Downtown was still busy in the late 1950s, at Third Street and Washington. Even though this was part of the Deuce, note the variety of businesses and pedestrians.
In the previous post, we left downtown Phoenix in 1940 as the vibrant business and commercial center of a small, relatively dense city, surrounded by pleasant neighborhoods, served by streetcars, and dependent on agriculture. World War II brought massive changes to the Salt River Valley. Thousands of troops were trained here. Phoenix was still a frontier town, wide open to gambling and prostitution, and governed by a shady city commission. At one point, base commanders declared the city off limits to troops. This began a reform movement that eventually led to a council-manager form of government and the decades of "businessmen's government" from the Charter movement.
The Battle of Britain and the threat of strategic bombing made a deep impression on American war planners. So in addition to wanting to move plants away from the vulnerable coasts, they also widely dispersed new war industries and Army Air Forces bases around the valley. One example was the Reynolds Aluminum extrusion plant built at 35th Avenue and Van Buren, far from the city center. Dispersal brought the first Motorola facility, but not to the central business district. This set in place a habit of decentralization that continued after the war when city fathers set out to bring new "clean industries" to the city. They failed to land a Glenn Martin Co. guided missile venture for the vacant Goodyear plant in its namesake town. But Goodyear returned in 1950, eventually building airframe components there. Garrett's AiResearch, which also had a plant outside the city during the war, returned after a vigorous Chamber of Commerce effort, to a site near Sky Harbor. No thought appears to have been given to locating the city's new industries near the core.
After the war, America embarked on a massive economic expansion and migration, both benefiting Phoenix. Demand had been pent up from both the Depression and wartime rationing. By 1950, Phoenix entered the list of the 100 most populous cities, at No. 99, with 106,818 in 17 square miles. Many servicemen who had trained here fell in love with the place and moved back as civilians. Air-conditioning became widely available and was installed in every house built in far-flung subdivisions. Downtown was still the state's unrivaled retail and business hub. But by the end of the decade, it had begun a decline that was not unstoppable — but few tried to prevent it or even knew how.
The streetcar system was torn up in favor of buses in 1948; this was hastened by a fire at the car barn that destroyed most of the trolleys. If the loss was widely lamented, little record of it exists. The future belonged to the automobile: Gasoline was cheap — America was the world's petroleum superpower, a fact that helped win the war — and car ownership skyrocketed. From 222 vehicles per thousand in 1945, Americans would own 410 per thousand in 1960 (the number in 2009 was 828). But this was ruinous for city centers, including Phoenix, which had depended on the streetcars to bring people downtown. The new bus service was poor, hurt further by competition from various companies and little support from City Hall. Customers complained that downtown was too congested and lacked parking. Efforts to build parking garages were ineffective.
The old downtown merchant class was aging but not done. Hanny's opened a new streamline moderne department-store building in 1947. Woolworths expanded. Korrick's, Switzer's and J.C. Penney added floors to their buildings. First National Bank struggled but finally built a new headquarters at Central and Polk. Valley National replaced its neon lettered sign with what would become the iconic VNB logo sign turning atop its art deco headquarters. That building also added a new top floor for the Arizona Club. Walter Bimson, Valley's president, built a penthouse atop the 1928 Security Building so he could live close to his headquarters. A multi-story annex to the Security Building was constructed nearby. Phoenix Union High School added buildings and, in 1953, was integrated with students from the all-black Carver High. Its 23,000-seat Montgomery Stadium, on the northeast corner of Van Buren and Seventh Street, was the site of the college football Salad Bowl from 1948 to 1952, its name a sign of what still drove the local economy.
But even as Phoenix's population quadrupled in the 1950s, downtown was losing out. City leaders built the new Civic Center, to house the library, art museum and "little theater," on the northeast corner of Central and McDowell, three-quarters of a mile north of downtown. Mountain Bell expanded, not downtown, but at the northwest corner of Central and McDowell. Central Methodist Church relocated from Pierce and Central up to a new building at Palm Lane, beginning an exodus of the protestant churches from downtown. The Social Security administration moved into a new office at Central and Culver. Del Webb built the Phoenix Towers co-op in 1957.
The result of this first postwar office boom was to begin the breakup of Central north of Roosevelt from what had been a lush, palm-lined street of stately homes (you can see the remains of two in the Old Spaghetti Factory and a preserved Ellis-Shackelford House at Culver) and turning it into a commercial thoroughfare. (I've written about Central itself here and here). It also marked the scattering of assets from the core, a practice that would continue for decades. St. Joseph's Hospital moved "far out" to Thomas and Third Avenue, where it was literally surrounded by fields or empty land.
As Phoenix became a city built for the car, it also was in thrall of the new. The typical story of American downtown decline involves the flight to the suburbs from the bleak, crowded tenements of the sooty industrialized city. Downtown Phoenix was none of those things, yet that didn't prevent abandonment and lack of reinvestment. Civic leaders set the pace, with Bimson, Barry Goldwater, Eugene C. Pulliam, the Indiana publisher who bought the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette, and a host of the local powerbrokers building houses far out in empty Paradise Valley or amid the groves of Arcadia. North of Van Buren and Fillmore, and west of Seventh Avenue were some very charming neighborhoods, with houses of such quality that had they survived and been located farther north, say in Willo, could have commanded six figures or more during the 2000s boom. Instead, these were allowed to fall into disrepair or be in blocks broken apart by businesses. This would help depopulate the immediate areas around downtown, especially of middle-class and well-off families. By contrast, Charlotte, which was only a little more populous than Phoenix in 1950 and half its size in 1960, retained coveted neighborhoods close to downtown — and this would be a great help in bringing Charlotte's downtown back from the dead. This abandonment of good neighborhoods is one of the curious, and unusual, aspects of the core's decline in Phoenix.
