Motoring around metro Phoenix today, it's difficult to comprehend that this was not always a huge agglomeration of real-estate ventures connected by freeways. In fact, Phoenix didn't want them, would have been better off without them, yet couldn't avoid the curse.
In 1950, when Phoenix came in as America's 100th most populous city, it occupied a mere 17 square miles, with a population density of more than 6,200 per square mile, around what you'd find in today's Seattle or Portland. In other words, a real small city: cohesive, walkable, sustainable and scalable. Remnants of the old city exist, but much has been annihilated, not least by the freeways. By 1960, the city of Phoenix had 439,170 people and had slipped the bonds of real cityhood forever. Around this time, local government adopted an ambitious freeway plan prepared by Wilbur Smith & Associates, one of the nation's leading transportation planning firms. It envisioned much of the system eventually built. But most Phoenicians were horrified.
An urban legend persists that Eugene C. Pulliam single-handedly defeated the freeway plan in the early 1970s -- and thus delayed your charming commute to Gold Canyon. Although the Arizona Republic was indeed powerful in those days and not afraid to crusade (sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes not), freeways were widely resisted. Phoenicians then didn't want to become another LA, and they had a chance to avoid the fate. LA had shown (and Robert Moses' New York before it) that freeways didn't solve traffic congestion -- they generated it. We didn't want smog. We didn't want to lose our views to concrete and citrus groves to suburbia. Of particular alarm was the 100-foot-high Papago Freeway planned across central Phoenix, with monstrous "helicoils" discharging traffic onto Third Avenue and Third Street.
Again, this is almost unimaginable to today's Phoenicians -- that there would be a center city worth caring about and people who did care about it; that we would worry about losing the views and oasis/agriculture that made Phoenix so magical; that we could look 400 miles west and see failed transportation policy at its worst. So when the Papago was stopped in the 1970s, it was done so by popular vote, and -- amazing by the standards of today's Arizona -- it was a thoughtful one.
The damage was already being done by the Wilbur Smith plan. The Papago corridor, especially between 15th Avenue and 16th Street, contained some of the city's most historic and lovely homes, as well as Kenilworth School. The area between McDowell and Roosevelt, and Central and 15th Avenues was one complete neighborhood, and included the Moreland and Portland Parkways -- Moreland being especially beautiful with a canopy of old shade trees and lined by middle-class apartments. Despite all this, investment in the area started to decline after the 1960 plan was unveiled. Loans became hard, if not impossible, to come by. White flight began -- after all, a freeway was coming through. Transportation officials dithered -- they didn't move with Moses-like speed to slam the freeway through. Everybody was conflicted. But neither did Phoenix officials do anything to help these priceless and vulnerable neighborhoods. (The same kind of damage would later be done with the one freeway that was stopped, the Paradise Parkway).
When the Papago was stopped, Phoenix reached a historic crossroads. Unfortunately, it made the wrong choice. Instead of beefing up transit and commuter rail, as well as finding the right policies and incentives to preserve agriculture and slow sprawl, officials did nothing. Sprawl building continued. Transit was ignored, indeed, many mayors, including the 1960s golden boy Milt Graham, were hostile to it. Traffic got worse. The surface street network was overwhelmed. Freeways became inevitable, with the slight concession of putting the Papago underground for six blocks through central Phoenix and sidestepping Kenilworth. The region ended up building one of the more extensive freeway networks in the nation. Most of the magic was lost. Phoenix got all of LA's bad and none of its good.
The outcome was probably unavoidable. This was the apex of the auto age, when gasoline was cheap and the damage caused by sprawl and endless driving not well understood. Especially for the men in authority at the time, the rebellion against the "dirty city" of the industrial age and the promise of suburbia was strong. As with the CAP, most didn't comprehend that the results of the freeway system would destroy so much of the beauty and soul of Phoenix. There were other forces at work: First, hundreds of thousands of newcomers had arrived, with no historical ties or commitment to the place. Second, the Real Estate Industrial Complex, this community of interests that profits from sprawl, had coalesced, becoming a powerful lobby favoring freeways. Third, the combination of old Arizona politics, "rugged individualism" and the new Bircher right-wingers were particularly hostile to any alternatives to freeways, much less constraining "a man's right to do what he wants with his land."
Even before the 1980s freeway program began in full-swing, freeways were unavoidable. Black Canyon was started in the 1950s, a two-lanes-each-way, grade-depressed expressway (a "baby freeway," my great aunt, the former LA dress designer, said condescendingly). It was extended east and south (through the powerless barrios) as the Maricopa Freeway -- horridly elevated, but who cared about the views of poor people. By the late 1970s, the Superstition Freeway had reached Dobson, beginning the destruction of downtown Mesa. In those days, the cut bordering the Superstition was covered with cooling grass.
One intriguing quirk is that the metro Phoenix freeway system that has so enriched the landed elite has been paid for by a sales tax that falls hardest on the working poor and middle class. As far as I can tell, this was pushed through by the growing power of the right-wingers and has been sustained without question since the 1980s. Most cities have loops and spurs (e.g. I-405) that are part of the Interstate Highway System and have been paid for mostly with federal gas tax and other dollars. Not in Phoenix, aside from the two main Interstates. This is astonishing, and not merely a result that Phoenix's Hamlet mentality delayed freeway building; for example, Charlotte is finishing a loop I-485 outer belt. But by the time Phoenix realized it required freeways, the congressional delegation was dominated by the solons who won't being home "pork." Thus, your federal tax dollars have gone to build transportation projects elsewhere, while your local tax dollars have been used to make otherwise worthless desert or worth-less farm land into gold for the elite.
Now the reckoning. Because transportation dollars went to, for example, enrich the LDS farmers in the East Valley who converted their crops to subdivisions, infrastructure is wildly distorted. I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson was inadequate when it was opened; now it's lethally overcrowded. Freeways also contributed to the disastrous group-think that all Phoenix really needs is to keep building subdivisions and everything else will take care of itself. And although freeways made the Real Estate Industrial Complex rich, they also created a host of urban problems that are public costs being pushed ever further into the future. Congestion, the heat island, pollution, inconvenience and ugliness keep getting worse. Now we face a future of higher energy costs and the wages of carbon burning — and metro Phoenix has no Plan B. It is only "studying" commuter rail. Light rail has attracted little new private investment, so distorted have freeways helped make the building market, and this was before the roof fell in on the growth machine. Meanwhile, LA has stopped building freeways and has one of the nation's largest systems of commuter rail and light rail.
When I lived in the Midtown Willo district, minutes from work and in what's left of the pleasant old city, and would cross the Papago Freeway, I often looked down on the poor souls stuck in traffic — most of whom can't even imagine an alternative arrangement — and said, "Enjoy your lifestyle."
Think Phoenix has no history? Drink deep from the Phoenix 101 archive.