No series of events better epitomized the 1970s and the turning point they marked in Phoenix than the fight over freeways, specifically the "inner loop" of the Papago Freeway.
Most Phoenicians had a vague idea that freeways were a possibility since the Wilber Smith & Associates plan was adopted in 1960. Interstate 10 had been completed to Tucson and was abuilding from the west. By mid-decade it had reached Tonopah, requiring a long drive over largely country roads to reach. Real-estate values plummeted along the path of the inner loop. But by 1970, Phoenix's freeway "system" consisted of only the Black Canyon (Interstate 17) which curved at Durango to become the Maricopa (I-10).
All this changed as the new decade opened and the plan's stark reality became clear. Specifically, the Papago would vault into the air, reaching 100 feet as it crossed Central Avenue. Traffic would enter and exit via massive "helicoils" at Third Avenue and Third Street. The freeway was promoted as being Phoenix's defining piece of architecture.
It didn't take Eugene Pulliam and the anti-freeway advocacy of the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette to make most Phoenicians horrified. In 1973, voters vehemently rejected the inner loop. They only had to look 372 miles west to see the destruction wrought by freeways. They didn't want Phoenix to "become another Los Angeles."
Growth had slowed down in the 1960s, with the city population increasing by only 32 percent (46 percent for the county), a big deceleration from more than 300 percent from 1950 to 1960. As a result, in 1970 much of the old city remained, as did its distinctive character, with citrus groves, farms and the Japanese flower gardens providing a buffer from the desert.
Agriculture was still big business. For example, citrus groves ran for miles in east Mesa and at Arrowhead Ranch. So, of course, was house-building, which was the exclusive province of local companies run by such moguls as John F. Long, John Hall, Ralph Staggs and Del Webb. The "clean industries" recruited after World War II were thriving: Motorola, AiResearch, Hughes Helicopters, Sperry Rand and Kaiser Aerospace. General Electric sold its computer operation at Black Canyon and Thunderbird Road to Honeywell. Greyhound was moving into its new tower at Rosenzweig Center in Midtown and city leaders expected more Fortune 500 headquarters would follow.
Even so, business was heavily local. The three big banks — Valley National, First National and the Arizona Bank — were all headquartered in Phoenix. So was Western Savings, one of the largest thrifts in the country. The grocery sector was dominated by A.J. Bayless, Frys and Bashas', all local. Lou Grubb was the low-key trustworthy car dealer, speaking from his book-lined "study." Tex Earnhardt was the country loudmouth. No matter — we felt as if we knew them. Importantly, all the media were locally owned.
Growth continued at a moderate pace in the 1970s. Phoenix was a largely middle-class city, heavily Anglo. The per-capita personal income of the metropolitan area was in line with the national average and would rise throughout the decade, despite the nasty recession that followed the 1973 oil embargo and the 1979 embargo. By the end of the decade, Phoenicians would be doing better than average (a very different situation from the decline that began in the late 1980s and has worsened since).
Most of the city's titans were still alive and a new generation of leaders were coming up, such as Karl Eller in business and Margaret Hance, Calvin Goode (right) and Rosendo Gutierrez in city politics.
The city had made some strides in addressing poverty, taking federal funds much to the displeasure of a vocal conservative minority. Still, neighborhoods from Roosevelt into south Phoenix suffered. Inequality remained stark. African-American and Mexican-American activism was on the rise in the late 1960s and hit its stride after 1970.
Chicanos por la Causa became a growing force. In 1972, Cesar Chavez held a 24-day fast at Santa Rita Hall on Hadley Street to protest a bill passed by the Legislature that blocked organizing efforts by farm workers. Alfredo Gutierrez was a student activist at ASU, then ran for state Senate the same year and won. In 1974, he became Majority Leader. Joe Eddie Lopez, another future state Senator, led marches and strikes, including one at Phoenix Union High School, where tensions were high between black and Latino students. At the same time, almost all the historic barrios and African-American neighborhoods were intact.
Downtown was in trouble. Skyscrapers farther north on Central took away offices. Malls siphoned off much retail trade, although a few larger stores remained along Washington. Small business suffered the most as it lost foot traffic once generated by the department stores that had moved north to Park Central. Another problem: As vagrancy laws were struck down and city hall focused on other areas, the sidewalks outside small shops were often blocked by street people who once had been confined to the Deuce.
