The Southern Pacific depot in downtown Mesa, circa 1963, when six passenger trains a day still served the station.
I got a rare treat in the mid-'60s for a poor kid from the 'hood: Getting to see Willie Mays play in a game of the Giants vs. the Dodgers. It was spring training and we drove to the little ballpark in Mesa. The game was great. Unfortunately, we were in the family 1959 Ford Galaxie, a source of never ending trouble and built, as my mother never tired of saying, during Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's tenure as Ford president. That night the only gear that would work was reverse -- and we drove all the way home to Phoenix going backwards.
It's low-hanging fruit to grab this memory as a metaphor for what has happened to Arizona's third most populous city. A city so populous, indeed, that it is larger than St. Louis, Cincinnati, Minneapolis or Pittsburgh -- and has nothing to show for it. No major university (an iffy branch of ASU miles from downtown doesn't count); no major corporate headquarters; no great museums; no magical neighborhoods. City Hall looks like a low-end office building. Even the area around the Arizona Temple, Mesa's one majestic asset, has been allowed to crater. The miles of enchanting citrus groves have almost all been bulldozed (and when I asked in 2006 if there was any preservation effort for the remainder, a top city official looked at me blankly).
It's a sad, and in many way surprising outcome. But operating by Arizona's rule of "when in a hole, keep digging," Mesa shows every sign of continuing the practices that got it in what is a morass even by Phoenix standards. The Cubs are playing the city for fools, threatening to leave, shopping spring training sites around the area, including some on the rez. Mesa's response could be to plan an intimate ballpark downtown on the light-rail line. It would enhance critical mass for a walkable urban space that Mesa lacks. It would be much more pleasant that the newer spring-training parks with their endless parking lagoons amid dehumanizing sprawl. It would help prepare Mesa to prosper in the higher-cost energy future.
Not surprisingly, Mesa is scouting two sites in the middle of nowhere, but on the all mighty freeway. When in a hole, keep digging.
Mesa, of course, was settled by Mormon pioneers in the late 1870s. (The party followed another LDS group that founded Lehi, nearer the Salt River -- and well into the 1970s, Lehi, although nominally part of the city of Mesa, was distinct and rural). With Mormon beehive enterprise, irrigation from the Newlands Act and the coming of the Southern Pacific Railroad's northern main line, Mesa prospered. It was distant and distinct from Phoenix, and not only because of religion (my family farmed near Mesa, among the first gentiles there, beginning in the 1890s). Mesa was created as a little city by the Mormon planners with wide streets (before the narrow minds of the joke) and clustered infrastructure to make it an agricultural center of its own. Also, Mesa, like Tempe, was part of the "south of the Salt" constituency in the debate over how water from Roosevelt Dam would be divided. In many ways, the recurrent East Valley vs. everybody else tension today is an echo of that old water fight.
By the mid-1960s, the old ag economy was beginning to give way to mild sprawl, but the square-mile of the original Mesa township was still quite charming and packed with local stores and businesses. Six passenger trains a day stopped at the beautiful downtown depot. Fields were still visible from the center city's streets. Mesa's population was a sustainable 50,000. It was a model of social cohesion, albeit one flavor, with the LDS backbone. Civic pride and stewardship were strong. All these strengths -- and what should have been building blocks for a great city -- would topple in the coming years.
What happened? First, the Superstition Freeway enabled sprawl and eventually took away the retail from Main Street. Second, the farmers wanted to sell off their land and make a killing; using their power in the Legislature and elsewhere, they made sure the East Valley freeway system was given priority. Third, city planning was gutted, both by a total suburban approach and by "master planned communities." Fourth, downtown never developed stewards or headquarters that could keep it thriving (the old SP depot burned down, so little did the city see a value in this jewel). As a result, Mesa Community College, the malls, county complex, tallest building in the East Valley and Desert Samaritan Hospital were built far from downtown. It is a place virtually demanding single-occupancy car trips. Phoenix runs Mesa's minimal bus system. Fifth, massive demographic change, with many Mormons moving to Gilbert; illegals moving into the linear slums that were once middle-class, suburban tract houses, and a disconnected coterie of retirees and others walled off in the far-flung "master planned communities."
It's most remarkable to compare-and-contrast Mesa (pop. 463,000) with Salt Lake City (pop. 179,000). Salt Lake has built and maintained a livable city center, a wildly successful light rail system and now a regional commuter rail system; Utah, in addition, does quite well by standards of seeding tech companies and attracting talented workers. Mesa is Mesa. It reminds me of the joke in Cincinnati when I asked, where are the German restaurants? "We got the Germans who didn't like to eat," a native responded.
But Mesa is not a joke and it's more than a tragedy or a mountainous lost opportunity. Because of the rush to profit from residential housing, Mesa gave short shrift to economic development. As a result, a majority of its workers must commute to other cities in metro Phoenix. It doesn't pull its weight as a part of the metropolitan area and is indeed a drag. It is still debilitated by reactionary politics, which in the Legislature consistently work against all Arizona cities. Only by a whisker did then Mayor Keno Hawker persuade Mesans to help build a light rail a mile inside the city. New Mayor Scott Smith impressed me when I met him earlier this year. The performing arts center is nice. But obviously the city is still dominated by sprawl thinking, from the ballpark ideas to the haphazard development of (very distant) Gateway Airport -- including a (sure) "Scottsdale-like" resort! -- to the dream of Superstition Vistas. Please, God, give me one more boom.
The future is moving in a very different direction. High energy costs and a general rise in commodity prices will make sprawl even less appealing, whether as a business model or a lifestyle. Talent and capital is congregating in a few winner cities and metros with great downtowns, walkable neighborhoods, culture, convenient transit, great universities and a business climate that offers more than low taxes (and their repercussions). More ominously, in America the crash is locking the winners and losers in place as the world sprints ahead. Environmental damage, whether local warming and smog, or the growing consequences of climate change will be extremely disruptive to the Southwest. Mesa has lost both its sustainable size and local food supply -- as the world enters a period of deep instability and competition for resources. Even if Mesa were to embrace urban solutions to its urban problems, such as lots of light rail and commuter rail, the crippled local and state government probably couldn't implement them. And Mesa will be fighting for water just to slake its existing urban footprint -- forget about Superstition Vistas.
Is it too late? It's never too late. But Mesa is living in a moment of history -- the 1970s -- that can't be maintained. Despite the warning of the OPEC embargo, that moment was predicated on cheap gasoline and driven, so to speak, by an abandonment of any humanity in civic planning. Freeways and far-flung subdivisions would save us. It produced much ugliness and little of value except for more liberal views of sexuality. Mesa latched onto the former, alas.
Read the entire Phoenix 101 series here.