In the late 1950s, my uncle bought a house from John F. Long in Maryvale — and I mean he bought it from John Long himself sitting in a trailer on land that would become Phoenix's first major post-war suburb. My uncle was pretty much Long's target demographic: A veteran of World War II and Korea, young with a family and a good job. Tens of thousands more did the same thing. His house was a sparkling new ranch with an "all electric kitchen" and a pool. Every time we visited, I felt inferior, us living in a down-on-its-heels Spanish period-revival house, built in the 1920s with a gas range, just north of downtown. My mother sniffed that his commute faced the sun coming and going. But how I wanted to live in Maryvale. It was the future. Except it wasn't. Now our old house is restored and valuable in one of the state's most desirable historic districts. Maryvale is a linear slum.
It wasn't supposed to turn out that way. Long named the district after his wife and loved it until he died. He was unapologetic about building affordable starter homes for ex-GIs and his company tried to support Maryvale even as it began an inexorable decline. He took the model of Levittown, the "planned communities" built by William Levitt in the northeast in the last 1940s and 1950s. But Long added his own twists, such as the distinct Phoenix ranch house and abundant pools. Like its model, Maryvale was defined by curvilinear streets with cul-de-sacs and walls, providing a sense of privacy. Sometimes the newness could be jarring: I remember walking with my uncle through cabbage fields — across the street (until these were obliterated by more houses).
Maryvale had other virtues. Unlike Levittowns, it was contiguous with the city (Long served on the Phoenix City Council) and not a leapfrog development. It was always part of the city of Phoenix and not ruled by a Home Owners Association. Long's designs offered houses with windows facing the street and the carport or garage wasn't the dominant feature. Residents planted lawns and trees, and in some instances preserved older trees from its previous rural incarnation. This helped cool the area as well as providing visual appeal. A shopping center was situated every mile. The schools were good. Amenities such as a mall, hospital and parks followed. The demographic was white and middle class at the zenith of the American middle class. As a result, it was highly popular, eventually growing all the way out to nearly 83rd Avenue and defining what is now the "old" west side. Glendale, Goodyear, Avondale, etc. were all tiny farm towns. Maryvale was safe. It was the dullest beat on PPD, with the exception of a serial killer around 1974. Maryvale's influence was tectonic and lasting among house builders.
Its vulnerabilities were literally built in. Everything was cheaply built. These quickly mass-produced, affordable houses offered very few design features to differentiate one from another, ultimately necessary to make them something of lasting value. Maryvale was totally car-dependent, an artifact of an age when gasoline was cheap, America was a petroleum superpower and climate change barely imagined, much less its cause. Walkable retail? Mixed use? Forget it. They were zoned out, using the "up-to-date" codes of the era. Phoenix under Milt Graham, the popular young mayor through much of the 1960s, was vehemently anti-transit (even as it was anti-freeway). The stamped-out effect of production housing is monotonous and deadening, right down to the square, flat parks. With more land than brains, Phoenix kept replicating Maryvale all over, invariably siphoning off residents who hungered for the newest new tract house. Yet for decades, Maryvale prospered. After I left Phoenix, I would run into younger people who went to Maryvale, Alhambra and Carl Hayden high schools — all fiercely proud of their roots and all successful professionals. Maryvale was loved.
Several events created today's very different place. In the 1980s, the city began an ambitious effort to expand Sky Harbor. Its centerpiece was bulldozing historic barrios, such as Golden Gate, which were equally loved by their Mexican-American residents if not by the city. The displaced residents used their city payout to buy houses in Maryvale. White flight ensued, and there were plenty of places to fly because the Long model had been reproduced across the Valley, morphing into "master planned communities." Spec retail space in newer areas drew away many stores, and residents didn't have their old purchasing power. The diverse economy that created plenty of middle-class jobs declined, leaving a huge gap between the super-rich and relatively affluent, and the working poor. This barbell economy was the antithesis of the one that favored Maryvale. Schools declined along with the tax base. Finally, the vast migration from Mexico from the 1980s through 2007 dramatically destabilized the old Mexican-American population of Phoenix, an event heavily felt in Maryvale. Owner-occupied housing plummeted, and with it the sense of proprietorship that comes with owning property.
Now Maryvale Precinct would be my first choice for a ride-along. Crime and gangs are widespread. Most houses have either fallen into disrepair, or been remade with outside walls sporting spikes and ironwork. Many of the front lawns are now just dirt (or worse, gravel), the pools green and lethal. I still know proud Maryvale residents; none Anglo. They are part of a law-abiding, hard-working majority trapped in decaying suburbia, where the banks won't make loans for historic rehabs, the state won't properly fund the schools, and the economy lacks the rungs in the ladder of upward mobility. Transit is difficult at best, a key impediment for people needing jobs. No wonder studies now show poverty has become centered in American suburbs, not center cities.
Some city leaders and Long's company have tried to fight for Maryvale — the delightful spring training stadium is one example. But in addition to the socio-economic ills, the bones are bad: cheap houses, dull curvilinear streets that now seem threatening, poor walkability, wide highways just outside the subdivision walls. There's no sense of history evolving through architecture or good civic design. That had been lost by the time Maryvale started building. Maryvale is flat with no views. And the district is beset with a cancer cluster about which leaders seem curiously incurious.
Could it be saved, remade into a "Latin Quarter"? Anything's possible with enough money, leadership and local activism. Unfortunately, all are missing. Add light-rail lines, buses every 15 minutes, narrow some of the arterials, blow out most of the cul-de-sacs, properly fund the public schools, bring in jobs with good wages, etc. It's a long and unlikely list. As the city's infrastructure ages and population becomes poorer, as the newer suburbs siphon off the best economic assets, City Hall is stressed to keep filling the potholes. In addition, Phoenix's Latino population is all over, and the best place for a quarter with some character is probably Garfield. But, as with Anglo Phoenix, nobody can seem to grasp creating critical mass. It's always about the cars, no matter the cost. That revel will soon come to an end, not only from peak oil but preference. Vast numbers of Americans now want to live in downtowns or urban neighborhoods with walkable shopping, work and entertainment.
When Maryvale was built, it was very foreign to old Phoenix. Now, with few exceptions, the whole Valley is Maryvale, or getting there, slipping subdivision by subdivision. As one city official quipped, "Phoenix, building tomorrow's slums today."
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