Thanks to Joe Arpaio and the Legislature of Russell Pearce, Phoenix has gained a global reputation as the Birmingham, Alabama, of the new century. I wish I could tell you that things were better in the past. Alas, racist and exclusionary roots run deep in my hometown.
Phoenix was settled largely by Southerners and ex-Confederates, and it kept that Southern sensibility well into the 1960s. The white Chicagoans who started coming in the 1930s brought their own prejudices that for decades tore that city apart. Many places in Phoenix were segregated, including in the schools. To be fair, there was no "colored waiting room" at Union Station and Encanto Park golf course accepted players in the 1940s. But the race and class lines were not hard to find. Phoenix saw itself as an Anglo city, unlike old Tucson, with its proud Spanish and Mexican traditions.
The Salt River Valley, of course, had once been part of Mexico. Before Columbus, it was the site of the most advanced irrigation-based civilization north of Mesoamerica before being abandoned by the Hohokam. By the time white families such as mine began arriving in the 1890s, Hispanics and Pimas were living there, too. With large-scale cotton farming, African-Americans also migrated to Phoenix creating what became a relatively large black community. Many were recruited by the farm interests seeking cheap labor and promising a better place than the racist South. Chinese immigrants helped build the railroads. Japanese came from California. Phoenix was never Des Moines on the Salt River. By the turn of the 20th century, Phoenix was a multi-racial society. Multi-ethnic, too: Greeks, for example, ran many restaurants and other businesses. Russian immigrants were recuited to work in the sugar-beet fields outside Glendale.
It could also an exclusionary one. "Mexicans," whether immigrants across the border or multi-generational Mexican-American families, lived in segregated barrios. The major black section of the city was south of the Southern Pacific tracks. Well into the 1970s, it was referred to by two words: the first is a slur, the second "town." Schools were segregated, with minorities kept in the worst-funded ones. Employment was circumscribed — the minorities worked in the produce sheds, the fields and groves; the black elite might have been Pullman porters on the trains. Phoenix at one time even had a Chinatown, around where the baseball stadium now stands.
A survey during the Depression found the slum around 7th Avenue and Buckeye to be one of the worst in the nation — this in a city of only 65,000. Plumbing and paved streets were virtually nonexistent. Here was where the Roman Catholic priest Father Emmett McLoughlin became a legendary advocate for the poor. He was instrumental in getting the Henson Homes project, which for decades was safe and attractive, before the crime and social breakdown of the 1970s took hold.
But it's important to see these citizens as more than exploited victims. Many owned property, built businesses and created proud and thriving neighborhoods. Also, the West was marginally better. I'm not aware of any lynchings in Phoenix, much less on a large scale.
As the city grew in World War II and saw an influx of soldiers, there's at least one instance of a riot involving black and white soldiers in 1942, which apparently included random shooting into black homes by the authorities. Phoenix could be a rich vein for the enterprising historian. Also, some Japanese were removed in the shameful internment — I was always told U.S. 60 marked the line between those sent to concentration camps, and those allowed to stay. On the plus side, Chinese-Americans moved rapidly into the mainstream. Walter Ong and Kim Tang were among the most successful entrepreneurs. Wing F. Ong was elected to the state Legislature in 1946, a national first. The city's tiny Chinatown disappeared as Chinese were free to move anywhere.
The modern Phoenix that grew into a populous city by the 1960s wanted nothing to do with these memories. De jure school desegregation ended. Lincoln Ragsdale (right), former Tuskegee airman and funeral director, reputedly the richest African American in the city, moved to Scottsdale. Valdemar Cordova was elected to city council in the 1950s, followed by Calvin Goode. I had black and Mexican-American classmates at Kenilworth, and when our Scout troop would meet at the Luke-Greenway American Legion Post, it wasn't unusual to see a Mexican-American vet along with the Anglos at the bar.
But beneath these successes, de-facto segregation often continued. Poor minorities were stuck with the worst schools, poor health care, neglected neighborhoods and lack of opportunity. Immigrant farmworkers were treated horribly; Cesar Chavez was seen by the Anglos as little more than a communist. And Phoenix's old Southern sensibility was morphing into the John Birch Society mentality that created today's Kookocracy. When our senior minister at Central United Methodist Church, the late Kermit Long, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in south Phoenix, this bastion of establishment churches was the target of white protesters. When King was assassinated, Phoenix suffered a small-scale riot, covered up by the Republic and local bigs.
Not much had changed when I worked as an ambulance medic in the mid-and-late 1970s, much of the time in what Anglos considered the "bad part of town." White flight was well under way, moving north of McDowell, then Thomas. We and the fire department were the primary care givers to a population lacking health insurance or even Medicaid (although the County Hospital did serve the poor). Crime and lack of investment were really showing in these neighborhoods. For most of the barrios time was short. Some of the most historic and cohesive were wiped away to make room for Sky Harbor expansion.
Much more was to change, especially from the huge waves of Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants that began in the 1980s. Phoenix was never a dynamic place such as New York with institutions and an economy that allowed for more immigrant economic mobility. Instead, combined with the Sky Harbor land grab, these hundreds of thousands of new migrants were highly destabilizing to the historic Mexican-American community. The historic black community dwindled. White flight, and class flight, accelerated with the vast new sprawl oases that opened up with the freeway system. Maryvale became "Scaryvale." A city that only yesterday seemed so new, and touted its "classless" Western society, was filled with a poor underclass stuck in linear slums. By the 2000s, Phoenix also had the nation's largest population of urban American Indians, most living on the margins. But the reservations bordering the city became potent with gambling revenue and water rights.
Unlike Los Angeles, Phoenix never developed real minority political power. Firebrand student activist Alfredo Gutierrez became part of the establishment. Latino organizations dependent on City Hall partnerships can't be adversaries of the Anglo power elite. The old black leadership died off. Amazingly, Phoenix went for years without a single Hispanic city councilman.
It will be interesting in the 2010 Census to see how close Phoenix is to being a minority/majority city — surrounded by mostly Anglo suburbs. But a real "Hispanic Detroit" won't help property values in north Scottsdale. With the persistent "sweeps" and anti-Hispanic rhetoric and laws, Arizona does itself no good. The talented "brown people" of the world, the ones with lots of income, will think twice before choosing to come there. Intolerance and political extremism are bad for business.
Meanwhile, the challenges for a city with a huge number of low-skilled, first generation immigrants are growing substantially in a deindustrialized America, much less one in a state with abysmal public schools, especially for poor minorities. But Phoenix can't even think of how to leverage this human capital into the advanced economy, to everybody's advantage. There's too much screaming going on. "What part of illegal don't you understand!" This from Anglos who have profited from a cheap and frightened workforce to build this valley of crapola. What part of global competitiveness, much less the Golden Rule, don't these haters understand?
Think Phoenix has no history? Read the entire Phoenix 101 series here.