Alone among the cities of the American Southwest, Phoenix is the oasis. It has always been so, but whether it remains an oasis city is starting to come into doubt. A common narrative is that Phoenix attracted Midwesterners who wanted to recreate the landscape from which they came. This is untrue. In fact, the early Anglo residents were mostly Southerners. And the oasis predates American settlement. The archeology of the region is in flux, but it appears that "plant husbandry" was being performed by prehistoric tribes as early as 3,000 or 1,500 B.C. (or BCE if you are trapped in the politically correct precincts of academia). By the first millennium A.D., the most advanced irrigation in the New World was being perfected by the Hohokam. The Salt River Valley was an ideal location, with rich alluvial soil that would grow anything — just add water. The altitude and weather in the modern climate era allow for two or more growing seasons depending on the crop. Maize was imported from Mesoamerica. Cottonwoods, willows and other native shade trees grew along the riverbank and its subsidiary creeks. I have no doubt that Hohokam dwellings were well-shaded. The new settlers merely took it to a higher level.
The photo above captures the oasis city at its zenith, in the 1960s. Note the inviting public space provided by shade and grass surrounding an inspiring art deco building. This was the Phoenix I grew up in. At 10,000 feet, you would have seen a green city surrounded by bands of citrus groves, farm fields and horse pastures. And then: The majestic, largely untrammeled Sonoran Desert. What a place to live. The older neighborhoods were graced by mature trees and parking lawns, a grassy area between the curb and sidewalk. Encanto Park was an oasis within an oasis. Central, as you see below, was lined with palm trees. North of Camelback were shady acreages, often along streets with an abundant shade canopy, set back behind irrigation "laterals." My great aunt lived in one: It was a wonder of shade and tranquility behind oleander hedges on Seventh Avenue. Well into her eighties, this daughter of the frontier would walk out every Sunday evening to turn the valve and "take her water," the flood irrigation from the Salt River Project.
In our neighborhood, what is now Willo, few families had pools but most put in winter lawns to give the sweet season its magical green. Even driveways had grass between two narrow concrete strips. This was not the Midwest. It wasn't LA, although the parking lawns were imported from there. Instead, Phoenix created its own unique urban aesthetic. It wasn't planned. This Eden just happened. If you missed it, you have my deepest sympathy. Many areas of oasis beauty remain. If you want a sense of the practical benefit, drive south from Osborn on Fifteenth Avenue some summer evening with the windows down. When you cross Thomas into Encanto Park, the temperature will drop by ten degrees or more.
Phoenix had the water that El Paso and Tucson lacked. After the Newlands Act resulted in the construction of Theodore Roosevelt Dam in the early 20th century, followed by more dams, water from the capricious Salt and Verde rivers was available for the Valley. Almost every imaginable crop was planted, although by 1960 cotton, citrus and alfalfa took most of the farmland. Other delights abounded, from horses wandering across empty meadows to date farms. Trees had lined many of the major canals for decades. More than 600,000 acres were under cultivation at the peak. Cheap, dependable water also allowed for the building of a garden city. This continued well into the later years of the century. The acreages gave way to housing, but the huge trees were preserved where possible, making North Central one of the most desirable neighborhoods. Similarly, Henry Coerver and other developers of Arcadia in the '50s and '60s kept many citrus and other trees as they built that district's distinctive big ranch houses on lush properties. Even John F. Long preserved many trees that once sat beside ditches and canals when he built Maryvale. Some are still there.
Mistakes began in the 1970s, such as the frying pan in front of Symphony Hall and the unsightly Patriot's Square. But the abundance and care most places were amazing. Apartments along the Moreland and Portland parkways, around Sixth Avenue north of Osborn — all over the city, really — were lavishly landscaped. My mother kept several gardens around our modest lot; most people did. It was a city of flowers. Nurseries were big business. My first paying job, my freshman year of high school, was working landscaping for Bill Schultz's new apartments in south Scottsdale. These moderately priced buildings were surrounded by flower beds, bushes and saplings, kept immaculately. I must confess, after painting scores of tree stakes avocado green, I suffer a lifelong hatred of the color. But the results were splendid and over the years I drove past and watched those trees grow. Planting shade trees and other landscaping were a given, not just for residences but for offices and government buildings. One of my first memories of Union Station wasn't just the trains, but the well-kept flower beds, hedges and palm trees. The roadways into Sky Harbor were similarly beautiful. Most schools were lush with shade trees and grass. North High was especially beautiful.
