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New York Times
11 Feb 2023

NextImg:As Super Bowl Fans Arrive, Phoenix Seeks to Present a New Face

PHOENIX — The plywood wall was 190 feet long and 10 feet high, running along a walkway leading to Phoenix’s convention center. It took Kayla Newnam six weeks to fill it with bright reds, oranges and indigos, a palette drawn from desert sunrises and sunsets.

Against a psychedelic and surreal sky, she painted the local cactuses and desert flowers, a coyote, a hawk, a javelina, a hare and a giant Gila monster, its nubbly skin, she said, meant to recall a football.

“They were looking for something that captured the spirit of Phoenix, and the biggest thing for me is the sunsets,” said Ms. Newnam, who favors pink hair and spotted cowboy boots. “We are a huge desert, with a huge city inside it.”

The mural, one of several that have popped up around downtown as the Super Bowl approaches, is part of the city’s campaign to present a shimmering face to an estimated one million people flocking to the area, many from out of state, for the game in nearby Glendale and related events.

Like every city that hosts America’s biggest sporting spectacle, Phoenix wants to put on a good show. But the city, the nation’s fifth largest with 1.4 million residents, is also seeking to reshape its national image, and the public art, along with a building boom and infrastructure projects spurred in part by the planning for the game, is giving officials more to brag about.

“A lot of people in the world who are not familiar with Phoenix seem to have this idea of a sprawling, soulless city,” said Catrina Kahler, the president of Artlink Inc., a downtown arts group. “The fact of the matter is that Phoenix has such a deep talent pool of artists here. We want to present to the world that we really are a creative city.”

For Mayor Kate Gallego, the public art has been a way to signal her administration’s green policies, but she has also sought to showcase the revival of the city’s once moribund downtown, where nightlife now flourishes.

Kayla Newnam is one of the artists who painted murals as part of the city’s preparation for the game. Credit...Ash Ponders for The New York Times

Around 2015, when the area last hosted the Super Bowl, downtown was “a ghost town” at night, said Christine Mackay, the city’s planning commissioner. “You could walk around here screaming at the top of your lungs and not see anyone.”

Since then, developers have built more than 10 million square feet of space in high-rise office buildings and apartments, transforming the skyline. The population of downtown has more than doubled to 30,000 people since 2014.

Selena Clark, 42, who owns a pharmacy with her husband, said they moved to the area a decade ago, when there were many undeveloped spaces. “Downtown Phoenix is thriving,” she said, as she walked her dog. “There was none of this here.”

And this week, the handiwork of the N.F.L. and the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee is everywhere. Banners line the streets. Several of the new high-rises downtown are wrapped with mammoth advertisements from Super Bowl sponsors. People are gathering at the convention center and Hance Park for N.F.L. events and concerts.

Beyond those festivities, Ms. Gallego has set out to present her city to the wider world as a center for innovation, open to high-tech businesses and committed to ecologically sustainable development. A fleet of autonomous, driverless electric cars are on the streets, ready to ferry people to the airport.

The city has even invested in garbage-sorting robots called “depackagers” that are designed to sift public waste for compost. A piece of public art made of plastic waste hangs in the convention center to drive home the theme.

The pressure of hosting the Super Bowl, a decision announced five years ago, helped the city complete several infrastructure projects, including parts of a growing light rail system and a shuttle train at the airport. Just days before the game, the city finished a new sustainable botanical garden in Hance Park.

“The Super Bowl is an amazing source of civic pride, and people really come together around it,” Ms. Gallego said. “I have not experienced a better construction deadline.”

Buildings downtown have been wrapped with ads for the Super Bowl and its various sponsors.Credit...Ash Ponders for The New York Times

For all of those improvements, the city defies easy labels, and its quirks can be both endearing and puzzling. It has a greater land area than Los Angeles, and a string of urban centers. It is the kind of city where great restaurants are often found in unassuming buildings next to parking lots or along noxious highways, where America’s best taco stands are tucked beside auto-repair shops, where city planners set aside large tracts of desert land for parks while allowing a major highway to bisect the city.

One intractable challenge for Phoenix is a massive encampment of homeless people known as “the zone” just blocks from City Hall and the Capitol, where about 700 people were living in tents and shanties this week, despite efforts to persuade them to move into shelters.

Also, some critics have said that City Hall’s efforts to beautify downtown for visitors has only created a Potemkin version of Phoenix that obscures its gritty beauty and complicated charm.

“It’s just a bow on the box,” Aaron Welintukonis, 38, an elevator repairman, said. “They don’t really get to know what Phoenix is all about.”

Mayor Kate Gallego has set out to present Phoenix to the wider world as a center of innovation.Credit...Ash Ponders for The New York Times

This year, as part of its agreement with the N.F.L., Phoenix tried to create a “clean zone” downtown, free of unsightly signs or placards put up by residents. But the ordinance was challenged by Bramley Paulina, a local businessman who argued in court that the rule violated his freedom of speech because he could not use his building near Hance Park to advertise products that were not from sponsors of the Super Bowl. A judge agreed and the city changed the ordinance.

Another issue, critics say, is gentrification stemming from the downtown growth. Rising rents have driven out many of the artists and galleries that had first blazed a trail in what was a blighted area, several longtime residents said.

“It’s booming, it’s vibrant, it’s got nightlife,” said Wayne Rainey, who for two decades owned a gallery on Roosevelt Avenue with apartments upstairs for artists. “The downside is the cool galleries that once permeated the district are gone for the most part.”

Still, the city tapped many local artists who came out of the downtown scene to help burnish its image for the national spotlight.

City workers putting finishing touches on Hance Park, where many of the Super Bowl festivities will be held.Credit...Ash Ponders for The New York Times

The tickets for the Super Bowl were designed by Lucinda Hinojosa, an Indigenous painter known as La Morena. She also assembled a team of other Native artists to create a giant mural, commissioned by the N.F.L., that is visible from one of the main downtown avenues. The work adds to the surge in murals across the city in recent years.

Painted on a four-story building, it features the Lombardi Trophy set in a desert landscape with a stylized green field behind it.

But the football imagery ends there. A woman in an Apache camp dress tends to glowing desert plants of medicinal value. Another woman is harvesting fruit from a saguaro cactus.

The artists had only three weeks to finish the work, and the project almost fell apart several times, Ms. Hinojosa said. The sheer physical exertion of trying to paint a four-story wall taxed the team.

“We cried multiple times,” Ms. Hinojosa said.

But for her and the other artists involved, the result was a rare evocation of the role of Indigenous people in the region’s history and the reverence that the states’ 22 tribes feel for the land itself. And her sense of pride reflects the kind of sentiment that city leaders want all residents to experience.

“For Native people,” she said, “they see themselves in this mural, and they feel seen for the first time.”

“We want to present to the world that we really are a creative city,” said Catrina Kahler, the president of Artlink Inc., a downtown arts group. Credit...Ash Ponders for The New York Times