City and business efforts to revitalize the core turned from discussions to action in the 1970s. All three big banks built new headquarters buildings downtown, including Valley National Bank's Valley Center, the tallest building in the state. The city finally moved ahead with the longstanding plans for an auditorium and convention center called Phoenix Civic Plaza (the Civic Center was at Central and McDowell, with the library, Art Museum and little theater). To this was added a Hyatt Regency hotel with a revolving restaurant on the roof. The new projects, although largely soulless, took away several blocks of bars, single-room-occupancy hotels, pawn shops and other "unsavory" parts of the Deuce. The Deuce's occupants, as some had warned, scattered to nearby neighborhoods.
Part of this transformation was made possible by Phoenix's late arrival to urban renewal. The city had missed out on the big money in the 1960s because it couldn't pass a housing code. The law was opposed by both developers and African-American and Mexican-American leaders, the latter fearing that "slum clearance" would be used against minority property owners.
The code was finally approved in 1970 and some "slum clearance" began, often with unfortunate results. For example, the stately Fleming Building was torn down for the tan box of the First National headquarters (now Wells Fargo). Other buildings were demolished for new Greyhound and Trailways bus depots and a Fire Station No. 1. Another project was Patriot's Square, which required the destruction of many historic buildings. On the west end of the business district, the brutalist Phoenix Police Headquarters (originally intended as the headquarters for both police and fire) rose at Seventh Avenue and Washington. Another gift of the era was the hideous State Executive Tower behind the historic and perfectly scaled capitol building.
The most catastrophic loss was the Fox Theater, a masterpiece from the 1920s torn down in 1975. Another was the historic beaux-arts Hotel Adams, spectacularly imploded in 1973. Like its sisters, the Hotel Luhrs and Jefferson Hotel, the Adams had become little more than a flophouse. By the early 1970s, its east-facing neon sign had burned out so that it read HOT ADA S. We joked that it was a whorehouse. It was replaced with a new Hotel Adams, but built as a cold slab with little arches for windows. It remains today but the historic name was discarded for reasons I can't understand. The Westward Ho, once the queen of Phoenix hotels, soldiered on until 1980. Another icon, Union Station, survived the passing of passenger-train service to Amtrak in May 1971. The Sunset Limited, the only train left, improved, but there was no money to restore daily service. So it remained the every-other-day train left by the Southern Pacific.
By mid-decade, the heart of downtown had a bright new look, but with consequences. The old eight-steps-to-a-new-shop-door fabric of the central business district was replaced with blocks of dead space. The new buildings were sterile. Neon, which once made downtown a work of art at night, disappeared, including the revolving sign atop the old Valley Bank headquarters. The public spaces were sun-blasted and uninviting. Still, civic stewards donated public art to the massive space in front of Symphony Hall, the new home of the Phoenix Symphony and where the folk singer John Stewart would record his live Phoenix Concerts in 1974. One plus for history was the beginning of restoration work on the Rosson House.
The new buildings did not stop the underlying forces of downtown decline.
The new Civic Plaza had a starring role in Clint Eastwood's 1977 shoot-em-up The Gauntlet. The movie was no Dirty Harry, lacking any potency or even cohesion. But segments give the viewer a sense of the central core. In the opening shot, Eastwood's detective character staggers out of a Deuce bar directly behind Symphony Hall, drives south across the Seventh Street rail overpass, west on Grant, north across the Seventh Avenue overpass, then west again to Symphony Hall, which was a stand-in for City Hall and the police headquarters.
My friends and I had much fun with this, wondering if the symphony was now playing at Police Headquarters. There was also the silly scene where the hero drives a bus down Adams Street with Phoenix cops blasting away (and being in each other's fields of fire) on the way to its climax. No matter. Eastwood was welcomed by city and state leaders and had a good time. In real life, Phoenix had a high crime rate.
A better cop movie to watch if you want a sense of what the outskirts of the city looked like in this era is Robert Blake's cult classic Electra Glide in Blue, from 1973. Much of it was filmed on two-lane Shea Boulevard surrounded by gorgeous empty desert.
