My chief goal in writing the Phoenix 101 post about the old city was to dispel the notion that “there’s no history here,” spoken by the transplants as they file into the tract houses of their so-called master planned communities. More, to fight the canard that “Phoenix has no soul.” Well, maybe now in most places, but it wasn’t always so. Yet the post was so popular, it seems logical to follow up with a brief history on choices made and opportunities missed.
It’s important to make a distinction. People have sometimes dismissed my observations with words such as “well, everyplace changes” and “my hometown isn’t the same any more, either.” At the risk of being pedantic, that’s not my point. First, while every place changes, it doesn’t necessarily change mostly for the worse. Cities such as Seattle, Portland, Denver, Charlotte, San Diego and even Oklahoma City have undergone massive changes. Yet they have managed to preserve and revive their center cities, their civic spaces and enhance livability (and they have plenty of suburbs, so Phoenix isn’t special there). I miss the old railroad yards in downtown Denver – but what an amazing city it is now. It’s gotten better. Second, Phoenix is not just any city – so who cares if it’s no worse than Fresno or Youngstown? It sold its magic for dross. And its choices have set the stage for crisis, whether sudden or lingering.
Much was out of the control of Phoenicians and their leaders. Phoenix grew large after the City Beautiful Movement, so it lacked many great civic spaces; it was a modest farm town during the 1920s, so it had relatively few art deco towers. Worst of all, it came of age with the automobile, Levittown-style suburbia, and the savage city planning and dehumanizing design ethos of Robert Moses and Le Corbusier. Still, Phoenix made choices. It lost opportunities. Here are a few.
1. Freeways. “Missed it by that much,” as Maxwell Smart would say. From the 1950s through much of the 1970s, Phoenicians hated freeways and didn’t want them. And no wonder: It has the world-champion freeway dystrophia sitting 375 miles to the west. Even so, the combination of the federally funded Interstate highway system (competing against a heavily taxed and regulated private passenger railway industry) and the highway planning bureaucracy made their own momentum. In 1960, the noted firm Wilbur Smith & Associates delivered a freeway plan to the city and the bureaucratic gears began to churn.
The plan included a 100-foot-high Papago Freeway running just north of downtown, with gigantic “helicoils” for on- and off-ramps at Third Avenue and Third Street. It was sold as Phoenix’s Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building. I am, sadly, not making any of this up. As it gradually dawned on citizens and leaders what this would mean, there was rebellion – this was a one-story city then, where everybody had a view, not just the toffs in the rich neighborhoods. There’s a well-worn tale that the Arizona Republic’s powerful publisher, Eugene C. Pulliam, killed the freeway because it would have interfered with his view. I wish it were true. But like many city leaders, he had long since moved to Paradise Valley. In fact, opposition to the monstrosity was widespread and deeply felt. It was voted down.
At this moment in history – the early 1970s – Phoenix could have taken stock. It could have limited sprawl, provided incentives for infill, created walkable neighborhoods on the model of Roosevelt and Willo, and built a real transit system. It did none of these things, so the freeways were merely delayed. The Papago was at least put underground for a few blocks – under a park named with dark irony for a mayor who did so much to ruin downtown, Margaret Hance. But the years of limbo nearly killed those historic neighborhoods and their in-neighborhood retail. Its construction led to the demolition of hundreds of irreplaceable period houses and the lush Moreland parkway (a real parkway, one lane on either side of a park). The freeways and the land-speculation economy they subsidized sucked the life out of the central core and became congestion generators, just as opponents said they would. One piece of the Wilbur Smith plan that wasn’t built was a freeway platted to run between Camelback and Mummy mountains. Money talks.
Phoenix didn’t want to be LA, and it got its wish, except for the freeways (and gangs and smog and underclass). It’s San Bernardino County with a more limited economy and a much farther drive to the beach.
2. Preservation. The block that once housed Patriot’s “Park” and may or may not become CityScape once held a nearly intact (except for Fire Station No. 1) set of multi-story territorial-era commercial buildings. These are exactly the kind of structures that Denver turned into Larimer Square, sparking the revival of its downtown. In Phoenix, these were leveled without a thought. So was a handsome, big 19th century office building demolished to make room for a sterile, built-in-every-town 1970s tower. The list of the missing is actually substantial, and especially includes the old neighborhoods clear-cut between Seventh Avenue and the Capitol.
Phoenix simply lacked a preservationist spirit, and downtown abandonment became widespread in the 1970s. It didn’t seem to matter. This happened in many cities, but the reaction against it started many places in the 1960s. In Phoenix, the civic malpractice just kept comin’. Even in the 1980s, when leading cities were using old building stock to begin to successfully revive downtown and older neighborhoods, Phoenix was still tearing them down. Or putting in place draconian codes that made reuse impossible and encouraged tear-downs. And the local bigs seemed to want the poorer people out of downtown, so the old Kress, Newberry’s and Walgreens buildings were leveled and the Greyhound bus station moved miles away.
Once preservation came – better late than never – it was often badly done. Hence, the Orpheum project involved closing a street to make a “park” (concrete and gravel). Or the old auto dealership building was robotically saved in the middle of the real new park for the downtown ASU campus. In both cases, the buildings were deprived of their context, e.g., the auto dealership made architectural sense as part of a streetscape of other buildings. In the case of the street closure, the city didn’t even get an inviting public space.
