My earliest memory of Scottsdale is what would most intrigue a little boy: The fire station. The Rural Fire Department sat at Second Street and Brown. It had long outgrown its small building, so yellow-painted fire apparatus were parked all around. In the early 1960s, Scottsdale still retained much of its flavor as one of the minor farm towns that surrounded Phoenix. To that had been added "Western-style" storefronts: It was "the West's Most Western Town." With a few blocks on Fifth Avenue, Main and First Avenue, it was a tourist trap. It had a few hotels, such as the Valley Ho and the Sahara, as well as the wooden-sided stadium — continuing the playfully fake frontier theme — and a modest art colony.
We moved from Midtown Phoenix to what is now south Scottsdale in 1970. My mother had been alarmed by an incident at West High where a student had been kicked to death. Despite our modest means, she wanted me to attend the excellent Coronado High. I got to know Scottsdale very well. The neighborhoods around Coronado and Los Arcos mall were still separated from downtown Scottsdale by farm fields and vacant land. Scottsdale Road lacked curbs, gutters or sidewalks. Our house sat a block east of Scottsdale Road; one old, unoccupied house faced on Scottsdale Road across the alley, leaving a spectacular view of the Papago Buttes. It was an alley prowled by the "Refuse Wranglers" city garbage men. Closer to downtown was the YMCA, where I did a stint as a lifeguard, and the Scottsdale Daily Progress building. Then came the new Scottsdale Baptist Hospital and downtown, which still held some small-town retailers such as Lute's Pharmacy.
East of Brown, however, many of the houses were seedy, a few occupied by bikers and drug dealers. City Hall was only being planned. The police were based out of the old schoolhouse. But close to Scottsdale Road and Main Street, local businesses flourished, from Lute's Drugstore to Saba's Western Wear, along with the gas station with the iconic cowboy sign promoting community events. It was still a small town run by a local merchant class. The future giant Fashion Square was a Goldwater's department store. Newer suburbia marched ahead, of course, especially around Saguaro High. But most of Scottsdale ended just north of Camelback, where the horse ranches took over, then breathtaking empty desert. The airport was little more than a former Army airfield with a handful of newer, small buildings. Drinkwater's Liquors, a Circle K and a few other buildings sat at the crossroads with Shea "Boulevard." That was two lanes out to the Beeline Highway. On the way, you could make the long trek through nothing to reach Taliesin West. My friends and I launched model rockets in the desert southwest of Bell and Scottsdale. I got a glimpse of the plans "somebody" had for the place when the Hilton was built in the middle of nowhere on Lincoln Drive and Scottsdale Road; I worked as a bus boy at Paul Shank's, riding my bike every night along that no-shoulders, no sidewalks, no streetlights highway.
After high school and before and during college, I worked as an emergency medical technician, spending a year in Scottsdale on the elite mobile emergency unit of Kord's Ambulance, the first advanced-care ambulance in the state. This took me all over the area, from the (by today's standard) modest resorts to the Salt River Indian Reservation. We worked with the renamed Rural-Metro Fire Department, still privately owned and run by founder, Chief Lou Witzeman, now operating out of the new station at Thomas and Miller. Scottsdale had redeveloped the seedy downtown with new civic buildings. A new high school (Chaparral) was built farther north to keep up with growth. For all its gaps and hints of phoniness, this Scottsdale was still pleasant and sweet. It was largely middle-class until one got closer to Paradise Valley. It was changing fast, of course. McCormick Ranch was being developed as I left town in 1979.
Today's Scottsdale is an entirely different creature. Its per-capita income as most recently measured was $39,158, compared with $20,275 for the state. But that hardly tells the story. Much of south Scottsdale is fairly typical Phoenix tract housing in decline, with a sizable Hispanic population and Coronado High considered a distressed school. Scottsdale north of Bell (even McDonald) is very wealthy, exclusive and willfully disconnected from the old town (except as a veto elite against most civic projects). Downtown seemed at a tipping point downward in the early 2000s, but has been righted. Still, most of Old Town's business seems to come from tourists and residents of the city of Phoenix. The richies brag about not being SOBs (South of Bell).
I can't claim expertise about the place during the years I was gone. But local leaders of the 1980s and 1990s, especially the late Herb Drinkwater, were all about development and got what they wanted. Taliesin is now surrounded by lookalike suburban roofs. Somewhere Frank Lloyd Wright is cursing. Scottsdale is what passes for success in metro Phoenix. Becoming such a wealth magnet, and craftily outwitting Phoenix for awhile in the race for sales-tax dollars, it avoided many of the problems that plague the region. The Airpark is now the center of what's left of corporate Arizona (not much), as well as the hub of its small entrepreneurial class. The latter, unfortunately, is usually rich men playing with companies that they will later sell, rather than building headquarters that would be major assets to the state. Scottsdale's tourism industry is "world class," at least in the spa, golf and sun niche. Even hotels inside the Phoenix city limits use "Scottsdale" on their addresses. Scottsdale attracted most of the investment of the last "boom," in such things as the Waterfront, etc., while Phoenix largely languished.
This phenomenon is complex, partly a result of Arizona's very limited economy and economic-development paralysis at state and city level, abetted by white-right politicians whose article of faith is that low taxes and light regulation are a strategy for competitiveness. But Scottsdale has become a parasite on the region, too. It refused to be part of the light-rail system. The exclusive crowd didn't want "those people" coming to their all-white streets. (Hint: "Those people" have cars; not too many robbers or burglars jump on mass transit after the crime). Scottsdale used its wealth to lure an ASU appendage ("Skysong"; gag). But it refuses to be part of a team effort along with Phoenix and Tempe to market themselves for technology companies. And why should it? Scottsdale has done quite well on its own, a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of metro Phoenix.
This brings consequences. The place is politically crazy, with an incoherent backbeat that seems to say "we want to keep Scottsdale unique" even as its distinctiveness has been built out of it. This political upheaval is continuous and scary, with a cohort of angry gadflies that have frightened the political center into impotence. The nutballs in Scottsdale who want to be left alone and not "forced to become Portland" need not worry. They've won. They're sore winners, like all the right-wing nutballs in Arizona. Unfortunately, this leaves Scottsdale choked on automobile traffic and without much of a plan once it has skimmed what cream is left from the metro economy. Many residents of Scottsdale have the money and clout to make metro Phoenix better; instead, most are part of the problem that is manifested in, say, giving to the arts being far below comparable-sized metros. Most sit on the sidelines as Arizona goes ever nuttier, as Phoenix falls further behind and decays. Some seem quite happy with "Phoenix becoming the Hispanic Detroit," as if this will help their property values. Living behind gates and walls encourages such delusions.
Scottsdale always wanted to be Santa Fe. That's impossible for a city so populous and geographically stretched out, with a congested corporate center right in its heart. (Even Santa Fe has commuter rail service). It could have been something its own, but the Growth Machine would have none of it. Thus the upscale spreads around Scottsdale look like the mind-numbingly identical Phoenix shopping strips found all over, only with more expensive faux Spanish/Tuscan/Hungarian crapola ornamentation added. Scottsdale is "exclusive." It is also a freak show (e.g., Ted Williams head) and a bleak parade of grotesque human appetites satisfied, yet still hungry. A zombie movie with plastic surgery. For all the sentimental charm certain pieces of it retain for me, and its lure for tourists and a certain kind of rich person, Scottsdale faces its own peculiar tribulations in our future of discontinuity and unsustainability. Money can paper over only so much. It certainly hasn't bought Scottsdale happiness.
At least it now has a "socialist" city fire department.
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