with a wide grin.

As Phoenix modernizes and (hopefully) re-imagines its history, there are many things to keep in mind.

As the new condos arrive, and the multi-million dollar re-models return to market, we must not forget about those around us.

A thing that vanishes is first forgotten. And throughout our history, Phoenix has repeatedly let that tragedy occur with its buildings. But we cannot afford to let that happen with our people.

The people will be the ones which hold our true history, and will pass it on to those that arrive next.

That is the mark of a truly great city: a place which does not let its past vanish.

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