Phoenix in the 1950s.
I carry a memory of old Phoenix -- and feel its loss profoundly -- in a way that's probably unusual even for natives of my generation. It's not nostalgia; I know too much about the place for that. It's a more complex reaction, to history thrown aside, opportunities lost and the destruction of a very flawed paradise, but a paradise nonetheless.
It was not really captured in the Channel 8 documentaries on Phoenix in the 1950s and 1960s. As popular as those shows were, they were a classic example of telling history through the lens of the present. Hence, we saw much about sprawl (the start of Maryvale and Sun City) and Sky Harbor. They missed so, so much. What they missed are the things I describe in talks when I say, "If you arrived in Phoenix after 1970, I feel sorry for you."
I was fortunate to grow up in central Phoenix in the late 1950s and 1960s, fortunate, too, to be the offspring of a mother and grandmother who were Arizonans with history in their bones. We lived in a house built in 1928, in an old neighborhood close to downtown. I attended the same grade school as Barry Goldwater, Paul Fannin and Phoenix Mayor Margaret Hance. It was different from growing up in suburbia.
Yes, there was a real city here. In 1950, Phoenix entered the ranks of America's 100 most populous cities with a little more than 100,000 residents. The city was 17 square miles, giving it a population density similar to today's Seattle. By 1960, this had begun to change dramatically, but the old city and its surroundings lingered into the 1970s.
The old city was very much built around downtown. It was a bustling shopping district, and remained so even after Park Central opened 2 miles north. The shops were almost all locally owned and usually shaded by large awnings proclaiming their names. The state's three major banks were headquartered downtown; they were not branches of big-city institutions, but companies, like most there, that saw the health of Phoenix twined with their own. The ornate Fox Theater and the Paramount (Orpheum) were what was left of (I believe) six freestanding downtown movie palaces -- but they were still popular. (Nearer home was the charming Palms Theater at Central and Virginia). The Deuce ran along Second Street -- it was skid row, but it was also a vibrant business district with everything from Army surplus stores to great, inexpensive restaurants. Both Greyhound and Continental Trailways operated busy depots in this area.
Neon signs set off the modest skyline, especially the iconic Valley National Bank eagle sign (you can get a hint of this in the opening scene of the movie Psycho). Hotels ranged from the single-room-occupancy flophouses of the Deuce to the fancy Westward Ho, where presidents stayed and the local bigs held court and kept suites for their mistresses. The Legislature's informal caucus rooms were the coffee shop of the Hotel Adams and Tom's Tavern. Businessmen mingled with real cowboys. Newspaper hawkers with Arizona Republic or Phoenix Gazette aprons called out the headlines from street corners.
Downtown especially revolved around the railroads. Union Station was served by both the main line of the Southern Pacific and was the terminus of the "Peavine" branch of the Santa Fe Railway. When I was a kid, the SP operated six trains a day through Phoenix, including the crack Sunset and Golden State limiteds. The Santa Fe had one train. In high season especially, the station was busy with sleeper cars set off carrying tourists from Chicago. It was an important transit point for mail and express. My indulgent grandmother -- the wife and mother of railroad men -- would take me to Union Station to watch the action.
Along Jackson and Madison streets, as well as the streets south of the tracks, was the busy Produce District. (It amazes me that I have been unable to find archive photos of this area in its heyday). Even in the early- and mid-1960s, this was a major industrial district. Remember, Phoenix then was a major agricultural center. Those streets were lined with warehouses and produce sheds, and railroad tracks running down the streets were jumbled with refrigerator cars and boxcars while trucks jostled for space. (Ernesto Miranda worked at one of the produce houses). The Valley's agricultural bounty was loaded for points east and west here, as well as in the warehouses lining the Santa Fe tracks along 19th Avenue and up Grand. We collected the distinctive labels from the crates -- "Big Town Oranges" "Arizona Beauty." Also still standing were some of the immense ice houses and platforms that predated mechanical refrigerator cars.
Their cargo came from the miles of citrus groves and fields of lettuce and other produce that surrounded old Phoenix, running deep into the East Valley as well. Later -- too late -- we would realize they performed the additional benefit of cooling the city during the summer nights. It was common to drive out to say, Osborn and 32nd Street, and buy boxes of fresh oranges from one of the many roadside stands. Even as subdivisions encroached, one could drive for miles enveloped in the fragrant, cool groves. Along the two lanes of Baseline were the magical Japanese Gardens. In our household, it was a Saturday ritual to drive down and buy fresh-cut flowers from one of the grower's simple tin sheds. The flower fields in brilliant bloom rolled down to the belt of citrus groves and then to the city, all standing against the mountains. With much less smog, everything looked so close you could touch it.
Less fragrant but as important to the economy was the vast stockyards running on Washington from the Tovrea Castle west to around 40th Street, along with the slaughterhouses. At one time, this was one of the largest stockyards in the country. A drive from Phoenix to Tempe (city and town were separated) required a holding of noses. (And each town in the Valley very much had its own personality).
