This was also the city's most sweeping era of change. It saw the emergence of many of the trends that later turned malevolent or toxic. Below the gleam of Eisenhower peace and prosperity, much of the town was troubled.
To begin, however, it is easy to see why these years are remembered with fondness, and not merely with lazy nostalgia.
The fifties were the last decade when much of the city's life revolved around such sweet, small-town reveries as the Masque of the Yellow Moon, held annually at Phoenix Union High School's giant Montgomery Stadium. Although the Jaycees Rodeo of Rodeos would soldier on into the 1990s, it reached its pinnacle then, too. School let out for the rodeo parade day. Phoenix was not far removed from its roots of planting and cowboying.
They were the last time when some of the larger canals were still lined with trees, doubled as widely patronized swimming holes, and water-skiing behind cars was winked at by the Salt River Project. When most of the Project's footprint was citrus groves, the Japanese flower gardens and fields, not subdivisions. When this enchanting oasis was sheltered by shade and green, and beyond it was largely pristine desert and High Country. When mining, cattle and logging were the industries in the sparsely populated state.
Phoenix was the city. Every other town in the Salt River Valley was small and separated from Phoenix by groves, fields and desert.
No wonder the overnight lows were ten degrees lower than now and summers were shorter and less severe.
Phoenix was a perfect Happy Days town, coming of age with cheap gasoline and cars, where Cruising Central was perfected and local drive-ins such as Jerry's, Bob's and the Polar Bear — not chains, held sway. Significantly, however, businessman Neil Fox purchased a franchise drive-in from two brothers in San Bernardino. This first McDonald's franchise in the nation, complete with golden arches, sat on Central just south of Indian School for decades. Off the streets — and the widest was four lanes — Encanto Park was a lovely oasis and also offered concerts at its band shell. The Arizona State Fair was at its wholesome peak, even when Marilyn Monroe dropped by during the filming of Bus Stop in 1956.
Sunnyslope was its own distinctive place, a desert town at the north end of Central, nearly becoming independent from Phoenix. The air was still clear enough that Phoenix was touted as a good place for people with lung ailments. At night, from almost anywhere in town, a canopy of stars and constellations was visible.
Downtown was busy, prosperous and interesting. You could shop, get a haircut, watch movies at six or seven theaters, see your banker, lawyer, doctor or dentist, check out life in the Deuce and, from Union Station, take a streamlined passenger train to almost any city or town of size in America. The Westward Ho wasn't merely the fanciest hotel and tallest building in town, it also added an annex for car travelers and a swimming pool. At night, neon ruled downtown.
The city itself was little more than 17 square miles in 1950. It was a real little city, cohesive, dense, walkable, human scaled, with mostly locally owned businesses in a real downtown — all the things Phoenix's little band of resistance fighters has been trying to rebuild in recent years. It had no freeways. It did have groceries that delivered.
Higher education in the city was Phoenix College, which marked its 25th anniversary in 1950. It was a "junior college" before the community college boom but it was dear to Phoenicians. In 1951, PC elected its first African-American student body president, Eldridge Gonaway. In 1955, it opened its Fine Arts Center. The football team, under the legendary coach Shanty Hogan, enjoyed an undefeated season in 1959 and played in Bakersfield's Shrine Potato Bowl.
Speaking of post-season games, Phoenix hosted the Salad Bowl from 1948 to 1952, played at ubiquitous Montgomery Stadium.
We had to tell easterners that yes, we had dial telephones (and didn't suffer from Indian attacks). The 1950s saw the widespread use of exchange names rather than numbers: Alpine, Amherst, Applegate, Broadway, Crestwood and Windsow. Hence, 253-2511 was ALpine 3-2511.
Phoenix entered the national stage as one of America's 100 largest cities in 1950, barely. The population had risen to nearly 107,000, up 63 percent from 1940. More important for its leaders, Phoenix earned its first All America City award from the National Civic League that year.
We had been a notoriously corrupt city before this, including a City Hall where bribes were common.
But in the late 1940s, a group of civic reformers led by the likes of lawyer Frank Snell, merchant princes Harry and Newton Rosenzweig, banker Walter Bimson, developer Del Webb and Republic and Gazette publisher Eugene C. Pulliam launched the Charter Government Movement.
