South Phoenix encompasses so much history, so many cultures and distinct districts, it deserves more than one post. Every square mile is special. Still, a start. It's not a separate city such as South Tucson, so I'll go with the style "south Phoenix." When I hear the words "urban village," I reach for my Colt Python plus Speedloaders, so forget about the city's developer-speak term "South Mountain Village."
Then there's the matter of geography. For many Anglo Phoenicians, when the city still had some cohesion, "south Phoenix" began at the Southern Pacific tracks. This was, and latently remains, a place where "the other side of the tracks" is a powerful totem (it helped do in the unfortunately named Bentley Projects, the galleries, bookstore and cafe). A subset of "south Phoenix" emerged in the 1960s, to define everything below the somber wall of the Maricopa Freeway. And true south Phoenix is south of the Salt River. All must be dealt with.*
Phoenix's relatively small Mexican-American and African-American populations were historically located south of the tracks. Well into the 1970s, the commonplace offensive term for the latter was used by whites. Schools were segregated and inferior. Poverty and injustice were severe. Corruption by city officials legendary, at least through the 1940s. Most property ownership was controlled by deed covenants that largely excluded minorities (I told you this was a Southern town). Ownership was more possible south of the river, and minorities gathered there. (Most of the city's legendary and now largely lost barrios were north of the Salt, but a few, such as the River Bottom, were in south Phoenix proper). Minorities were also heavily employed as agricultural labor. This was farm country, especially after the completion of the Highline and Western canals by 1913.
The most successful farmers were the Japanese, who arrived early in the 20th century and were able to purchase farms in the 1930s, after Arizona's anti-"Yellow Peril" law was found unconstitutional. Arizonans my age remember them for the stunning Japanese Flower Gardens that ran for miles along Baseline Road. But the Japanese were among the most innovative growers, raising a variety of crops. This also raised much jealousy among Anglo farmers, who were happy to see them, including American citizens, interned during World War II. After this shameful episode, the Japanese, including many of their sons who had fought in the U.S. Army, returned to south Phoenix and farmed again.
A map of south Phoenix in 1952. The dots are buildings.
South Phoenix remained large rural for decades. It wasn't annexed into the city until 1960. In that decade and beyond, the "urban" part of south Phoenix was largely clustered along the spine of south Central Avenue, which had the only bridge across the Salt River aside from Mill Avenue. Driving south, you would honk your horn in the railroad underpass and emerge in a different world from whitebread Phoenix.
The iconic Central Liquidators was there ("Take it away, Hector!") with its checkerboard front and piles of appliances. So were warehouses served by the railroad and the historic neighborhood around St. Anthony's church. Territorial-era houses faded and fell apart, unappreciated. As you crossed the bridge, the South Mountains were so clear it seemed as if you could touch them even though they were miles away. The streetscape became more shabby, the houses poorer. But there were great Mexican restaurants and the ruins of the storied Riverside Ballroom.
Well into the '70s, south Phoenix's urban footprint was mostly confined between Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street. Aside from a few small subdivisions, the remainder was mostly orchards, farms, ranches and fields. The view from Baseline looking north showed bands of colorful flower fields, ranches, orange groves, all falling down to the Salt River. Beyond it was downtown and the clear mountains, seen from a different perspective for non-south Phoenicians.
It was breathtaking.
South of Baseline, a storied and important road in its own right although only two lanes wide, was yet another world. Beyond a wall of orchards, bee-keepers and a few subdivisions, the Sonoran Desert began, preserved as South Mountain Park since 1924, the largest city park in America. And the quirks, from Mystery Castle to the mortuary on far south Central that was once Tom Mix's house (now Los Dos Molinos). All this was south Phoenix.
So much for the romance. Despite its beauty, south Phoenix deserved a reputation for cruelty and prejudice going well beyond the Japanese internment. An early real-estate fraud took the land away from Mexican farmers. Some of the worst living conditions in the nation were documented south of the tracks during the Great Depression. As a paramedic in the 1970s, I went on calls in south Phoenix where people lived without plumbing and with dirt floors. What passed for Phoenix's little band of black militants hung out at a bar on Broadway (named for an early settler, not New York's street). The city neglected the area for decades, starving it of infrastructure. As Phoenix grew, it became the prime location for the biggest polluters.
Then, starting in the 1980s, the Real Estate Industrial Complex began developing south Phoenix. Almost all the old rural magic was destroyed by tilt-up warehouses, bunker-like office "parks" and subdivisions and apartments made of the same faux Spanish-Tuscan crap seen everywhere.
City Hall mulled a Central Avenue tunnel through the mountains to reach Ahwatukee; the proposal died, not least because the Ahwatukeeians didn't want "those people" to have easy access to their suburban idyll. The Japanese Gardens were lost without so much as a whimper. While the result was great profit for a few, and more higher-income Anglos living in the new "communities," the loss is incalculable.
Such policies as farmland preservation, making Baseline a scenic drive, or even trying to give the new built environment distinct character never made it. What's left is a combination of incoherent and ailing sprawl, lack of transit, environmental hazards, some welcome river restoration, the view from Dobbins Overlook if the smog isn't too bad, the blinking red television tower lights atop the mountain, and, if you look hard, a few remnants of distinct south Phoenix.
* For the purposes of this post, I don't consider anything west of about 35th Avenue or east of 48th Street to be culturally a part of old south Phoenix. Laveen has its own lost charm. Ahwatukee does not, and is not a part of south Phoenix, either. You can read more about south Phoenix in my mystery novel, South Phoenix Rules.
Think Phoenix has no history? Visit the Phoenix 101 archive and drink deep, podner.