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.
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.
A rare overhead shot of Union Station and the produce district in 1930. The tracks at the bottom are the freight bypass of the Southern Pacific
A big-city look: Jefferson Street and Central with the Jefferson Hotel and Luhrs Building.
The city in 1930 was a compact box that ran from Buckeye to Thomas and a little past 19th Avenue and beyond 24th Street. The population was 41,000, a nearly 66 percent increase over the previous decade. Phoenix had much to be proud of — and much to hide away.
The city had won the northern main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the mission-style Union Station had opened in 1923 at the foot of downtown. A more ambitious plan to make Fourth Avenue a gateway from the depot to the heart of the city failed. But with the SP and the Santa Fe, the city had finally been connected with mainline rail service.
This made Phoenix a popular winter destination for Hollywood stars and the wealthy from the Midwest (the Arizona Biltmore opened in 1929). The trains also eased travel for those who had been coming to the town for some three decades for its clean air, especially people with TB and other breathing ailments ("lungers"). The railroads promoted the city. They also had ticket offices facing each other, the SP in the Hotel Adams, and the AT&SF across the street.
Most of Phoenix's best buildings had been completed or started thanks to the abundant capital of the Roaring Twenties. Among them, the art deco masterpieces Luhrs Tower (1929) and Professional Building (1932). Also, the Security Building (1928), Phoenix Title and Trust Building (1931), the Hotel Westward Ho (1928) at 16 stories the tallest building in the state, and the majestic Maricopa County Courthouse and Phoenix City Hall (1929). The Orpheum (1929) and Fox (1931) theaters opened as the finest movie palaces. Many were outfitted with the transformative "refrigerated air" when even the nicer homes had to make do with fans and sleeping porches.
These were the gems of a prosperous and dense downtown that mostly turned residential north of Van Buren, although many of the Victorian mansions of the "Millionaire's Row" still stood on west Monroe Street. North of Van Buren were streets lined with bungalows and palm trees. West of Seventh Avenue were other inviting residential neighborhoods, interspersed with the Carnegie Library, running past the state capitol. The City Beautiful Movement graced the Kenilworth neighborhood, built around the stately school of the same name, with parkways along Portland and Moreland Streets (now the Roosevelt Historic District). Many of these areas were served by electric trolley cars. Prohibition was in effect, but Phoenix was a wide-open Western town with abundant speakeasies and a supply chain that originated with Al Capone's organization (Capone was one of the many celebrities who stayed at the Westward Ho).
The Twenties had been better to agriculture in the Salt River Valley than to many farm regions in America. Demand for cotton had recovered from its collapse after World War I. More importantly, thanks to the federal government the water supply was guaranteed, not only with Theodore Roosevelt Dam, but also Mormon Flat Dam (1925), Horse Mesa Dam (1927) and Stewart Mountain Dam (1930). The 500 miles of canals left by the Hohokam were being reclaimed, widened and extended. Trees lined the canals. Almost any crop could be grown and, thanks to refrigerated box cars, transported to markets back east.
Much farming was still the small scale Jeffersonian experiment that began with the Newlands Act. Families (including mine) were restricted to 160 acres, although enterprising types found their way around this and amassed larger landholdings. But the federally imposed regulations regarding ownership, combined with the Valley's rich soil and controlling the fickle river meant stability to this most important economic engine. Another help: Washington kept pushing out the time frame for water users to repay the federal government.
But the city also boasted a variety of manufacturing concerns, along with the many businesses — from banks to cotton gins and rail-car icing facilities — that served farming. The city had two radio stations. Despite its isolation in a largely empty West, Phoenix was much of what urbanists talk about now: human-scaled, walkable and with a highly local, diverse and sustainable economy.
Things were different on the "wrong" side of the tracks. The Phoenix of 1930 was both a Western and a Southern town, reflecting the sensibilities of its many former Confederate early settlers. Jim Crow was not as severely enforced here as in Mississippi, but many stores and restaurants refused to serve blacks, Mexicans, American Indians, Chinese and Japanese. Swimming pools were segregated.
The Japanese, who proved to be master farmers in south Phoenix, had been targeted by the Arizona Alien Land Law, which sought to prevent them from owning property.