Charter replaced the old City Commission with a council-manager form of government, putting up a slate of business backed candidates to be councilmen. Charter ruled the city throughout the decade promising clean government and pro-business policies. Unfortunately, those policies didn't include mass transit. The buses that replaced the streetcars were underfunded and unpopular. Nor was it informed by good planning. Subdivisions leapfrogged and the city annexed them.
Among those Charter placed on council were the first councilwoman, Margaret Kober; the first Hispanic, Adam Diaz, and a department store executive named Barry Goldwater. As a sign of the city's progress, it dedicated the new Phoenix Civic Center (below) at Central and McDowell in 1950 with an expansive library, art museum and "little theater."
These and other business leaders saw the health of their companies and law practices inextricably connected to a clean, economically powerful and growing city. One of Phoenix's key goals was to overtake El Paso as the most consequential city in the Southwest.
They continued efforts begun in the late 1940s to attract "clean industries" to the area and they succeeded brilliantly. In addition to Motorola, which became the largest single employer, Phoenix landed Sperry, AiResearch, General Electric, Kaiser Aircraft, Goodyear Aircraft and Hughes.
This didn't merely happen because of tax breaks and the new "right to work" law. Phoenix leaders actively recruited companies through the civic organization called The Thunderbirds and the Municipal Industrial Development Corp. They worked to gain university status for Arizona State College in Tempe.
Government was also at Phoenix's back thanks to Cold War defense spending. In addition to seeding work at the city's aerospace companies, it provided Luke and Williams Air Force bases west and southeast of town.
Agriculture was still very big business, as the photo above, taken in 1956, attests. Almost every kind of produce was grown in the Salt River Valley, then prepared for shipment in the downtown produce district and in operations along Grand Avenue, then sent back east in refrigerated rail cars. The vision of reclamation had been achieved. Agriculture supported what is today called an economic "ecosystem" of processors, millers, suppliers, equipment vendors, feedlots, slaughterhouses, rail icing plants, banks, law firms, etc.
There was no 10,000-mile supply chain then. We were virtually self-sufficient in feeding ourselves and sending out oranges, lemons, grapefruit, beets, grapes, dates, lettuce, cabbages, beef, etc. to the nation. If you didn't have enough citrus in your back yard, roadside stands sold boxes of it. We made our own beer, too: A-1, with the brewery at 12th Street and the railroad tracks.
The result of these two prongs of economic strategy, along with the national forces creating the greatest middle class in history, was to make Phoenix rich in good jobs. Construction would be a big player, too, but it was not the dominant force that it would become in the 1990s and after.
Phoenix was the capital of a frontier state. Only a generation-and-a-half had passed since statehood. In 1950, the population was less than 750,000, half of today's city of Phoenix. State government was conducted from the old territorial capitol, along with a stately annex nearby. That was about it.
Arizona had been a reliably Democratic state, often siding with the segregationist South in Congress. That changed in 1952 when City Councilman Goldwater, running as a Republican, narrowly defeated Sen. Ernest McFarland, the Senate majority leader.
This is an easy shorthand for the 1950s being the decade when Republicans rose to take over state politics, when the migration from the Midwest overpowered the old Arizona. Yet Mac was mostly dragged down by outgoing President Harry Truman, even though he wasn't on the ballot. It is difficult for Americans today to realize how unpopular Truman was. Goldwater benefited from a campaign appearance with Ike at Montgomery Stadium during the 1952 campaign.
Mac bounced back to become governor from 1955 to 1959. He was preceded by John Howard Pyle, a Republican who presided over the Short Creek Raid of a polygamous LDS community in 1953 — that may have cost him reelection. In any event, Arizona politics were already competitive and the priority of elected officials of both parties was to win Colorado River water. The influence of the far-right John Birchers was not appreciable — at least initially.
Mac made the single most important decision for the long-term future when, in 1958, he replaced eminent attorney John Frank (mentor of Janet Napolitano) with Mark Wilmer as lead lawyer in the long-running Arizona v. California water lawsuit. Wilmer, aided by a new team including the brilliant Charlie Reed, changed Arizona's legal strategy, which prevailed before the Supreme Court in 1963. This prepared the way for the Central Arizona Project (and forever divided the legal community into Wilmer and Frank supporters).
