What Future is There for America’s
Desert Cities?

Life in Phoenix at the Intersection of Race, Class and Climate Change

By  Saritha Ramakrishna

My father once showed me an 8 ½” x 11” photo of a McDonald’s drive-through sign, set against a landscape of red dust. There was nothing around for miles; yellow arches were the only humanizing marker in an endless plain. He asked me where I thought the picture was taken. I had no idea. He later showed the picture to our neighborhood friends at a party and explained that it was land he was considering purchasing south of our home in Chandler, AZ. They nodded, asking about prices and contracts with polite interest. Once this had gone on long enough, he revealed he had actually edited those golden arches onto a stock image of Mars. I cringed, all the adults laughed. It was a summer day. The sun burned with its typical intensity, insistent on my skin. The cracked concrete around the pool tessellated outward like the Martian ground. I let my feet dangle in the water, watched them become silhouettes, ghostly in the unnatural blue. All seemed well.

Years later, on July 20, 2017, temperatures in the City of Phoenix reached 119 degrees, the fourth hottest day the city had ever experienced.  The city’s national weather service branch represented the highest temperatures in a shade of brilliant magenta. These areas were designated as “rare, dangerous, and possibly life threatening.” All of Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs glowed pink.

People retreated into their homes and let the air conditioning circulate. They dove underwater, and hoped for the best. Days like these are stagnant, the air immobilizing. It presses against the body and asphalt, radiating through a network of suburban homes in Gilbert, Chandler, Tempe, the Encanto, and elsewhere in the Valley of the Sun. Cul-de-sacs turn ghostly; the sidewalks catch the light, shimmer like water. For those waiting at the light rail or bus stops, shade provides temporary relief, though it’s a landscape not meant for continuous exposure. In order to save on air-conditioning bills, towels are soaked in ice water, dripped across overheated skin. Elsewhere, water falls from restaurant misters, flows cyclically around the waterpark rivers of Sunsplash and Big Surf.

The city of Phoenix sweltered under these impossibly hot skies, as temperatures climbed in a historic upward trajectory. Every year the city experiences an average of three months of temperatures over 100 degrees, or “triple-digit days” as local weathermen describe them. By 2060, it’s expected that three months will turn into four-and-a-half months.

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I grew up in Chandler, AZ, one of many linked suburbs in greater Phoenix. Chandler is composed of networks of pools and round-edged subdivisions. Summers brought the acridity of settling chlorine in sinuses, sweat drying in artificially cooled air. In the Valley of the Sun, heat, wealth, and water move together and apart, repelling and attracting each other, shaping housing markets and their occupants’ bodies and livelihoods.

In friends’ backyards and community pools, the better-off among us gossiped and played Truth-or-Dare, fought over outcomes of Sharks-and-Minnows and Marco Polo. We spent our time hiding from each other amongst the greenery of neighborhood parks, or remained captive indoors, tethered to desktop monitors. On such July days, we lived half-online, half-underwater.

I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts during last year’s heat wave. I sat in my work cubicle refreshing social media feeds every few minutes, clicking through the photos and articles that materialized. In pixelated appreciation I scrolled past videos and photos of recycling bins melted into trickling blue goo, kids frying eggs on sidewalks and on the dashboards of cars. I had been admitted to MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning a few months prior, intending to study climate change. That day, I imagined the entire city melting, congealing into indistinguishability.

“Many of Phoenix’s poorest areas are filled with minority communities lacking resources, environmental buffers, and infrastructure.”

Not long after, I spoke with Dr. Nancy Selover, Arizona’s State Climatologist about this heat wave and the increasing temperatures in the state. She told me that the difficulty of extreme temperatures is that they “typically come in a heat wave” which puts residents at greater health risk. (In 2016, Maricopa County, which includes the Phoenix-Metropolitan area, reported 130 heat deaths, the highest count of the past 15 years.) The city’s record high was an impossible 122 degrees in 1990, which has yet to be broken, though she warned that “we’re edging towards probably matching that in the next couple years.” Without adaptive or mitigating measures, by the end of the century the city could be six to eight degrees warmer. Its infrastructure contributes to variations in heat exposure, via Phoenix’s well-acknowledged urban heat-island effect, a phenomenon where paved surfaces trap heat that is slowly released overnight.

