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 the most 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/former farm town with "Western" touristy schlock. Chandler was a stop on the railroad for the San Marcos Hotel. The remainder were tiny agricultural villages. All were separated by miles of fields, groves, 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 Mexican Revolution and was the most culturally 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 before and 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 everything, 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 within the Phoenix metropolitan area.
All this was done on a scale much more massive than previous Phoenix building and the consequences were fatal for most of what made the area unique. For example, charming downtown Mesa was hollowed out by the shopping strips around Fiesta Mall. The magical citrus groves that ran for miles were lost. Chandler got into the game, followed by Gilbert. Now Mesa alone has a population almost as large as Phoenix in 1960, but no big-city assets or aspirations. Now the region is known for its pleasant, suburban blandness. Few residents realize how much of its former charm was lost. Yet this became the highly inefficient, unsustainable, look-alike development model later deployed in the West Valley, north Phoenix and Pinal County.
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 that reach from land development to the Legislature. Added to this is the "Big Sort," which attracted many conservatives from elsewhere who want to live around people like them. As a result, the East Valley 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 at first 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. (Mesa later stepped up and extended light rail beyond Mesa Drive on the way to Gilbert Road — WBIYB). 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's significance has only increased since the turn of the century. It has disproportionately gained a huge share of the metro area's economic assets, including in north Scottsdale and along the so-called Price Corridor (freeway). Chandler dominates what's left of the metro's once large semiconductor industry. Tempe has taken a more urban approach with its Town Lake developments. And the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community has emerged as a big player with casinos, sports facilities, and office "parks."
Still, 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 hardly 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. The East Valley has been powerful enough to keep this delusion going.
Think Phoenix has no history? Read the Phoenix 101 archive and get your mind right.