Growing up in the Phoenix of the 1960s, "the Valley" was a benign term. It either meant the Valley of the Sun, the touristy moniker of the booster class, or the Salt River Valley, where Phoenix was geographically centered. The city was large and powerful, both economically and politically. The suburbs were small and inconsequential, most just still farm towns or railroad sidings.
Indeed, old Phoenix, central and south Scottsdale, Tempe and old Mesa sit in a real valley. The ancient Salt River Valley dips between the South Mountains (or, on old maps, the Salt River Mountains) and the Phoenix mountains, such as Shaw Butte, North Mountain, Piestewa Peak and Camelback. One could once see this on spectacular display coming north on Interstate 10 as it crossed Baseline Road, or from Baseline and the Japanese Gardens. For much of the early decades of settlement, this posed major flood-control problems. Rains cascaded off the mountains in search of home in the meandering, fickle Salt River. Nineteenth Avenue would become a river flowing down to the capitol before construction of Cave Creek Dam. At flood stage, Indian Bend Wash cut Scottsdale in half well into the 1980s. That same river, carrying rich deposits of soil from upsteam, created one of the world's great alluvial valleys here, custom made for farming that sustained two civilizations. So whether for tourists or as a geographical reality, "the Valley" was a widely used shorthand, harmless and endearing, often the sign of a native. It was part of the name of the most powerful bank. But there was no doubting this was Phoenix, or, as some called it, Greater Phoenix.
When I returned, the old connotations had changed. "The Valley" was widely used as the proper name of metropolitan Phoenix. This was abetted by the media, including the most influential, The Arizona Republic (the old Phoenix Gazette having been closed; too bad, imagine if it were an online newspaper with an entirely different tone and coverage focus than the big ship). This same media often didn't know where downtown Phoenix was — so many times I heard a radio or television report of some news "downtown," at, say, 24th Street and Camelback Road. I suppose it was a combination of ignorance and an effort at new-style marketing. Hence, we don't have the Phoenix Cardinals or Phoenix Diamondbacks, as most cities do, but "Arizona," which sounds like a college team. And it was an attempt to pander to suburbs that had grown to elephantine population sizes.
Second, it encourages the disconnection and ignorance of the huge influx of newcomers in the 1980s and 1990s. They live in the archetype "geography of nowhere." It's actually not. Every square mile platted for farming in the Phoenix area has a rich and distinct history, and Phoenix, where they actually live, has a deeper and more complex history than the little Midwestern suburb or town they came from. But they don't know it. They aren't encouraged to know it. They live in "The Valley," whatever that is. It's also a sign of the inward-looking isolation that holds back metro Phoenix, keeps it from recognizing that it is competing as a big city for talent and capital whether it wants to or not. Hearing some of the people say "here in the Valley," they might as well be talking about some holler in Appalachia.
Third, it underscores the dysfunction of the "boombergs," with their huge populations, grasping for sales tax-dollars and the economic assets of the central city, and their undeserved sense of importance. None has the ability or aspirations to be a real city, but all hold petty grievances against the city of Phoenix — even as they depend on the professional skills of Phoenix City Hall, the Phoenix transit system, etc. The jealousies can be absurd: Thus, the abortive effort to lobby for state money to the arts had to be initially called the Maricopa Partnership for Arts and Culture. Mesa, that beacon of big-city accomplishments, apparently vetoed the use of the name "Phoenix." I lampooned this in my Republic column by praising the little Pinal County town for having such foresight and saying it would be nice if Phoenix could do the same. Only after many such jokes and misunderstandings of the name was it changed to Metro Phoenix Partnership for Arts and Culture. The same is true of "Valley Metro," mostly operating in and supported by the city of Phoenix. Imagine the youth market for PhART apparel (Phoenix Area Rapid Transit) — the proceeds from caps, sweatshirts, T-Shirts, hoodies, bumper stickers and coffee mugs alone could fund the whole system. But the suburbs must be appeased. So now the Cardinals and the corrupt Fiesta Bowl play, so says the national press, "in Glendale, Ariz." (but in the University of Phoenix Stadium, ha!). The Balkanization only grows: The "East Valley" is suspicious of the "West Valley," while 101 developers want a "North Valley," all fighting over a shrinking pie. It's all a circular firing squad that holds back the metro area as a whole.
In reality, much of the metro Phoenix sprawl is now outside the Salt River Valley — Buckeye, Peoria, Glendale, Surprise, Chandler, et al are on desert basins, reclaimed for agriculture and turned into schlock suburban subdivisions. Cave Creek, Carefree and Fountain Hills are in the desert highlands. Maricopa-the-Next-Scottsdale isn't even in the same county and is on the other side of the South Mountains. So much for "The Valley."
There's only one Bay Area (sorry Tampa). There are many valleys. The Valley is centered around San Jose, i.e. Silicon Valley (aka the Santa Clara Valley), heart of the world's computer and software industries. Second up is the San Fernando Valley, that of Valley Girls, the porn industry, a onetime agricultural idyll and now just part of LA. Then comes the national agricultural center that is the San Joaquin Valley. Otherwise, what valley are you talking about? Red River Valley (of the north or of the south)? Shenandoah Valley? Hudson Valley? Sun Valley? The San Gabriel Valley? This is hardly a way to distinguish oneself in the world, and "Valley of the Sun" might draw golfers and retirees, but those are hardly the building blocks needed by a major city. Investors from Shanghai, Amsterdam and New York will not be interested in "The Valley." No wonder literature from the East Valley Partnership subtly says it's the East Valley Partnership of Metropolitan Phoenix.
I am not just a creature of two blocks on Cypress and Holly streets in Willo, Midtown Phoenix. I attended high school in Scottsdale, college in Tempe. As an EMT and paramedic, I worked in Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and Apache Junction (as well as all over Phoenix). In those years, I lived amid the remains of the old groves at 36th Street and Campbell. My great grandparents farmed near Alma School and Southern in Mesa. Grandmother sold real estate in Sunnyslope, among other places. My great aunt's acreage was just north of 7th Avenue and Glendale. My uncle bought a "new house with an all-electric kitchen" from John F. Long in Maryvale, and at various times lived all over the area. I even graduated from kindergarten in Coolidge, Pinal County. Out of all this, I'm a Phoenician and still proud of it. Identity and self-identity matter. They say much about a place's sense of self. Or lack thereof. So "Valley" was gone from my language by 2001 and has remained so. That's why this blog focuses on Phoenix.
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