Between the glory days of the railroads and the completion of the Interstates, most visitors and newcomers to Phoenix arrived on the United States Highway System. Not for us the legendary muse Route 66 or the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental improved road that became U.S. 1, 40 and 50.
When the system was created in 1925 to standardize the many named highways that existed, Phoenix probably had a population of 35,000. It was isolated and difficult to reach, with formidable mountains to the east and north and forbidding desert to the west. Phoenix's coveted agricultural produce was shipped by refrigerated railcars. What Phoenix did eventually gain were U.S. 60, 70 and 80, along with U.S. 89.
U.S. 60 evolved from the many "auto trails" and plans for highways in the early 20th century, including the Atlantic and Pacific Highway. U.S. 70 joined it on the east at Globe. U.S. 80, which gained its own folklore history elsewhere in the country, came east from San Diego to also join U.S. 60 in Phoenix. In addition, U.S. 89 came north to Phoenix from Tucson. The map looked like this in 1950:
And all four U.S. highways converged on Van Buren Street, which for decades was the gateway to the city and lined with "auto courts" and motels, all set off with neon signs to lure weary travelers. The Sierra Estrellas Web site offers a detailed history of the many motels and Douglas Towne wrote an interesting meditation on Van Buren for Modern Phoenix. Another aspect of U.S. 60: It was the demarcation for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. All living and farming south of U.S. 60 were interned, including those on Baseline Road.
With Van Buren being the repository of so much local highway history, two other gateways risk being forgotten: Grand Avenue and Buckeye Road. The WPA-built rail underpass on 17th Avenue south of the capitol shows the route where U.S. 80 separated from Van Buren, turned south and then west on Buckeye, which was also lined with small motels. Grand, the only diagonal in the young city's street grid, was another neon-lit boulevard carrying U.S. 60 to Los Angeles via Wickenburg and U.S. 89 to Prescott up terrifying Yarnell Hill.
As others note, none of these avenues was what they degenerated into as Phoenix aged and sprawled, leaving them to die, letting proud Van Buren become synonymous with streetwalkers.
In their best years, from the 1940s into the early 1960s, they marked a paradise for travelers. The West was much less populous then. Unlike much of the country east of the 98th meridian, a decent-sized town didn't materialize every 40 miles or so. Cars, for all their popularity, were less reliable, especially in hot weather. In 1950, the entire population of the United States was half of what it is today, mostly living east of the Mississippi River.
In the West, outside of coastal California, these were two-lane thoroughfares, true "blue highways" of the kind celebrated by William Least Heat Moon in his lyrical book of the same name. Imagine the traveler's delight as he or she returned to civilization in beautiful Phoenix, especially as air conditioning ("it's cool inside!") and swimming pools proliferated.
They were the also arteries of an already important tourism industry. In addition to motels and cafes, "curio," Indian and Western wear shops lined the highways. And bars, of course. This was the West.
This world is difficult for today's Interstate drivers — four hours blazing to San Diego at ninety! — or even metro Phoenix commuters to appreciate. Also hard to grasp was how the city was dense along all three routes, and of course a much more compact city.
Phoenix was clearly separated from Tempe (which was separated from Mesa) and Glendale by agriculture. Inside the city, the highways tended to be four lanes wide, contributing to the overall built environment rather than decimating it like the titanic size of Phoenix city "streets" today.
Van Buren and Grand were still in pretty good shape when I was a child. Buckeye was catering to a lower-end clientele. Being pretty broke most of the time, family recreation involved drives (especially night drives).
Thus, we'd drive east on Van Buren, past imposing Phoenix Union High School and graceful Montgomery Stadium (home of the Salad Bowl). The motels began immediately, broken by such fixtures as Arnold's Pickles and many handsome business buildings that sat right on the sidewalk.
Twenty-fourth Street brought the relatively swanky new Kon Tiki Hotel, with a Polynsian theme including giant torches and a volcanic fire "mountain." Across the street was the Arizona State Hospital, the insane asylum, where Winnie Ruth Judd was the most famous patient. After one of her escapes, one wag who worked with my mother suggested the city put up an "Inmates Escaping" crosswalk sign.
