Alice Wheeler

Imagine a place where the climate is so hostile that only the most desperate travel on foot--what few sidewalks that exist are as dusty as the hallways of a haunted house. Nowhere is there a place not designed strictly for access by car; because of the traffic, tempers run so high the radio advises drivers not to make eye contact with one another lest they get shot.

In the last decade, the September monsoons that once watered the desert in which this city was built now come at irregular times, or not at all. In summer, children who fall on the pavement are hospitalized with third-degree burns from the asphalt. In this land of indignity, the county jail is an outdoor tent city in 120-degree heat, where prisoners wear pink jumpsuits (also sold as souvenirs), their every move broadcast by webcam over the Internet. Every New Year's Eve, several people die from the return of bullets fired at random into the air.

This is what it means to say, Phoenix, Arizona. And this is why, even after the death of grunge, the dot-com bust, and the Boeing bail, Phoenix residents are fleeing to Seattle.

Seattle's domestic immigrants have arrived in sequential, overlapping waves since the 1940s, when the city's tiny black community swelled with wartime factory workers from Oklahoma, East Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas. They in turn were followed by veterans of all races who came home from wars in Korea and Vietnam through Fort Lewis and Bremerton, and stuck around. Californians fleeing their state's increasing unlivability arrived in the '70s and '80s, and they were followed in the last decade by technology workers from all over the country.

These days, unhappy white Angelenos are no longer moving north but east, into the desert cities of the Southwest. In an attempt to accommodate new residents used to slightly cooler climates, Phoenix's sprawl now clusters around artificial lakes (from which water evaporates in huge volumes), to create the illusion that Arizona is not a desert.

Phoenicians who are sick of the heat, the waste, the violence, and the Californians are moving to Seattle in huge numbers. The size of the Phoenix refugee community in Seattle is unknown, but there is one highly reliable indicator of Phoenix-to-Seattle migration: Suddenly a considerable number of baristas (that mezzanine of the local economy) hail from Phoenix. Twenty-one-year-old Yann's story is illustrative. Like many Phoenix residents, he blew into the desert town on a whim and quickly found himself mired in a swamp of dissolution, fear, and decay. Upon his arrival in Phoenix, co-workers told Yann never to walk west of 35th Avenue, where a quarter of the city lives, largely without streetlights or paved roads, where even buses (which ordinary citizens are afraid to ride) don't run. Soon afterward, Yann's roommate was kidnapped at gunpoint by a drug dealer, and Yann's $1,500 worth of professional musical equipment was stolen, replaced, and stolen again.

If Yann sat on the front step of the 600-unit apartment complex where he lived (in a not particularly bad part of town), he would be offered crystal meth every 10 minutes. If he left the lights on after 10:00 p.m., meth buyers would ring his bell. Apparently, this is ordinary life in Phoenix, which stands at the forefront of America's fastest-growing drug habit. Every day a meth lab is busted or burns in the metropolitan area, so often that the TV news doesn't report such incidents unless a child is trapped in the blaze or suffocates from the toxic fumes of the speed-making process (which itself happens every few days).

Tara, a 25-year-old bookseller, lived in "The Valley of the Sun" until moving to Seattle two years ago. She says Yann's experience is typical. Most of her middle-class peers got into hard drugs in junior high, and she quit her first job canvassing for the Sierra Club, after two clients answered the door with guns.

Beyond the city's social problems lies Phoenix's eternal (and eternally damned) struggle with nature. In Tara's home suburb of Tempe, the city passed a bond in 1997 to put inflatable dams across the Salt River and create Tempe Town Lake, in hopes of spawning a multimillion-dollar beachside shopping and hotel development. However, the mosquitoes attracted by the reservoir became so intense that the city was forced to dump ominous quantities of pesticide into the dead lake. Phoenix's dry climate once drew retirees and people with respiratory problems; now the air is so polluted it tops the national lists for rates of asthma.

Like Tara, Michael Serpe left family and friends to get the hell out of Phoenix, and now runs a tiny record label, Homerecorded, from his basement in Madrona. Serpe moved here 10 years ago, after a long stint in Phoenix's punk scene; he says there was no place in that city for an organic local culture to take root. When the 29-year-old moved to Phoenix as a child, his former fifth-grade class back in Queens wrote to ask if he carried a canteen and went to school on a horse. "Phoenix used to be the desert," he says. "Now it's L.A."

Hardly. Los Angeles is the hub for numerous native and immigrant subcultures, as well as the flawed yet awesome machine of Hollywood, and sandwiched as it is between mountains and ocean, relief from its crush of cars is close by. Between the rootlessness of Phoenix's residents (voter registration is among the lowest nationwide) and the ruthlessness of its developers, Phoenix occupies a level of Inferno all its own. Most of the land between Phoenix and funkier Tucson, a two-hour drive through what used to be desert, is covered with mindless sprawl.

"There are no mom-and-pops anymore, just chains, restaurants owned by PepsiCo," says Serpe. "It's like a Dr. Seuss cartoon where a guy rolls out a little box and it unfolds into a strip mall, the same everywhere." To Serpe, the city is an agglomeration of private, air-conditioned environments--"car to work, to store, to home"--that do not mix. Thus culture is entirely received from the electronic media, and attempts at a local identity, Serpe says, extend no further than the borrowed Indian motifs decorating Phoenix's freeway underpasses and living rooms.

So community-seeking Phoenicians, if not held in place by poverty, children, or mortgages, are fleeing to the Northwest. Like the Central District's Somali and Ethiopian residents (refugees from wars and starvation), these refugees from heat, malls, and sprawl huddle in the U-District and Capitol Hill, close to Seattle's core, near the pedestrian enclaves and non-commercial cultural outlets they craved for so long. Like true Seattleites, most of them try not to cross Lake Washington. Because how far is the now strip-malled and highway-girded Eastside from becoming Phoenix, but with rain and trees?