That Which Is Not Inferno, Or, The Pleasure of the Urban Text

Phoenicians starved for their city’s self image will find critical satisfaction in Andrew Ross’s Bird on Fire. As a Phoenix resident for nearly 20 years, I know all too well how we have long been deprived of the kind of “pleasure of the text” experienced by denizens of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, and many second or third tier cities, when encountering the myriad representations of their city in film, music, art, popular and scholarly literature.[1]Barthes, Roland.The Pleasure of the Text. Hill and Wang, 1975.Beyond the evening news, depictions of Phoenix are rare: most famously, the opening scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho quickly pans the scant 1960 skyline before the camera zooms into the sordid Westward Ho hotel room where the movie’s plot begins; the TV program Medium has yet to show its cards with regards to its supposed setting in Phoenix; several noir-in-the-sunshine detective novels set plots in the Valley of the Sun metro area; add in a couple of memoirs, a few scant histories and investigative reports, a blog by exiled hometown “rogue columnist” Jon Talton, and that’s about it.[2]Talton, John. Rogue Columnist. vast majority of the few books, reports, and occasional documentaries about metro Phoenix put forth a decidedly booster’s narrative captivated by the relentless growth machine whose sprawl-dominated development and shadow governmentality epitomize the social/spatial hegemony of neoliberal urbanism. But that proverbial firebird has crashed and burned, caught dead in its tracks at the onset of recession. With all the more relish, then, can we take pleasure in Bird on Fire for it decidedly does not tow this well-trod booster line. But neither does it capitulate to apocalyptic delirium; quite the contrary, and despite the book’s subtitle, out of his self-professed allergy to despair Ross fans a new spark of hope to discover in Phoenix unexpected prospects of urban sustainability.
Bird on Fire has the temerity to seize hold of a city as it flashes up at a moment of danger, to crudely adapt one of Walter Benjamin’s famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”[3]Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Schocken Books, 1969Amidst the boomtown economy lying in ashes, coincident with his ethnographic interviews here, Ross finds Phoenix ablaze with insurgent urbanists whose tactical subversions energetically contest the pitfalls of neoliberal urbanism.[4]Leitner, Helga, Jamie Peck, & Eric S. Shepard, eds. Contesting Neoliberalism: Urban Frontiers. Guilford Press, 2007.
In the first full-scale critical take on this understudied and strangely un-urban city, Ross devotes his attention to highlighting the activism of those whose counter-sprawl tactics cultivate low carbon use, local food provision, environmental justice, and champion rights of vulnerable communities to participate more equitably in their rights to the city. The redress of social injustice and inequity, he argues, is the route to urban sustainability, not some green-gizmo techno fix that Ross detects has led already to an uneven eco-apartheid, resulting in a “green gap” dividing the affluent north Valley from the historical ghetto/barrio repositories of environmental racism in south and west Phoenix. Daunting though it surely is, if Phoenix can become sustainable by redressing these inequities, Ross reasons, there’s hope for other cities similarly caught in the cross hairs of climate change and rift by the tensions between the “evil paradise” dreamworlds of neoliberalism[5]Davis, Mike and Daniel Bertrand Monk, eds. Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism. New Press, 2007.,and the burgeoning Planet of Slums.[6]Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. Verso, 2006.
Unencumbered by any requisite genuflection to the Real Estate Industrial Complex (pace Talton) whose business-as-usual has in any case stalled, Ross can be attentive to an alternative urban canvas whose protagonists have too often been rendered invisible by the preponderance of the Phoenix growth machine.  His in-depth interviews animate a heroic realist portrait of an unsung cast of characters deeply trying to improve the livability of a city whose extensive sprawl characteristics often give the impression that all there is to Phoenix is its surround. The book’s narrative is carried forward by these real life action heroes: from renewable energy and water conservation activists to downtown-revitalist artists, stalwart crusaders against environmental racism, Mexican immigrant “climate refugees,” guerrilla gardeners and locavore farmers, affordable housing advocates, and culminating in the Gila River Indian Community’s decades-long efforts to reclaim the rich agricultural heritage that had characterized the region before Anglo and Mormon settlers detoured the Colorado River water that was its desert lifeblood. Yes, the rigidities of the structures of sprawl and its chief advocates, special interests, privileges, and shenanigans, also do warrant Ross’ attention in Bird on Fire. Those who know other cities better than they do Phoenix will find these familiar. Yet they may be heartened at the extent to which those rigidities have been and continue to be challenged by intrepid urbanists in Phoenix, a city critical urbanists love to hate. Doubtless, many of the city’s usual-suspect movers and shakers will also love to hate Bird on Fire; if it gives them pause, this in itself is an impressive accomplishment.
