The block of shuttered buildings (right) just west of USAirways Center was, by the 2000s, about all that was left of the storied Deuce, Phoenix's city's skid row. It has since been leveled, losing two historic hotels, so Suns owner Robert Sarver could make another holy surface parking lot.
In its heyday, from the 1920s through the 1970s, the Deuce extended over several blocks from the Southern Pacific tracks to Van Buren, centered along Second Street. It's open to debate as to whether Second Street was the origin of the name. Or if it was a shortened version of the Produce District, the warehouses and loading docks clustered along the railroad tracks, including middle-of-the-street spur lines that ran along Jackson and Madison. Yet another interpretation: The area was Beat 2 of the Phoenix Police and the cops nicknamed it.
However it came by its moniker, the Deuce was one of the city's most colorful and storied districts. During Prohibition, it was known for its speakeasies. For decades, brothels and gambling could be found along the infamous Paris Alley, off Second Street between Jefferson and Washington.
Old downtown Phoenix was remarkably compact and walkable. The main part of the central business district ran along Central and west to Seventh Avenue. East along Washington and Jefferson were a remarkable variety of stores, including Penney's and Korrick's department stores, as well as the Fox Theater, the barber college and Dr. Hugh Ilstrip's chiropractic practice.
The Greyhound and Continental Trailways bus depots faced each other at First Street and Van Buren. East of Greyhound was the Arizona Republic/Phoenix Gazatte building, St. Mary's church and the church schools, and Phoenix Union High School. South of this, the Deuce.
It was a dense mix of single-story business buildings and two- to five-story single-room occupancy hotels, many dating back to territorial days. One could walk into this "bad part of town" by taking a few steps east of the Fox or south of St. Mary's. The small businesses there ran the gamut from bars, cafes, package-liquor shops, gospel missions and pawn shops to second-hand furniture outlets and an Army-Navy surplus store. Franco's America Bakery was at Fourth Street and Washington. It was next to a Western wear story with a lifesize horse standing on the overhang. The Matador Mexican restaurant was in the Deuce before it was relocated to a location on Adams. A few houses survived in the district, as well.
The remains of the city's Chinatown were part of the Deuce (although the Chinese, not facing the discrimination they had suffered in California, followed the Anglos out as the city sprawled). Sing High Chop Suey House, now moved a few blocks west of the Deuce, is a survivor. And then, starting at Madison, the produce operations such as Central Wholesale Terminal and United Produce.
The most famous denizen of the Deuce was Ernesto Miranda, who worked off and on at United Produce. Miranda was arrested in 1963 for kidnapping and rape, and gave a confession without being read his rights. The conviction was thrown out by the Supreme Court and police agencies were forced to routinely "Mirandize" suspects. Still, Miranda himself was convicted in a second trial, where the tainted confession was not introduced, and served time. Released in 1972, he returned to the Deuce where he sold autographed Miranda warning cards and lived in an SRO. In 1976, he was fatally knifed at La Amapola bar, which as I recall (and Cal can correct me) was around Sixth Street and Madison. By that time I was working on the ambulance, but was off-duty that night; a crew from B-Shift transported Miranda to Good Samaritan Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Another piece of Phoenix history played out in the Deuce was the murder of David "Star" Johnson, one of the city's few African-American police officers. In 1944, Johnson and his partner (also black, for this Southern-culture city paired up officers of the same race and generally put African-American cops on the south side to police "their kind") encountered Detective "Frenchy" Navarre in the Deuce.
Frenchy, who has made cameos in my short story "Bull" in Phoenix Noir and in South Phoenix Rules, was known in real life for his brutality and, even by Phoenix standards of the day, racism. Near Second and Jefferson, Frenchy — off-duty — ran a stop sign. The details of what happened next are disputed and probably lost to history. What is not in doubt: Frenchy fatally shot Star Johnson. Acquitted by an all-white jury, Frenchy met justice when Johnson's partner walked into police headquarters, on the first floor of the old City-County Building, and shot him to death.
The Deuce was a place of lost souls: panhandlers, drunks, men passed out on sidewalks in recessed doorways after dark. People who fell between the cracks. It offered a panorama of quiet human misery for those staying in the old Hotel Adams and happened to have an east-facing room. I started riding along with Phoenix cops in the Deuce when I was in high school. On my first ride-along, I asked the officer if it was a high-crime area. "No," he said. "The people are too poor. There's nothing to steal." Crime in the Deuce was mostly "quality of life" incidents, aside from the occasional bar fight that led to a shooting or stabbing. But the trouble was contained. The Deuce residents, mostly men, didn't go west of Second Street; vagrancy laws helped ensure this until the mid-1960s. Still, the area contained an intensity and density of different kinds of businesses missing from the core today. Those shifts I witnessed in the Deuce were dreadfully boring for a young man seeking action.
At the same time, the Deuce was an amazingly diverse business district patronized for decades by people of all classes from all over the city. It was filled with locally owned shops and useful companies, not just pawn shops, bars and flophouses.