It was difficult to argue with people who found Phoenix a cultural desert for a city its size. The Phoenix Art Museum was tiny (Jim Ballinger arrived as a curator in 1974). The Heard was respected but limited. The Symphony was still teething and often riven with internecine battles. Despite the fine theater program I benefited from in high school, Phoenix lacked a real professional theater company. There was the Windmill Dinner Theater, where Bob Crane was performing in 1978 when he was murdered in a lurid crime.
One of my ambulance colleagues, who had lived in real big cities, had a sticker on her tricked-out van (yes, those were popular then): "Phoenix Is Boring."
Not to the young yokel me, of course. ASU had a strong music program and a decent theater department. Cruising Central was still going strong. Midtown was hopping (right), including the Playboy Club. Big-name concerts came to Gammage and Celebrity Theater. The biggest show in town was the Phoenix Suns, playing at Veteran's Memorial Coliseum. In 1976, the "Cinderella Suns" made it to the finals against the Boston Celtics. It included the triple-overtime "greatest game ever played." Also, ASU was going big-time, joining the Pacific Athletic Conference in 1978.
Legend City was still in operation, our little Disneyland. The water park Big Surf opened. Mill Avenue had a bit of counterculture, KDKB played anti-establishment album rock, and New Times was a rollicking alternative newspaper. The Portofino Theater showed Deep Throat and other adult movies, in the brief period when such was considered date fare.
And the desert was near and inviting, provided one approached with respect. In high school, we launched model rockets in the miles of empty land southwest of Scottsdale and Bell roads, both two lanes wide. We hiked toward Pinnacle Peak and enjoyed target shooting. The High Country was wild and empty. You could hike and camp for days and not see another soul. Back in the city, my job on the ambulance was never boring.
The decade saw some of Phoenix's biggest strides in preservation of natural space. In the 1960s, defeated presidential candidate Barry Goldwater came home and was disgusted with the runaway development threatening Camelback Mountain. He led the crusade — everything from schoolchildren's coins to federal dollars — to save the mountain above 1,800 feet.
In the 1970s, city leaders purchased Echo Canyon. They also used bonds and federal revenue sharing from the Nixon administration, as well as several nasty court suits, to save Piestawa Peak and assemble the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. One of the leaders of the preservation effort was a civic volunteer and new council member named Margaret Hance.
Elected mayor in 1975, Hance would come to dominate city politics — but first she put the stake in dying Charter Government.
The reformist, consensus-based "businessman's government" that began in the 1940s unraveled in the late '60s when Milt Graham, who had been a popular young mayor, decided to break Charter's two-term rule and seek a third term. Even though the Charter slate prevailed, installing John Driggs as mayor at the start of the new decade, Charter itself was dying. The city had grown too big. The consensus of a common good, as the business leaders saw it, was gone. Phoenix actually had George Wallace's far-right American Independent Party fielding candidates against Charter. Hance famously stepped outside the "Charter slate" and won.
What she won, and how much changed, is one of the less examined features of this era politically in Phoenix. Like most of her former Charter mates, she was Republican and "pro-business." If anything, she was more conservative than Graham on social services. Phoenix continued to be a well-run, "efficient" city. For example, by the 1970s, all the areas annexed in the 1950s and early 1960s that used cesspools were connected to the city sewer system. Vision was another matter. The broken machine of leadership was never the same. Hance (above) had little interest in the central core or transit, little vision beyond preserving the mountains. Transit was so abysmal that there was no Phoenix Transit connection to Tempe. No bus service on Sunday. Nor was anything done to preserve the fragile historic neighborhoods north and west of downtown with their priceless architecture and design.
To be fair, even with higher gasoline prices and the environmental movement, few people beyond Jane Jacobs and her acolytes understood the value of dense, quality, human-scale cities, good civic design, historic preservation or transportation options. Downtowns were in decline everywhere. Phoenix, with its abundant land, malls, new houses and easy parking for single-occupancy car trips seemed to many the city of the future. When the city was still small enough, metaphorically, to hold in your hand, it wasn't an outlandish notion.
In reality, the old leadership that had brought Phoenix this far was weakening and in some cases literally dying. Although some promising newer leaders emerged, there were not enough to replace the titans of the late 1940s through the mid-1960s. When the Phoenix 40 was formed in 1975, it was an attempt at formalizing, and even broadening, the old leadership. How much it was actually able to accomplish in the long run is debatable. In the 1970s, it seemed laudable civic stewardship — or deplorable paternalism, depending on where you sat.