In fact, for state and city, the 1950s were really two decades. Population growth was relatively slow in the first years of the decade, at least by the standards of later years. By 1955, Phoenix had grown only to 156,000, and that was with annexation.
Then the pace began to change. It wasn't only post-war prosperity and mobility, or the perhaps overtold tale of servicemen who trained in Phoenix during World War II wanting to live there, or the undertold reality that many middle-class whites, fearing integration, flocked to this overwhelmingly Anglo city. Refrigerated air conditioning became affordable for individual houses.
It was all this. But Phoenix also began to market itself as never before nationwide, and not merely for tourism. "The Valley of the Sun" was used widely as a promotional term. Typical advertisements promised an escape from the cold east, crystal clear days, outdoor pools, new houses and "the warmest, driest, sunniest resort area in the U.S."
The booster culture was born. So was the narrow metric of population growth equalling progress. Indeed, Pulliam published an annual Valley Progress Report with just such data.
Local builders refined and improved the Levittown concept of mass-produced housing. Variations of the Phoenix ranch house became standard — and they were both utilitarian and iconic, but so many were built. This not only filled the desires of newcomers, but helped finally ease a housing shortage that had plagued Phoenix through the 1940s.
In addition to Webb's work, Henry Coerver led development of expansive houses in Arcadia, preserving as many trees as possible in the former groves and farmsteads. John Hall's Hallcraft Homes and Ralph Staggs built across the Valley. And Phoenix City Councilman John F. Long opened Maryvale, built on former farm fields, in 1957.
The Parade of Homes in 1956 at Seventh Street and Hayward.
The Growth Machine was born, with government, utilities and banks working closely together. And it seemed to work as this perpetual motion machine. In 1959, according to historian Brad Luckingham, more construction occurred in Phoenix than in all the years from 1914 to 1946 combined.
With this came some delightful and even timeless mid-century architecture. Alas, more lookalike cartoon landscape resulted and worse was left to come when the metro area really began to sprawl in subsequent decades.
The baleful consequences of worshipping population growth above all were not immediately apparent to most people. No one would have even put it that way at the time. This moment in history combined a rising middle class with inexpensive resources. The development "ecosystem" was highly local, providing even construction jobs that paid well. In addition, the wider economy in technology and other well-paying sectors kept up.
The latter part of the decade witnessed the beginning of downtown's decline and office and mall construction moving north on Central (topics covered extensively on the Phoenix 101 columns). But downtowns nearly everywhere were faltering. Only a few visionaries saw the danger.
Only a few Anglos saw the terrible disparities in wealth faced by minorities, with African-Americans and Mexican-Americans mostly segregated south of Van Buren Street. The schools had been desegregated in mid-decade, including closure of all black George Washington Carver High School. In 1953, the first black Phoenix Police officer was allowed to patrol a white beat. But much de-facto segregation continued.
And even though City Hall had been cleaned up, Phoenix remained a big mob town. As Las Vegas grew, Phoenix's importance as a "back office" and cooling-off spot probably rose in the '50s. Many of the movers and shakers who weren't mobbed up themselves still liked to run with this crowd.
By decade's end, Phoenix had achieved its ambition. It was the leading city of the Southwest. To El Paso's 277,000, an impressive 112-percent growth rate, Phoenix clocked 439,170, growing an astounding 311 percent, something never matched since. Not only that, but Arizona State College had become a university, despite the rabid opposition of Tucson.
In 1959, Phoenix seemed to have it all. Few imagined all that would be lost when the practices and innovations that began in this momentous decade narrowed down to a few bad habits and hustles.
Gallery: The fifties in Phoenix:
A promotional photo shows a typical Phoenix neighborhood in the '50s.
A map of downtown in 1956.
An overhead view of downtown. At the center is the Phoenix City Hall-Maricopa County Courthouse.
The iconic Read Mullen Ford sign at the used-car lot at First Street and Van Buren. Most of the city's car dealerships were located on Central from Van Buren to Roosevelt. Behind are the Republic and Gazette building and First National Bank. The latter is the main building of ASU downtown today.
It's the late 1950s, the Penney's building is done, and downtown is full of shoppers and businesspeople.
Want to know more about Phoenix's rich history? Browse the Phoenix 101 archives.