Formulating an Identity

Formulating an Identity

One of the most challenging topics to grasp whenever downtown progress is discussed is the subject of identity.  It seems people have a hard time placing the identity of Phoenix.  I know that in past when working on projects that ask to implement an identify downtown I too would rack my brain over what it means to be a Phoenician? What are the characteristics of phoenix, what are we known for?  Or what do visitors expect when they come to Phoenix.  Soon, the AIA will be conducting their annual design competition and giving Phoenix an IDENTITY will be part of the assignment.  So how do we begin to formulate an identity for Phoenix?  Where do we look? What do we highlight?

Well to put it bluntly, we shouldn’t do any of that.  We humble humans are not clever enough to force an identity on a community.  The reason why our ideas about identity never stick is because they are not engrained in us.    The identity of a block, neighborhood, downtown or city is an intrinsic quality.  It is formulated over time and is implemented by the people who embody it.  If we attempt to place an idealized or commercial distinctiveness we will miss the whole point of having an identity at all.

Identity is something that happens over time.  It takes generations to form and foster.  It comes from familiarization with a place and its people.  Phoenix finds itself in a rather interesting situation.  We are a young city.  Some say we haven’t figured out what the identity of phoenix is, but I would argue that we have not allowed the identity of the city to come forth.  Unfortunately, we have torn down several of our local landmarks long before they were able to rise up to landmark status.  Those interesting spaces that survive through three or four lifecycles as different institutions make for a history and a story that people can relate to.  A place’s past life gives the community a story that they will share with the next generation.  With a heavy hand, we in phoenix have been quick to toss aside the familiar for something new and shiny.  And while I love to see a new beautiful building as much as any architect would, I know that the connection with what was once there was lost and therefore must start over.

This process will become more prevalent once we develop a strong residential base downtown.  The downtown urban core is the cultural center for any city.  Our city is lacking one crucial thing in its downtown core and that is people, residents, a critical mass of interested and engaged citizens that make up the attitude and collected conscience of the city.  Without residents, how can we begin to develop a culture?  Our lack of density in our urban core makes it difficult for strong connections to form and resiliency to the wrecking ball to be adopted.  I’ve said before that I think downtown development is going well and I do believe that a snow ball effect of exponential growth will occur once a combination of residential, small commercial and corporate office gets established and each is allowed to grow.

More importantly, the community needs to be given a chance to take a hold of the special spots around town.  When the unique gems in our city are supported by the city, business community, and the public, they become a part of the fabric that makes up the downtown culture and something that only we have and share.  This is not the best place for chain businesses that in general don’t belong to the community.  Their owners do not live there, their “look” or “brand” is stamped and, general, and the predictable goings-on that happen within them offer nothing special to the urban core.  When a community supports something local or specific to that neighborhood, the people begin to take possession of it.  It belongs to them and no one else has the same place in their neighborhood.  They know the owner by name, locals from their area work there, and because the customers receive special attention from their local spot, they go back time and time again.  The place belongs to the community and this where we get into the issue of civic pride.

We have a unique situation when it comes to Phoenix Pride.  Many of our citizens are transplants from other cities so comparisons are inevitable.  Phoenix is a city in the desert.  So how do we respond to our environment and what are the key attributes of being a desert dweller?  How do we cherish our desert lifestyle and celebrate it?  Too often many of us tell tongue and cheek jokes about the heat but the truth is we live our lives, quite remarkably, in a truly beautiful and harsh setting.  Much of our identity will come from the way we deal with our place here in the desert.  Whether or not we are conscience of our actions, our identity will be effected by the culture and attitude we take when interacting with our environment.  Do we choose to ignore it and pretend we are like everyone else, or do we live in harmony with it and take pride in our fantastic and unique desert city. 

When it comes to new residential projects going in downtown, most new tenants will be new to the urban core so how do we instill pride?  How do you make pride?  Again, the short answer is you can’t.  Pride is organic and it formulates through time and collected experiences.  Pride is personal, it’s a sense of belonging and it comes from exclusive familiarities that grant a deep feeling of satisfaction.   Our downtown is the place where we can foster exclusive places, customized experiences and create an area that people want to be a part of.  This won’t happen overnight.  It is an evolution of trials and errors to see what the people of our town gravitate to and THAT is where we find our identity.

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So for now, let’s provide the events and opportunity for identity for form.  Let’s allow the members of the community to activate the things they enjoy and build from those.  When the public is a part of making something successful, they will continue to contribute to its success by participating in these events and places.  Overtime, the events become staples and foster a culture that will one day become the culture of that place rather than of a certain time.

We do not conceive an identity and implant it where we think it’s appropriate.  We do not pull from vague threads or small aspects of the city and promote or try to sell them as the Identity of Phoenix.  Ultimately those types of ideas will be biased and based on someone’s conceived notion of what the identity of this town should be.  That idea will fail to catch on because the majority of the people had nothing to do with its conception or even understand where it comes from.  No, In order to establish an identity for Phoenix today we need to think about it as fostering an Identity as opposed to creating one.  The identity of Phoenix will emerge.  I am very hopeful and excited about the direction that Phoenix is taking.  More and more housing projects are coming to downtown and the community is taking an active role.  Street art is popping up and festivals and attracting bigger crowds.  Let us not be too fast or too forceful to stamp out Phoenix’s identity, let’s continue to develop downtown so we can sit back and watch it grow.

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