Central and Monroe, around the year I was born (1956)
"The trouble with Central is that it isn't central to anything any more." So spoke a major leasing executive in 2000, over a breakfast I had been dragooned into to get my mind right about what had happened to my hometown. He was a fool, of course, and not merely because he helped drive the local economy into its present depression. Central Avenue does much more than demarcate street numbers from east to west. It lies at the heart of a far-flung Valley metroplex. Central — original Center Street — is the touchstone of Phoenix's history, with more stories than a hundred blog posts could tell. It remains the most interesting street in the city. And it will be the critical marker for a quality future, if the metropolitan area stands a chance of attaining one.
In the old city, Central connected the discrete parts that made Phoenix whole. Starting at South Mountain Park, the largest municipal park in the world, it crossed two-lane Baseline Road. In both directions spread out the enchanting Japanese Flower Gardens. Ahead were bands of farmland, pastures and citrus groves as it descended to the Salt River, with the skyline and far mountains arms-length clear in the distance. After going through the tiny south Phoenix business district, you crossed one of two bridges over the river (Mill Avenue being the other). The 1911 Center Street Bridge ran 3,000 feet across the Salt River, included electric lamps, and was one of the town's proudest achievements. Before reading downtown, Central ran through neighborhoods and commercial strips. For years, the colorful Central Liquidators was among the businesses south of the tracks. In the early days, both the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads sited their depots on Central, before moving to the new Union Station at Fourth Avenue in the 1920s. Depression public works built an underpass that for decades held four very tight lanes. Before the overpasses at Seventh avenue and street, this was the only sure way under what were then busy rail lines. Everybody honked when they drove through the concrete tunnel.
Coming out at Jefferson, Central was in the heart of a vibrant downtown. The Hotel Adams, Luhrs building and hotel, Heard Building, Security Building, Hotel San Carlos and art deco Valley National Bank tower (nee Professional Building) with its iconic revolving roof sign all faced Central. Other neon faced the street, including from the radio tower on the Greater Arizona Savings building. The avenue was packed with locally owned small businesses, especially retailers. People crowded the sidewalks, where news vendors hawked the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette. During the holidays, Christmas decorations spanned the street. For years, a low-rise coffee shop sat on the southeast corner of Central and Van Buren, topped by billboards.
Then Central passed through a melange of car dealers, the hulking 1950s First National Bank building (now ASU), the old Central Methodist Church, Post Office, Hotel Westward Ho and stylish shops (including my great aunt's designer dress shop) running up to Roosevelt. There, it gave way to residential areas for more than a mile. The Kenilworth District to the west included the shady Moreland and Portland parkways. A miniature golf course and A.J. Bayless store were on the east side. Old photos show a lovely four-lane street lined by palm trees. Large houses and even a few mansions lined much of the street, some of which survived into the 1970s. Then, agriculture again, including the dairy that became Park Central, citrus groves and lush acreages surrounding beautiful haciendas. The Phoenix Indian School was opened in the 1890s, giving its name to the little dirt cross street. St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church rose to the north in the middle of nowhere. Small "lateral" canals lined each side of the street and much of it was shaded by tree canopies, of which the area around Murphy's Bridle Path give only a hint. Then across the Arizona Canal, out of the lush Salt River Project, and into the unique and very different desert town of Sunnyslope.
Central was never a planner's dream. When the Spanish-flavored "new" Post Office/Federal Building was built at Fillmore, it was criticized as being too far north and too small. Sen. Carl Hayden had pushed for a larger one to be constructed on the site of the government building it replaced, at Van Buren and First Avenue (where the circa 1960 Federal Building was eventually built), but land was cheaper out of the core. The Westward Ho, the finest hotel in town, solidified the move north. Central Methodist abandoned its old home around 1950 for a new one at Palm Lane. The car dealers moved to Camelback. So it went.
