Railroad tracks running to Crystal Ice at Fourth Avenue and Jackson in the heart of the district. The plant not only provided ice deliveries to businesses and homes, but produced blocks to fill the bunkers of railroad refrigerator cars. The blocks were dragged and placed through roof doors in the railcars by workers on catwalks using hooks. McCulloch Bros./ASU Archives.
Phoenix's Warehouse District is finally seeing a payoff after years of destruction and false starts. How big a renaissance remains to be seen; coverage I've seen such as this doesn't quantify the new businesses. But something is happening. Most important, it involves creative firms and tech startups, not only restaurants.
The area saw an effervescence before, when artists discovered the historic buildings in the 1980s. But they were driven out by the arena, ballpark, Joe Arpaio's relentless jail expansions, Phoenix's ethos of tear-downs, and the city's lack of an effective preservation policy. The Jobs Corp moved into several buildings.
Some of the best buildings were lost. This helped fuel the successful fight in the mid-2000s to save the Sun Mercantile building, part of the city's old Chinatown. A few developers with stamina and perseverance, notably Michael Levine, refurbished some buildings. Another comeback attempt came with the opening of the unfortunately named Bentley Projects (the old Bell Laundry) in the 2000s, which included a restaurant, galleries, and a Poisoned Pen Bookstore. Too far from the core, that didn't take, either.
Phoenix never boasted a warehouse district with the size and great bones of, say, Denver, which has become a tremendous asset for an area anchored by the restored and expanded Denver Union Station. Phoenix was too small and limited in its economic heft. Still, what remains of the area is one of the city's treasures. It's one of the few places in Phoenix where you can find that coveted urban authenticity, with a variety of old buildings, narrow streets and density, that talented creatives seek.
This is the commercial heart of old Phoenix. Railroads moved most of the nation's freight in the early 20th century, so it was natural for warehouses, distribution centers, the produce sheds, and what amounted to industry in the city to cluster along the tracks of the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe.
At its peak, these buildings ran from 16th Street, at the mouth of the SP yard, past 19th Avenue, and then along the Santa Fe up 19th Avenue past Mobest Yard and beyond on Grand Avenue. But the heart of what's now called the Warehouse District ran from around 12th Street to beyond Seventh Avenue.
In addition to the remaining rail lines south of Harrison Street (the old Hogan's Alley), the Santa Fe especially did "street running" with two sets of tracks serving warehouses along Jackson Street. Small switch engines would move boxcars and refrigerator cars to warehouses where they would be loaded or unloaded, then taken back to the yard to be made up as freight trains. Tracks also ran along parts of Madison and Harrison.
Both the SP and Santa Fe also operated their own freight stations — the Southern Pacific's at Central and the Santa Fe's at Sixth Avenue. Part of the latter remains, integrated into a county parking garage. These stations were primarily for "less than carload" freight, where shipments for individual business would be transferred to trucks for delivery. Strings, or cuts, of boxcars would be positioned parallel to each other on multiple tracks so the doors could be opened on both sides and the contents efficiently unloaded via spacers placed between the cars.
Both railroads also ran multiple spur lines to the south. Later, the SP developed the Arizona Interstate Industrial Center south of today's Maricopa Freeway. The Santa Fe's "sidewinder" was a street-running spur that went several miles south, including along 11th Avenue (I believe it is still in use). The Santa Fe had small rail yards east of Seventh Avenue at its freight station and, still in use, around Ninth Avenue.
The intensity of railroad operations — which I still remember from my 1960s childhood — explains the overpasses on Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street. Although only one track, now operated by Union Pacific, runs through downtown, a driver once had to cross (as I recall) nearly 20 tracks at Seventh Avenue. Trains often blocked traffic, including emergency vehicles, with only the 1930s Central Avenue underpass as an alternate. Hence, in the 1960s the City Council built the two overpasses, along with a smaller one at 16th Street.
This was the heart of agricultural shipping. Produce was trucked to shippers where it would be loaded on refrigerated boxcars. These were a boon, allowing perishables to make long journeys to markets in the east. Through the 1950s, these were kept cool from ice that was manufactured at ice houses along the line and shoved into bunkers from hatches in the car roofs. Since then, the refrigeration has been mechanical.
As you will see below, the district was also home to a variety of other commercial operations, from steel fabricators and small machine shops to grocery distribution hubs. Almost all were locally owned. It was a major center of employment, including for minorities who were shut out of good work in much of segregated Phoenix. Ernesto Miranda worked nights at United Produce at Third Street and Madison. Central Arizona Light and Power, a forerunner of APS, had large natural gas tanks on Lincoln Street and a warehouse and substation were built across the street at Lincoln and Second Avenue.
For example, a 1956 City Directory includes this lineup on Jackson Street: Arizona Mercantile, Southwest Lumber, Mall Tool Co., Peerless Yeast, Arizona Hardware, Tanita Farms, Arizona Flour Mills, Southwest Envelope, Hammond Soap and Chemical, Safeway, Armor, Schubert Liquor Distributors, and Merchant's Shippers.
Few were large buildings, much less the handsome multistory structures that distinguish LoDo in Denver. Many were homely corrugated steel. Most were single story.
Yet the district was tightly integrated into the city. Bars and railroad cafes were there, including Pal's near busy Union Station. Madison Street was full of single-room occupancy hotels such as the Patio, along with a barber and eateries such as Sing Hi, the Silver Dollar Buffett, and Luz Cafe. Walk two blocks north, and you are in the city, with stores, movie theaters, hotels, doctors and dentists, banks, churches, and the offices of government and business. You could catch the streetcars at Washington Street. Especially before the late 1940s, there was vice, too, such as in the notorious Paris Alley. The Deuce began at the tracks and Second Street. Whether you sought virtue or vice, this was walkable Phoenix.
Changes in the way freight moved and new industrial parks spelled the death of the district for its original use starting in the 1970s.
As I've written before, I regret I lacked a camera on my treks to the train station and warehouse district when I was a child. I've found no photographs that really capture the energy and excitement of the place, even in the 1960s. But the next best thing is the ASU archive of McCulloch Brothers Photography. James Morrison McCulloch (1870-1945) and William Patrick McCulloch (1880-1971) ran a prominent commercial photo business and the archive number 4,562 digitized images. Below are memories, mostly thanks to this wonderful collection. Most photos are from the 1930s and 1940s.
Gallery — The Warehouse District:
You're looking north on Central from Lincoln in the early 1930s before the underpass was built. The building on the left beside the tracks is the old SP depot, which was turned into the freight station and later expanded.
Central Beverage at 32 S. Seventh Street was an example of the generally modest size of the businesses that occupied the district. But they were many, adding to the variety of the commerce and architecture.
A streetside view of Crystal Ice on Jackson.
With the Central Avenue underpass completed in 1940, this photo gives a sense of the density of the district. Note the Southern Pacific Freight Station, right, with the freight house added on to the old brick SP passenger depot, which was superseded by Union Station in 1923.
A new delivery van sits outside the Farmers Produce warehouse at Third Street and Madison circa 1940.
Looking west from around Fifth Street, this tangle of Southern Pacific and Santa Fe tracks shows the district still in use circa 1970. Its days are numbered. The tower going up is the First National Bank building (now Wells Fargo).
My book, A Brief History of Phoenix, is available to buy or order at your local independent bookstore, or from Amazon.
Read more Phoenix history in Rogue's Phoenix 101 archive.