I first met Kit Danley in 2001 when she asked me to visit Neighborhood Ministries at its new home, hard against the railroad yards on Fillmore Street west of 19th Avenue.
It was a place that held fond memories for me. As a child, I had spent many hours train watching at the nearby Mobest Yard of the Santa Fe Railway. In those days, Fillmore ran through to 19th Avenue, and this end of the yard featured a cleaning facility for passenger cars (when Phoenix had passenger trains) and the locomotive turntable. South was the busy and (to my young eyes) imposing Valley Feed and Seed, where railcars were switched against the warehouse for loading and unloading.
Valley Feed and Seed looked very different in 2001: abandoned, decomposing, the grounds full of debris, silos that once provided seeds for this great agricultural valley now empty, eight acres of sadness. It was a graveyard that extended to Van Buren Street. Fillmore had been closed to a cul-de-sac when the yard was moved south (to lessen the train delays on McDowell). The surrounding area was known for crime now, not commerce.
But this was the site that Neighborhood Ministries had purchased in 1998 for an ambitious campus that would increase its outreach to the poor. By the time of my first visit, the organization had raised $2.2 million to begin renovations.
I liked Danley immediately. She was a near-native, went to Scottsdale High (I went to Coronado), and had chosen to make a stand in the wounded heart of Phoenix, founding Neighborhood Ministries in 1982. She was the polar opposite of the city of the short hustle, the state where hate was peddled for political profit.
And she would be frustrated that I appear to be making this column about her (it's not; read on). Like her spiritual forebear in Phoenix, Father Emmett McLoughlin, she felt called by Christ to minister here to the least and the lost, to the stranger and the wanderer, and find Christ in them.
As we sat in her cramped office and she showed me plans for the land, I wondered if it could happen. The old stewards were mostly gone. Giving in Phoenix is notoriously low — so many people send their money "back home." The concepts of social justice and Jesus' insistence on helping the poor had been lost amid the Kookocracy and those who use religion to divide and exclude.
And yet, Neighborhood Ministries moved to transform half of the property, the old seed warehouses, into auditoriums, a bike shop, micro-business building, and office building. Debris and decay were replaced by an industrial kitchen, two story classroom building, thrift shop, state of the art medical clinic, playground, soccer field and basketball court. It is also a lovely green space graced by trees and plantings.
All this helps the wide-ranging work of the group: education, children and youth outreach, an urban farm, workforce development, a teen moms program, food bank, and business incubator.
From $650,000 in 2001, Neighborhood Ministries now has a budget of $1.9 million.
Now Neighborhood Ministries is beginning work on adaptive reuse of the 50-foot grain silos that are iconic to old Phoenicians. Fundraising will kick off with a brunch from 10:30 a.m. to noon on April 10th. You should go.
The photo above, from the 1960s, shows what Valley Feed and Seed looked like when it was still a critical part of the region's agricultural "ecosystem." The silos are to the right (north). More than half a million acres were being farmed in the Salt River Valley then — for decades, we had helped feed the nation and world, sending long trains of food east and west. Much of the infrastructure that made this possible was located in and near downtown.
Valley Seed had a particularly important place in Phoenix history, owned by the Corpsteins, among the most prominent families of the old city. The patriarch, Peter Joseph Corpstein, came to Tombstone in 1870 and, family legend has it, testified against Wyatt Earp after the 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral.
He probably wisely relocated to Tempe in the 1890s and went into the lumber business. He bought the property at 19th Avenue and Van Buren around the turn of the 20th century as the home for Valley Lumber and then a string of businesses — Valley Lumber and Oil, Valley Feed and Seed, even a Schlitz beer distributorship.
Peter Joseph served as Phoenix's mayor from 1916 to 1920, as well as being a prominent businessman and farmer. His son William took over Valley Feed and Seed. But during the Depression, things were so tough that he moonlighted as night manager of Tom's Tavern.
William married Edith Mercy Norton, daughter of another legendary Arizona farm family. The Norton men, John R., John R. Jr., and John R. III, played outsized roles in everything from the introduction of diverse crops and innovative farming methods to helping the push for the Central Arizona Project. These three generations are chronicled in my friend Jack August's essential book, The Norton Trilogy.
William Corpstein Jr. carried on the family business as president of Valley Seed. In addition to its critical supply role, the company was involved in plant breeding and diversified into international seed and grain sales. His brother Pete served in the state Senate among other public offices.
John Corpstein, great-grandson of Peter Joseph, recalled that the business leaders of old Phoenix "had a great sense of their pride of their city...that this was a great place to do business."
In such a small, isolated place, relations and trust were especially essential. This ethos persisted even as Phoenix grew into a large city in the 1960s. "Back then, it was all face-to-face, deals done on a handshake. So was the pub environment. You had a couple of drinks. It's how you got to see people. They didn't have emails."
"Old Phoenix was much more intentional in getting together," John Corpstein said. "Now, it's so transient. People think, 'I live here, pay my taxes, the community is what it is.' But there's not a sense of being part of the community."
On the other hand, he told me, "it was always Kooksville, at least in the 1950s and 1960s." This was the breeding ground of Evan Mecham and the John Birchers, after all. Still, the prevailing sentiment of most leaders was to serve the common good, at least as they saw it in this Anglo city. William Corpstein Jr. was a pioneer in promoting Latinos into management positions of the company.
Sprawl pushed agriculture to the margins, to Yuma and other areas of the state. Valley Seed was sold in 1987.
Yet with Neighborhood Ministries, this block of urban desert is blooming again. "We don’t tear down the old agricultural structures," Danley said. "Instead, we are preserving them, an homage to their other life, while seeing them as metaphors. Today we are still in the 'feed and seed' business, just with people."
Here's an overview of the campus (click for a larger view):
If you want a "positive" story — real, not cheap boosterwash — this is it.