Minorities were kept out of many jobs. An exception was the better paid work of Pullman porters on the railroads, represented by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and minority entrepreneurs in segregated business districts. Minority labor was, however, prized by growers. Jobs were available in the fields and produce sheds near the railroad tracks along Madison and Jackson Street. Poverty was extreme. Indoor plumbing was rare.
Most schools were segregated. The Phoenix Union Colored High School (later George Washington Carver High) had opened in 1926. Neighborhoods were also rigidly segregated. The poor and minorities were kept in south Phoenix, south of Van Buren and east of Seventh Street, and in the worst slum in the city around Seventh Avenue and Buckeye Road. It was here that the Catholic priest Emmett McLoughlin would become beloved and, by the powerful, despised. He called this neighborhood "a cesspool of poverty and disease."
A man hauling water in Phoenix during the Depression. Many houses lacked plumbing, and large numbers of people lived in tents or shacks.
The relative weight that should be assigned to the many causes of the Great Depression is still being assessed and debated. Both Herbert Hoover and John Maynard Keynes traced it to the financial imbalances left by the Great War and the harsh peace treaty of Versailles.
In addition: massive economic shifts, particularly in agricultural labor; the self-defeating orthodoxy of the day that demanded balanced budgets and the gold standard; destructive Federal Reserve policy; a rickety banking system; the Dust Bowl; the Smoot-Hawley tariff increase, and a huge speculative bubble in the laissez faire twenties.
It was the greatest crisis the nation faced since the Civil War and it spared no state, city or town. Copper prices plunged as the economy contracted, devastating Arizona's No. 1 industry. Mines closed, some permanently. Some towns never came back, at least as mining districts (Jerome among them).
Even well capitalized operators, such as Phelps Dodge, laid off massive numbers of miners. It is difficult for today's Arizonans to understand how important mining was to the state then; the collapse of copper prices was at least as big or bigger a proximate disaster as the housing bust — but no safety net existed in 1930.
Large numbers of unemployed mine workers and their families came to Phoenix. They were joined by the population of the southern plains, fleeing the Dust Bowl, or, farther east, a farm depression that had been going on for as long as a decade or more. Highways and railroads had evolved enough to make Phoenix easier to reach. Some of the Okies, Texans and Arkansans had relatives here; most only hoped for a new chance.
Unfortunately for them, all commodity prices — including cotton and citrus — tumbled as contraction became depression and deflation set in. From 1930 through 1933, the hardship, desperation and fear played out in Phoenix in much the same way as in all of America. Even those who had jobs worried they would lose them. Shop owners were forced to cut off credit to longtime customers in a bid to survive. "Hoovervilles," makeshift camps of tents and shacks, appeared in and around the city (a notable one was in the separate, unincorporated settlement of Sunnyslope).
Among the big local casualties was the Agua Fria River Project, which had been private effort since the 1880s to dam the river and reclaim land just east of the White Tanks. McMicken Dam, or Frog Tanks Dam, was finally completed in 1927 under the supervision of engineer Carl Pleasant. But the vision of a rival to federal reclamation, probably never realistic in the best of times, died as the economy declined.
The crisis quickly swamped churches and charities, as well as the modest county "relief" — making today's conservative call to replace the federal safety net with private charity a grotesque joke. Grandmother, the wife of a railroad conductor, would make sandwiches for "hobos," who would wait politely at the back door.
Life went on, and for Phoenix in a spectacularly lurid way with the Winnie Ruth Judd affair. Dismembered bodies, romantic intrigue, escape to Los Angeles aboard a train, the infamous trunks leaking blood and a seeming femme fatale from pulp fiction — the story riveted the nation. The journalist Jana Bommersbach has made a convincing case that Judd was railroaded by the powerful, which would not be the last time justice was bought and miscarried in Phoenix.
The city also had plenty of straightforward lawlessness. For example, the night of May 19, 1936, two burglars coming out of Arnold's Pickle Co. on Van Buren Street got the drop on two police officers arriving in the east-side radio car (PPD had installed the state's first police radio system in 1932). Another officer, Earl O'Clair, arrived. One burglar fled but the other threatened to kill one of the cops he held hostage.
