Surprise!

The rise and fall of the Western exurb

  • Pastor Lee on the big-screen TV during service at Radiant Church in Surprise.

    Courtesy Radiant Church
  • Radient Church's food pantry, part of its economic relief program.

    Courtesy Radiant Church
  • Emily Steinmetz
  • An overgrown lawn surrounds a Surprise home offered for a "new low price."

    Emily Steinmetz
 

Surprise, Ariz., doesn't look very surprising. It might be anywhere in the suburban West. Home Depot and Wal-Mart rise like islands from an ocean of pavement, and late-model SUVs gleam in the midday sun. Homes with red-tiled roofs line up like stucco boxes on a giant supermarket shelf. There's little to distinguish this from the hundreds of square miles of housing developments that have sprouted around Las Vegas and San Diego. If it weren't for the palm trees, you could be in suburban Salt Lake City.

But only Surprise has the Radiant Church. Inside this 55,000-square-foot behemoth, 50-inch plasma-screen televisions display huge images of American flags. Starbucks-trained baristas serve up frothy espresso drinks, and the casually dressed congregation nibbles Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The pastor, Lee McFarland, wears jeans and rides a Harley. His uncanny ability to tap into the exurban zeitgeist made this the fastest-growing megachurch in one of the nation's fastest-growing metro areas.

Radiant symbolizes the breakneck growth and prosperity that have come to define Surprise and its Western siblings. Since it was incorporated in 1960, Surprise -- an exurb of Phoenix -- has burgeoned from 500 people to over 100,000 people spread over 100 square miles. Most of that growth happened in the last decade, and it happened largely independent of any economic base, such as manufacturing, mining, farming or even high-tech industry. Instead, growth created its own economic base. To the members of Radiant Church, it must have seemed like a miracle.

Now it seems more like a mirage. On a warm day a few months back, about 200 people -- mostly female and Spanish-speaking -- stood in line in front of the church. Many held small children, or scolded older ones for throwing the ubiquitous red landscaping rocks. They weren't here for a sermon, or even for the doughnuts. They came to take advantage of the church's economic relief program, which distributes food, gas cards, and small cash payments to help with utility bills. The church began the program last October, after it became clear that a profound shift had occurred in Surprise and the neighboring communities.

After a decade of riding high, the exurbs are in crisis. In California, Nevada and Arizona, thousands of foreclosed homes sit empty, weeds reclaim vacant lots in new subdivisions and big-box stores are shutting down. The local newspaper warns of roof rats infesting abandoned neighborhoods and mosquitoes colonizing unused swimming pools. Many observers believe that this is only a slump, albeit a deep one, and that the old patterns of growth will someday return. Others aren't so sure. It's possible, they say, that even after the national economic crisis subsides, the Western urban urge to expand rapidly and without limitation may have ended.

"I'm not sure that the era of sprawl is over," says Ed McMahon, senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "But the paradigm of unlimited suburban and exurban growth has definitely shifted."

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