Kingman may be small — its estimated population is 30,314 — but its heart is huge, at least according to Reader’s Digest.
Kingman, a former mining town located off Route 66, about 100 miles south of Las Vegas, recently earned the honor of being named the nicest place in Arizona by the magazine, which cited residents’ treatment of a local homeless man as the primary reason for the honor.
James Zyla, better known as Santa James for his long gray beard and Santa Claus outfit, arrived in Kingman in 2014 and was largely ignored at first. That changed when a handful of residents took it upon themselves to talk to him, a conversation that led many other residents to befriend Zyla as well.
Since then, Kingman residents have offered him help in the form of gift cards, water, clothing and rides. They’ve also helped keep watch as the legally blind Zyla crosses four-lane roads using only his memory and sense of hearing.
A former real estate agent and movie extra turned wandering poet and musician, Zyla has become a pillar of the Kingman community.
“This town really has adopted James as its community grandfather,” Police Chief Robert DeVries told the Los Angeles Times, which first wrote about Zyla in April. “Dispatchers will get a call about a man in a red suit lying down, and they’ll rush over to see if he’s OK. Whenever we hear of a vehicle-pedestrian mishap, somebody always says, ‘Hopefully, it’s not Santa James.’”
While it’s Zyla’s story that grabbed the attention of Reader’s Digest, earning the “nicest” place in Arizona honor was only made possible because town spokeswoman Coleen Haines saw the magazine’s call for entries in May and nominated Kingman for the designation.
Haines, who moved to Kingman in 2018, wrote about her experience in Kingman as part of her nomination. “Everyone seems to be very honest with where to find things, how to get things and great, local places to eat. People are kind, and willing to help fellow people out, even as a stranger I feel welcome,” Haines wrote.
She also cited a massive snowstorm and the town’s response to it. “The city and its residents came together, gave people rides to work and dealt with massive overflow of Interstate 40 traffic flooding into our little city — it was such a great, team effort from the city!” the nomination reads.
Earning the “nicest” place label was particularly rewarding for Haines and other residents because of a recent incident that showed an uglier side of the town.
In 2018, controversial comedian Sacha Baron Cohen filmed a segment of his TV show “This is America” in Kingman, and the show’s cameras recorded a group of residents shouting down a proposed mosque. Many residents condemned the intolerance said it was not representative of the town, citing the fact that Kingman has been home to another mosque for 30 years.
“The community was very upset,” Haines told Reader’s Digest. “Kingman is a welcoming place.”
Thanks to Haines and the town’s treatment of Santa James, it’s even more than that, now — it’s the nicest place in Arizona.
Kingman and the other “Nicest Places” in America will be featured in the November edition of Reader’s Digest.