When O'Clair refused to give up his sidearm, a last-man-standing shootout ensued. The burglar's .45 jammed when he tried to shoot one hostage. O'Clair shot twice. The suspect returned fire with a .38 he stole from the cops, peppering the police cars. The battle continued down the alley and as far as Monroe Street before the burglar, who also had a robbery conviction, fell dead. O'Clair, who went on to become chief, fired six shots and hit six times. Even then, Phoenix could be a dangerous town.
Hollywood continued making distractions, which seemed even more important in such dark times. Mae West even visited the Orpehum in 1933 (above). The Legislature still met informally in the coffee shop of the Hotel Adams, as it has before and would continue to do into the early 1960s.
The ruin suffered by even wealthy farmers and the loss of the tax base put most civic projects on hold. But not all: The Desert Botanical Garden opened in 1939 in what would become Papago Park, led by botanist Gustaf Starck and wealthy patron Gertrude Webster. Another prize was the Phoenix Open, started in 1932 and revived in 1938.
When Franklin Roosevelt became president in March 1933, the nation began a long, but very real turnaround (contrary to the revisionism of today's right-wing writers). Unlike the tragic Hoover, Roosevelt was insistent on using the power and resources of the federal government to help individuals. Critical to his success, he was willing to experiment.
The New Deal worked out exceptionally well in Phoenix. One reason may have been the size of the place in relation to the aid received. The historian Lawrence Arlington estimated that Arizona received $342 million in federal aid from 1933 to 1939 — about $5.8 billion in today's dollars — and paid only $16 million in federal taxes. Also, most Phoenicians were too close in time to the fruits of the Newlands Act to have any libertarian fantasies. They knew that without the federal government, Phoenix would have died.
Assistance from Washington came in many forms, including the Works Progress Administration, Bureau of Public Roads, Public Works Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps (which had three camps around Phoenix) and assorted farm aid and agricultural price stabilization programs. Together, they employed thousands and became a huge driver of recovery. Del Webb, a big FDR supporter, made his early wealth from New Deal contracts.
By 1935, the federal government was the county's largest employer and buyer of goods and services. Among the major CCC projects were building improvements to South Mountain Park and the new Papago Park (above right). New Deal money helped Phoenix acquire the land for Encanto Park and erect some of its enduring buildings (and some that didn't, notably the bandshell). Eastlake Park and Grant Park were two other New Deal gifts.
North High, the city's second high school, was built in 1938, followed a year later by Phoenix Junior College. The federal Public Works Administration also built the state capitol annex with Jay Datus painting the mural "The Pageant of Arizona Progress." The PWA also built Glendale's water system. The Works Progress Administration built the stadium at the state fairgrounds.
Federal funds helped the city acquire the land for Sky Harbor Airport and the WPA paved its runways and aprons, as well as build its first terminal and administration building. The Spanish Colonial revival U.S. Post Office and Federal Building was constructed in 1936 at Central and Fillmore. Murals were painted by La Verne Nelson Black and Oscar Berninghaus; they're still there. (The project began under Hoover, but the plaque credits Roosevelt and his Postmaster General — and political fixer — James Farley).
Infrastructure building didn't stop with roads, parks, the airport and schools. During the 1930s, Bartlett Dam was built on the Verde River. CCC crews completed more than 700 separate jobs for the Salt River Project. All these projects put thousands of people to work and left enduring buildings, roads, dams, parks and the airport.
Some New Deal experiments were embraced more than others. The Farm Security Administration established cooperatives such as Camelback Farms to aid displaced farm families. The Subsistence Homestead Division of the Interior Department had its own plans for "urban farming" by the poor on small plots of land. One result was Phoenix Homesteads. These projects brought out the "deserving" vs. "undeserving" poor debate, with many Phoenicians worried they were drawing undesirable elements.
These efforts gave ammunition to critics who worried about socialism and considered Roosevelt ("that man in the White House" — they couldn't stand to say his name) a "dictator." But like the genuinely socialistic Casa Grande Valley Farms, a project of the Federal Resettlement Administration and run by Walter Packard, they gave temporary relief but failed in the long run.
