A post-apocalyptic ghost town. That’s what Mill Ave seems to resemble these days as I stroll down it, making my routine stops to the few remaining establishments that I have any remote interest in (Old Town Books, Slices, and Mojo Frozen Yogurt.) Vacant retail spaces once occupied by monolithic chain stores like The Gap, Borders, Abercrombie, and (most recently) American Apparel, remain dormant…waiting for the next sucker to brave the astronomical rent prices to get a piece of that coveted “college kid” demographic.
I don’t have quite the fond memories that others share of the so called “good old days of Mill Ave,” which may be because when I started hanging out there it was 1997 and 1998, and the area had already begun it’s decline. In fact, during those days, going to Mill Ave was a totally depressing experience for me. It was flooded with those annoying ghetto street racers, bumping Power 92.3 in their lowered Honda CRX’s and modified Mitsubishi Eclipses. Not that I don’t have an appreciation for automobile racing(I’m a bit a crazy driver myself,) but only if we’re talking about 60′s muscle cars, grand prix, or Steve McQueen. Indeed, not some quasi-horde of mid 90′s riff raff wearing those “Boss” T shirts(the ones with huge writing on them) or rocking Tommy Hilfiger jackets and speaking in ebonic tongues. Though I will confess to owning two pieces of Tommy Hilfiger clothing in 1997 which were purchased solely for the purpose of attracting normal girls and repelling the sort of mousy, alternative, train wreck chicks that would have mistaken me for one of their own at the time.
In the spring of 1998 I used to wander down mill ave nightly, handing out crappy 4 track cassette tapes to unsuspecting victims. I always hear people talk about Long Wongs, Gibson’s, Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot Workshop as the epitome of a lost golden era of Tempe. In my mind though, the Tempe I remember, while it certainly included those elements(I saw Buck O’ Nine at Gibson’s and MXPX at the Electric Ballroom in 1997) the ambiance was much more gangster, machismo, and hip hop oriented than what one would have expected on an episode of “Party of Five” or Melrose Place Soundtrack. I recall long lines of hoochies and thugs stretched outside Club 411. The scene was thriving though. And most importantly, the things you were looking for could be found if you knew where to go and could filter out all the nattering nabobs of negativism.
Speaking of negativity, when will they finally get around to doing something about the aggressive bums? Downtown Tempe has always seemed to be a magnet for the most ungrateful and obnoxious homeless people I have ever encountered. Avoiding eye contact, harassment, and annoying interaction with Mill Ave homeless people is an integral part of the Tempe experience. A friend of mine once joked that avoiding the bums on mill was likened to the game “Plinko” from The Price of Right. I occasionally entertain fantasies of “The Scoops” from Soylent Green coming and swooping them all up to be taken away to some waste management facility. Not that it’s cool to bag on the homeless, but let’s face it, the “Mill Ave Street kids” are not boat people from Cambodia or South Vietnam. They’re mostly lazy underachievers from suburban homes in the East Valley.
I did have some interesting times in Tempe. I used to play Tekken at Sweet Daddy’s Arcade(where Fascinations adult store is now?) on their big screen version. One time I played against a homeless dude who smelled so bad that I let him win and take over the machine just to get away from him. There is no denying that there used to be a plethora of live music clubs, and they were quite good. Electric Ballroom, Gibson’s and Nita’s Hideaway were my own personal favorites.
Tempe has been poised to make a comeback for a few years now, which seems to have been rudely interrupted by the real estate crash. The ruins of an unfinished condo tower loom high overhead, the developer of which committed suicide. Slowly, there have been interesting developments in Tempe. The Valley Art Theater is back in full swing, and the new Madcap Theaters venue replaced the old Harkins and shows cool vintage and campy films. The Fixx Coffee bar opened up where an internet cafe used to be. All the ghetto clubs have mostly been replaced by sexified pop music bars for the Sponge Bob Squarepants and Teletubbies generation. The college douchebags in their brodozers are still around, but as long as ASU is there, they will be too. Artists are slowly creeping back into the city, since word is getting out that you can sell on the street. I’m not into the whole “Tempe vs. Phoenix” rivalry. I love Phoenix and Downtown Scottsdale as well. It would be great to see Tempe complete its transformation from Mad Max style bartertown and 90′s Hippie wasteland to a 21st century, cosmopolitan art destination. Ready, set, go.
Brandon Adamson is the author of “Beatnik Fascism“