The lagoon at Encanto Park, one of my favorite hangouts as a child.
I grew up in a small town. Its name was Phoenix, and even though it had 439,170 people by the time I was four years old, in 1960, it still seemed like a place I could wrap my arms around and carry with me, just like the little towns in the movies. We lived near Cypress Street and Third Avenue, about a mile from the border of downtown. The houses faced the street, many had porches, the lawns were lush, the shade inviting.
My friends and I stashed fallen oranges and rolled them out into the rush-hour traffic on Third and Fifth — back then, before the Willo Soviet tried to wall off this neighborhood, these streets had three lanes each and carried substantial traffic twice a day, people going to and from work downtown. The oranges were also useful in friendly alley fights; more serious conflict escalated from dirt clods to rocks. Oh, we also ate them, because everyone had citrus trees in their yards and it was a quick drive out to the groves, where boxes of oranges could be purchased at roadside stands surrounded by the lavish bounty of the Salt River Valley. Some days we lay under the trees at Paperboys' Island, a pocket park at Third and Holly, and just stared into the cobalt sky, dreaming the dreams of young boys.
By the time I was eight, I was mobile and free, within limits. Specifically, I could ride my bike from Thomas to Roosevelt and Third Street to Fifteenth Avenue. It was an amazing landscape for a child. The library, art museum and Heard Museum were there. Soda fountains proliferated at drug stores, from the Rexall on Roosevelt and Third Avenue to Ryan-Evans at Seventh and McDowell to shops on Central. Every gas station had a drinking fountain with cold water, an essential for young desert rats. The firefighters at the old Station 4 on First Street and Moreland, as well as the Encanto/Seventh Ave. station indulged us. We bugged the people at Channel 12 and Channel 5 (Wallace & Ladmo's home!) for old reels of commercials — the apex of our ubiquitous trash picking. Encanto Park was a favorite hangout; it was where I decided I wasn't cut out to be a fisherman, but that didn't stop me from endless fishing journeys to the lagoons. The lovely moderne Palms Theater at Central and Virginia offered movies if we didn't want to hitch a ride downtown.
This part of the city was dense then with businesses. This was long before entire blocks were bulldozed or turned into dead space by parking garages. The buildings on the northeast and southeast corners of Seventh Avenue and McDowell, for example, were chock-full of small businesses. So was today's mostly empty Gold Spot — I got my hair cut there by Otis Kenilworth. Downtown was still the busiest shopping district in the state, followed by Park Central mall — both bracketing our neighborhood. I wasn't as fortunate as someone born a few years younger to sample the old city, but it was still pretty intact in the early and mid-1960s.
The big Valley Bank sign turned atop the art deco tower and other neon signaled downtown. Among the downtown landmarks was the Hotel Westward Ho, with its famed Thunderbird Room, where presidents stayed well into the 1960s. The skyscrapers going up along Central seemed signs of progress, not incoherent planning. I watched so many of them being built. My grandmother and I took the bus to shop downtown or at Park Central. This daughter of the frontier "traded," as she put it, at the small A.J. Bayless store at Central and Moreland. Just west were the shady median parks along Moreland and Portland, two of the few City Beautiful Movement touches Phoenix received. The parkways were lined by lushly landscaped apartment buildings. Every day, we drove downtown at 5 p.m. to pick up my mother at the Greater Arizona Savings Building, where the Interstate Stream Commission had its offices. It was amazing to see the crowds on the streets, just like a big city.
This was not a time of unalloyed sweetness. I was a child of the Cold War at its scariest, watched JFK deliver his address on the Soviet missiles in Cuba and heard my grandmother, who remembered the Spanish-American War, say, "this means we're going to war." Fiery nuclear annihilation haunted me and I knew the auditorium at Kenilworth School, where we stood against the walls and covered our heads, would not protect us. My lovely city would be incinerated (but Tucson, with its Titan II missiles, would get it first). Yet it drove me to learn every thing I could about nuclear war. I became a nuke nerd of the first order (ask me about blast shelters, throw weight and counterforce targeting even now).
The crime and social upheaval of the decade came through the television. But Phoenix had its share of excitement. I remember we were parked in the alley behind the old Valley National Bank building downtown when a man ran past us with two patrolmen, guns drawn, chasing him — he'd just robbed the bank. Phoenix claimed to be a place of Western equality, but a drive south of the tracks told otherwise, and there was anxious talk of a riot in 1968, hushed up by the Arizona Republic. Kermit Long, our senior minister at Central Methodist Church — another place we walked to — marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in South Phoenix, scandalizing the establishment. Bodies turned up regularly in the desert. I remember trick-or-treating in Palmcroft one Halloween and seeing two grown men in a Chevy with masks on. It was probably all in fun, but I was afraid.