Still, the hospital was bordered by tall oleander hedges and had abundant shade trees. Long before the city had to invest in failing efforts to spruce up Van Buren, most of the motels had grass, trees and flower beds. The next relatively large motel was the well-kept Tahiti Inn at 29th Street. One of my favorite motels came along at 32nd Street, the Del Webb Hiway House, which was surrounded by a little railroad track on which ran an open-air train in the Daylight colors of the Southern Pacific Railroad (like the one at Encanto Park). A neon sign featuring a giant trumpeter unfurling a red banner proclaimed the Ramada Inn at 38th Street and Van Buren. The Arizona Palms motel and Bill Johnson's Big Apple restaurant — "Let's Eat" — were nearby.
Phoenix and Tempe were getting closer, but a clear dividing line came with the Tovrea Stockyards, which at one time was the largest feedlot in the nation (yes, the Stockyards Restaurant was originally located at the actual stockyards). They ran from the Southern Pacific tracks to Washington Street, but the big Cudahy slaughterhouse stood on Van Buren at 44th Street. But what got your attention was the smell.
Farther east were Legend City and Phoenix Municipal Stadium to the South and Papago Park north as the highway turned toward Tempe. A little rest area sat just before you crossed the bridge. The handsome Mill Avenue Bridge, one of only two crossing the Salt River at the time, was one-way going south except for the rare times the river flooded. Northbound traffic ran to the east on the riverbed. Also of interest were the SP railroad bridge to the west (still there) and the old wagon bridge, closed and dangerous but still standing (only an approach was saved).
Tempe and Mesa were also compact and distinct. We drove as far as the LDS Arizona Temple. My grandmother would also remind me that her mother had died at the old Mesa Southside Hospital. I was mainly interested in catching a look a trains along the ride or during a stop at the Mesa depot.
Grand was great for train-watching, as it paralleled the Santa Fe railroad. So we often drove north to the Glendale depot and then waited for a freight train to race back to the Mobest Yard at McDowell.
Like Van Buren, Grand was a showcase of the evolving architecture and business of motor hotels, from tiny adobe or brick cottages to streamlined moderne and finally the larger midcentury designs. At the foot of Grand, at Van Buren, was one of Kemper Marley's first liquor stores (or so I was told).
Phoenix fought freeways (wisely) but had no backup plan, such as foregoing sprawl. Little Black Canyon Freeway, operating in the early 1960s with two lanes each way, eventually became part of I-17, along with the Maricopa Freeway, brutally rammed through the barrios.
But the I-10 connection west was set back for years and the old U.S. highways kept going, although by the mid-1970s, one could take a long drive out farm roads to reach the Interstate to L.A. at Tonopah. Still, Van Buren didn't lose its designation until the early 1990s.
By the time I was on the ambulance, the three gateway boulevards were in serious decline. Speedy Gonzales, one of the more colorful transvestite street people was often on Van Buren. I remember one overdose involving a young woman at an old "auto court" on Buckeye. The place was way past its best years, but outside it was still shady and grassy and well-kept.
On the other hand, some newer motels were built near the airport. But at least the building stock remained when I left in 1978, along with plenty of businesses (including some great second-hand stores). Yet when I returned to live in Phoenix in 2000, the empty land and loss of historic buildings was astounding, and most of what remained was beyond seedy and forlorn.
The biggest tragedy is that Phoenix couldn't have found a way to save some of the old motels — imagine what a retro, attract-young-talent treat that could be — with their neon and great architecture, combined with reinvestment to revitalize the business districts.
Instead, the same old tear-downs, sun-blasted empty lots and blight. The Resistance keeps fighting to revive a piece of Grand. The avenue from Van Buren to McDowell has great potential. But most of the city's highways, and the unique culture they spawned, only live in memories.
Want to travel around more of Phoenix's history? Visit the Phoenix 101 archive.