The Deuce began contracting in the 1960s when Phoenix got into the "urban renewal" disaster by tearing down several blocks of businesses and SROs to build the first building of the (old) convention center and Symphony Hall. Phoenix Civic Plaza (they couldn't call it the Civic Center, because that was the library, art museum and "little theater" at McDowell and Central) was meant to revive a dying downtown.
The big department stores had mostly closed and the small, local retailers were struggling. The business models of the railroad and agricultural interests were changing, too. Many of the produce sheds and warehouses closed, taking with them the seasonal work for the low-skilled men who lived in the Deuce.
Through the 1970s, most of the Deuce disappeared, replaced by the Hyatt, a new Greyhound terminal, new fire station No. 1, parking lots, etc. Among the perhaps 190 buildings ultimately torn down was the priceless Fox Theater, which made way for a ghastly city bus terminal that looked like a house from Maryvale.
Phoenix leaders made no serious effort to address the problem of where the men would go as their flawed sanctuary was bulldozed. The death of the Deuce corresponded with the large-scale deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill from state hospitals. Community mental-health centers and shelters were discussed. But they never happened. So the lost souls of the Deuce migrated, hanging out in front of small businesses and retailers, driving away customers. It contributed to a death spiral of the once-vibrant central business district, essentially undoing any stimulative effect of the Civic Plaza. The street people slept on lawns in the neighborhoods near downtown and as far north as Willo. They took over the still-standing historic area between Seventh Avenue and the Capitol.
When I worked as an EMT/paramedic from 1974 to 1978, I was stationed downtown much of the time. Many of the SROs were still standing, seedy hotels that were usually reached by walking up a flight of creaky wooden stairs from the street. Formerly decent hotels, such as the Jefferson and Luhrs on Central, had also become flophouses. So many lonely deaths I saw, including the ones who had been shut up for days in their rooms with no one to check on them.
The Civic Plaza was an outpost of modernist ugliness surrounded by the remains of skid row. Rent the Clint Eastwood movie, The Gauntlet, for a view from 1976-77. At the opening, he wanders out of a bar (Metsa's Cocktail Lounge, next to the Paris porn theater, with Lil's Convention Lounge out of sight to the west) in a seedy Deuce block directly south of Symphony Hall. That was what the Deuce looked like. (Then laugh as he drives south across the Seventh Street overpass, doubles back over Seventh Avenue to reach Symphony Hall again, which is cast in this really bad movie as Phoenix City Hall).
The Deuce's migrating troubles were especially pronounced in Evans-Churchill in the 1970s, then a dense, intact neighborhood (the main ambulance station was on Roosevelt just west of Seventh Street). Stabbings were a prominent pasttime. The same was true in the Capitol district, with the addition of drugs to the mix — the lovely Carnegie Library was nicknamed "Hypodermic Park" for all the spent needles left by addicts.
The street people became obnoxious visitors to the Phoenix Art Museum and Phoenix Public Library, slept and defecated in Encanto Park. Even now, the shady parkway south of Van Buren and west of Ninth Avenue is officially closed, so the city can keep out the hobos and addicts without violating the severe restrictions placed on vagrancy laws. After I left, the city accelerated the tear-downs. Most of the remainder of the Deuce, and even replacements such as the bus depot and fire station, was obliterated for the basketball arena, Chase Field, Garage Mahal and the south building of the convention center.
The Sun Mercantile Building, one of the last survivors of the produce district that anchored the Deuce. The raised doors nearest the photographer were placed to serve railroad cars on tracks that ran down Jackson Street.
Walk along Second Street today and it's clean, new and flanked by monumental street lights. There's the Herberger Theater Center, the Hyatt, the new and much better looking Phoenix Convention Center, Collier Center and USAirways Center. It's taken 40 years to fill in the destruction of urban renewal. Yet the street also has little fine-grained human scale to it.
The east end of the Valley Center (for now called the Chase Tower, but I'm old school) parking garage is an example: a block of nothing. Marjerle's Sports Grill is in an authentic old Phoenix building going back to territorial days. In the '60s, it held retailers (the Handbag Hospital was one, as I recall) and was on the "good side" of Second. But you get a sense of the scale of the Deuce and many of the valuable buildings lost. Lost, too, is the convenient fabric of businesses that lined so many downtown streets; going from one to the next took a few steps.
It took decades for most of Phoenix to even acknowledge its homeless problem, which by the '90s was made even more complex by changes in the economy and "the end of welfare as we know it." Now it includes large numbers of women and children, families. The opening a few years ago of a combined human services center was a major step forward. But even the miserly help and cruel policies of Arizona don't eliminate the homeless problem.
Most days, I think it would have been better to keep the Deuce and the vagrancy laws, add in social services there, rebuild an economy nearby for part-time work. Or, to be elitist, it's too bad the Deuce wasn't gentrified with its many historic buildings re-used. I don't have the answer. But the clean, bland, modern expanse of Second came at a cost. The ghosts still wander, the dry air carrying just a whiff of cheap whiskey and cigarettes.
Learn more Phoenix history in the Phoenix 101 archive.