Nor was school a land of Beaver and Wally. I stood out in a bad way within the cruel world of children and was relentlessly tormented by bullies. Until I turned on them in seventh grade, beat the crap out of several, and solved that problem without legislation or extensive intervention by the Helping Professions. It was amazing how bullies could be tamed with a punch or just a willingness to fight them, a valuable lesson for a journalist and other pursuits.
Even so, in so many good ways Kenilworth was the kind of public school that doesn't exist anymore. We had rich children from Palmcroft — including the Rehnquists — poor ones from south of Roosevelt, and those of us in between. It was mostly white but all races were represented. After sixth grade, a large number of Mexican-Americans came from Franklin School. We fought for half the year and then became good friends.
The teachers were superb in most cases, including the iconic Miss Metcalfe who said it was all right that I held my pencil differently (I still do). The school didn't have a parking lot, as it does today (and which has profaned the once lovely North High). Teachers parked on the streets. Students walked and rode their bikes. We didn't have "play dates" or mommies driving us around in minivans. Among the boys, we chose scouting, joining Troop 15, one of the state's oldest, which met at the Luke-Greenway American Legion hall. It was there that I met Silvestre Herrera, medal of honor winner from World War II. It was impossible not to absorb history living in this small town.
A larger world was clearly defined. North on Central or Seventh Avenue, for example, were acreages and some big haciendas (or small ones, as my great aunt had). There was no such thing as a six-lane "street." The roads were bordered by irrigation ditches and a rich canopy of shade trees. Farther north, across the canal, came Sunnyslope, exotic and desert-bound against the north mountains. West was Maryvale, where my uncle bought a new house from John F. Long.
These neighborhoods were sparkling, cutting-edge and fashionable compared to our old house on Cypress. My mother wasn't impressed, but I pined for an "all electric kitchen." Here and elsewhere in the newer subdivisions, pools proliferated. We didn't have many in the central city then, preferring to swim at Encanto Park or the YMCA. Beyond the city were farm fields and citrus groves. And then the desert, pristine except for a few settlements and the remains of the mining industry. I hiked every mountain surrounding the Valley as a Boy Scout. The train whistles at night spoke of a world even farther away. Sky Harbor was there, too, and I was enchanted by the Phoenix Rising mural in the then-new east terminal. But Union Station, not the airport, was my thing.
This was the golden age of driving. Arizona had only a little more than 1 million people, and the entire nation was more than 100 million lighter than today. Gas was cheap and congestion, in Phoenix, was negligible. Cruising Central was a big deal. The Bob's Big Boy at Central and Thomas was hopping at all hours, and locally owned drive-ins proliferated. The streets were relatively narrow — Seventh back then was a mere four lanes — and, with adulthood expected earlier than today, speed demons inside town were rare.
The summers were harsh and Phoenix hibernated in the manner of little desert towns — but temperatures were moderating by September. Our school had no air conditioning and didn't need it. Agriculture and places such as Encanto Park also kept the summer temps down, and it was much cooler overnight then. Winter had several hard frosts, requiring aircraft propeller engines to be mounted in the citrus groves to keep the air moving. The seasons changed with sublime softness. Once it snowed on one side of the house, and by the time I ran to tell my mother on the other side, the snow had melted. The monsoons were spectacular in their lightning and thunder, but violent microbursts were virtually unheard of. The storms came into the city.
Amid all this, the warning signs were unmistakable. Sprawl and the auto-centric ideas of the '60s. The vacant lots at Central and Moreland in anticipation of the freeway, although few thought it would ever be built. The passenger trains were dying. Milt Graham, the popular young mayor, was vehemently against transit. Even so, not even the adults could imagine the death of civic leadership or the narrowing of the economy that overtook this place — or that we would lose the groves and fields.
The sense of optimism transcended today's cheap boosterism. This was Phoenix. It was special. It would not make the mistakes of other places. We would not let the Easterners bring their problems with them. We lured the Greyhound headquarters and more would come. We were rich in aerospace — I watched the first drones being tested — and technology companies, and more would come. We had a new NBA team and it was yet another sign of how great this city would be. A monorail would connect downtown with uptown along Central. Hadn't we already learned the lessons of the Hohokam and tamed the wilderness, made it bloom, with our mighty works of technology?
So I was blessed to grow up in this small town and will always carry it in my heart. Today it's been scarred and divided by the freeway, laid waste with vacant lots, civic malpractice and flight of businesses. Thanks to some heroic efforts, the real neighborhoods where I come from are preserved as historic districts. They're the best places to live in all of the metropolitan area.
But few know how much was lost. My friend Grady Gammage, the real-estate lawyer and Morrison Institute scholar, has mused about how two natives of the same age could come to such different conclusions about Phoenix (although he's more in my camp every day). He lays out two thoughts: I left and lived in a variety of cities while he stayed. But also, unlike most Phoenicians of my generation, I grew up in the most cohesive, historic and non-suburban part of the city. He's right on both counts. Phoenix and I grew up together. We both changed.
Think Phoenix has no history? Check the Phoenix 101 archive and gain enlightenment.