Summertime, and the livin' is easy," Gershwin wrote. I never understood that. Movies and television shows with children scampered through meadows in the noonday summer sun similarly baffled me. I was a Phoenician. Summer was the oven. It was a force that demanded respect. Summer could kill you.
We might have ridden bicycles without helmets and freely roamed our neighborhoods without "play dates," but we were also expert in desert survival. So in summertime the livin' was careful. My friends and I avoided going out in mid-day and paced our roams in high summer. I read so many books in a soothingly dim, air-conditioned room at home, or at the public library, where the blast of heat was only apparent if you came close to the windows.
The rhythm of the city changed, slowed down. Aside from the morning and evening rush hour, most people stayed off the streets. Mailmen wore pith helmets. Street work and construction was mostly done early in the morning or not at all. Bank signs flashed triple-digit temperature readings.
Summer did have its charms. For example, most of the snowbirds and tourists — the ones who would ask you where they could find a good "Spanish" restaurant — were gone. It was just us desert rats. The cold-water fountains at every gas station were heaven. Enough money to buy a milkshake or ice-cream cone at one of the drug-store fountains was a cloud above that.
If you were lucky enough to know someone with a pool, someone in Palmcroft, you enjoyed serious relief. Otherwise, there was the crowded municipal pool at Encanto Park. After the sun went down, we ventured outside for more extended periods as the city cooled off. And it did rather dramatically, being surrounded by citrus and other agriculture. The central neighborhoods were also lush with shade trees and grass.
When we lived in the 700 block of Culver, we had an evaporative cooler. I still remember sitting in the back room with that cooler watching the monsoons. The storms were enchanting and terrifying. I was five at the most and remember the rain, thunder booms and white veins of lighning in the sky as if they were yesterday. When we moved to the 300 block of Cypress, the epiphany was central air. (We were too broke to have air conditioning that worked in the car).
That was growing up in the 1960s. I didn't know anything about summers elsewhere. All I knew was the oven. And to be clear: It ran from late May through about the first two weeks in September, then things cooled off. Our school was un-air-conditioned and it was pleasant with the big windows open. Escape came from my Boy Scout troop, which made several weekend camping trips to the High Country during June, July and August. There was also the annual week spent at Camp Geronimo. These were blessed relief. And the country was so wild and empty. I can't remember a major forest fire, certainly not one that threatened a town. I longed to go to college at Northern Arizona University, if for no other reason than to escape the heat (and see the trains). That's just it: I am a Phoenician, but I always disliked the heat. And this was before the temp went up ten degrees in my lifetime.
I spent much time swimming. One summer in high school, I served as a life guard at the Scottsdale YMCA. No beauties needed rescuing — or even smiled at me. I did achieve an astonishing tan and my dark-brown hair started to go blond. It happened even though I sat under an umbrella. Big Surf had opened in 1969, the first "wave pool," and did a brisk business all day.
After high school, my job as a paramedic forced me out in some of the worst heat; it was there that I learned about the second-degree burns that asphalt and concrete can inflict on uncovered skin. Summers brought out the worst in people; short tempers, quick killings. For us, going from cool-to-cold quarters and emergency rooms into triple-digits outside, over and over, it was a constant battle against heat exhaustion. By then, the late-1970s, the city had grown substantially and the old desert-town siesta feel was going...but not quite gone.
The summers, however, seemed more severe. Indeed, the overnight low temperatures have risen at least 10 degrees in my lifetime as the concrete and asphalt of sprawl, the footprint of 4 million people, have replaced agriculture and desert. The monsoons, one of the magic charms of summer in the Sonoran Desert, have changed. When I was a child, they always swept across central Phoenix with spectacular lightning and healing rain. Starting in the late 1970s, they were more likely to hover outside the city. When they came in, the result was often violent. By the 2000s, this has come to include microbusts, one of which leveled telephones and trees and ripped off roofs in Willo. This is unprecedented — and unremarked upon in the media.
The national media have discovered the majesty of a Western dust storm, sometimes rising as high as 10,000 feet as it envelopes the city. This is not new, however much the outlanders want to say "haboob." More of the metropolitan area is experiencing it because the inhabited areas have expanded so dramatically and Phoenix lacks the protective band of citrus groves and farms. Less rain seems to be following the dust. And whether the dust storms are gaining in severity because of climate change deserves more research.
At least we have the god of air conditioning, without which Phoenix would never have grown beyond 50,000 people, if that.
Here is Helen Seargeant writing in House by the Buckeye Road: "Phoenix again — 8 o'clock in the morning of a day in June, 1911, and it was warm when I got off the train at the station.... The sun was exceedingly bright and everything around the station glowed with the heat — even at 8 o'clock in the morning — and I began to be very warm and uncomfortable." She encountered a man who shrugged off the temperature. "This ain't hot yet. July an' August — them's the hot months. This is fine weather now. Nights still fine an' cool." She asked how people stood it if it got hotter?