Bird on Fire thus gives Phoenicians fresh inspiration for our urban identity, one that connects us to the aspirations of those activists now visibly occupying cities worldwide in these sobering depths of recession and global urban restructuring. In this portrait, Phoenix is no longer figured as some exceptional desert city, replete with irremediable sprawl, inveterate white supremacy, and enclaved residents secured behind gated fortresses away from the messy challenges in the (dwindling) public spaces and (mounting) poorer communities. What emerges in Ross’s narrative is a distinctive ethics of sustainability; steeped in social justice, it is quite anathema to the stalled growth apparatus and the extraordinarily mean-spirited political atmosphere that currently prevails in the Arizona state capitol, whose legislature obsessively demonizes and tries to thwart the entry of one of the very protagonists that could otherwise be capitalized upon as a distinctive feature of this Southwest city. Indeed, that Ross includes immigration policy as a key strand of his book on urban sustainability, contributes a new dimension to the wide-ranging debate on this hottest of topics in this postmodern Heliopolis. Ross sees Phoenix as a city exemplary for the struggles of its intrepid activists contesting neoliberal urbanism, working against eco-apartheid and for a livable urbanism inclusive to its most vulnerable residents, attuned to its vulnerable environment, as well as its contingency, climate-wise, upon the world’s engagement with the larger challenges facing our planet.
Many in the audience that came to hear professor Ross speak in the Zócalo Public Square lecture series in October at the Heard Museum in Phoenix were Ross’ interviewees; most had not yet read the book, but nonetheless spoke expectantly about their cameo appearances in it. Some who had purchased the book upon entrance to the event probed its index in search of their friends’ names and quickly thumbed to those pages to relish their rare scripting as protagonists in its urban drama. As I chatted before the lecture with a few of the interviewees who deservedly figured prominently in the book, they expressed excitement that a scholar of Ross’ stature would bring recognition to their efforts to make their city better.  Starved for self-images that give credence to their work in the representations of metropolitan Phoenix, they anticipated that this was their chance to have their efforts, if not their persons, become visible, tangible, matter-full. I suspect many may have been slightly disappointed in the talk, which because of its summary style and brevity left out much of the fastidious detail with which the book’s fabric is richly knit together. Having already read the book, I knew they would likely not be disappointed when they did too.
Italo Calvino closes his miraculous little book Invisible Cities with Venetian traveler Marco Polo’s final consolation to the Tartar emperor Kublai Khan to assuage his concern that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current of future urbanism inevitably is drawing us all in to a nightmarish, infernal city. Resonant with The Matrix avant la lettre, Polo’s last parable outlines two ways to escape suffering the infernal city in which our daily lives already have become immersed: “The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”[7]Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Harvest Books, 1974. 165. With concerted vigilance, Andrew Ross’s Bird on Fire indeed recognizes and makes breathing room for those who are not inferno; it is up to we who dwell in the belly of this beast to make them endure.


1 Barthes, Roland.The Pleasure of the Text. Hill and Wang, 1975.
2 Talton, John. Rogue Columnist.
3 Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Schocken Books, 1969
4 Leitner, Helga, Jamie Peck, & Eric S. Shepard, eds. Contesting Neoliberalism: Urban Frontiers. Guilford Press, 2007.
5 Davis, Mike and Daniel Bertrand Monk, eds. Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism. New Press, 2007.
6 Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. Verso, 2006.
7 Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Harvest Books, 1974. 165.

kristin koptiuch