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Radio Free Arizona: East Flagstaff Daydream

A stop for the Flagstaff, Arizona bus system
Douglas McDaniel

Suddenly, the sunlight hits the top of the San Francisco Peaks, and the daily livelihood of the mundane world at the base of Elden Mountain, along the Fourth Street standing on one of the most optimistic open spaces on earth: the big ice emptiness of the Big Lots parking lot. The northerly portion of the corridor has a number of apparently over-optimistic parking lots, as well as a lot of empty commercial retail space.

Maybe, in the morning majesties, you just might have a moment to imagine what it must of have like to stand on that space a few thousand, hundred, or, anyway, a few centuries ago. When Anasazi traders might have glimpsed up from the toil and labors, taking a breath, halting all foot traffic, to see the early morning sun glint off the Peaks, the wind blowing powdery sparks of snow toward the east.

But now you live in the post-Walmart world of the post-9/11 Recession Era of the 21st century. In the dream within the dream. You are the subplot, sure. Much smaller than you can possibly comprehend, but a hero on your own time. Time to get out and shop, drink eat or feed. And if there's one damn thing you are going to do it's this: You are going to spend local. You will not feed the Big Box. Big Pharma. Big Anything. You want to find some island of Mom-and-pop-ville to drop your daily dime.

There are crows, big as chickens, picking on the big hopefull Big Lots tarmac now, indicating the same pretty much animal needs. That is, the life-giving or purely organic energies. The need to fill the bellies, or imaginative powers, to fire up for another day.

In Flagstaff, Arizona, you have a number of choices in this category. Regions of town unmarked by the daily beasts of the corporate Boxy Boxy, meganational this, the this and thats of the invisible borders of the nation. Your lottery pick is the number seven. Which means Route 7 of the Mountain Line (though Route 2 can also get you there just fine). You are the professional pedestrian, or the radical bicycle time racer, too. You will not accomodate the zombie technocrats of smog covering the Earth in any way shape or form. You just get on Route 7, lucky boys and girls! You get to ride on what's now regarded as the best small town busline in the nation.

You jump on the bus, trusting in the driver to get you there. You spill out on the Fourth Street Corridor spot across the street from the Coconino County library. A very different kind of place, as libraries go. More of a community room. With computers. Books, even. Several shelves of movies that are brought in and checked out more often than the tides themselves, a children's area that always seems to be continually in use, and a fish-bowl-slash aquarium space, which is always either greeted with as much glee as a 7,000-foot sea, or, more than likely, completely invisible to those of us preferring to simply surf the Web to let this cramped interior fall away, save for the hoops and hollars of the video gamers, or the caged grunts of people trying to get Obamacare during the two hours they might have to plug into the dot-com divide.

During the week, the library opens at 9 a.m., and by 11 a.m. on this day the East Flagstaff hot spot for the internet are in full use, with people winter clothing eager to get online to soak themselves in the media flood of movies, video games, job sites, e-mail check ins, Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. It's an anxious, happy time. The daily window through the digital divide only lasts for two hours at best, each day; or, fourteen hours per week. Not much time for all of the humanity that comes to the library to peer through the periscope of electronic life.

Other folks, bringing their own personal computer laptops, are more serenly focused with intense concentration. Everything is still pretty shush-and-hushed to the traditional library norms. But by lunch, or around the time.

But if you look across the street, a huge church has closed, and on the other side of that, along Cedar, another empty, over optimistic parking lot.

Now what? Well, you could always face south and try to look far down the road.

On the northeast corner of Fourth Street and Route 66, there is a little postage stamp of ground, about seven thousand square feet owned by the City of Flagstaff, which is trying to decide what to do with the corner across the street from the Flagstaff Farmer's Market.

According to Karl Eberhard, community design and redevelopment manager who serves as a town architect and historic preservation officer in the economic vitality division for the city, one of the top ideas is to use the area in front of the new Walgreens as a site for some kind of "gateway element." This element would then serve as a sign to all who pass by that the Fourth Street corridor, once the social and economic hub of Flagstaff, is on the way back.

"It's going to be a gateway feature," he says. "That's what we call it: an exclamation point."

