Decades are arbitrary things. One could make the case that "the sixties" in Phoenix ran from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. In any case, it was a most consequential time, arguably the decade when Phoenix set the pattern for what it would become, for better and for worse. In the 1960 Census, Phoenix's population was 439,170, making it the 29th largest city in America and 187 square miles within the city limits. This was a startling jump from ten years before, ranked 99th with 106,818 people within 17.1 square miles. Phoenix had quickly become a big city, but unlike most others: single-story, spread out, car-dependent and populated by few natives. It had decisively surpassed El Paso as the dominant city of the Southwest. Yet, as it remains today, its power was like that of a small town.
Nineteen-sixty saw the unveiling of the Wilbur Smith & Associates freeway plan. Although its closest big-city neighbor was Los Angeles, Phoenix had only one baby freeway, Black Canyon. Over the decade, this would curve into the Maricopa Freeway but otherwise the Smith plan was mired in controversy. Phoenicians didn't want to become another LA. The Valley Beautiful Citizens Council worried that freeways would destroy an already ailing downtown. A hundred-foot high Papago Freeway with "helicoils" provoked more opposition. In the end, almost all of the 1960 plan was adopted. But surface streets carried most traffic during this era.
Downtown retail was slowly dying, as was the dense corridor on McDowell between 12th Street and 18th Street called "the Miracle Mile." This included the lush, stately Good Samaritan Hospital campus, replaced 20 years later by the brutal spaceship building that remains today. Malls were flourishing, including Park Central, Tower Plaza, Thomas Mall and Chris-Town, named after farmer Chris Harri. Many of the downtown merchant princes were dead or ailing. Others, notably Goldwater's, moved to the malls.
Even so, downtown was still a lively place in the early- and mid-decade. The iconic Valley National Bank neon sign turned from atop the Professional Building (when the sign was taken down in the '70s, it was thrown away). Entire blocks of buildings were intact and filled with small businesses and shops. Penney's, Newberry's, Woolworth's, Walgreens and Hanny's were among the larger retailers that remained. The Westward Ho was still a prestigious hotel, hosting presidents and other notables, its Turquoise Room, Thunderbird Room and Top of the Ho still cherished and in demand. I went to movies at the Paramount (Orpeum) and elegant art deco Fox theaters.
Legislators still did the public's business at the Hotel Adams coffee shop, the original Tom's Tavern and the Flame. Greyhound and Trailways bus depots sat across from each other at Van Buren and First Street, and Union Station saw seven passenger trains a day. (The Jet Age was upon us; in 1964, Sky Harbor opened its new East Terminal with a stunning mural). The produce district was still busy and the Deuce retained its seedy glory, pawn shops, bars and army-navy surplus stores. Phoenix Union High School was the biggest in the state. Madison Square Garden on Seventh Avenue was a popular venue for boxing. Nearly all of this would change for the worse over the course of the decade.
Echos of an older Phoenix remained. There were still old-timers who were around from when Arizona became a state. Winnie Ruth Judd, the infamous "Trunk Murderess" who was probably framed by the Phoenix elite back in the 1930s, walked away from the State Hospital in 1963, her sixth "escape." Back in those days, "Twenty-Fourth and Van Buren was synonumous with the loonie bin. "Stop acting that way," my grandmother would warn, "or they'll stick you in Twenty-Fourth and Van Buren."
Phoenix annexed and built out aggressively, but all the homebuilders were local. John F. Long's Maryvale was popular; Del Webb's Sun City opened, and subdivisions proliferated in Deer Valley, Moon Valley, south Scottsdale and into the citrus groves of Arcadia. John C. Lincoln Hospital opened in Sunnyslope in 1965. Still, much of the pleasing fabric of the old city remained, with surrounding belts of citrus groves and agriculture (acres under cultivation would reach a peak in the '60s), the Japanese Gardens along two-lane Baseline Road, and then largely untouched desert. Glendale, Mesa and Tempe were separated from each other and Phoenix — in the case of Tempe that separation included the still-thriving Tovrea stockyards, feet lots and slaughterhouses.
The economy was more diverse than today. With its agricultural bounty, Phoenix shipped trainloads out to the nation, not merely receiving railcars of lumber and automobiles. Efforts to bring high-technology industries that originated in the 1940s bore full fruit in the 1960s, with giant Motorola, along with AiResearch, Sperry Rand and Kaiser Aircraft. General Electric establishing computer manufacturing. This was a substantial achievement because of the lack of a skilled workforce, especially at first, and no major university engineering school (ASU had only become a university in 1958 — and would get its signature Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Gammage Auditorium in 1964 — against the vehement opposition of the UofA). Real estate was big business — and land fraud an ongoing scandal — but it was not the driving force behind the region's economy as it would come to be in the future. When Greyhound Corp. relocated its headquarters from Chicago, Phoenix leaders expected many more corporations to follow (they didn't).