To be sure, the desert was always there, just outside the footprint of the SRP. Kids from Sunnyslope were genuine desert rats, not children of the oasis like me. The neighborhood that still stands just north of Oak Street and the Papago Buttes is another unique and pleasing desert environment. Paradise Valley, much less dense than today, offered the same for the swells. Saguaros grow naturally on hillsides. But it was always remarkable to drive south back into the Salt River Project, say as 44th Street crossed the Arizona Canal. One was back in the oasis. Back home.
Have a look:
The oasis ethic was lost somewhere in the 1990s, somewhere in 40 percent population growth and people throwing down gravel with a smug, "we live in the desert!" When I returned to buy a house in Willo, it was common to see parking lawns covered with rocks. The beautiful composition was destroyed. Or to see entire yards gone gravel with a few pitiful plants trying to survive the radiated heat. "Lawns" of cactus showed up. All this was ahistorical and bad for the heat island. It looked like hell. In a few places, people had done serious and attractive xeriscaping, perhaps not knowing this could take as much or more water as a lawn. In any event, it didn't belong in the historic district. City government was an especially bad actor, throwing down rocks everywhere from fire stations to the Hope VI project that replaced the shady Henson Homes. And what seems like thousands of shadeless palo verde trees. The beautiful park surrounding the old city-county building was vandalized with palo verdes and dirt. At the Pioneer Cemetery, grass was killed; only uninviting dirt remains. Sky Harbor is a particularly hideous mess of concrete and rocks. Most schools have paved their grass for parking lots or gone "desert," e.g. gravel.
A few victories were scored. For example, the pocket park at Third Avenue and Holly that we called Paperboy's Island (the Republic and Gazette were deposited there for paperboys to fold and deliver) was kept green and flower beds were added. Encanto Park remained green, and an attempt was made to do the same with the deck park and Steele Indian School Park. The park at Arizona Center is a marvel of oasis landscaping that should be a model. But the destruction continued. Changing the curb at the Viad Tower for light rail (WBIYB) led the building management to turn what had been a lovely sanctuary of shade and plants into a hostile "desert" plot. Scores of Encanto Park's mature trees were lost in a freak storm. Most of the mid-century apartments have gone rocks, along with adding those enticing prison doors. Union Station didn't just lose its trains, but its landscaping. All over central Phoenix are abandoned palm trees, left to die, looking like giant burnt match sticks. Another kick in the gut: Most of North High School's luxuriant campus was replaced by parking lots (lost, too, were the handsome tile roofs on the buildings). Perhaps the greatest crime was the thoughtless annihilation of the Japanese Flower Gardens, replaced by faux Spanish-Tuscan suburban crapola apartments and shopping strips. No wonder summers are hotter and lasting longer, even without global climate change.
The oasis was planted with such intensity and on such a scale, the growth of living things coming so naturally in this valley, that much good remains. This is especially true in areas with money, such as North Central and Arcadia. But I dread what will happen as water becomes more expensive. As the appetite of the Real Estate Industrial Complex demands that central Phoenix go "desert" so that yet more tract houses can be stamped out in "Superstition Vistas" and Buckeye. It has already destroyed nearly all of the priceless citrus groves in the metropolitan area. People don't even remember what was lost, or why it mattered. Why it made this place magic. Special. They tend to be the same people who ask why I "hate Phoenix" and write so many "negative columns."
A mature ficus tree consecrates the space between the ordinary, sideways-aligned skyscrapers at Lexington and Central. It is worth more than all the palo verdes lining the avenue, more than all the rocks, asphalt and concrete spread across 1,500 miles of urban footprint. It is a water investment more valuable than new golf courses or artificial lakes. But I don't see shade trees being planted for the future, certainly not on the scale needed (and a host of drought-tolerant trees are available, and some relative water-suckers are still worth it). I don't see either city leadership or an understanding among the populace — even smart people — of what is at stake.
The oasis was never meant to encompass subdivisions, big boxes and freeways from west of the White Tanks to east of Superstition. The Salt River Valley and environs can't sustain 4 million people in these living arrangements, even if we let all of the historic districts go to dirt. But the whole notion of "we're living in a desert" as justification for destroying the oasis is madness. Oases are part of the desert. What was created in Phoenix is a unique thing of beauty and way of living with the desert.
We should have many conversations: Designing houses without so much concrete and more along the lines of what is seen in Spain (or in the old barrios of central Tucson) rather than the sun-blasted, heat-radiating, cookie-cutter "product" seen now. Artificial lakes are problematic. In many areas, real desert landscaping (one doesn't see lawns of rocks in the natural desert) could also provide beauty and shade. Natural dirt is almost always preferable to gravel. Fewer parking lagoons. But destroying the old oasis is not the answer. Doing so will cut the heart and soul out of Phoenix. A key priority must be conserving and replenishing it.
If you don't know about the oasis, think how much more history awaits you in the green and shady Phoenix 101 archives.