It is a sign of the cluelessness of the children hired by the Arizona Republic that its headline online says, "Valley philanthropist John F. Long dies at 87." It's a little like saying "Former cowboy actor Ronald Reagan dies." Fortunately the obituary is in the hands of one of the few graybeards that haven't been run out by "the information center," Chuck Kelly.
John F. Long was a towering figure among the giants who built Phoenix from a small farm town into the nation's fifth largest city. With Maryvale, he not only brought affordable, pleasant suburbia to post-war Phoenix, he paved the way for thousands of ex-GIs to own their homes. He was an innovator of national consequence, but unlike some who followed him in Phoenix development, he stayed close to his roots. He was a civic steward, city councilman, a man who loved to tend his burros in retirement and whose life was rich in stories and lore. And yes, he was also a philanthropist.
Long's life also paralleled the rise and decline of the post-war automobile suburb.
Long began Maryvale in the mid-1950s. He took the lessons of Levittown and applied his own innovations, from construction to marketing, to create the state's first large, post-war suburbia. He especially catered to veterans, filling a demand for housing that had become acute after years of little building during the Depression. My uncle bought a house from John Long in Maryvale, and I remember, as a kid, how it was so new and lovely -- especially compared to our old Spanish colonial near downtown. The rectangle ranch with a lawn and pool became a symbol of Phoenix.
Maryvale became home to generations of Phoenix's middle class, with safe streets, good schools and new parks, much of it with Long's backing. It also set the template for Phoenix's distinctive urban form: square miles of cul-de-sac residential streets, separated by wide avenues and with shopping strips at major intersections. But unlike later so-called "master planned communities," Maryvale was very much part of the city of Phoenix.
With Maryvale, Phoenix began a transition that never ended. The lush, fertile Salt River Valley, in which American taxpayers had invested so much to reclaim from the desert, would move from agriculture to suburbia. Power moved from the big farmers and growers to the suburban developers. The urban form that would eventually cause Phoenix so much damage was being adopted with little or no debate. Preservationists were nearly nonexistent -- that was for places like Portland. Leaders lacked the vision to make their city not only affordable but great, not only a sunny resort but a region that could carry its growing weight in a world economy where it would compete whether it wanted to or not. This mindset was more forgivable in Long's generation than for the ones that followed it.
That this urban form would bring problems seemed unimaginable in 1960. For one thing, Maryvale was a contiguous expansion of the city, not a leapfrog. Agriculture continued to co-exist, cooling the city at night in the summer, providing the visual heaven with miles of citrus groves, fields and the Japanese Gardens, still an important part of the economy. Downtown and the central core were still intact and relatively healthy. Nobody dreamed Phoenix would one day become a 500-square-mile concrete slab surrounded by equally dismal suburbs. And it was the heyday of the automobile suburb: gas was cheap, traffic manageable, the individual car was king and global warming mostly unimagined.
Maryvale is now a poignant sound. It's "scaryvale," especially to those who don't know what it once was. Phoenix embarked on building a narrow, low-wage economy 200 miles from a Mexico bursting with social and economic pressures. The result was predictable. Long's look-alike, inexpensive starter homes didn't lend themselves to the historic rehabs of my old house in Willo. And the high-wage workers that might rehab them were few for a region of Phoenix's population, and they moved on from newer suburb to newer suburb. The houses became the homes of Mexican-Americans displaced by Phoenix's clear-cutting of historic barrios. But, more stressfully, Maryvale took in a huge cohort of low-skilled immigrants, many of them illegal.
Maryvale became ground zero in the volence of the people-smuggling trade, as well as the consequences of the Arizona Legislature's long war against the public schools. The result is that a neighborhood that might have made a normal, healthy American transition from one ethnic group to another is home to a growing underclass, cut off from economic mobility and the social mainstream. It is the tragic prototype of Phoenix's huge swath of linear slums.
The lovely spring training ballpark in Maryvale, built with Long's help, is a sign of what the district might yet become, with wise public policy, school and transit investment, and a more diversified economy. Unfortunately, like all of suburbia, it grapples with urban problems without urban solutions, an unsustainable urban form, the fallout of an era of rising energy prices and scarce water.
If Long had any regrets he never voiced them. He did the best he could with the information he had. He provided homes to tens of thousands. He always loved Phoenix. He never stopped giving to Phoenix, never stopped fighting for Maryvale. If only the city had been blessed with more like him. RIP.