Still, the business community was highly local. All the media were locally owned, including Eugene C. Pulliam's morning Arizona Republic and afternoon Phoenix Gazette, Tom Chauncy's KOOL, the McFarland family's KTVK, Wallace and Ladmo home KPHO, and KTAR, soon to be controlled by the young billboard king Karl Eller. Three local banks dominated the state: Valley National, First National and the Arizona Bank. More likely than not, one shopped at local grocers such as A.J. Bayless and Basha's. Yellow Front competed against Yates' Army/Navy Store. A sign of the future came in 1962, when Charles Korrick sold his department stores to the Broadway. Independent drive-ins were also slowly dying, faced especially with the ubiquitous Jack in the Box (22-cent hamburgers, "Jack will speak to you!") chain out of Dallas. Real gasoline stations still existed, with a "mechanic on duty" and full-service gasoline, often in sleek buildings. Blakely has its neon rocket ship, and another gas station was Mars. This was the Space Age, after all. Circle K was everywhere. So were bowling alleys.
Business also ran local politics through the Charter Government slate, which was elected with regularity. Only two mayors presided over Phoenix during these years, Sam Mardian and the popular young Milt Graham, the latter being especially hostile to transit. As a result, the buses, painted in an unappealing institutional green and white, ran on few routes and limited schedules. Behind the scenes (and sometimes out front) were such kingmakers as Harry and Newton Rosenzweig. With the council-manager form of government, Phoenix won a deserved reputation for clean city government. Its inclusiveness was another matter. Blacks and Mexican-Americans were still largely segregated, although Chinese-Americans had largely been accepted into the mainstream. South Phoenix and the barrios received bare city services. And a clean city hall existed side-by-side with a mobbed-up city.
The larger political and social upheavals of the decade touched Phoenix unevenly. The city was still isolated and most of the American population lived east of the Mississippi. In 1962, only half a century had passed since statehood. Martin Luther King Jr. did march in south Phoenix, joined by some mainstream white clerics, provoking much Anglo backlash (and Elijah Muhammad, the Black Muslim leader, had a winter home in Phoenix). Another event that year shocked what was still in many ways a small town: A man took hostages at a hearing of the state Industrial Commission. He was eventually captured by two Phoenix detectives who entered the room claiming to be reporters. No major riot shattered the city, although the media did cover up a small one in 1968 around Eastlake Park that included at least one sniper firing at police. The Monkees played Phoenix. (More significantly for adults, Duke Ellington and his big band filled Trinity Cathedral in 1966). Cesar Chavez led United Farm Worker protests, but mostly in California. But so much of the '60s cultural and social turbulence seemed to pass the city by. For example, the many small school districts allowed Phoenix to avoid busing. Protests against the Vietnam War or anything else were rare-to-nonexistent in the Phoenix of the '60s. The Cold War's terrors, likewise, seemed far away for most Phoenicians. One big exception: The arrest of Ernesto Miranda in 1963 for kidnapping and rape. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction claiming he had not been told of his Fifth Amendment rights and the Miranda Warning was born. Ernesto would hand out autographed Miranda Warning cards as he wandered the bars of the Deuce (where he would be fatally stabbed in 1976).
The Cold War was ever-present, from duck-and-cover drills at schools to the noon Saturday test of the air-raid sirens. First it would be a long wail, meaning attack is possible, check the radio. Then came the test of a more rapid high and low wait — attack imminent. Fallout shelter signs were prominent downtown, although not enough space was available for the city's population. More subtly, defense spending was a major force in the Phoenix economy.
There were also Barry and the Birchers, with profound implications for American politics to come. Sen. Goldwater and the conservatives took over the Republican Party in 1964. And although Goldwater went down in a landslide against President Johnson — even Pulliam tacitly endorsed LBJ — the last major speech of the campaign was given on Barry's behalf by actor Ronald Reagan. The John Birch Society was strong in Arizona, largely imported by the conservative Republican migration from the Midwest. The Republican leaders thought the birchers were kooks, but also very committed and hardworking. Thus was born the forerunner of the Kookocracy that would eventually take over the old Arizona GOP. Glendale car dealer Evan Mecham, running on a Bircher platform in 1962, upset the frontrunner in the Republican U.S. Senate primary (Goldwater protege Steve Shadegg). Even with GOP leaders lending little support, Mecham won 45 percent of the vote against veteran Sen. Carl Hayden. And the Republican mainstream carried "Southern Strategy" seeds, such as future Chief Justice of the United States William Rehnquist helping with vote suppression in south Phoenix.
Even so, Arizona was a two-party state in the 1960s. Until recently, it has been solidly Democratic. That didn't make it any less small-c conservative. A frontier, isolated-state mentality kept hold even as urbanization and modernity kept banging at the door. Democrats were especially competitive in the Legislature, and one of the state's three congressional districts (around Tucson) was guaranteed to a Democrat — and a Udall. Almost all the Democrats were called "pintos" — fiscal conservatives.
The decade saw the last stand of the old bulls from rural counties that had ruled the Legislature since the state's inception. Men such as Sen. Harold Giss of Yuma wielded much more power than mere governors. This was ended by the so-called "one-man one-vote" ruling by the Supreme Court, which required representation to be based on population. It solidified the hold of Maricopa County and Republicans. The only Democratic governor was Sam Goddard, who won in 1964 and served for one term — two years back in those days. He was visionary and yet didn't work well with either the Legislature or the Pulliam press. As a result, plans to rejigger taxes and raise the borrowing limit — which would have actually cut taxes and given such institutions as universities more resources — were defeated. Ironically, the old bulls had no more use for Goddard's plans than the Birchers — "boys needed to be on the farms or in the mines, not in some fancy colleges."