“The impact of the heat island in terms of warming the City of Phoenix is almost an order of magnitude greater than climate change, greater than global or regional warming,” Dr. Selover said. Though she does not expect that this will remain the case, this notion is counter to narratives that frame climate-related issues as matters of individual choice, as opposed to summative infrastructural ones. All of Phoenix’s development and its storied overlays play a role in these hazards—developers, sellers, and homebuyers alike.

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The city government has acknowledged the heat island, and the importance of canopy coverage to mitigate it. It disproportionately affects the poor, whose neighborhoods do not have the tree and shade coverage of richer areas, where air conditioning bills are an undue financial burden. Dr. Selover pointed out, “We have some older neighborhoods that have been here for years and years and years and they have a lot of turf grass, and they have a lot of big leaf trees, and they have a lot of shade, a lot of cooling,” while “the poorer communities, a lot of the minority communities don’t have the benefit of that shade.”

My own childhood home is a 4-bedroom corner house, situated in a subdivision called Willis Ranch. This neighborhood, and its surrounding neighborhoods are middle class, comprised of mostly white residents. Our home was built in 2000, and purchased in 2002 by my parents for $170,000. I was eight when we moved in. Having previously shared a room with my older brother in our family’s two-bedroom apartment, I paced the hallways of our new home admiring all the space I could now roam in. My parents, immigrants from India by way of Canada, spent an inordinate amount of time negotiating what to do with their purchase; the living room became an odd amalgamation of objects: Southwestern kitsch, Hindu iconography, family photos.

Our new neighborhood became our world. My parents would never indulge my requests to go camping somewhere away from Chandler, answering my pleas with “We have a house, why would we sleep outside?” Throughout my adolescence and my undergraduate years, I conceptualized our lives as they were, carved into a beige and burnt sienna block of homes. Like so many other Phoenicians, we defined ourselves by the purchase of land and structure, the right to be left alone in the desert light. In white suburbia, property allows immigrant families a sense of belonging. “Making it” is living where you want, buying what you want, eating what you want. We embraced the dream that produced our mid-century city, glowing with the grandeur of the single-family household and the untarnished possibility of a beautiful life. Our religion became the ideology of the self-made.

Over the years, my father turned into a suburban hobbyist, an amateur photographer seeking to capture the beauty of decorated medians, a gardener cultivating sugar snap peas in the topsoil above red clay. Now he works in Boise, Idaho, away from my mother, me, and my older brother who also lives in Arizona. When we speak on the phone I can hear that he’s tired, living away from our family. He shrugs it off as “just what we do to survive.”

“The impact of the heat island in terms of warming the City of Phoenix is almost an order of magnitude greater than climate change, greater than global or regional warming.”

I said goodbye to Phoenix three years ago. I was 21. After a tearful argument, my then boyfriend drove us up to the top of South Mountain, a park in the middle of the Valley. To the south, it is bordered by Ahwatukee, a planned suburban village that is technically a component of Phoenix. From a distance, the mountain park homes in Ahwatukee are indistinguishable from my own subdivision.

To the north, the park lies adjacent to South Phoenix, a historically Hispanic and Black community that eager developers have gentrified in the past decade. Driving through the neighborhoods, sun-bleached “For Sale” signs wave out at every red light. South of the Baseline arterial, it’s a haphazard quilt of development cut up by walled-off semi-private communities, the result of a post-recession shift to infill, a bewildering mixture of golf course communities and older minority neighborhoods sandwiched in between. Further north in Central City, residential blocks lie close to centers of historic industrial activity. Downtown Phoenix isn’t far away, but its amenities seem distant from these older neighborhoods. Sandwiched between the I-10 and the Highland Canal trail is the Town of Guadalupe, a historically Indigenous settlement known for its poverty. In the mania of suburban dreams and downtown development, these inequalities persist.