Even as the New Deal largely succeeded, class and ethnic resentments flared. The former were at work in resistance to such endeavors as the Phoenix Homesteads. They also galvanized the Associated Farmers of Arizona, formed by wealthy landowner (and liquor baron) Kemper Marley. The organization's goal was to stamp out the "communism" represented by farm workers complaining about the dismal and unsanitary growers camps and an effort by the CIO to organize them. Marley's men succeeded.
Anglos who formed the Anti-Alien Association attacked and made threats against Japanese farmers. This criminal activity eased when the state Supreme Court struck down the Alien Land Law and "respectable" leaders, such as Gov. Benjamin Moeur, intervened. But the soil had been tilled for the later Japanese internment during World War II.
Thanks to the success in agricultural price stabilization, cotton rebounded and demand grew as the world militarized in the decade. This created a large demand for workers; mechanization had yet to reach most Arizona cotton fields. Yet quarters were segregated and pay less for minorities. Historians generally argue that the New Deal was disappointing in its achievements for minorities compared with white citizens.
The administration did include the slum southwest of downtown in a nationwide study, finding it to be the worst in America. This was where Father McLoughlin was sent after being ordained in 1933. He became an indefatigable advocate for the poor; a scourge of the city fathers. He was named the first chairman of the federally funded Phoenix Housing Authority. Much of the slum was cleared for the Matthew Henson projects for blacks. The Marcos de Niza projects were built for Mexican-Americans and the Frank Luke projects for Anglos.
McLoughlin never became reconciled to Phoenix's maltreatment of the poor and marginalized, saying they were regarded as "rejects of a lusty, sprawling, boasting cotton-and-cow town trying hard to become a city...veneering itself with the gloss of a symphony orchestra, a little theater and a necklace of resort hotels."
The non-farm private sector began a slow recovery, too. It helped that Phoenix had already attracted some wealthy patrons, such as the chewing-gun mogul who built the Wrigley Mansion. As the toffs benefited from the New Deal, even as they called Roosevelt "a traitor to his class," they returned with money to spend.
One fruit was the Camelback Inn, funded by John C. Lincoln. The shy founder of Lincoln Electric in Cleveland had come to Phoenix in 1931 when his wife Helen was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He returned regularly and invested in copper mines and land.
Fighting for its life, Valley Bank hired Walter Bimson to be its president. Bimson would go on to become one of the most consequential civic stewards in the city's history. But immediately, he went about repairing the bank. Having worked in Hoover's Reconstruction Finance Corp., Bimson had no hesitation about accepting federal help. He famously told his officers to make loans. Less well known is that he leveraged New Deal financial programs to help. Valley became the biggest bank and most powerful corporation in the state.
Local manufacturing received a boost as the technology became available to provide air conditioning at an affordable price for houses, with the evaporative cooler. The first major breakthrough in allowing Phoenix to be habitable year-round by large numbers of people sold widely.
While the New Deal improved much of the city's infrastructure, the effervescence of inspired architecture from the 1920s was gone; not another major building would rise downtown until after World War II and the City Beautiful and art deco sensibilities were lost. Chinatown crumbled, too, as wealthier Chinese moved out leaving the dense, intriguing fabric of the old district which was absorbed by the Deuce.
The better times — interrupted by a sharp recession in 1937 when FDR tried austerity — inspired city leaders to attempt to broaden the economy further with a pricey national advertising campaign by the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce to attract tourists. It was picked up by the railroad marketing departments, too.
Phoenix had several nicknames: City of Palms, the American Eden and the Nile Valley of America among them. But the chamber came up with "The Valley of the Sun" and it stuck. The campaign proved highly successful.
By the end of the decade, the population drain had been reversed and in many ways Phoenix was as prosperous as ever. But this was almost entirely because of aggressive federal assistance. Ironically, the Depression and New Deal shattered the vision of FDR's cousin Theodore, champion of the Newlands Act. Agriculture was still king at the end of the decade, but it was more highly concentrated (as would happen in ranching). The Valley had fewer family farms, especially on the Newlands model.
Whatever its self-mythology, Phoenix and Arizona ended the decade more dependent on Washington than ever.
Learn more about Phoenix's history in the Phoenix 101 archive.