The big changes came in the late 1950s and 1960s, when high-rises were allowed outside the old central business district. First came the Guaranty Bank Building just north of Osborn, the tallest building between El Paso and LA, an international-style box sheathed in a turquoise-and-white skin. Then Harry and Newton Rosenzweig, the downtown merchant princes and political movers, developed Rosenzweig Center at Clarendon. It included the Townhouse Hotel by Del Webb, who had in the mid-1950s built the Bauhaus-y Phoenix Towers at the foot of Cypress Street. The "punch card building" on the northeast corner of Osborn followed (in two stages of height), which for years was the headquarters of Western Savings. Developers envisioned two curving towers there, facing each other like cupped hands, but only one was built. The Regency and Camelback towers added high-rise apartments to the avenue. At the same time, Park Central, Phoenix's first mall, opened and thrived. Across the street, the Mayer family erected fraternal twin towers, the tallest with an outside elevator to the top, and the shorter one sporting the Phoenix Playboy Club. Uptown Plaza became the retail bookend on the avenue (it included Webster's Hobbies, which had a magnificent HO-scale railroad layout).
Small shops also arose from Fillmore to Camelback (Hinkley's Lighting is a survivor of this once-abundant strand). But north Central also drew odd quasi-industrial stuff: Bekin's Moving and Storage and the Carnation Dairy north of Indian School (Carnation also had a great '50s soda fountain selling its ice cream). Central High was built between the Indian School and St. Francis X, south of the Grand Canal. Meanwhile, the Wilbur Smith & Associates freeway plan envisioned a 100-foot Interstate 10 crossing Central at Moreland. This effectively killed investment south of McDowell and saw the beginnings of empty lots. Downtown was slowly being allowed to die as the city's visionaries saw the major east-west boulevard of the future as Osborn. The city itself had seemed to endorse this drift in the '50s by building the Civic Center at McDowell, rather than downtown. AT&T built across the street and most of the grand houses between McDowell and Thomas gave way to offices.
So even by the mid-1960s, a huge stretch of north Central was destabilized. Land owners pushed a pliant City Council to up-zone their property for skyscrapers. These were good days for Phoenix, which was becoming a big city with high-wage jobs and technology industries. Visionaries imagined Central as another Wilshire Boulevard. It looked likely, as Greyhound left Chicago for a new tower at Rosenszweig Center and seemed a forerunner of many more Fortune 500 companies to come. Among the downsides was the loss of many irreplaceable neighborhoods of bungalows and Spanish/Mediterranean houses as they were cleared for towers to come.
Valley Bank boss Walter Bimson was lobbied heavily to build a new corporate headquarters at Central and Osborn. He chose to stay downtown, building the new Valley Center at Central and Van Buren in the early 1970s. The glass tower catches the sun with its prism edges (an effect that has been lost with the construction of the FreeportMcMoRan building just to the north). Bimson's decision kept the three major local banks downtown and prevented a total collapse of the old core.
Cruising Central was an essential part of Phoenix culture. Friday and Saturday nights were alive with young people in hot cars and PPD motorcycle officers to keep the peace. The large Bob's Big Boy drive-in at Thomas was the most popular place to eat. Cruisers also went down to the Jack in the Box on McDowell and Third Avenue to fuel up with shakes and burgers before starting north again. Merchants complained about trash, a benign problem considering the ills that would later plague the city.
Central also held iconic restaurants and bars. Among them: Durant's (which survives, but downplays its mob history); the neon masterpieces of Helsing's Coffee Shop at Osborn and again at Camelback; Navarre's; the Ivanhoe and other hang-outs for made men and wanna-bes, and the Geronimo with its sun-worshipper statue. The first McDonald's in the state was located just south of Indian School on the west side of the street, with fastback arches encasing the building and all outdoor dining. Across the way was a Der Wienerschnitzel with the distinct pitched roof. The art moderne Palms Theater was at Virginia. As incoherent as it was, Central offered Phoenicians everything they needed from a retail standpoint, along with the library, art museum, corporate centers and plenty of people-watching and girl/boy chasing on cruising nights.
Or at least that was the situation when I first left Phoenix in 1978. In the next installment, I'll write about more recent history and Central's continuing importance and possibilities.
Learn more about the history and inside story of Phoenix in the 101 Archive.