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Friendship blooms amid the cactus

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Friends aren't truly appreciated until they move away. Or so it seems.

That was brought home to me a little more than a year ago when neighbors down the street left Phoenix to return to the husband's hometown in Mississippi.

They had been like family to me, my wife, and young daughter. We had met them just 18 months earlier, when my family moved into the neighborhood, and we discovered that their daughter and ours were only a year apart.

The two girls - and families - became inseparable. Children, recipes, and conversation flowed between our two homes the way water rolls through a desert wash in summertime.

Then one day, the "For Sale'' sign appeared on their house, as a better job beckoned. It was followed weeks later by the arrival of the moving van, and the emotion and tears of having to say goodbye to close friends.

That day, a reality of life in Phoenix, the nation's sixth-largest city, hit close to home. The Sunbelt is a magnet for people who come in search of sunshine, jobs, and a chance for a new beginning in life.

But the dreams that lure people here do not always come true.

Many of these transplanted residents leave before they've had a chance to set down roots. In fact, researchers say, for every three people who move to Phoenix during any given year, two people move out.

My wife and I are something of an anachronism in this environment. We're like plants uprooted from northern climes and plopped onto the desert, where we've thrived. We both grew up back East, and this city has been our adopted home for 17 years. Residents regard us as "natives.''

But our established nature here is also a source of frustration: How does one develop a sense of community when neighborhoods like ours are in such constant "churn"?

Where does one turn to seek friendship, when chances are that your neighbors will be gone before the next year is out?

Even churches - where people go to find a sense of community, belonging, and "place'' - experience the same turnover.

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