Seattle and Phoenix were the two fastest-growing big cities last year, depending on how you measure it. They couldn't be more different — and rain is the least of it.
Seattle was the nation’s fastest-growing city in percentage terms last year, as my colleague Gene Balk reports. With a 3.1 percent gain, the city crossed the 700,000 mark for the first time. The Census Bureau report also showed that my hometown of Phoenix added the most people numerically among big cities, 32,113, to reach 1,615,017.
This makes Phoenix the fifth most-populous city in the United States, behind New York, LA, Chicago and Houston. It surpasses Philadelphia (a milestone it hit briefly in the 2000s before falling back to No. 6).
Most people in Seattle are likely to react to this news with ambivalence, if not overt horror. By contrast, Phoenix is celebrating madly, as this booster town always does for such numbers. (As a columnist there, I called these events “growthgasms,” which made me few friends.)
The difference is explained by the fact that the overriding goal of Phoenix since the middle of the 20th century was to add people. “Growth pays for itself,” was the motto.
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In 1950, when Seattle held 467,591 souls, Phoenix for the first time entered the ranks of the nation’s 100 largest cities — barely, at No. 99 with 106,818. It was smaller than Spokane, Wichita, Kan., or Dayton, Ohio.
This Phoenix was a walkable oasis, 17 square miles, with a real downtown. It was surrounded by an agricultural empire made possible by rich soil, the confluence of rivers in a wet desert and federal reclamation. They called it “American Eden.” Otherwise, it had no Boeing, no port, no terminus of four transcontinental railroads. It had sunshine, land and more federal help in new defense industries and housing policy to subsidize suburban construction.
Be careful what you wish for.
The glorious citrus groves, flower fields, abundant shade trees and farms of American Eden are long gone, replaced by gravel, concrete and wide, dangerous avenues connecting real-estate developments. Also gone is most of a tech sector whose growth was neglected as the old stewards died off, replaced by land hustlers and inattention. It certainly doesn’t match the city or metro’s size.
Almost all the economic activity of the metropolitan area has shifted to the car-dependent fringes, giving Phoenix some of the worst air quality in the nation. Although downtown has made a comeback, massive teardowns from the 1970s through 2000s destroyed its good bones and cohesion. A light-rail system is a victory — but it doesn’t go to most major employment centers. Those are strung out in freeway office “parks” — the taxpayer-funded freeways making former desert or farmland valuable.
Despite aggressive annexation starting in the 1950s, Phoenix is surrounded by huge suburbs that cherry pick economic and cultural assets, engage in blood sport for sales taxes, stymie the more progressive city with their deep red politics, and hold much of the metro’s prosperity. The “Town” of Gilbert’s population is more than 237,000. Peoria, where the Mariners hold Spring Training, is more than 164,000, larger than Bellevue but all spread out. Peoria’s population was less than 4,800 in 1970, a farm town on the railroad.
Phoenix, once so new, the city of tomorrow, is now hobbled by miles of linear slums — older single-family house subdivisions — and a massive underclass served, if that’s the word, by some of the most underfunded schools in the nation. Despite low social services, the city has a significant population of the diverse cohorts labeled “homeless.” Exclusive and wealthy Scottsdale sends street people to Phoenix toot sweet.
In fact, growth does not pay for itself, particularly with low taxes and barely any impact fees. Population brings carrying costs to any metro area. Still, Phoenix has gotten away with its Ponzi scheme for decades. “People keep moving here, it can’t be too bad,” is the refrain of denial.
Even being at the heart of the housing crash didn’t change the fundamental reliance on cheap housing, back-office jobs and sunshine. Good luck with that. Temperatures have gone up 10 degrees in my lifetime and Phoenix faces a dire future from climate change.
Philadelphia, with major headquarters, world-class universities and cultural institutions, a spectacular downtown, an abundant rail transit network and proximity to New York City and Washington, D.C., will do fine. It’s a real city.
Phoenix has many fighting for improvement, from small entrepreneurs to preservationists and a capable mayor. But they lack the ability to write checks and knock heads. It has no equivalent of Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos. It has no sizable headquarters of a major worldwide company. The only real university is two branch campuses of Arizona State University. Attracting and retaining adults with bachelor’s degrees or higher (where it badly lags) is hampered by hard-right Arizona’s reputation for bigotry. While Seattle ranks at or near the top of almost any measure of quality, Phoenix almost never does.
What Phoenix has is land — nearly 517 square miles in the city alone (vs. about 84 for Seattle) and an economy built around housing and real-estate speculation. Even so, it’s not particularly affordable for most, especially in the most desirable areas, because wages are so low for such a large city and metro.
As a fourth-generation Phoenician, I’m supposed to be bragging. We’re No. 5! Instead, I mourn what was lost and how so few there now even realize it. So in my way I feel your pain, old Seattleites. But don’t forget how many ways this city excels. Growth could be so much worse.