Dorothea Lange photographed this homeless family in 1939. They had been picking cotton in Phoenix but moved on when the work ran out.
The Great Depression did not bypass our little oasis city. Even if, as historian Bradford Luckingham writes, the city's newspapers paid little attention to the 1929 crash and most Phoenicians, like most Americans, didn't own stock, the hard times soon arrived.
The severe contraction from 1930 through 1933 claimed two of the city's six banks and two of its five building-and-loan associations. Another, Valley Bank, was on the edge of failure. Depositors were wiped out in these pre-FDIC days. Arizona's big Three Cs of copper, cattle and cotton were decimated as demand collapsed. Twelve theaters closed in Phoenix. The state actually lost population in the early 1930s. The average income of American households fell by 40 percent from 1929 and 1932.
In Phoenix, unemployment grew while businesses closed and relief organizations were overwhelmed. My grandmother told stories about Okies and Texans arriving in jalopies, sometimes on foot or as hobos on freight trains. Victims of the Dust Bowl came by the thousands to the Salt River Valley, not, as in Grapes of Wrath, going as far as California (something confirmed by Philip VanderMeer in his insightful Desert Visions and the Making of Phoenix).
So don't believe it if you hear the shorthand that "Phoenix barely felt the Depression." Much less that its economic recovery came because of the "rugged individualism" of Phoenicians. For the second time in its young life, Phoenix was rescued by the federal government.
The Great Depression was the overarching story of Phoenix in the 1930s. And the New Deal not only saved the city and state much suffering, but arguably had greater effect because of their small populations and economic composition. Arizona voted overwhelmingly for FDR, who is shown campaigning in Phoenix in 1931. He is at the wheel of the car as always, with Sen. Carl Hayden and Gov. George W.P. Hunt beside him. It proved a good bet.