Downtown Phoenix in the 1930s, a view facing south.
When you see downtown Phoenix today, be kind. No other major city suffered the combination of bad luck, poor timing, lack of planning, vision and moneyed stewards, as well as outright civic vandalism. The only thing missing was a race riot, which happened elsewhere in the city during World War II and is not spoken about. First, definitions. Downtown runs from the railroad tracks to Fillmore and between Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue. Any other definition — even though much of the local media are oblivious to this — is ahistorical, inaccurate and, as my sister-in-law would say, just wrong. Twenty-fourth Street and Camelback is not downtown. Central and Clarendon is not downtown.
If one were going to site the center of Phoenix today, one would pick Arcadia, with majestic Camelback Mountain nearby. But that was not the case with the original township in the 1870s. The town was centered in the great, fertile Salt River Valley, soon to be reclaimed by revolutionary waterworks from the Newlands Act and connected by railroads to the nation. It was here that downtown grew and for decades flourished. But Phoenix was small and isolated. It did not grow from 10,000 in 1910 to more than 185,000 in 1930 like Oklahoma City. In 1930, Seattle's population was more than 386,000 and Denver nearly 288,000. Phoenix held 48,118 souls in the same year and was far from any other metropolitan area.
It's a fascinating counterfactual to wonder what might have happened in downtown Phoenix if not for the Great Depression and World War II. The decades before 1940 were the golden age of American city building, including art deco architecture and the City Beautiful movement. One can see it in such buildings as the Luhrs Tower and Luhrs Building, the Professional Building and the Orpheum Lofts (and, north of downtown, in the Portland Parkway). Conventional wisdom holds that the Depression didn't hurt Phoenix much, but this is not true. With deflation and little building happening, it stopped downtown dead. This was continued by the material shortages of World War II. By the time the economy began the long post-war expansion, downtown was facing too many obstacles and didn't have many of the grand bones of the other cities I mentioned.
The distorting result of the region's abundant land showed up early. The territorial capitol (today's historic state capitol), built at the turn of the 20th century, was not located downtown, as was the case in, say, Denver and Atlanta. Instead, it was placed a mile west, through neighborhoods of charming Victorian houses. A city hall, band shell and Carnegie library (still standing) were also built outside the original township along Washington on the way to the capitol. When the beautiful post office-federal building at Van Buren and First Avenue had become obsolete, an attempt was made to replace it on that site with a multistory building. The result would have been a jewel for the city. Instead, a real-estate hustle and speculative land prices forced the government to place a much smaller new post office at Central and Fillmore. This remains a pleasing building — now part of the ASU campus — but at the time was far from the old downtown and a failure of will and vision.
The city built out in both directions and downtown was pulled north by the famed Hotel Westward Ho in 1928. The inability to create vertical density and focus for downtown was already evident. Another problem facing downtown: Arizona was a frontier state, the 48th star in the flag, with less than half a million population in 1940. It was capital poor. Phoenix was home to no major corporations; everything was small-scale except for agriculture. This would have profound consequences for downtown.
Still downtown thrived. Here is the state of play around 1940 (population 65,414 in 9.6 miles of city limits): At the southern foot of downtown are the busy Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroad tracks servicing the produce warehouses and Union Station. With agriculture the one big business, this is a huge employment center and like the rest of downtown, excluding these giant railroads, locally owned. With hundreds of thousands of acres under cultivation, agricultural operations get their seeds and equipment from companies located here, and ship a good portion of its produce from here. A handsome combined City Hall and Maricopa County Courthouse had been completed eleven years earlier at First Avenue between Washington and Jefferson. All the banks and radio stations (with their towers) are located downtown. The retail district is centered at Central and Washington, including all the department stores and scores of specialty retailers. Want to eat or drink? Downtown is full of restaurants and bars, many run by Greeks, including the legendary Saratoga. For motorists, this is where the neon entryways to the city converge. Pedestrians are shaded by blocks of awnings and overhangs. Downtown still had residential area, too. The imposing Victorian mansions on Monroe from Second Avenue to Seventh Avenue made up "Millionaires Row." Palm-lined streets of bungalows ran north of Van Buren.
Hotels run up the spine of Central, which has benefited from a WPA underpass under the railroads, including the Jefferson, Luhrs, Adams — the unofficial meeting place of the legislature — and the swanky Westward Ho. Movie stars vacation here, staying at the 'Ho or in the apartments of the Portland and Moreland parkways north of downtown. (My great aunt owns a designer dress shop just north of the hotel). If you want to see a movie in the new-fangled air conditioning, you come downtown. The ornate Fox and Orpheum, the old Vaudeville venue of the Rialto and others are busy. All the major churches and most hospitals are downtown. So are the car dealers. Along Second Street south of Van Buren lies the Deuce, skid row but also the home of numerous small businesses, including the small Chinatown. Even some of the alleys have businesses in them, some shady — and some of those quietly controlled by city commissioners. Although a few baby skyscrapers and multi-story hotels exist, most of downtown is one- or two-story buildings. You are treated to a magnificent view through clear skies from nearly every location. The core is served by the city streetcars.
Hard as it is to believe now, downtown is packed with buildings and full of business. Instead of superblocks, the blocks are walkable and every few feet a new shop, restaurant or other business presents itself. Everything you need is right here. Streetcars serve the neighborhoods to the north with their bungalows and period revival houses. Central narrows and becomes a lush, palm-lined residential street graced with mansions and haciendas on acreages. South of the tracks are some of the worst slums in America.
It is a typical downtown in a small American city — but one amidst the wild, empty expanse of the Sonoran Desert. Vibrant, diverse, human scaled, walkable, relatively narrow streets, cars coexisting with trolleys and pedestrians — downtown Phoenix in 1940 is all the things American cities have been trying to get back to in recent years. But Phoenix is about to undergo a stunning transformation, and downtown will be the loser.
Think Phoenix has no history? Read the Phoenix 101 archives and learn.