This is downtown (pre CityScape):
This isn't downtown, either (it's 24th Street and Camelback):
I wouldn't dare move to Chicago and claim that Hyde Park is the Loop. Nor could I say Hawthorne is downtown Minneapolis. Cincinnatians would quickly set me straight if I said Over the Rhine is downtown — downtown begins at Central Parkway. The natives in all these cities wouldn't let me get away with it. Nor would the transplants who felt a convert's zeal to protect the geographical integrity of their cities.
Yet people in "the Valley" (Silicon? Red River — of the north or of the south? San Joaquin? San Fernando? Of the Jolly Ho Ho Ho Green Giant?), many of them from these very cities, get away with this transgression every day in Phoenix.
Downtown Phoenix runs from Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street, and from the railroad tracks to Fillmore, or perhaps Roosevelt. It includes the original townsite and some additions. City Hall's definition taking the northern boundary to McDowell is ahistorical.
North is Midtown, again bordered by Seventh and Seventh. North of Indian School it becomes Uptown. Together, it is the Central Corridor. Roughly, many of the places called "downtown" are more accurately labeled "central Phoenix."
So...CityScape, Chase Field, the Luhrs Tower, Arizona Center, Convention Center, Union Station, Arizona Republic building and ASU campus are all downtown.
The state capitol, Encanto Park, Willo, Mister Joe's Hospital and Medical Center, new Changing Hands Bookstore and Esplanade at 24th Street and Camelback are not.
This is not splitting pedantic hairs. Knowing the history and geography of the city matters as part of understanding the mistakes made and finding a way forward. It's part of making a place worth loving. As I've written before in this series, no other major city did such a thorough job of nearly killing its downtown.
As a result, most Phoenicians have no memory — or even many visual cues — of the intact, dense downtown that existed as late as the 1960s and the way it connected to the residential neighborhoods immediately around it. For example, Fillmore was a boundary street between the central business district and the palm-lined streets of the Evans-Churchill neighborhood. By the time you reached the half-mile thoroughfare of Roosevelt, you were well out of downtown.
Each of these neighborhoods has a history worth remembering and leveraging for the future.
To be sure, there was evolution as the central business district expanded. In 1900, "downtown" was pretty much Washington Street. There was controversy when the main Post Office and Hotel Westward Ho were built at Fillmore and Central because it was pulling the central business district north. Still, by 1930 the boundaries were pretty fixed and infrastructure was set accordingly in coming years. The Downtown Phoenix Business Improvement District operates in this footprint today.
Downtown was never one flavor. The old Millionaries' Row of Victorian Mansions stood on west Monroe Street, starting around First Avenue. Bungalows and apartments were found north from Van Buren on some streets and avenues (a few remain). Don't forget the Deuce and the warehouse and produce district. And when the sports stadiums were built, they took down some modest but still historic houses in the southern Deuce. But if you would have asked Phoenicians from the 1930s through the 1970s about the general location of these places, all would have said "downtown."
Thus, when skyscrapers started rising in the late 1950s around Central and Osborn, the area was christened Midtown.
This has changed in recent decades as the metropolitan area has sprawled dramatically at exactly the times when downtown was fighting for its life. At the same time, millions of newcomers arrived with no historical connection to the city. Many natives left or died off. The far-flung spaces, walls and gates, auto-dependency and long swoon of downtown's importance as a hub of jobs, shopping and power all contributed to today's geographical ignorance. Sometimes the media don't help.
Could downtown's geography naturally expand? Perhaps. But that would require a growing central business district, when in fact it has been contracting. And if anything, the wider Seventh avenue and street make the physical contour of downtown Phoenix more clear. Even in Seattle, where the Denny Regrade was intended to expand downtown, distinct districts emerged. The results are only considered "downtown" in the most general sense (and they are dense with skyscrapers and energy).
Geography as Play-Doh is more than historical ignorance. It risks making downtown Phoenix everywhere and nowhere. It makes its challenges insurmountable — e.g., adding in the zombie skyscraper problem of Midtown when the real downtown is doing much better — or so diffuse as to be ignored. It subverts the fact that in most cities, successful downtowns are relatively compact and thus walkable. This gives them energy, dynamism and, for tech hubs, creative friction of people with ideas being around each other. Lack of critical mass is one of downtown Phoenix's ongoing problems.
So, no offense, but you don't get to roll in from the Midwest and invent the historic boundaries of downtown just because you live in Desert Ridge or Eastgate and think anything tall and old and "that way" is downtown (and scary).
The reality is much more interesting, and getting it right more helpful for the real downtown.
I leave you with a tourist map from 1956. Even it couldn't get downtown quite right, because it also shows Neahr's Addition, Woodland, Oakland and University Park. Tellingly, it doesn't show the Deuce. Also, I believe the fire station is misplaced: It was at First Avenue and Jefferson, not First Street.
Want to know more about the city's rich history? Read the Phoenix 101 archive.