Freeze Frame:  Exploring Phoenix’s Borderlands



            During our first day of field research in the heart of South Phoenix, we found ourselves lunching at a great restaurant called Panchos.  We walked back to the car, stomachs full of great authentic Mexican food, our heads full of ideas for possible projects, possible surveys, possible research.  The parking lot behind Panchos is an empty dirt lot that ends in a jumble of barbed wire fencing and dozens of “No Trespassing” signs.  As we came closer and tried to find an opening in the fence, we noticed a set of about six very old, very abandoned, very tiny shacks and a huge abandoned structure that looked like stables littered with trash. 

            We followed a fence around a huge perimeter, stepping over old newspapers, unidentifiable trash, and strangely, an out of place golf ball.  As we turned the corner of the trash heap, the horizon was filled with a huge expanse of… absolutely nothing: an open field of level dirt, devoid of even the decaying trash that had become so familiar in this area.  We thought we could see a sign at the opposite end of the lot and hoped it was a clue as to why developers hadn’t build a row of cookie-cutter houses on this land.  It turned out the land has been designated for a new development, but not of shoe-box stores like the ones that sprout up around Scottsdale.  The land was to be a new addition of affordable homes to be built be ACORN, an affordable housing agency. 

            Curious to see what lay beyond this future community, we crossed the street and stepped further into South Phoenix.  Behind Central Av. And the chain-restaurant style Panchos lay an entire neighborhood, kept hidden from view by a rusting barbed wire fence, decrepit shacks, piles of trash, and a huge of unused dirt.  The neighborhood unfolded before us as we crossed more streets, traveling further into South Phoenix.  It was a stark contrast from the ancient looking abandoned shacks and empty, silent lots.  This neighborhood was teaming with kids.  Kids biking, kids strolling in groups, kids playing on the street, teenagers working on their cars while listening to an old Tina Marie song on a portable radio.

            We were greeted by a man in his shorts and slippers.  He had his hands on his hips and his belly stuck out reflecting the Phoenix sun.  He seemed to be guarding this community… a sort of gatekeeper if you will.  It turned out he was disabled and couldn’t afford the small apartment he lived in now.  He spoke to us kindly about the new development and how he might benefit from the affordable housing and government subsidies.  We thanked our new friend and with a “God Bless” he turned and walked back to the apartment he could barely afford.

            Down the street, we noticed a group of three younger girls who turned out to be walking home from their sixth-grade class. There were two girls of Hispanic descent and one African American girl who seemed to be the spokes-person of the group.  As we explained that we were conducting a survey of their neighborhood, the African American girl spoke up and said “Yea!  We did that in our school.  We went around the neighborhood asking people about the problems in the community.”  This was a ray of hope that went against all the horror stories we had heard about the poor state of the schools in South Phoenix. 

            After a bit of walking and talking, it was time for our “freeze frame,” an event in which you look inside and outside your frame of reference to explore the environment your are researching. 

            I found myself on a "paved" road cutting through the heart of a vibrant neighborhood on Montezuma and Central. We had just interviewed several people from the neighborhood and when it came time to "Freeze," I focused on one of the houses lining the road. Inside my small frame I saw an older brick house, maybe from the '50s or '60s (?). Parked in front of the home were two dinosaurs-like cars that couldn't possibly work. A bit outside my frame I saw the neighboring house, the home of a man we had just interviewed. I remembered the words the man said about his unfriendly neighbors and the lack of a sense of community. Farther out I noticed that in place of manicured lantana bushes or token cacti, someone was growing tall sugar cane in their front yard. What I couldn't see in my frame was the lack of streetlights, lack of sidewalks, and the fenced off empty lot strewn with broken bottles behind me.