The old city was rich with a diversity of neighborhoods. We lived in what became the Willo historic district, a neighborhood of period revival houses near shady Encanto Park. The park was a kid's delight for lazy days spent fishing the lagoon and riding the little train that mimicked the colors of the Southern Pacific Daylight design. There was Palmcroft, where the rich kids lived. South of McDowell was an intact neighborhood of lovely old houses that ran from Central to 15th Avenue and south to Roosevelt. It surrounded our school, Kenilworth. (These would later be torn apart and barely saved -- albeit with the loss of scores of historic houses -- by the monstrous Papago Freeway). The parkway along Moreland between Central and Third Avenue was especially lovely, with old shade trees and lined by apartments. I walked to school and church.
South of Roosevelt were streets with bungalows and handsome old apartment buildings. Victorians and territorial-era apartments, including sleeping porches, could be found in the areas west of Seventh Avenue to the capitol (which consisted of a few buildings). These were down-on-their luck neighborhoods -- even ours weren't rich, excepting Palmcroft -- yet their architectural and civic space value was tremendous. It was a value and potential not grasped by the city's leaders.
The old barrios and black neighborhoods sat "south of the tracks" but proud and rich in history. The Henson Homes were not the rough projects they became in the 1970s. But the color and class lines were firmly drawn; as I have written, Phoenix was culturally a Southern city. Still, all this was contiguous with, and an essential part, of the old city.
A little two-lane-each-way Black Canyon Freeway was being built. But the entrances to the city remained Van Buren, Buckeye and Grand Avenue. These were lined with neon-proclaimed motels and "auto courts" of all eras and catering to all pocketbooks. Again, many of these were architectural treasures whose potential wasn't seen at the time.
Up Central were the old estates of the rich farmers and others -- but some incredibly beautiful haciendas could be found deep in the groves or among the date palms all over the Valley. Go far enough and you crossed the canal into the desert district of Sunnyslope, a onetime Hooverville that always stood apart from Phoenix proper.
Summers were hot, but the weather started to moderate in September. The summer nights were cooled by the agriculture and nearness of the desert, the lack of concrete and abundance of grass and trees in the city. Winters usually had hard frosts, so today's infestation of mosquitoes and West Nile virus were nonexistent. The temperatures were ten degrees cooler half a century ago.
I was too young to have memories of the lush trees and vegetation that once enclosed the major canals. Kids once swam in the canals and teenagers canoed and rigged makeshift waterskiing, pulling a buddy in the water with a car on the access road. SRP eventually put the kabosh on all that. But most of the old “laterals” survived – the small irrigation ditches that ran on both sides of the roads every mile (you can still see a bit of this along the west side of Central north of Bethany Home). Like Valley kids for generations, I swam in them. These were still working parts of the vast Salt River Valley irrigation system. The ride up Seventh Avenue to my great aunt Eula’s acreage at Glendale Avenue saw the road narrow down to its farm origins, ditches on each side, big shade trees providing a canopy overhead. Her place was surrounded by huge hedges and had dozens of big trees. Like her neighbors, she received flood irrigation. Farther out, the laterals and two-lane concrete roads marked off the big farms. But there were always a few big stands of trees where you could make a roadside picnic.
The desert was close. The sense of wilderness barely held at bay was constant. Yet here was this city that had indeed risen from the ashes, the proud capital of a frontier state that boasted a population of 1 million.
Of course, all this was being subverted by the late 1950s, as development leapfrogged up Central and wildcat subdivisions were incorporated into the city limits with aggressive annexing. Phoenix had the misfortune to come of age with the post-war auto-centric culture. When my uncle moved to Maryvale, he gloried in his all-electric kitchen and I felt inferior in our old stucco house near downtown with a gas stove.
Our center city idyll had been living on borrowed time since the Wilbur Smith freeway plan was unveiled around 1960: It envisioned a freeway 100 feet in the air running along a corridor roughly between Latham and Culver streets, with massive "helicoils" regurgitating traffic onto Third Avenue and Third Street. That area naturally fell into disrepair. Most of the city's elite decamped for Paradise Valley and Arcadia. Aunt Eula's neighbors were subdividing their property for houses and her heirs were eager to do the same.
Massive changes were undoing old agricultural arrangements and the transportation industry. By 1971, Phoenix was down to one passenger train every other day. Cultural and social changes were happening, too. The Deuce was cleared, the cast-off mentally ill were deinstitutionalized and the homeless took over downtown, driving away the small-business owners. City neglected any corrective action. City leaders were dead-set against transit. The groves and fields gave way to the growth machine. The freeways finally arrived.
You missed some of the best of the place. A few precious pieces survive. Yet the seeds of its destruction had long been planted. In another post, I'll discuss some of the lost opportunities.
Read and bookmark the entire Phoenix 101 series here.