The comments section has been busy with musings about the Midwest migration to Arizona and the degree to which it is to blame for the disaster facing the state and Phoenix. I've offered my assessment in previous posts (it's a great deal to blame). That doesn't mean every midwesterner is at fault, much less that I hate the Midwest. I spent nearly a decade there, in southwest Ohio, and hold it warmly in my heart. I saw it at its best and lately I've seen it at its worst. But no discussion of Phoenix is complete without assessing this huge tide of immigrants and the things they carried.
The first Anglo settlers of Phoenix were a ragtag group of tough adventurers, everybody from "Lord" Darrell Duppa, namer of Phoenix, who was born in England (maybe France), to the father of Tempe, Charles Trumbull Hayden, a Yankee who had worked the Santa Fe trail. The Mormons settled Mesa. But Southerners and former Confederates were arguably in the early majority, personified by founder Jack Swilling, CSA. This gave the town a peculiar Southern-Western character that persisted into the early 1960s. My family came from Indian Territory and before that the pre-Civil War Texas frontier. Midwesterners arrived in more numbers with the completion of the Santa Fe Railway and its direct connection from Chicago. Among them was Dwight Bancroft Heard, who bought the Arizona Republican in 1912. He was a major landowner and farmer, and was the driving force behind the region's cotton industry. Along with his wife, Maie Bartlett Heard, he founded the Heard Museum.
Other midwesterners of note: Kansan Eugene C. Pulliam, who built a publishing empire including the renamed Arizona Republic. Lawyer Frank Snell was from Kansas City. (His partner Mark Wilmer, the star litigator who won Arizona v. California before the Supreme Court, came from Wisconsin by way of Texas.) Another former Chicagoan was Walter Bimson who built Valley National Bank into a powerhouse. Heard, Pulliam, Snell and Bimson were city builders. The latter three, for example, in the late 1940s and 1950s, recruited the high tech industries whose fumes the metro area still runs on. All loved Phoenix. It was their home. In every way they connected the health of the city to that of their companies.
Other notable midwesterners liked Arizona, too. The Mafia became entrenched after World War II, and it's a myth that the gangsters chose only Tucson. That was the Bonanno family and Detroit's Purple Gang. Phoenix was the bigger mob town and enjoyed closer proximity to Las Vegas. Later, after the stewards died off, Phoenix gained the company of Charles Keating, late of Cincinnati, who in the 1980s was the big man in Phoenix as he was plotting sprawl far from the city center and helping cook up the S&L scandal. Keating marked a symbolic and substantive shift in the city's leadership, an influx of sharpies and those, even well meaning, with neither interest in a coherent city nor interests beyond real estate. It could not be undone by the last city steward, Jerry Colangelo of Chicago (lately seen speculating in West Valley real estate).
After World War II, with federal housing assistance, a booming national economy, a thriving middle class thanks to the New Deal and air conditioning, hundreds of thousands of average midwesterners came to Phoenix. Eventually, millions to the metro area. Not a few were fleeing the turmoil of school desegregation and racial conflict. Many were attracted to the conservative politics of the most prominent icon of Arizona, Barry Goldwater. As the tide grew and the city sprawled out, fewer were exposed to any local history. The stereotypical midwestern boob when I was growing up was someone who didn't know where our water came from. Their mispronunciation of menu items at Mexican restaurants and calling it "Spanish food" — we had a good laugh with that, not realizing the hate and fear that was to grow against brown people. "There's no history here," I heard all my life from these folks. Yet many wanted to live a "rugged individualism" in the West that never existed, certainly not in Phoenix, a city that wouldn't exist without the federal government. The car-dependent post-war cityscape, especially the sprawl of the 1990s and after, along with many bumbles at city hall, acted as an accelerant to the rightward tilt of "our midwesterners."
Here we get into "Big Sort" territory, where people cluster with those of like minds and world views. So we didn't get many folks from the city of Chicago, or from Madison or Ann Arbor. They came from suburbs and had no idea of what to expect or demand in a livable city. A master planned community with championship golf? Life's good! The former union members or liberals we attracted were largely Reagan Democrats who hated the institutions and ideas that had lifted them up. We attracted a huge cohort of retirees, rich and poor, that just want to be left alone. The sine qua non for most seems to be sunshine and heat. No wonder support for the arts is far below that of similar-sized cities or the education system is a trainwreck. They hold many loyalties to "back home," a sharp contrast with the old stewards. And metro Phoenix continues to attract a reactionary majority among the Anglos. And they vote. The better-off among them, many part-time residents, have the money and power to make every challenge Phoenix faces better, fix many outright. They won't. At its best, Phoenix is a wide-open and welcoming place, unlike a Portland or Seattle. I told these newcomers: Welcome — now make this your home and make it better. They were deaf. These are "our midwesterners."
A broad brush, sure. But the paint sticks. In apt and cruel ironies, Mexican immigrants now help support the economies of the rural Midwest and the industrial Midwest has been devastated by bad trade deals started by Mr. Reagan and his conservative successors (including Bill Clinton). Some of the finest farm land in the world was paved over for subdivisions in the 1990s and 2000s. With unions wrecked, reactionary politics is on the rise. But the great cities struggle on, their world-class cultural institutions and universities still proud, still a civil society and civilization there. That's because they retain enough of the best of the heartland. And maybe because they rid themselves of a huge rabble that only wanted sunshine and separation.
Think there's no history here? Check out the entire Phoenix 101 archive.