For more than 30 years, two words — “East Valley” — did more than anything else to put a vibrant, growing, destination-in-an-of-itself region on the map. Without them, this area may well have remained the land of Nod: A sleepy place whose residents do little other than shift positions every few hours.
And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelled in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. -- Genesis 4:16
Their authorship is credited to a former publisher of this newspaper, Charles Wahlheim. They have been augmented this past week by the East Valley Partnership, which will begin marketing our region as “Phoenix East Valley.”
Now before some of you, depending on whether you’re a traditionalist or a cynic, consider this either sacrilege or not very creative, consider the vital rationale behind going beyond merely “East Valley.”
Again, as well as the term has served, it’s got a problem that’s directional, and therefore definitional. It’s made up of two generic, unspecific terms, “East” and “Valley.” A valley that is east of where? Of Eden? Of the sun? You can have either “East” or “Valley” in a place name (“East St. Louis,” “San Fernando Valley”) but you need proper nouns. You just can’t have a name with both of those words and nothing more and expect people who don’t live there to get where it is.
And yet the term still served well, at least as far as Maricopa County was concerned.
When Wahlheim conjured up “East Valley,” I’m sure he knew then what today’s East Valley Partnership knows: That this part of Arizona is separate from its capital and largest city just over the Salt River (sort of), but would forever be known as “suburbs,” an aggregation of municipalities with nothing in common except borders, unless it could be called something besides “suburban Phoenix.”
To anyone outside Chicago, for example, do its suburbs have any individual national identity? If anything, they’re just known as Chicagoland.
But we live in a region that is larger than many of the major Eastern cities, adjacent to the sixth largest city in the nation. While there are always those in, say, New York or San Francisco who think anywhere else but where they live is a backwater, Phoenix has gravitas and will continue to be a place where people largely move to, not from.
And so a place with so many of its own self-identifying factors needs to have a name that’s as recognizable as Orange County or Long Island. Of the cities surrounding Phoenix, only Scottsdale stands completely on its own reputation year round. Yes, Glendale and Tempe get attention on game days during sports seasons, but the sports teams they host aren’t named for them, but for the state itself (the hockey team playing in Glendale is named for Phoenix).
The new name isn’t exactly an original thought; already the word “Phoenix” has shown up in Mesa in a couple of odd ways. A hotel along U.S. 60 is known as the “Phoenix-Mesa” (or was it “Mesa-Phoenix”?).
Of course, much farther away from Phoenix (what, 25 miles?) is the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, just to tell people from Peoria and Rockford where Mesa is next to.
This notion isn’t lost to the purveyors of pop culture. The other night I was catching an episode of the TV animated comedy, “American Dad,” in which Roger, the outer-space alien visitor to the family who are the show’s main characters, reference people not knowing where Mesa sits.
It almost seemed to have been the reason the East Valley Partnership set to work on the new name (even though it isn’t really why):
“Yeah, I had it in my storage space from when I lived in Phoenix,” Roger says to guests at a swim party, describing a water slide. “Well, I lived in Mesa, but when you say Mesa people don’t know what Mesa is.”
And then Roger pauses to see his listeners don’t know where Mesa is, either, then tells them: “It’s Phoenix. I lived in Phoenix.”
So if Mesa by itself fails to ring bells across the country, then at least the new nameof Phoenix East Valley says where we are with more exactitude.
It says that we’re an “east valley” that’s in the eastern part of the Valley of the Sun, itself a name conjured up decades ago by similar local boosters and promoters to entice chilly Midwesterners and Easterners to pull up roots and come where the sun shines so much it’s made it its permanent home.
And we are indeed east of somewhere, not Eden, but Phoenix, in many ways a better version, and in others a complementary one, but at any rate this is no longer the land of Nod.
Read Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here each weekend. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.