You could say I settled into Flagstaff for good a decade and a half ago, when we bought our house. It was a beat-up old place. “Lots of potential here,” the sellers told us. They were right. Some was readily apparent—scuffed wood floors, southern light, a sizable yard with an outdoor fireplace. Some of it we wouldn’t see for a long time—yes, you actually can add some insulation and warm up those old floors. And some just surprised us, like looking out one of the windows and finding that we could spot the Monte Vista Hotel sign through the trees. Look at that—a piece of Flagstaff history, right here, every evening!
The neighborhood had lots of potential, too, and lately we have been seeing that take a new form, as is true of Flagstaff in general. Down at the bottom of the street, workers are putting the finishing touches on the last of six shiny new houses that pretty well fill up their cramped lots but are packed with such premium touches as granite countertops, corrugated steel accent roofs and rust-metal garage doors. On the Southside, the great Hub has arisen, a hulking compound that for the first time makes me concede that, yes, ginormous is a needed addition to the English language. And this is to say nothing of the other new apartment complexes and subdivisions going in, or soon to do so, along West Route 66, in the Sawmill area and who can keep track of where else.
Complaining about summertime construction is nothing new. But the pace has changed, grown more frantic somehow, as if each tick upward in the summertime temperatures in the Valley, or maybe in our body politic’s blood pressure, were responsible for bringing so many more people to the still-shady pines and the perceived sense of small-town community, and ratcheting the prices upward just that much more, with the effect of making more and more developers realize what profits are to be made here.
Some of the irritation I feel when I’m swamped in traffic—and how much worse is that going to be when the students are back?—is routine, simple grumpiness at a loss of convenience. But some cuts deeper as community values that were free, and taken for granted, give way to monetized values. Many in Flagstaff used to appreciate free parking in or near downtown; expansive views of the Peaks from many angles; assumptions about being able to cross town in 15 minutes instead of 30 or more. The trouble is when no one is paying for those values they are subject to being taken over, or replaced, by values that someone will pay for.
Which is to say that what we are experiencing is the same phenomenon that has been spreading to every corner of North America for more than 500 years now: the city has been colonized; it has become a means of making a profit for people who for the most part live elsewhere.
Where are the developers of today’s big building projects based? The Hub, Chicago. The Standard, Georgia. Timber Sky, Phoenix. Fremont Station, Alabama. Of course these builders are providing a desired service; students, and others, do need places to live. But it’s hard to imagine the developers of the Hub, living in Chicago, felt any sense of loss or change as their structure came to tower over its one- and two-story neighborhood a time zone away, or as it came to light that—surprise!—the integrated parking area was not going to be big enough for all the new tenants. Why would they? For them the building is a way to make money, a component of the part of life that we categorize as “work,” while for many residents of Flagstaff the vanishing values are a part of what we characterize as “home” or simply “living.” And losing those values hurts not only because of the immediate change but because the change embodies a feeling of lost control, a sense that important parts of our destiny are not in our hands anymore.
Which is a feeling that non-wealthy people over the world have known for a long, long time, not least the Navajo, Hopi and other native neighbors whose land and water has mostly been viewed by our dominant culture as storehouses of resources, not homes with a rich, layered history.
About 10 years ago, we could suddenly see another red hotel sign from our windows. This one was the new Drury Inn on the corner of the NAU campus. Great, we thought, a bland corporate hotel, visible and inescapable and too tall from the sunroom window. It was irritating rather than pleasing.
You might think this simply a matter of differing baselines, an admission that everyone has a different idea about what’s normal or appropriate, and what is too much. But there are a couple of crucial differences between the Monte Vista and the Drury Inn, or the new Hub. First, there’s the height: four stories, versus five or six. This summer I’ve been reading a great book called A Pattern Language, by the architect Christopher Alexander and his colleagues. It’s a sort of plan book for how to make architecture humane, how to make buildings and neighborhoods work for people. One of their strong recommendations for neighborhoods with sidewalks, pedestrians and a good street-level feel: limit the height of buildings.
“At three or four stories, one can still walk comfortably down to the street,” they write, “and from a window you can still feel part of the street scene: you can see details in the street—the people, their faces, foliage, shops. From three stories you can yell out, and catch the attention of someone below. Above four stories these connections break down.”
Another crucial difference is: what’s local? There are Hubs adjacent to more than a dozen campuses. The Drury Inn doesn’t exactly say “Flagstaff,” since there are more than 150 of them nationwide, but the Monte Vista does. Its construction was funded by community members (with help from best-selling author and frequent visitor Zane Grey), and the hotel remained in community ownership for decades.
Sure, that bright neon sign might have filled up the night sky.
Maybe some residents rolled their eyes. But it was the town’s sign.