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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

February 28, 2011 at 9:30 AM

Phoenix: The user’s guide for Spring Training fans (great Mexican food is just the beginning)

It’s time for the annual Spring Training scouting report from your economics columnist, a fourth-generation Arizonan. By the time you get to Phoenix, look around and resolve never to build a metropolitan economy like this: Overly dependent on housing, population growth and low-wage service and tourism jobs. Now to the fun stuff, for when you’re not watching baseball.

Out in suburban Peoria, you might think Phoenix has no soul. Although the sprawl developers have done their best to pave it over, it still beats — but you’ll have to drive to find it, as with everything in this car-dependent metro-blob. The historic districts of the nation’s fifth-largest city are just north of downtown and worth the trip for the beautiful, real neighborhoods, houses with character and a sense of what Phoenix was like when it was an oasis surrounded by citrus groves, flower fields and agriculture. They’re around McDowell and Central, and include Willo, Palmcroft, F.Q. Storey, Roosevelt and Alvarado. The old city also still has Encanto Park, nestled into Palmcroft, a gem.

While you’re in central Phoenix, check out two fine museums, just one stop apart on the Metro light-rail line: the Phoenix Art Museum and the Heard Museum, the latter with one of the world’s finest collections of tribal art from the Southwest. Also on Central: the main library building designed by Will Bruder. Drive farther north on Central between Bethany Home and the Arizona Canal, and you’ll get a sense of the lushness that was once abundant here.

You’ve got to eat something other than hot dogs and chain food. Also in central Phoenix, check out local fare from Portland’s, Cheuvront, Cibo, Switch, Matt’s Big Breakfast and the classic former mob hangout of a mobbed-up town, Durant’s (where you come in through the kitchen like a made man and eat in vintage, red banquettes from the 1950s).

You’re in the heart of some of the best Sonoran-style Mexican food in the world. Sixteenth Street running south from Thomas Road has a wonderful assortment of muy autentico restaurants, taquerias, taco trucks and the huge Ranch Market. Macayo’s on Central and elsewhere in the area is an old standby, and Scottsdale’s legendary Los Olivos is still making great fare. Also: Los Dos Molinos, near the South Mountains, and La Perla in Glendale not too far from the Mariner’s stadium. Mmmmmmm.

To appreciate the unique Sonoran Desert, visit the magical Desert Botanical Garden in Papago Park, with its otherworldly buttes and rock formations. South Mountain Park is the best desert park in the region, with the Dobbins Overlook, which can be reached by car, providing stunning views if the smog’s not too bad. You can also climb iconic Camelback Mountain for views and to say you did it; always carry water.

Phoenix is rich in history, rising from the ashes of one of the most advanced irrigation societies north of Mesoamerica. The ruins of part of the Hohokam civilization are preserved at the city’s Pueblo Grande Museum. Unsustainability and perhaps climate change did in the Hohokam, so take note as you reach these destinations on the metro area’s convenient but smog-belching and soul-killing freeway system. Phoenix is easy to navigate: Numbered avenues run west of Central; numbered streets run east of Central. The mountains are a good directional guide once you learn them.

If Scottsdale, golf and resorts are your thing, have at it. The best spas, or so I have been told, are at the historic Camelback Inn and the Sanctuary.

Enjoy, and don’t let the extremist politics get you down.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Oil prices are down

See there, the sky’s not falling.

Just falling slowly

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