The suburban Phoenician sees future development from this same scenic distance. In a conservative narrative “growth pays for itself” via new single-family homes and suburban affluence. In liberal campaigns for a new urbanist future, high-rise downtown condominiums, art spaces, and breweries populate a newly developed urban core. Both are visions scrubbed of race and poverty, a reification of property and capital no matter their solid forms.

In May, the president described undocumented immigrants as he characteristically does: “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people, these are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.” Though he was quoted at a roundtable discussion in Washington DC, it’s a sentiment that indulges the worst of Phoenician attitudes towards poverty, race, citizenry, and the public good. Arizona and Phoenix have long been afflicted with casual xenophobia for anyone who might be suspected to be “illegal,” a term often deployed with unspecified panic.

Racist and anti-immigrant attitudes are embedded in Phoenician and Arizonan politics and culture. In 2010, Arizona enacted SB1070, a draconian immigration enforcement law which essentially legalized racial profiling. From 1993 to October of 2017, law enforcement officials operated an outdoor jail called “Tent City” (which many referred to as Arizona’s “concentration camp”). In what is common knowledge to most Phoenicians, prisoners in Tent City were subjected to horrific and humiliating conditions, forced to sleep outside even in last year’s 119 degree heat, with little relief. Today, ICE agents in Arizona enforce a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy enacted in April of this year; advocacy organizations have documented numerous cruelties and abuses, most recently the separation of parents and children.

Climate change and environmental hazards play distinct roles in these systems. Ethnographer Jason De León describes how border patrol “simultaneously uses and hides behind the viciousness of the Sonoran Desert” and its extreme temperatures in its enforcement. Deaths resulting from dehydration or extreme heat in Arizona’s borderlands are understood as a natural consequence of violating immigration laws. Relatedly, “as it stands now, border enforcement is not only growing, but is increasingly connected to the displacement caused by a world of fire, wind, rain and drought.” Todd Miller, a Tucson-based journalist, documents how environmental degradation and climate change south of the U.S. border produce desperate conditions that lead to migration, and consequently, militarization and a culture of enforcement based in vindictiveness.

The U.S. government has classified my family via H-1B visas, green cards, and eventually U.S. citizenship certificates. These made us virtuous in the eyes of white Phoenicians, defined by papers and wealth. Many of my acquaintances’ parents were the ones who demanded not to press 2 for Spanish, who wouldn’t stop making drunken jokes about immigrants crossing the Rio Grande. Despite this rhetoric, many of these people would not hesitate to take any visiting relatives from the Midwest or East Coast for Mexican food, crunching tortilla chips, savoring the tang of salt and lime. I got used to hearing “Sheriff Joe’s the man!” in praise of Maricopa County’s recently ousted (and presidential-pardoned) racist sheriff, who recently announced his candidacy for Senate at 86 years of age.

“Days like these are stagnant, the air immobilizing. It presses against the body and asphalt, radiating through a network of suburban homes in Gilbert, Chandler, Tempe, the Encanto, and elsewhere in the Valley of the Sun.”

At my teenage movie-theater job, older white couples would look at me with soft dismissiveness, reading my nametag, saying “Saritha” out loud to me with perplexity. Upon hearing my Valley girl accent, peppered with vocal fry and modulated “likes,” their demeanors relaxed. In this and so many other contexts, I found myself in a liminal space, where a rich, white, and older population was willing to temporarily look past race because of perceived class.

Many of Phoenix’s poorest areas are filled with minority communities lacking resources, environmental buffers, and infrastructure. Historic segregation in Phoenix excluded African Americans and Mexican Americans from the northern half of the city, who were labeled “detrimental races and nationalities,” via property value standards designed by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s. A 2005 historical review by scholars from Arizona State University on the development of these communities notes that, “historic racist discourses and practices and their effects on land use decisions have been literally inscribed on the landscape of central Phoenix.” Phoenix’s rapid mid-century development was matched with mid-century exclusion—away from suburban growth and downtown development, minority communities in areas like South Phoenix became victims of lax regulation and zoning laws, as older neighborhoods were gradually overshadowed by adjacent industrial development and Phoenix’s main airport. Freeways divided minority communities beginning in the 1960s through the 1980s, so that suburban dwellers might have easier access to downtown employment, further decreasing quality of life with the noise and pollution they brought. These problems were compounded by discrimination and neglect from financial institutions. Poverty was described with narratives of pathology, cultivating a palpable sense of unease that some white Phoenicians still feel in minority neighborhoods. And the present fear sown by the activities of ICE further isolates people from public services, from emergencies to basic health problems.

