Wanting Scottsdale to be special is more about ‘creating’ than ‘keeping’

It is common for special places like Scottsdale, for those who care to want to keep it special, but “special” is not something one “keeps.”

Having moved to a mainly empty desert in January 1957, I have experienced a great deal of change for which there were always some “keepers,” to offer their opposition. The irony is that they now live in, shop, study, and make their living in that which would not exist if it weren’t for the loss of one thing in favor of another.

Vernon Swaback

Vernon D. Swaback

It was the loss of Anne and Fowler McCormick’s winter home which we know as the community of McCormick Ranch. We lost the charm of gravel roads that became impassible when flooded by nothing more sinister than our annual rainfall, which at times make it impossible to get to, or from, Taliesin West.

And speaking of Taliesin West, it is quite doubtful that this global treasure could have ever been approved by today’s code’s and ordinances. One need no more evidence of this than, in order for Taliesin to be made a part of its incorporated limits when Scottsdale became a city, a host of exceptions for Taliesin had to be made part of the agreement.

When I arrived in the Valley, Taliesin West was so remote that a common question among my peers was to ask if we planned “to go into town this week.” Now, there is far more “Scottsdale” extending to the north of the Taliesin property than there is between it and what was here when I arrived.

Local artisans like Lloyd Kiva have long since been replaced with the standardized retailers that are the same in every city and town. But at least we have retained the galleries, or have we?

During my time as a member of Scottsdale’s Public Art Advisory Board I had the privilege of chairing the process that resulted in the placement of Ed Mill’s, 1993 “Jack Knife” sculpture at the intersection of Main Street and Marshall Way. Since then, I have I felt the sadness of knowing that 61 or so galleries that have had to close their doors.

That which makes Scottsdale special, requires far more than anything that can be “kept” to that which must either be rejuvenated or invented. The city’s sign ordinance, Indian Bend Wash, the Scottsdale Civic Center, the creation of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, the intellectual engine of SkySong, and the economic engine of Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall, rather than having anything to do with “keeping,” have all resulted from “creating.”

The 1991-1992 program known as “Scottsdale Visioning,” which my colleagues and I had the privilege to direct, produced the four dominant themes of Sonoran Desert, Resort Community Arts and Culture, and Health and Research. While these initiatives are all related to seeds planted in the past, “Scottsdale Visioning” was all about repositioning them for the future. As an example, many involved at the time, including Art Decabooter, who chaired the main citizen’s committee, have observed that it was this process that lead to today’s “McDowell Sonoran Preserve”.

For those who more easily trust the past than thoughts for the future, here are six observations, the first three of which were made 46 years ago with the following three made in 1992, all as part of Scottsdale Visioning.

  • “There is a strong tendency among some cities to set artificial limits on growth. This is not new. As long as I’ve lived here, people – “old-timers” – living here two or five or ten years – have said they didn’t want Scottsdale changed… However, Scottsdale must face the reality of growth and responsibly prepare for its consequences.” – Mayor B.L. Tims, 1971
  • “A city which isn’t growing is a dead city… to grow is to get bigger. A lot of places would like to grow and not get bigger. They want the benefits of growth but don’t want more people. You can’t grow and stay the same size unless you export your children. A city must generate enough jobs to care for its children as they grow up. If children and families move away to find jobs and job-related amenities, this out-immigration is adversely selective. The most capable move away first.” -Alternative Futures for the city of Scottsdale, The Brooking’s Institution Scenario, 1971-1972
  • “Growth and change have to be considered together. They are inseparable. If you could stop growth, you couldn’t stop change.” -Leo Molinaro, president, the American City Corporation and discussion leader at the 1971-72 Scottsdale Forum
  • “It may sound like a mission impossible, but the Scottsdale Visioning Program is this city’s most important project in years. While the conclusions can’t satisfy everyone and shouldn’t be cast in stone, we hope they can achieve a strong enough consensus to guide the city’s growth and development into the 21st century.” – Scottsdale Progress, January 1992
  • “Here is an innovative planning process uniquely undisciplined, that is not as concerned with solving problems as it is with seeking opportunities. The concept embraced by this process, called Scottsdale Visioning, is mind-boggling. There are no limits, and its purpose is not to be logical. The fruit of this effort might be born from just a faint, momentary whiff or a nebulous notion about what the most important people in Scottsdale – all of its citizens – are thinking today, about tomorrow.” – Scottsdale Scene Magazine, May 1992
  • “What comes through loud and clear from the citizen testimony is that Scottsdale must take steps to increase, rather than allow a decrease in what makes us special. The frontier values of individuality, trust, courage, and creativity must be held high above those of consistency, conformity, and mediocrity.” – The Shared Vision, December 1992

Nurturing the Special Case

The city of Scottsdale today has no power in itself to make the great accomplishments required for our future success, but it has the power to discourage the worst and encourage the best. There may very well be merit in the commitment to keep Scottsdale special, but if this quest fails to acknowledge the exceptional, it will do far more harm than good. Where widespread public understanding and approval is required, there may be no more significant challenge than to stand up for the exceptional. But failure to do so can be a quiet, even unnoticed action in favor of decline.

The simple reality is that where and how we live, is not only that it is never finished, it is a living process in which each and every decision is either on the side of growth and renewal or death and decline.

Editor’s Note: Vernon D. Swaback has been:

  • Resident since January 1957, with the first 21 years as a member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
  • Established Scottsdale-based Swaback Architecture and Planning in 1978
  • Director of the 1992: Scottsdale Shared Vision, which is widely credited with being the force that launched today’s 30,000 acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve
  • Served for two terms on the Scottsdale’s Art Advisory Board
  • Past chairman of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and current President of Cattletrack Arts and Preservation and chairman of the 501(c) 3 Two Worlds Community Foundation

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