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Get to Know Scottsdale Through its Locals

After an adventure-packed week, AFAR Ambassador Ryan Neal Cordwell reflects on the fascinating characters he encountered who’ve made their mark on this thriving desert city.

Get to Know Scottsdale Through its Locals

Taking a spin around Scottsdale’s Bronze Horse Fountain on Pedego electric bikes.

To thoroughly understand a place, it helps to focus not only on the how of its development but also on the who. I was reminded of this during the week I recently spent getting to know my hometown all over again. I came away from the photography assignment with a pronounced appreciation of notable Scottsdale locals, past and present, and the way that the city honors its rich history of craftsmen and wranglers while welcoming waves of visionaries across industries.

Perhaps the most famous is Frank Lloyd Wright, whose winter home, Taliesin West, is a striking low-slung architectural landmark and functioning school. Wright and his apprentices built much of the site themselves, gathering desert rocks and sand to keep it in tune with the landscape. As you tour the well-preserved midcentury interiors, you may spy present-day students with their heads to the drafting boards in the room that witnessed Wright’s design of the Guggenheim.


Wright’s former living quarters at Taliesin West.

Another daring mind and Taliesin West alum, Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri created his own distinctive desert home at Cosanti, using an earthcasting method to create round sustainable buildings. You can tour the site and admire its collection of evocative bells cast on site from bronze and ceramic.

Architects Wright and Soleri thought outside the box to showcase local materials, and a new crop of chefs is doing the same. Charleen Badman is the James Beard semifinalist at the helm of FnB, a pioneer of Scottsdale’s farm-to-table dining scene. The downtown Scottsdale restaurant garners fresh produce from Steadfast Farms, served to grilled or pickled perfection, and proudly features a rotating list of wines from Arizona.


FnB serves up what’s fresh and local.

FnB is increasingly in good company. You can continue taste-testing your way through Scottsdale’s seasonal bounty at Citizen Public House, where Bernie Kantak spearheads the consecutively award-winning New American cooking. And at ZuZu, Russell LaCasce has created a menu just as tantalizing as the bold interior it occupies within Hotel Valley Ho, a midcentury design marvel.

Contemporary talents of another sort are on display downtown near Hotel Valley Ho and throughout Scottsdale thanks to a public art program of 50 large-scale works. I checked off quite a few while roaming about the city, including Arizona-based and internationally acclaimed artist James Turrell’s KnightRise Skyspace at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s a contemplative spot that frames the brilliant blue sky and its shifting light.


KnightRise Skyspace.

I also enjoyed getting to know the work of local multidisciplinary artist Mark McDowell, who was involved with the creative build-out of the recently opened Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Spa. His work and that of other locals grace the hotel rooms. McDowell is also a member of the nearby artist compound Cattle Track, which remains something of an insider’s secret though it dates back to the 1930s. Ceramicist Mary van Dusen, whose wares are used at the hotel restaurant, is based here, and you can tour the workshops for free on weekdays.

While these are some of the most visible hands, I encountered plenty of others helping forge the city’s growth and appeal, from the founders of the electric bike rental company Pedego Scottsdale to the 360 Adventures guide who led my hiking and bouldering excursion into Echo Canyon Trailhead.

You hear it a lot—‘some place,’ followed by, “has it all.” Well, Scottsdale truly does. Some call it “the most livable city,” and others, their desert home. You may be inspired to do the same after spending time here. Get a preview by taking the Scottsdale Instagram Adventure, featuring photographs and more highlights from my assignment, plus the chance to win prizes.

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