I spoke about this to Dr. Sharon Harlan, a sociologist who has studied Phoenix’s attempts to adapt to extreme heat and climate change over the course of its history. A faculty member at Northeastern University, Dr. Harlan met me for coffee on an unusually cold January morning. Some of her work has examined how microclimates relate to wealth. One of the studies she co-authored found that for every $10,000 increment in average household income in a neighborhood, the area’s land surface temperature was lower by half a degree Fahrenheit based on greater availability of vegetation and shade. Dr. Harlan said that for “neighborhoods that are most  problematic in terms of heat and being barren landscapes, this is more of a neglect of attention from the city in terms of bringing poor people into the mainstream of development.”

Beyond extreme heat, poverty-stricken neighborhoods contend with a series of problems, environmental and otherwise. While my family had been moving into and furnishing our new home, in the 1990’s and early 2000’s South Phoenix residents had fought against the siting of hazardous industrial facilities close to their homes. Environmental justice organizations had focused their efforts on issues such as toxicity and air pollution. Dr. Harlan notes these concerns persist today, where such organizations “are much less concerned about rallying their people around creating cool spaces.” She says, “they have more immediate, important issues in mind: immigration, poverty, neglect, voting, all kinds of things.” Dr. Harlan suggests that one would need “an entirely new political ideology, and an entirely new set of directives to government agencies” to address housing affordability, health, and environmental hazards.

We also discussed Phoenix’s pro-business culture. In the early 2000s when the city first acknowledged the urban heat island, the concern was creating a comfortable environment downtown for tourism and business. Beyond this, Dr. Harlan sees it “as a divided future,” in which Phoenix becomes “an environment where people with money can survive.” Though she cited the importance of “small victories,” including former graduate students of hers helping green South Phoenix parks, or working on affordable housing initiatives, we parted on her sobering sentiment:

Inequality is going to get worse. And so the poor suffer more. The people who are least responsible for causing the problem, of climate change, of urban heat island, of water use, are the people that suffer first and most.

Many east coasters I’ve met consider Phoenix in horror, given its high-octane growth and alien landscape: Phoenix is a city full of lizard people; it’s racist, it’s wasteful, it’s an exhausting paragon of American arrogance. In this view the west is reduced to a place without a history, caricatures of the frontier, dome-lit portraits of #goodvibes. The citizens of Phoenix as unwitting actors in a postmodern tragedy.

Living in Greater Boston, I take a strange comfort in my occasional sense of urban claustrophobia. The upstairs and downstairs neighbors, my two roommates, and a continuous inflow of friends of friends fill my evenings.  I am always accidentally nudging someone’s knee on the bus to school, exchanging commiserating looks with strangers on some bitingly freezing winter morning, or meeting temporary friends. Though there is some novelty in these close quarters, I can understand why many Americans might not want to live this way, or indeed even have the resources to live in such a dense metropolis.

I’m a twenty-something finding community with other twenty-somethings who hand over nearly $1,000 in rent every month to share small spaces with each other, in a city where displacement is rampant, in the hopes of becoming someone profound or influential. And while our city is more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists than Phoenix, it can be just as cruel, its forms and population ruthlessly shaped by capital.

At two in the morning after seeing some bands play, I made small talk with one of those long-haired friends of friends.  He asked me what I would do when I graduated from MIT’s urban planning school. Laughing in my face a little, he flicked the ash from his cigarette.

Saritha Ramakrishna
Saritha Ramakrishna
Saritha Ramakrishna is a Master in City Planning (MCP) candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she studies climate change and environmental justice issues. Though she is originally from Arizona, she lives in Somerville, MA.





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