A city such as Cincinnati built great parks, from the showpiece Eden Park, home to the Cincinnati Playhouse, Cincinnati Art Museum, Kron Conservatory and Mirror Lake Fountain, to the exquisitely designed Ault Park near the tony Mount Lookout and Hyde Park neighborhoods. Eastsiders who won't venture beyond the "Sauerkraut Curtain" may not even know about Mt. Echo Park, one of my favorites with its awesome views of downtown and the Ohio River.
The Queen City of the West had the good fortune to come of age in the golden age of park design and have the wealth to pull it off. Phoenix, a modest farm town at this time, built only one: Encanto. That makes it all the more a civic treasure. This Saturday Encanto Park will celebrate its 75th anniversary.
I write this not to take away from the city's achievement with desert parks, especially South Mountain Park and Papago Park. But they are what they are, often stunning preserves of the Sonoran Desert for hardy hikers and, more often, drivers.
Encanto was different, built as an oasis of shade and grass and City Beautiful Movement design, meant for people, picnics and strolling. Now more than ever, you can feel the instant cooling of the park and golf courses when you drive south of Thomas on 15th Avenue on a summer night. It's not like the Midwest — for that kind of lush greenery, look to Cincinnati. It lacks the size and resources that Los Angeles could put into Griffith Park. Encanto, inspired by San Diego's grand Balboa Park, is its own enchanted feat. It is a capsule of old Phoenix, a magical refutation of those who say "Phoenix has no soul."
A paddleboat on the Encanto Park lagoon in the 1960s.
I grew up with old Encanto Park. It began three blocks from our house on Cypress and was a captivating place for a child. I fished in the lagoon more times than I can remember, never catching a thing (although my more proficient buddies caught bass and sunfish). A lasting memory is heading out of the house with fishing rod and tackle box to spend an afternoon at the park. There were no chauffeured "play dates" or the isolation of "master planned communities."
Encanto was built to be an organic part of its neighborhoods, blending seamlessly into Palmcroft. I watched the paddle boats and canoes, occasionally having enough money to use them. Concerts in the now-gone bandshell filled the night air. I swam in the pool — pools not being ubiquitous in those neighborhoods outside Palmcroft — and earned my archery merit badge at the range there. Kiddieland had rides and sno-cones; my favorite attraction was the train, which back then was painted in Southern Pacific "Daylight" colors to mimic the passenger trains that still served Phoenix. This was my young world. I looked across the green expanse and saw the skyscrapers along Central, thinking this must be the most wonderful city in the world.
William Hartranft, who developed Palmcroft, was the head of the first Phoenix Parks Board and father of Encanto Park. The 222 acres were purchased from J.W. Dorris and a veterinarian Dr. James C. Norton (his grand house in 15th Avenue has long housed park offices). Before construction began in 1934, the land was largely used to graze cattle and for Norton's grove of fruit trees. It was outside the city limits.
New Deal money was largely responsible for funding development of the park, including the clubhouse, bandshell, lagoon, 18-hole golf course, archery range and other features. Hundreds of shade trees were planted. The swimming pool was added in 1951.
Unfortunately, Phoenix never built another park like Encanto. Some beginnings were made with Coronado Park on 12th Street and Eastlake Park on Jefferson, but they never were seen through. The Depression, World War II, sprawl and car culture swept away even the memory of good park design, much less a willingness to invest in such oases (and Eastlake was in the 'hood, commanding no attention by the Anglo establishment).
Later parks, from Maryvale to the deck park (I hesitate to use the name Margaret Hance, considering how much damage to the central city she did as mayor) never fulfilled their potential. Steele Indian School Park is a sad joke, landlocked by blighted "investment" land and lacking shade, when it could have been a true Central Park of Phoenix. Still, I know these older, lesser green oases had their good memories for generations of Phoenicians.
The Encanto Park lagoon in 1983.
Encanto was badly mauled in 2008 by one of those increasingly violent monsoon storms caused by the heat island, losing 120 old-growth shade trees. And while there are ideas to restore and enhance the park, most of the city's population has probably never even been to Encanto, much less have either ties of the heart to it or recognize it as a civic gem that should be pampered (and replicated elsewhere).
I don't trust the City of Phoenix. It's not just the budget restraints from the region's ongoing depression. City leaders, like many newcomers, have made a fetish about throwing down gravel and planting shadeless Palo Verde trees around town "(It's a desert!"). This is one thing if you live in the desert areas of the city, such as the fascinating neighborhood just north of the Papago Park military reservation or in Sunnyslope. But it's terribly destructive if done in the heart of the city, a timeless, water-fed oasis that needs shade trees and grass more than ever to combat the urban heat island and climate change. Let's hope the citizens of Friends of Encanto Park and other groups get it.
I recall a story saying "nothing could be done" about the lost trees. That's madness. Plant new ones. Future generations will thank you. And no rocks, please. Happy birthday, my beloved Encanto.
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