A critical turning point came in 1957, when the venerable Central Dairy was replaced by Park Central mall. Diamonds and Goldwater's became the first department stores to leave downtown for the new mall. More would follow. Additional retail competition came as mostly low-rise commercial buildings were built north on Central and filled with businesses and shops, many of which had been downtown. The same thing happened on McDowell, a business strip whose origins predated the war and was anchored by the (then) lovely campus of Good Samaritan Hospital. The McDowell "Miracle Mile" that began around 12th Street and ran east was packed with shops and restaurants, but in an urban form — right up on the sidewalks with parking in back. Another style, the shopping center, further diminished the need to drive downtown. Usually anchored by a grocer, an A.J. Bayless or Basha's, and eventually placed at nearly every mile, a customer could drive right up and park. They formed a key part of the ongoing sprawl that replaced agriculture north, west and east.
Then came the high-rises. In the late 1950s, a number of skyscrapers were begun north of Thomas. The first completed was the Guaranty Bank Building, which was finished in nine months and for a time was the tallest tower west of Dallas. Soon Harry and Newton Rosenzweig, downtown merchant princes and political bosses, began work on Rosenzweig Center, which included Del Webb's Towne House Hotel. Soon, the Mayer Central Plaza, across from Park Central, would become the tallest building in the city. All these events badly wounded downtown, as well as the neighborhoods along Central. City Council nearly always said yes when a property owner wanted his or her land "up-zoned" to accommodate a potential skyscraper. Allowing high-rises outside of downtown was an Olympian blunder, perhaps the worst policy decision in city history. Why did it happen? Powerful land owners lobbied for it. Land ownership in parts of downtown was complicated and large parcels more difficult to assemble. Phoenix lacked large downtown headquarters or moneyed advocates to keep it viable, as happened in a city such as Chicago. In addition, at this moment of history, many wondered what a downtown was for? Was it even necessary?
Still, let's look around in the early 1960s, an era I remember. The Fox and Paramount (Orpheum) theaters still showed first-run movies. Seven trains a day served Union Station. We shopped downtown and at Park Central. There were still plenty of small, locally owned businesses, along with Woolworth's, Newberry's and Penney's. Plenty of people were on the street. The Westward Ho still hosted the president and was busy with a new Patio Suites addition and pool to the north. Lord, I wish I had carried a camera and had known how to use it. In addition, downtown flowed seamlessly into the other business corridors on Central and McDowell. There weren't the gaping holes that would soon emerge.
But the center would not hold. Despite the professionalization of planning at City Hall, Phoenix officials were desperately trying to keep up with the hodge-podge of sprawl that leaped over lettuce fields and built into citrus groves by an orgy of annexation. From 17 square miles in 1950, Phoenix jumped beyond 200 square miles in the 1960s. It wanted to avoid being hemmed in by suburbs, as happened in cities such as St. Louis. Officials did not read Jane Jacobs. The fate of downtown was not their focus. The city did build a new Municipal Building there (avoiding the costly mistake of San Jose) and the county added courts, administration and jail mid-rises in a superblock on Jefferson Street. Those who wanted to restore the city's heart fixated on a convention center and "civic auditorium." (Before Gammage opened in Tempe, concerts had been held in the Phoenix Union High School auditorium). The result, after almost a decade of effort, was the Phoenix Civic Plaza and Symphony Hall, built in a brutalist architectural style and opening in 1972.
Located in the Deuce, the new complex was a part of ongoing "slum clearance" that included turning former single-room occupancy hotels into parking lots. Their residents began congregating elsewhere downtown. Small-business owners complained of the panhandling and abuse of customers — one notorious bum, smelling of feces, sat for hours in front of shops. The mentally ill were deinstitutionalized and ended up downtown. The city was little help, partly because courts had struck down vagrancy laws. Broader socio-demographic forced came into play. More and more, downtown was where poor minorities shopped. The neighborhoods north and east of downtown shifted to poor whites; those east and south, to poor blacks and Hispanics. Even the better-off areas north of Roosevelt were headed down by the late 1960s. Phoenix Union High, the beloved alma mater of generations, developed a reputation as dangerous. Small businesses began closing wholesale.
Walter Bimson was not willing to give up. Where other leaders saw Osborn and Central as the new "center" of Phoenix, Bimson demanded that the new headquarters tower for Valley National Bank be built downtown. A block of small businesses, a 24-hour coffee shop and the Trailways depot was cleared and the state's tallest skyscraper was erected, a stunning multi-sided prism diminished only by its relative low height, opening in 1972. The other two big banks followed with new downtown towers. Along with a new (again, brutalist) Hyatt and Patriot's Square built for the bicentennial, one might think the core was getting a second life.
Still, much was missing. A lack of official focus remained. When the lovely stucco Post Office on Fillmore had reached capacity, a new building was constructed — at 14th Street and Buckeye Road. I didn't even know who Jane Jacobs was, but this decision just seemed wrongheaded. I remember going to rehearsals at Symphony Hall when I was in high school, around 1973, playing a supernumerary for operas. Coming and going, downtown was dead. It was nothing like I remembered from even a few years earlier. The old and storied Hotel Adams was soon to close, be demolished and replaced by a larger hotel (again, to my young mind, ugly new architecture). The grand old hotel's neon sign — downtown was once full of neon — was neglected. All that was left were enough letters to light up in bright red: HOT ADA S. We joked that it was a whorehouse. Yes, but unlike all my Scottsdale friends, I loved downtown and hoped for the best.
In reality, downtown and the central core were far from fixed, far from healthy, and the worst damage was yet to come.
America's sixth-largest city is more interesting than you imagine. Visit the Phoenix 101 archives and find out some of the reasons why.