A subdivision in Chandler.
Of all the many delusional linguistic constructs in metro Phoenix meant to sell real estate and sustain the unsustainable (think, "The Sun Corridor," "the North Valley," etc.), only the East Valley has real substance to it. Such was not always the case. In 1960, when Phoenix's population was 439,170, Mesa clocked in at a mere 33,772. Tempe was a little college town. Scottsdale a small artist's colony with "Western" touristy schlock. The remainder were tiny farm settlements. All were separated by miles of agricultural land and history. Mesa, for example, was distinctive for its settlement by Mormon pioneers. Tempe was the home of the normal school turned Arizona State College and just renamed a university. All the real towns supported separate newspapers. Mesa and Tempe had their own street-grid numbering systems. Guadalupe was its own unique enclave, first settled by Yaqui Indians fleeing the revolution and the most Mexican place in the Salt River Valley. The common denominators: Economies based on agriculture, the Southern Pacific Railroad, and (with the exception of Scottsdale) being south of the Salt River and thus part of the coalition that fought against Phoenix and north-bank farmers for water rights and allocations after the Newlands Act. "Power" in the area resided with the big growers and prosperous businessmen of Mesa, all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
By the late 1970s, the landscape was changing fast. Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa had grown together. The Superstition Freeway was being slowly built east from I-10, reaching Dobson Road around 1977, disrupting and slowly killing the rich cluster of local businesses that lined old U.S. 60 along Mill Avenue, Apache Boulevard and Main Street. Mesa's population was closing in on 150,000, and it was annexing miles of retiree trailer courts that ran along Main toward the Pinal County line. Samaritan Health Services, the forerunner of Banner Health, opened a new hospital, Desert Samaritan, near the new freeway. ASU had grown to be a large university and Tempe extended south with The Lakes. The first subdivisions of something called Ahwatukee were being finished. From the rise of I-10 at Baseline, the view east glittered like a jewel at night. Still, miles of citrus groves ran east of central Mesa, centered around Val Vista. Almost everything south of central Mesa and Tempe was still agriculture. Chandler was a small town and Gilbert little more than a crossroads. Williams Air Force Base was in operation and far from everthing, linked by the ubiquitous two-lane concrete roads lined on each side by irrigation ditches.
The next two decades would see startling change, and the evolution into a true separate identity.
Below the built environment, the East Valley is not monolithic. It's a question whether Scottsdale is really culturally, socially or economically part of it. The same could be said of Tempe, which is relatively more liberal because of ASU. Mesa is filled with linear slums and a Hispanic underclass, many Mormons having decamped for Gibert, as well as "master planned communities" that are not really part of the city. Mesa has often stood with Phoenix in fighting the worst anti-urban tendencies of the Legislature. Still, the power center of the region is indeed distinct, based on the LDS and the tight political and business ties between East Valley bigs, most members of the church. It is the heart of conservative power in Arizona, and here that influence is also stoked by the apartheid mindset of north Scottsdale's libertarian toffs. It has only grown as the old Phoenix power structure has collapsed.
As a result, the East Valley has gained what one metropolitan leader called "a veto elite" in regional and state politics. Unwilling or unable to put forward solutions on education, revenue, economic development or infrastructure, the East Valley can still stop anyone else's plans dead. This is not limited to the political dominance of the LDS (and an LDS that lacks the progressive civic vision seen in Salt Lake City). The engaged electorate and business interests there generally converge to push right-wing, and often extremist, policies in the Legislature. They, for example, prevent urban solutions with region-wide consequences, such as foot-dragging and obstruction on transit and commuter rail. Mesa refused to build light-rail into downtown, a costly blunder (and it barely was persuaded to build into the city from Price Road), and one that would have hurt the chances of gaining federal funds if not for the help of then Mayor Keno Hawker. Scottsdale wants nothing to do with regional transportation or economic development. While some sensible leaders exist, such as Mesa Mayor Scott Smith and Roc Arnett of the East Valley Partnership, the tension between the East Valley and the rest of the region, especially Phoenix, is tremendous. This has been heightened by the narrowing economy, then the crash, so that cities fight desperately for a smaller economic pie.
The East Valley is too poor and economically limited to be Orange County (and Phoenix is no LA). It needs Phoenix, but often doesn't know it (and, again, there are honorable exceptions among the leaders there). It remains a prisoner of the Real Estate Industrial Complex, cars and immense distances of sprawl preventing any creative, quality density from happening. Thus, serious economic development is tied to land plays, such as the Williams-Gateway area, far from the population center and totally car dependent. Or the pipe dream of Superstition Vistas. Always more people and more houses will dig us out of the deep hole into which we've dug ourselves. Still, the East Valley has been highly successful at taking economic assets from Phoenix. It is rich and politically powerful enough to keep this game of delusion going. Its dominant political dogma makes any other kind of thinking impossible.
I continue to believe it would be a healthy thing to separate much of the East Valley from the rest of Maricopa County. Zion County would include Mesa, Gilbert and Chandler, at least. It could take the current Maricopa County Sheriff and many other office-holders. Here's what would be needed in return: Much more "home rule" for counties and cities to pursue their own competitive policies on taxation, schools, infrastructure, etc. And, as the conservatives would say, let the market decide. But this will never happen, because "local control" only applies one way, to the advantage of the right.
Think Phoenix has no history? Read the Phoenix 101 archive and get your mind right.