But if you close your eyes and open them today, looking north toward the San Francisco Peaks, "there is a sea of asphalt," he says. With a lot of promising mom-and-pop operations along the corridor there are also many empty shells for businesses come and gone. Cheap places to rent, sure, but indicators of many tough economic seasons.

Eberhard says 15 percent of Flagstaff's population lives within one mile of the Flagstaff Corridor, perhaps as many as 10,000 or more people within walking distance. "Once upon a time, it was the commercial hub of Flagstaff."

But no more. Now there are many bars in the downtown district to the west, Western Victorian remnants of the age of mining, whose buildings have been converted into a hub for art, dining, drinking, and Route 66 refrigerator magnet sales. In the 1960s, this was not the case, Eberhard says. Downtown Flagstaff was a ruin in the brave new Camelot of an America built to fully serve the age of the automobile. But ages are reversals of previous ages, and this strange element of history has turned Flagstaff into a kind of socio-economic slinky from decade to decade, boom to bust, and bust to boom, moving all activity east to west.

Now the Fourth Street corridor also features, believe it or not, historic architecture from a sleek age of commercial development that's pretty much unchanged -- for example, the first Pizza Hut in Arizona now houses a successful Fratelli's pizzaria. The corridor has suffered through the energy crisis of the 1970s, a major economic downturn during the late 1980s, the crazy, shifting sands of post-internet social life of the 1990s, a Walmart War, an overpass built over the railroad line, you name it, since the first paint dried on the mom-and-pops, corporate outlets, and so on, that have come and gone since.

So now, close your eyes. Imagine. A sea of asphalt. As many ruins as reasons to celebrate the surviving line of mom-and-pops; places such as Jitter's Lunchbox, and Satchmo's, which puts on a Mardi Gras event every year. Indeed, with several new coffee outlets within a mile of this caffeinated core, the re-emergence of the area, if it occurs anytime soon, will likely tug at the taste buds.

But not today. A sea of asphalt, right at the foot of one of the most scenic mountains in the West, sacred, to many. Close your eyes, imagine ... open them and ask: Now what?


"To be honest, as something I have to be a little detrimental to, the area could be a little prettier," says Mike Konefal, president of RisingHy, which makes all kinds of hot sauce as well as tortillas under the Tortilla Lady guise, within the packed factory at 2114 N. Fourth Street.

On this day, Konefal is pumped up. His hot sauce company has just lassoed a huge vendor that will make his company a national name. Indeed, as the entrepreneur of a small company, Konefal has no qualms about becoming a corporate giant. His products will soon be distributed at Sprouts grocery stores across the nation, which means the hot sauce side of things will be moved out of its current space, while the Tortilla Lady operation will remain.

"I'm not doing this so I can stay in the same building," he says. "I'm young and hungry. A lot of people are happy with complacency. I'm not. But the Tortilla Lady will stay here ... I'm happy to be on this side of town. The east side is going to revamp."


Marcia Brown, co-owner of Corporate Hair Quarters, located along Cedar Avenue, is remembering the heyday of the Fourth Street Corridor of the 1980s. Her salon is a short distance from its original location now housing Coconino County Community College, the East Flagstaff Library, and a barber shop as old as ... well, you get the picture.

Thirty years ago, her business shared the complex with a Revco drug store, an A.J. Bayless grocery store, an F&H Green Stamps trade-in store, and the Flagstaff Farmers Market that has since moved to the corner of Route 66 and Fourth Ave. In 1984 the overpass over the rail line now connecting the Country Club neighborhoods to the Fourth Street Corridor was in its initial planning phases.

"But then the I think the grocery store moved out, A.J. Bayless, the Revco left," Brown recalls. "I think there was a bit of an exodus to the west side."

After 12 years at the Corner of Fourth and Cedar, the renamed Corporate Hair Quarters moved to its current location in the Cedar Hills Shopping Center. The salon's perch along the major east-west avenue that led non-residential traffic to the corridor was convenient enough for the same customers streaming into the corridor.

As the sunlight hits the top of the San Francisco Peaks, the mundane world heats up at the base of Eldon Mountain. Fourth Street suns itself on the vast expanse of the empty Big Lots parking lot. The northerly portion of the corridor sports a number of seemingly over-optimistic parking lots, as well as a lot of empty commercial retail space.