Amid the winding down and ultimate loss of the Vietnam War, Watergate and the resignation of Nixon, Arizona was undergoing change, too. Jack Williams, the Republican former Phoenix mayor, served a tiresomely long eight years as governor. Voters were ready for change in 1974, when they voted for Democrat Raul Castro. Even my rock-ribbed Republican mother voted for "Judge Castro," as she called him. Yet that was the trouble. Castro had a judge's temperament and was bored being governor. He leapt at becoming Jimmy Carter's ambassador to Argentina in 1977. He was followed briefly by longtime Secretary of State Wes Bolin and then Bruce Babbitt, Democrats all.
I was told that the mob kept a resort near Camelback called Journey's End. I never found out if that was true, but Phoenix remained a haven for organized crime. Indeed, the unspoken truce between the mob and Phoenix's leaders, or the porous boundary between the two that such respectable figures as Barry Goldwater and Del Webb could easily cross — whatever you wish to call it, seemed to be breaking down. In forming the Phoenix 40, Pulliam warned against a new wave of crime, corruption and land fraud amid widespread apathy.
The amped up character of things was impossible to avoid in the '70s. In October 1975, a bomb detonated in the car of Joseph Nardi in Tempe. This was not his real name. He had been relocated to Arizona after cooperating with the FBI against the mob in Chicago. It was the most stunning, but far from the only, wise-guy stunts happening at the time in Phoenix. Then, on June 2, 1976, Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles was struck by a car bomb outside the Clarendon House hotel in Midtown. He died on June 13th.
The crime has never been explained to my satisfaction, or to that of many others. The Arizona Project of Investigative Reporters and Editors didn't answer who ultimately ordered the hit. But it did provide days of coverage about Arizona sleaze in newspapers around the country, even if the Republic declined to run it (New Times did).
Change came slowly enough, but it came. The semi-rural area between Thomas and Osborn in Scottsdale filled in, while the city redid its declining core with a new city hall, library and police station. A fancy Hilton was built at Scottsdale Road and Lincoln Drive, with nothing around and no curbs or sidewalks for miles on Scottsdale Road.
At the beginning of the decade, Rural Road in Tempe became just that about a mile below Apache Boulevard, quickly turning to two narrow lanes of patched concrete. Within a few years, it was the site of The Lakes, a massive new development that marked a transition between the old mass-produced housing of Long et al and "master planned communities."
On the other side of I-10, Presley Development began work on Ahwatukee. Tempe didn't think it wanted what became "the world's largest cul-de-sac"; Phoenix annexed it. In Scottsdale, McCormick Ranch changed from being a real ranch to becoming an ambitious residential-golf development. And so it went. Among the most astounding was Metrocenter, which opened in 1973 at the far end of north Phoenix, mostly surrounded by nothing.
Watching all this, I couldn't help the feeling that something was deeply wrong — and remember, my experience with the outside world was nil. Why was the first "super-regional mall" in the Southwest being built out on the fringes, requiring much driving, while too much (already) of the convenient central core was empty? But then I was from the heart of the city. I suspect most went with the flow.
Fountain Hills, which began in 1971, was the most egregious. It was not connected to any city or town, even though it would affect the metropolitan area with costs and traffic. McCulloch, the same developer that did Lake Havasu City, used heavy handed tactics at the Legislature to gain bonding power, even though it had no residents yet. Its use of water was not to maintain an oasis or grow food in the ancient river valley; it was a sales tool wasting a precious resource. Worst of all, McCulloch bulldozed one of the most beautiful saguaro forests.
Back in Phoenix, where planning had never been a strength, the city tried to put lipstick on the pig of skyscrapers that had escaped from downtown — and prevent development of more east of Seventh Street — by adopting the Central Corridor. It was officially to be the only place where towers could be built. Nevermind that in a low-rise city where views of the mountains were seen as a democratic right did a wall of tall buildings seem appealing. It was as realistic as the "urban village" (huh?) concept and the promise that the city would never grow north of two-lane Bell Road.
All this was happening in a relatively slow-growth decade by Phoenix standards. Now it's clear we were watching the birthing of the Real Estate Industrial Complex and an economy based on bringing in enormous population to fill all those houses and malls. By contrast, John F. Long was a Phoenix city councilman and steward who built houses to meet a need. The new breed, knowing the Central Arizona Project was on the way, were only getting started with sprawl, hustles and the throwaway community.
