Tempe, Arizona: House by a Road
Phoenix: "an oasis of ugliness in the midst of a beautiful wasteland." - Edward AbbeyI knew Tempe before starting this book. My sister moved here in 1983 to study Solar Engineering at Arizona State University (ASU). My father moved there the next year. My mother did not. That was the end of their marriage, and my dad had been in that town ever since.
The Hopper here was at ASU. Donated as Cottage, Cape Cod, Gail Levin's research discovered that the Hoppers referred to it as House by a Road. Tempe is a city of houses by roads--a post-WW II boomtown--and my dad and his wife Carol lived in one of its many sprawling subdivisions. I asked them, along with my sister Debbi and stepbrother Steve (all Tempe residents), if they thought people in Tempe were isolated like in Hopper's paintings.
"No," Debbi began. "All of Hopper's paintings are like in very rural farmland, so no I don't see it at all that way."
"I don't either," my dad agreed. "In fact, I can't think of a place that would be. Okay, on the level that we don't know everybody in the neighborhood, that's true. It's not like my interpretation of Hopper's isolation."
"There's two kinds of isolation," Carol noted. "There's physical and there's social."
"Isolation," Debbi added, "is a personal choice. Hopper's characters are always at the window expecting company. They're somehow reaching out."
"See," my dad shook his head, "I don't see that in his pictures. I see most of them wanting to be isolated. Why the hell don't they get out of there? It's like they're where they want to be."
Carol mused, "I see it not so much as where they want to be, but maybe where they are. And they're not quite sure, they're confused. They don't know why they're isolated."
"The Hopper painting here," I put forth, "is called House by a Road," and I described it.
"When you talk about how much of a lone house it is," Steve piped up, "the big thing here, as far as in construction, would be these new developments way outside of town where land is cheap. Everybody is in their own house or development by the road. It's an isolating thing. I've got to say: I feel claustrophobic here now. I like being outside, doing outside things like biking. On nights, I used to ride my bike and be in the desert in a half-hour. I can't do that any more. There's so many people on the mountain close by here. You run in to everybody. Same thing with hiking. Can't take the dog out, because he's big and he wants to go up to other people, so I look for places where there's nobody else."
"I think that's a good point," my dad concurred, "and I think it holds true across the country: the move from urban areas. We want our kids to have fresh air and open spaces, so everybody's always moving out."
Debbi said, "When I moved here in 1980 it was smaller and less developed. Guadalupe [the town next door] was the outskirts of the town. There was nothing past there. Now, there's a whole Phoenix out there: shopping centers where there was just desert. I have to travel a lot for my job, so I go way out. People tell me where they live, and I think, 'that's desert; there's nothing out there.' But there's whole developments there."
"We were on the edge then," my dad related, "and now ten miles south of here is built up. Over here at the intersection, they raised sheep. Now, It's strip city. You can't tell when you leave one city and join another. If they didn't have a sign up, you wouldn't know what the hell city you're in."
Debbi continued, "I see huge houses and very small yards, not yards where you can play baseball, and then there will be a small park. Even the park isn't like how we used to have this big huge baseball field. So I see a lot of neighborhoods that are all house. Each has a double garage, and they're side-by-side. I'm sure the houses are beautiful inside, but I always think, 'I do not want a house like that.'"
Carol said, "I associate big houses and rooms with family or there's something comforting or appealing. If you really want to be isolated, you wouldn't choose a big house with lots of rooms. You would choose a tent maybe in the middle of the desert or something."
"Maybe if you isolate yourself in a really big structure," Steve theorized, "you don't feel so small. You feel powerful and less alone."
"I love seeing lone farmhouses when I'm driving along," Debbi gushed. "There's something very intriguing about them. I don't know how I'd really feel if I lived there. I'm such a people person," she snickered, "I'd probably open a bed and breakfast."
Carol commented, "I think these farmhouses that you were mentioning do have a hold on our national conscience. Everybody looks at a Hopper and says, 'Oh, yeah, look at that farmhouse.' Those places (for me anyway) are places to visit but only for a while. I'm not ready to give up city things. I want the best of both worlds."
"I love the desert's wide open spaces," Debbi offered. "When I first came here, I thought it was ugly. The thing that was brought home to me when we had that blackout period in August five years ago was that there would not be very many people here if there was no electricity. Not many people would choose to live here without AC. In August, I can't touch the steering wheel. You just feel like the sun is totally sucking everything out of you. I stay inside. It's kind of like winter back there."
Carol disagreed, "Even though I hate the summer here, I like it better than the cold winter there. I remember how the cold would go through me back there, and I hated it. Interesting how you see a place and you know that it's just meant for you. That's exactly how I felt, like this is where I belong. It's almost like I had another life before I came here."
"You did have another life before here," my dad joked. "When I first came to Arizona, I was mesmerized. I said, 'I want to live there.' It took me ten years before I was able to do it. I still think people who move here are pioneers. I really do. I met a lot of people in my life, who think, 'I can't do that.' They're married, have a family, and kids are in school, and they're just not willing to move. I think to leave the familiar takes a little whatever. It takes something. In the 1880s, this was undeveloped. I don't know that I would have moved out here in 1880 had I been living with a family of five in Chicago. I can just say that, in the years I lived, it was a paradise for me to move to Arizona, the one place I wanted to be."
"Do you think Americans are emotionally isolated from each other?" I asked.
"Yeah," Carol answered. "In Japan, they're housing is at a premium, and they have a lot of people living in a very small space. How do they do that? I would get claustrophobia. We need so much space. I guess it is the way you're brought up, obviously, your culture. But some people flourish with a lot of people. Why do some people need more space? Want more space?"
"I say in answer to your question," my dad proclaimed, "look at the national reaction to September 11th, which has, in my mind, just dwindled."
"Exactly," Steve echoed.
"I think," Carol began, "we want to come to somebody's aid. If somebody needs help, we're there."
"But on a day-to-day basis," my dad finished her thought, "no. I'm not going to buy you a loaf of bread, but I ain't going to let you starve to death."
Steve said, "As time goes by, it [our society] becomes more isolated. We're less dependent on others for information and news. Everything gets handled electronically. I buy stuff online. At the grocery store, I go to the self-checkout. There's less small talk, less chit-chat, less knowing your neighbors because people move so frequently, too."
"All this is Freudian projection," my dad concluded. "Show ink blots and ask people what they see, and they're going to project their own reality."
"All the same," Carol undercut, "it's your own interpretation."
Tempe, Arizona: House by a Road