Imagine what it must have looked like here just a century ago.

In the postmodern Walmart age of the 21st century, walking between the cracks of Mom-and-pop-ville, some opt not to feed the Big Boxy Boxies. There are crows, big as chickens, picking at the refuse on the big hopeful Big Lots tarmac. They, too, are firing up for another day.

Those who avail themselves of the best small town busline in the nation and bicycle time racers also move along Fourth Street. Some stuff themselves into the East Flagstaff branch of the Coconino County Public Library.

During the week, the library opens at 9 a.m. Books, movies, newspapers, and enrichment programs designed for all ages are accessed here in this crowded community gathering place. And for two hours each day, patrons can cross the digital divide for two hours a day.

Across the street, a huge Catholic Church stands empty, and on the other side of that, along Cedar, stretches another empty, over-optimistic parking lot.

Meanwhile, back at branch library ranch, a man at one of the tables, perhaps exhausted from crossing the asphalt desert, has fallen asleep.


Close your eyes, open them, imagine and tell us what the word Fratelli's means in Italian. Here's what: "brothers." The Fratelli's along the Fourth Street Corridor is more popular, and therefore, more profitable, than the location south of the railroad line in downtown Flagstaff, according to Fred
Schepper, co-owner of the popular restaurant.

Schepper isn't quite so caught up in the polarities of the mom-and-pops versus corporate chains argument, but he does see an opportunity for creatives looking for cheap retail space.

"There are some big spots open for an art gallery or a co-op for artists, or some kind of other attraction," he says. "This area is easy to get to wherever you are in Flagstaff."


And what's going to fire up those beautiful minds: The Fourth Street corridor also is a place where coffee is king

For example, the recently remodeled White Dove Coffeehouse, just behind Greenlaw Shopping Mall along Fourth Street, is in a state of perpetual "Wow-wow" as people comment on the more open feel. Business is brisk.

The owner, Steve Dohse, comes from a family line that once owned the iconic Bob's Big Boy chain going back to the 1960s. The White Dove hotspot, originally established as a kind of caffeinated Christian outreach, is now run by ex-pastor Dohse as a non-profit effort.

"I got away from the church stuff and made it a community coffee shop," he says.

He closes his eyes. Imagines, and opens them. He obviously takes such acts seriously.

"It would be nice to have another full-service bar and restaurant in this area," he says. "Something like a Chili's, but something not corporate."


Another coffeehouse has opened in the Sunnyside District west of the Fourth Street Corridor within red-eye caffeine shot of the library and church-for-sale traffic light, the Cedar House Coffee Shop, which includes comfy chairs and a small stage for eclectic music events. Sponsored by the Covenant Church nearby, co-owner Emily Landon-Merrill has covered the wall with work from local photographers, uses coffee beans from local roasters, biscotti baked by a local pastry chef, and items from Sunnyside District's 7ate9 sandwhich shop that, coincidentally, has decided recently to move to the west side of town.

"There are a lot more people on the West side, but this is the neighborhood where we wanted to do this," Landon-Merrill says. "We have been using our stage a lot on Saturdays with people who play guitar, and customers like the ambiance, the music, the fireplace."

If she could close her eyes and open them, she would like the city to allow for more signage.

Meanwhile, back at City Hall ranch, Karl Eberhood says officials already have their eyes wide open on Fourth Street corridor development. He says some have imagined another grocery store. Also, this: Eventually, he says, "Fourth Street will run out to Puliam Drive. Long-term that is where the city is going to be, from a transportation view."

The city also owns the large empty areas south of Route 66, where the railroad easement used to be.

"The bottom line is that's going to be light-industrial," he says.

And as a new day opens its eyes and the sun gleams on the peaks as people percolate and dust themselves off from a world shaking back, with lots of traffic up and down the Fourth Avenue corridor, as well as people pushing baby carriages, backpacks, crossing the street, taking their lives in their hands, we can all ask, "Now what?"

Meanwhile, back at library branch ranch, if the man who has fallen asleep ever wakes, opens his eyes and imagines, he also will be among those with the say-so of "How about this?"

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