As I've made my way across Arizona I have seen a landscape largely homogenized in the middle and expanding outward in all directions. A suburban sprawl of planned communities, big box retailers and a severe lack of character. There is simply no way I would settle to live in a community planned around the golf cart.
Flagstaff impressed me for several reasons I'll go into later, but I have come to realize that the high altitude is to thank. Flagstaff is situated up in the mountains North of Phoenix and Southeast of the Grand Canyon. At this high altitude winters involve snow and temperatures keep to a reasonable level. This normalcy keeps the retirees at bay. Happily the streets were clear of the Grand Marquis, beige Camry and Buick crowds that choose to spend their golden years in gated communities of isolation.
Flagstaff's streets happened to be filled with Subarus and a wide variety of aging European cars. I find this method of judging especially effective as it takes a solid amount of character and dedication to deal with a 20+ year old Volvo on a daily basis. They are people who value being different strongly enough to put up with constant electrical gremlins and impossible to find parts. Flagstaff's streets were also lined with stores and restaurants that seemed to make a conscious effort to be different.
The city is predates the planned community, it was largely influenced by its location along old Route 66 as well as along the Santa Fe Railroad. Both shaped the way the down evolved over time, especially in the downtown area. Some areas have a strong "time warp" feel, others seem more like Colorado or Portland than Arizona.
It also boils down to the simple fact that liberal leaning places are nice. Putting politics aside, an area happens to be a college town with quirky bars and environmental types walking around eating whole grains is fairly pleasant. I've never happened across a place that was overtly conservative and been like "what a breath of fresh air." Military bases, Dallas suburbs and NRA meetings don't put me at ease.
Flagstaff had everything from $5 a night hostels to free independent newspapers with irreverent columns. In this economy thats tough to beat. It made for a nice change but before long I'll be back to work, and this time... back on the reservation.