We-ell, you kinda get used to it, an' it ain't the kinda heat that hurts people. They don't get sunstroke here like in some of them eastern states. It's the dry climate that does it, they say. Lots o' people come here for their health. Lots o' lungers, too...Lots 'o fresh air and sunshine.
As you can tell, the booster mentality goes back a long way. People were tougher then, or they left for cooler climes or died off. In old Phoenix, nearly every house and apartment (and some hotels) had sleeping porches. On the worst nights, they would sleep in wet sheets for relief (this is not a frontier legend).
The richer farmers, growers and businessmen sent their wives and children to coastal California or enclaves in the High Country on the railroad. One popular spot was Iron Springs, on the Santa Fe line between Phoenix and Prescott. The rest stayed in the oven and did the best they could. The situation had not been helped with the "Americanization" of the town, which involved tearing down and shunning the cooler adobe structures in favor of smart but hotter Victorians. Later, bungalows provided better air flow. Agriculture and the oasis of trees cooled the valley. Swimming in irrigation "laterals" and the large canals was a rite of passage (that was even true when I was young, though by that time Salt River Project had clearcut the trees and tall-grass, and frowned on trespassing).
Everything changed with air conditioning, first with evaporative cooling in homes ("swamp coolers") and large refrigerated air units in hotels and movie theaters. The Hotel Westward Ho was the first building in Phoenix with modern air conditioning, in 1929. After World War II, so called electromechanical cooling units became ubiquitous — compact and economical enough to be a part of into every tract house built by John F. Long, Del Webb and John Hall (Hallcraft Homes) and their smaller imitators.
Air conditioning allowed the massive migration to the Sun Belt. The brutal high summer of the Sonoran Desert seemed tamed. That's where I came in, born a few years past mid-century, fortunate enough to have avoided the ordeals of my Arizona forebears. Still, the heat beat me down. It didn't become easier the longer I was in it. By the time I left in 1978, I was ready for a change, someplace, to paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel, where the Phoenix summers weren't bleeding me.
Millions disagreed with me. By the time I came back in 2000, my little town had grown into a metropolis of 3.5 million people. Swimming pools were seemingly everywhere. Once-modest Willo (which didn't even have a name) was now jam-packed with luxury pools behind the historic homes. Abandoned green pools in the affordable tract homes of yesterday were a health hazard. Of course the newer reaches of 1,500 square miles of suburbia were graced by the latest pools, along with stories of their Midwestern transplants surprised by visiting rattlers and other critters.
Automobile technology had advanced dramatically, allowing even people of modest means to tool around town in complete comfort. Phoenix now moved to the same rhythm as Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles. From home to car to office, a totally artificial environment. And it worked — as long as the power stayed on and the gasoline was abundant. Many rise early to hike Camelback and other mountains, even in July and August. "You don't have to shovel sunshine," they tell me. "I love the heat."
They're in luck. Phoenix's summers have been getting hotter and lasting longer, mostly as a result of "local warming," ripping out the natural cooling of agriculture and even (real) desert and replacing it with concrete, asphalt, roofs and rocks.
Of particular concern is that rise in overnight lows. It was the drop in night-time temperatures that once made Phoenix, which sits in a frying-pan valley unlike higher-altitude Tucson, bearable. Nor is it confined to Phoenix. Tucson just endured its hottest June. Starting in the 1990s and growing more severe, major forest fires consumed vast amounts of the state. Now global warming will inevitably kick in, with consequences for snow pack, water, ecosystems, species extinctions, lethal wildfires — and even more severe summers. The fossil fuels burned to produce air conditioning and the leaking of refrigerants add to the greenhouse gases that produce climate change.
I'm old enough to remember a time when Phoenix had seven or eight nice months and four or five hot ones. Over the past two decades that ratio has come close to reversing. E.g., the cooldown not beginning until Thanksgiving. The essential nature and lethality of Phoenix's high summer is often a character in my David Mapstone Mysteries. Yet then will come along a year when it seems unusually temperate — for awhile. But that's the change in climate change.
The hotter, longer summers present a serious challenge to Phoenix. It doesn't matter whether the leadership acknowledges this reality or not. It doesn't matter how many bronzed lizards "like the heat." Or how many pipe dreams are floated of cool concrete that the Ayn Rand private sector somehow never adopts. A tipping point comes where an endeavor of this size is no longer affordable, where even our technology gods can't defeat a desert wronged.
Read more Phoenix history in Rogue's Phoenix 101 archive.