As an architect, I am predisposed to support cultural education especially when it has architectural significance. And, as an appointed member of the Phoenix Arts and Culture Commission, I regularly advocate for public art programs. By selecting me for this commission, the mayor has explicitly encouraged such an advocacy. I embrace this role.
Additionally, as an architect for the last four decades, I have developed a great respect for the importance of neighborhood identity and the ability for neighbors to rally in defense of that identity.
The recent “battle for identity” surrounding the David and Gladys Wright House (DGWH) in the Phoenix-area neighborhood of Arcadia has led to the creation of yard signs reading, “Stop the Madness.” I recently attended a neighborhood meeting held in Arcadia’s Ingleside School Cafeteria regarding this controversy. I wanted to understand the reference to “madness” so my evolving opinion would be informed. I was looking forward to a spirited yet balanced debate.
It began with council for the opposition setting the evening’s standard. The PowerPoint was clearly intended to put the DGWH owner in the worst possible light. Classic audience manipulation included the usual voice inflections, aggressive diction, menacing visuals, and other rhetorical flourishes designed to shock and awe. It worked!
The best part was the last lingering image: a large snarling wolf shadow silhouetted behind a small cowering lamb. Judging by the cheering, no one seemed to mind that the neighborhood residents were being portrayed as helpless sheep in mindless lockstep with oppositional leadership.
After an hour of repetitive speeches culled from a speaker list absent of rebuttals, I concluded this: their collective fear stems from concerns about losing Arcadia’s identity. The specter of cultural education, as defined by the speakers, would attract “massive numbers of outsiders, “thousand” of cars, “countless” trucks and “intolerable” noise. The lives of Arcadia’s children would be put at risk and property values would plummet. Arcadia’s identity as a unique, sought after, close knit community would be destroyed.
The Heard, American Indian Art & History Museum; the Phoenix Art Museum; and, ironically, Arcadia’s own Shemer Art Center and Museum all serve their residential contexts well and contribute to a neighborhood sense of pride. These are just a few of the many examples in which culturally educational facilities coexist with healthy neighborhoods throughout Arizona. Is it really “madness” to believe it can be done again?
The DGWH may be a convenient vehicle for Arcadia bonding, but it is not to blame for the decades Arcadia has spent squandering its identity for insensitive residential re-development. Every time a blind eye is turned to the destruction of an original ranch style home, replaced by a behemoth pretending to be in another country, Arcadia forsakes its identity a little more. Frankly, writing as a student of urban and suburban historic preservation, Arcadia has little left to squander.
Ironically, the DGWH cultural amenity could be the catalyst for reinvention. For those brave homeowners, unafraid of the anarchic hordes of museum patrons running amok, consider this: your best chance for a reimagined, affluent, intellectual neighborhood could begin with your most attractive historic asset.
Look again at the wolf and lamb graphic. See the lamb as a well-intended, fragile idea… a sincere community aspiration. See the wolf as it is…a misguided beast born of irrational fear.
Stop the madness, indeed!
Eddie Jones. 10/10/15