Preservation also includes the decision to virtually eliminate agriculture from any but the farthest fringes of the metro area. The farms and groves not only produced something to export and helped to limit sprawl, but also cooled the city. It was never in the city’s DNA to do Oregon-style growth boundaries and today’s agricultural preservation movement was years away; too bad. The same is true for the lost acreages and shady ditches lining the roads in north-central Phoenix – like the farmers, these land owners wanted to get rich. But Phoenix could at least have saved much of the Japanese gardens and preserved part of Baseline Road. It’s not like we got the Champs-Élysées in exchange for the destruction of this enchanting Phoenix landmark. Another ongoing preservation crime is the slow elimination of shade and grass in the old city, which is ahistorical and ill advised with rising temperatures. This happened egregiously with the Hope VI project that replaced the Henson Homes.
3. City assets. Milton Graham, the popular young mayor who led Phoenix through much of the 1960s, was adamantly opposed to building a transit system to keep pace with population growth. The city never really caught up, and with the exception of the initial light-rail line, still has an inadequate and underfunded transit system. Los Angeles, by contrast, killed the Pacific Electric interurban rail system (and is now having to essentially rebuild it), but still maintained the largest city bus system in the country. With so many poor people and such horrendous traffic, Phoenix’s decision is now particularly unfortunate. But it points to a larger problem: In most cases, Phoenix developed urban problems but not urban solutions. Its assets, from economic and social to those of dissent and self-examination, never grew to keep pace with population. The car and the every-mile shopping strip were somehow going to save it. In other cases, the initial burst to lure industry by leaders in the 1940s and 1950s gave way to complacency and the siren song of house building and population growth. Hence, Phoenix never adopted a killer economic-development game – even in the good years when GPEC was run by Ioanna Morfessis, she was partly hamstrung by state roadblocks, suburban infighting and lack of such basics as tax increment financing. The result: Phoenix is not even in the game of world competitiveness or able to fund the “carrying cost” of its huge population.
4. Annexation. This is a tough call. If the city of Phoenix would have been limited to, say, 75 square miles, it might have been forced to develop a high-quality strategy – especially great schools, a university, continual reinvestment in neighborhoods and cutting-edge industries – rather than a cheap, throw-away strategy. Leaders from the 1950s on looked at the way older cities such as St. Louis were surrounded by suburbs and vowed not to let that happen. Five-hundred square miles later, it’s not such a sure bet. Phoenix is a warring little county where every city councilman sees himself as the mayor of his district (and the district system with no at-large representation was another mistake). Unlike St. Louis, Phoenix circa 1960 (already 190 square miles, alas) was mostly Anglo and more affluent than today. Seattle today consists of 83 square miles; Denver 153. Phoenix isn’t anywhere near their league. Eventually, land becomes a liability. Phoenix spent decades fighting off encirclement, only to be encircled anyway by much larger and more politically potent suburbs than those that face most eastern big cities.
5. Dependence on big downtown projects. I've never been one to complain about Jerry Colangelo -- the problem was that Phoenix didn't have Colangelos for the arts, for preservation, for quality urban infill, for a diverse economy. Most of the big downtown projects are fine, and have been done in the most successful American cities. Seattle has its major stadiums downtown -- and also the big shopping district and lots of unique small businesses. But unlike such competitors, Phoenix couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time. So downtown didn't develop the fine-grained human scale and assets it needed, and certainly not in a walkable critical mass. The original sin here was the decision of city leaders to pretty much let everybody but the banks, lawyers and government abandon downtown in the '70s. By the time Phoenix realized it needed a decent downtown to compete, it lacked the private capital and major headquarters companies to do more than sports, convention center and ASU campus (all good, but not enough). City building codes and tear-downs made it impossible to lure small business. And the push to get "the poor" out of downtown by eliminating places they shopped, not only took away the diversity that makes a downtown interesting, it also cut out the fastest growing demographic in the metro area.
Counterfactual history is always controversial and debatable. It's meant to spark thought, not settle it. I’ve listed some things Phoenix leaders had most control over. No unrealistic dreams, such as, “never should have built the CAP.” Some leaders and grassroots groups worked tirelessly to create the good things the city enjoys and preserve a bit of the magic – and I don’t mean wide streets and malls. But Phoenix lost some huge opportunities – more than many large cities outside of municipal smash-ups like Detroit.
Many Phoenicians are content – they like their suburban lifestyle and car and all the stuff that goes with it. And that would be fine – this would just be a matter of taste, and a few like me could lament what was lost. Unfortunately, however, “all the stuff” is an artifice of a passing era – of cheap gasoline, heavy subsidies for sprawl, a leveraged housing economy, the prosperity accumulated by an America that really made things, and a time when global warming was barely known in science.
“All the stuff” can’t make up for no economic strategy to compete against 3 billion new capitalists or lift the weight of the huge underclass drawn by a local economy built on the cheap. So the choices made in the past – and the less forgivable sleepwalking of the recent past, when the consequences were clearer – well, those choices matter. They will matter all the more as Phoenix becomes a burden on the state and then a strapped nation, and sits one power failure or gas pipeline break away from catastrophe. Or, without major rehab, just slowly dies. It’s happened before, right there, under the eternal gaze of the bare mountains.
Read and bookmark the entire Phoenix 101 series here.