Phoenix’s cultural renaissance is heating up

Katie Couric
Global Anchor

By Kaye Foley

Phoenix is a rising star in the Valley of the Sun. With a strong sense of community, a developing downtown, and a growing arts and culinary scene, the desert city is in the middle of a cultural renaissance.

Although most people may not think of Phoenix as much of a cultural hot spot, those who live there beg to differ. It’s a young city compared with some of the largest cities in the U.S., such as New York or Chicago. As a result, Phoenicians get to play a big role in building the city they want.

“It’s probably one of the most creative cities in the country,” said Catrina Kahler, publisher of the Downtown Phoenix Journal. “Because you’re not just here creating your own art or your own business. You’re actually here creating a city at the same time.”

VIDEO: Why Diamondbacks legend Luis Gonzalez made Phoenix his home

Phoenix may be the fifth-largest city in the United States, but that doesn’t stop it from having a small-town feel. Diamondbacks legend and senior adviser to the president and CEO of the Arizona MLB team Luis Gonzalez — who earned D-backs icon status when he hit the game-winning single in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series — moved around a lot as a professional athlete, but Phoenix was special.

“Phoenix has always felt like home to me,” Gonzalez said. “I love it here. I love the organization. The people, the community, the state, and you just feel like you’re part of the family.”

VIDEO: Local chefs and bartenders bring major flavor to Phoenix

Phoenix used to be synonymous with strip malls and chain restaurants. But the city has been enlivening its culinary scene with locally owned restaurants and bars that have a lot of heart.

Pizzeria Bianco is a beloved staple in Phoenix. Its award-winning chef and owner, Chris Bianco, moved to Phoenix in the ’80s and created his world-famous pizza.

“I was young. I was 23,” said Bianco. “I was just lookin’ for a place that would let me hang out for a while. And the rest is kind of a mash-up of good fortune, luck and good people around me.”

Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour has made a name for itself since it opened in 2014. Its inventive and creative twist on a cocktail bar gave a boost to the nightlife in downtown Phoenix.

“It was appealing to me personally to come to a city that was on the diving board, gettin’ ready to jump,” explained owner Ross Simon, “and really kind of helping with some great people really do something fun that wasn’t being done before.”

Another culinary staple in the city is Barrio Café. Chef and owner Silvana Salcido Esparza opened the restaurant in 2002. After a long cross-country trip through Mexico, in which she immersed herself in local cultures, Esparza returned to bring authentic Mexican cuisine to Phoenix.

“If you’re eating crispy tacos, you’re not eating Mexican food,” Esparza said. “If you’re eating yellow cheese, you’re not eating Mexican food. I do the best I can to represent my culture. And it’s because of the heart.”

VIDEO: In Phoenix, artists make the city their canvas

Although Phoenix has had an active art community for decades, as a whole, the art scene across the city is flourishing and gaining more and more recognition.

“We stand shoulder to shoulder with many other cities in the nation, in that we have major arts destinations and museums,” Catrina Kahler said. “From the Phoenix Art Museum to the Heard Museum to the opera, the ballet, the symphony, the beautiful Orpheum Theatre, the growth of the arts districts … the arts and culture scene is a wide range of experiences that makes it truly accessible for a diverse population.”

Phoenix hosts First Friday — one of the largest art tours in the nation — on, you guessed it, the first Friday of each month. It’s a chance for people to stroll around downtown checking out museums, galleries, performances and street art displays. First Friday has grown so much — about 10,000 to 20,000 people attend each month — that the art community also hosts Third Fridays, which places a bigger emphasis on the galleries.

“It’s multigenerational, it’s multicultural, it’s free,” Cindy Dach, an artist and co-founder and board member of Roosevelt Row CDC, said of First Friday. “Art is everywhere.”

“The Phoenix art scene is developing, but I still think it’s a blank slate,” said Alvin Huff, an ASU graduate art student. “If you’re a young artist, you can come here and make a mark.”

In Phoenix, art isn’t confined to indoors. The city is adorned with beautiful and expressive murals.

“I always paint the Apache man or the Apache woman or Apache characters,” said artist and founder of Apache Skateboards Douglas Miles, whose distinctive work and collaborations with other muralists can be seen throughout Phoenix.

“Native American people have been frozen in time by historians and anthropologists. But they failed to look at the simple fact that we’re constantly creating new culture.”

“There’s so many muralists in town now,” said artist and muralist Thomas Breeze Marcus, “giving us this colorful culture on the walls that we have.”

In appreciation of the vibrant culture developing in Phoenix, Mayor Greg Stanton said it best: “You simply cannot succeed as a city unless you are an interesting place to live.”

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