I thought this would be a compilation of Phoenix 101, but it turned out they wanted an entirely new book. Foolishly I signed up anyway. That's why I've been gone.
The final product may never see a bookshelf. It is certainly not an attempt to compete with the fine academic histories of Philip VanderMeer, William S. Collins or Bradford Luckingham. There are no doubt more qualified people who could have undertaken this project. Instead, at 32,000 words, it is an interpretive history of a fascinating city and one of great importance to America (whether America or even Phoenicians realize it). Think of it as the dissertation I never wrote.
Mindful of Harry Truman's admonishment that "the only thing new in the world is the history you don't know," I dug deep into primary and secondary sources. I'm glad I did it. Here is some of what I learned:
1. The short hustle is nothing new. Speculation and fraud, usually based on land (sometimes water) dates back almost to the settlement's founding. And it was often tied in to some of the most respectable citizens. One example is the building of the Arizona Canal (1883-1885), done by the private sector and filled with dodgy activity. It fell into receivership.
2. Phoenix is even more government dependent that I realized. The metropolis of rugged individualists wouldn't exist without the repeated, robust and extremely generous support of the federal government. The Army pacifying the Apaches (with Medal of Honor-winning help from other Apaches); railroads; reclamation; the New Deal; GI Bill and FHA loans; defense spending virtually creating the high-tech local economy; the CAP; airport investments, etc. Today's austerity, combined with an inert GOP congressional delegation, is one big reason Phoenix is lagging so far behind.
3. Roosevelt Dam almost didn't happen. Water rights were so tangled and acrimonious that the Salt River Valley was initially was not in line for the Newlands Act. (Ed Abbey and Cal Lash would have been happy).
4. Organized crime runs deep, deep, deep. Worse than I even thought. And, again, operating in tandem with some of the city's most respected citizens, even if most of them were not mobsters. The legacy of corruption continues and has "gone legit" in a host of ways.
5. The Salt River Valley was even more of a natural oasis than I realized. Covering this nutrient-filled soil with asphalt, concrete and the ubiquitous gravel is a crime. Flood irrigation needed to be replaced with more sustainable practices, but the loss of farming in the heart of the valley is a crime.
6. Phoenix really had civic stewards. And they made all the difference, from Dwight and Maie Heard to John Teets and Kax Herberger. The city has almost none now and it shows — certainly not enough for a place of its size and needs. No other major city was more devastated by the corporate consolidations and mergers of the past 35 years. The companies nominally headquartered there do nothing to improve the city.
7. The mistake of roads and freeways. This is a common theme here. But one little heartbreaking tidbit I learned is that widening roads into today's highways-in-all-but-name destroyed far more shade trees than the 20,000 or so ripped out by the Salt River Project lining the canals.
8. The extremely toxic legacy of "clean industries" and the segregation of big polluters in South Phoenix. Yes, I knew some of this — but not how bad it was and is. Phoenix is hardly a "blank slate."
The rest? You'll have to wait until the book comes out (if it does).
Thanks for your patience during this time, and especially to those who contributed to comments on the open thread.