Charles H Keating Jr. and Fife Symington arrived in 1976.
The Phoenicians who rejected the Papago Freeway inner loop were wise. I-10 could have joined the Maricopa Freeway at the Durango Curve and many hundreds of valuable historic houses could have been saved. The massive gash through central Phoenix could have been avoided. Remember, I-10 has done central Phoenix no more good than any freeway has done for any city core in America. They are all about destruction and sucking the life out. Portlanders understood this when they canceled the Mount Hood Freeway in 1974.
Phoenix could have done this and no more — and accomplished a great thing.
But it was not in Phoenix's DNA. This was, after all, a city that for more than a decade could not even pass a housing code requiring such wild novelties as indoor plumbing. Here the city staff was pernicious, especially Ed Hall, the anti-transit transportation chief and later deputy city manager. Also, years of expecting the freeway had caused the neighborhoods to lose residents who would have had clout. Finally, Pulliam died and the newspapers stopped crusading against the inner loop.
Meanwhile, lack of land-use planning for decades was catching up to Phoenix. As people moved farther out (e.g. north of Indian School), traffic became worse. The city's street-widening couldn't keep up and had the double whammy of turning modest city streets into today's wide highways. At the same time, council and most business interests remained against transit and against higher residential densities. No wonder voters rebelled against a grid plan in 1979.
The lack of alternatives, vision and political will made freeways inevitable. Not only the inner loop, softened only a bit by a deck park, but an entire system. And paid for with a regressive sales tax. In turn, they would make far-out land then useful only for agriculture suddenly very valuable for subdivisions — for the connected. They would suck the life out of the city.
None of us knew how bad it would be. I did notice, as the decade wore on, how dirty the air was becoming. And how the weather was changing, with monsoon rain often staying out of the city. I left as the decade wound down, never thinking I would return, even though I would always carry Phoenix in my heart, particularly the old city.
Around that time, I was reading a John D. McDonald novel where Travis McGee reflects on the changes inflicted on his beloved Fort Lauderdale and says something like, "I saw the best of it." And of my beloved Phoenix I did, too.
Gallery — Phoenix in the seventies:
Thriving Midtown, with Park Central Shopping Center in the middle of the photo. The tall First Federal tower, right, sported an outside elevator to the top floor, a place where more than a few trysts took place. It's shorter little brother had a Playboy Club on the roof.
Midtown from street level, Central and Indian School and the grille of an Oldsmobile coming at us. Phoenix leaders hoped to make Central into another Wilshire Boulevard. The 1990 crash, competition from sprawl, and the death of the core's major headquarters ended that dream.
Demolition of the historic Adams Hotel in 1973. The ornate building was replaced by an uninviting box and soon the Adams name was dropped.
Valley Center at two stages of construction. Like most newer buildings, it was dead at street level — made more so by a design to foil bank robbers. A block-long parking garage took out dozens of businesses a block east and was connected to the tower by an underground tunnel.
The new downtown built in the decade. From left, First National Bank tower, Symphony Hall, Arizona Bank tower, Hyatt Regency, Valley Center, and Phoenix Civic Plaza's convention center. Plenty of dullness, brutalism, and dead blocks.
Civic Plaza's public space looking west. Although it offered a grand view of Symphony Hall (looking south), the expanse had too much concrete and not enough shade trees to ever succeed as a public space. Civic Plaza replaced blocks of walkable businesses in the "disreputable" Deuce.
Among the casualties of the new downtown was its neon, including the iconic Valley National Bank sign, taken down when the bank moved its headquarters to Valley Center. The sign went to a junk yard as scrap.
A poignant photo of George Luhrs Jr. at Central and Jefferson, Christmas season 1973. The hotel his father built in 1888 looks more beautiful than the new Valley Center, but in two years it would be gone.
Civic Plaza (specifically Symphony Hall) stood in for City Hall and police headquarters in Clint Eastwood's 1977 movie The Gauntlet. Here, Eastwood shares lunch on set with first lady Pat Castro and co-star Sondra Locke.
An overhead view of downtown after the construction of the decade. The brown crackerbox with arched windows, center-right, is what replaced the historic Hotel Adams.