The aim of municipal politics was largely civic betterment, as seen through a prism of that time. In other words, nobody saw anything wrong with sprawl or tearing down old buildings. Planning was minimal; skyscrapers were already sprouting on north Central, including the 1964 "punch card" building originally intended for Univac — and designed to have a curving twin brother that was never built. The bad habit of using population growth as the prime and always beneficial metric began in this decade. Who needed transit when gasoline was so cheap (even though the air was getting dirtier)? Density was associated with crime and urban decay, not vibrancy, coherence, walkability and creative friction. Nobody in Phoenix was reading Jane Jacobs. Preservation wasn't even an afterthought: For example, the last grand Victorian mansion on west Monroe, once known as Millionaires Row, was demolished without protest. My experience growing up near downtown, and witnessing the hollowing out of the core, is entirely different from my contemporaries who lived in the new subdivisions.
Even so, while the mass construction of tract houses that began in the mid-1950s took off in the 1960s, it was done by local companies, contractors and architects. For example, Ralph Haver's houses were prizes of mid-century modern (he also designed Coronado High School and the Cine Capri). Many distinctive mid-century commercial structures were also built, such as branches commissioned by Valley National Bank, each one different from its siblings. It marks a better era than today's "off the shelf" boxes that are the same everywhere, except perhaps for some stucco slapped on for the Southwest.
A sense of stewardship remained, too. Goldwater led the crusade to raise enough money to stop further development on Camelback Mountain; we schoolchildren collected change to help. A new municipal building, county administration building, courts and jail complex opened downtown. This was followed by the Civic Plaza and Symphony Hall, more brutalist architecture, attempting to revive downtown and clearing part of the Deuce. By the end of the decade, Greyhound built an ugly new terminal nearby. Walter Bimson of Valley National did the most to save downtown by insisting that the new Valley Center headquarters be built there, not at Central and Osborn as was expected. Also, the city's power in the Legislature was substantial, especially after the "one man, one vote" ruling of the Warren court. It was in the hands of lawmakers such as Betty Adams Rockwell, moderates who loved Phoenix. The Balkanization of suburbia and its relentless war against the city were far off; most of the future "boomburbs" were farmland and citrus groves.
The biggest effort of civic good, even of the city's survival, or so it was sold, was the Central Arizona Project. This was the defining event. Arizona won its landmark lawsuit against California over Colorado River water in 1963 and President Johnson signed the funding authorization in 1968. It was the crowning achievement for Sen. Carl Hayden, but one that was the priority of the entire congressional delegation for decades (especially Ernest McFarland). In retrospect, the CAP (pronounced "see-a-pee," not like a baseball cap) ensured the destruction of so much of Phoenix's magic and embarking on the wild real-estate Ponzi scheme that continues with today's dreams of a "Sun Corridor." But few knew it then — although Hayden, at his moment of triumph, and a few in the Interstate Stream Commission, had forebodings.
The charms of the old town were also being supplanted by big-city aspirations. The Phoenix Jaycees Rodeo of Rodeos, an authentic spectacle of the West that captivated Phoenicians, gradually faded away. While it remained, local bigs would agree to spend time in an open-air jail for a while; their offense was to be caught without Western wear. Legend City was a wildly popular amusement park near the new Municipal Stadium for AAA baseball. Frank Kush coached the Sun Devils to razzle-dazzle victories in the Western Athletic Conference. Then the Phoenix Suns of the NBA arrived in 1968 at the new Veterans Memorial Coliseum and we were a big-league city.
On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the moon. Even with the war and unrest at home, the future looked so thrilling. Never more so than in Phoenix.
Gallery — Phoenix in the sixties:
Farther north in Midtown, Rosenzweig Center takes shape. With the Guaranty Bank building completed in 1959, Midtown emerged as a second downtown. On the right is the Mayer's Phoenix Central Plaza project. The tallest of the two, still under construction, became headquarters of First Federal Savings. In the center is the north side of the "punch card building," originally 10 stories — nine more were added in 1972.
The American Opinion Bookstore at 18th Avenue and Camelback, stocking John Birch Society "literature."
In modest space, the Phoenix Art Museum was located at the Civic Center at McDowell and Central. Today it takes up nearly the entire property.
Here's a map from 1969, showing Sky Harbor and the proposed route of the Papago Freeway. Note the Brigham University site. In one of the many "might have beens" of Phoenix history, BYU bought the land for a Phoenix campus but never built it.
How else to leave the 1960s: in a classic Ford Mustang, pulling out of Del Webb's Townhouse in Midtown. It's April 1969 and the flag is probably at half staff because of the recent death of President Dwight Eisenhower.
My book, A Brief History of Phoenix, is available to buy or order at your local independent bookstore, or from Amazon.