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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Maricopa: Do It For the Children

by Tanta on 4/06/2008 08:05:00 AM

Does anyone else remember when this buy-as-much-suburban-house-as-you-can thing was all about having a great place to raise your kids?

From the NYT Magazine's long piece on Maricopa, Arizona, "The Boomtown Mirage":

There were plenty of other cities in Arizona that were experiencing a housing-market boom at the same time. But most of those cities already had an infrastructure in place to deal with the influx of people. Nearby Casa Grande had, for instance, a courthouse, a police station, zoning laws, a fire department, a city hall, a local government and a sewer system. Maricopa had none of the above. There was one school in town, built in the 1950s, a four-building campus where Maricopa’s children were educated from kindergarten to 12th grade. . . .

Ideally, a growing city will negotiate with developers to reduce the impact that new residents will have on the area; it might offer the builder smaller setbacks from the road in exchange for providing space for a school or widening roads. But at the beginning of Maricopa’s growth, the city was unincorporated, and all these negotiations were made by a three-person county board of supervisors that was working from rural zoning codes dating back to 1962. As a result, in those early years, decisions about Maricopa were driven by the concerns of developers, who left little space in their plans for business or commerce — just lots and lots of houses. They created blocks of identical homes, because it was more efficient to build with as little variation as possible. They built sidewalks on only one side of the street to save money. They happily left space in subdivisions for playgrounds and five new elementary schools, which they thought would help bring in the young families they were targeting, but they did not leave space for parks for older kids or for a high school. . . .

By the time Maricopa became a city, though, almost half of its land was owned by developers. In 2005, the local school district appointed a superintendent, John Flores, who began pleading with the developers for space for a high school (for a while, Maricopa schools were admitting 300 new students every month). But it was to no avail. Amy Haberbosch, Maricopa’s former director of planning, told me that developers believed high schools lowered property values; she said one developer told her he’d rather build a jail on his property than a high school. . . .

At Fry’s, I met Adrianna Roberts, who is 16 and recently moved to Maricopa from Illinois. Her parents had wanted to get out of a bad neighborhood and into a bigger house, and her older sister, a real estate agent, had recommended Maricopa. Roberts and her friend Alajeda Howard, a recent transplant from Missouri, bagged groceries at the store, and they came to Fry’s even when they weren’t scheduled to work, because, they said, there was nothing else to do.

Roberts and Howard, who is also 16, live in Palo Brea, one of the least inhabited subdivisions in town. The roads in Palo Brea were each marked with a green street sign and a curb, and the lots had been wired for electricity and water, but they were mostly empty; just a few streets had homes on them. Roberts and Howard told me they missed their old neighborhoods. “Here you have to have someone drive you 45 minutes just to do something on the weekend, and everyone falls asleep on the way there,” Howard said, fiddling with a package of cheese she was supposed to return to the dairy cooler. Roberts concurred: “In Illinois, you could get home and walk anywhere you wanted to go — to the corner store or up the street to the YMCA. The mall was two blocks away.”

Shawn Bellamy, a 19-year-old store manager, came by to offer his two cents about Maricopa. “The only thing good is Fry’s. Without Fry’s, I wouldn’t have met anyone here. It’s just slit-your-throat-and-wrists boring.”

Although Howard and Roberts both live in Palo Brea, they had not met each other until they started to work at Fry’s. “Everyone makes friends at this store,” Howard explained. “This is the hangout for Maricopa.”
For some reason, these teenagers don't seem sufficiently grateful to have been saved from the horrors of urban life--YMCAs, corner stores, malls, sidewalks, high schools--and plopped into a community with a big golf course, no business district, and no social activities that don't require a driver's license, a car, gas, and 45 minutes of travel time. If the developers are horrified by the thought of having a high school around to bring down property values, you can imagine what they'd think of a YMCA. So the kids all hang out at a supermarket.

It sounds like a great supermarket, by the way. They put in couches, a TV, and internet access and clearly don't shoo those kids out as if the mere presence of teenagers near a business meant an uncontrollable crime wave. Then again, maybe they have no choice: while the developers might prefer jails to high schools, it looks like they didn't get a jail either.

Many of you no doubt noticed the big hissy fit over this story, in which a perfectly responsible mom let her perfectly responsible kid ride the subway by himself in New York, and ended up with a fondue-fork wielding crowd after her for "child abuse." Obviously she should move to Maricopa with the kid. He can have absolutely nothing to do until he's old enough to get a job at Fry's, which can become the focus of his social life. But he won't get mugged on the subway.