In 1941, Arthur Horton, a professor at Arizona State Teachers College, the precursor of ASU, published a remarkable Survey of Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun. What makes it still valuable is that it provides us with the most authoritative examination of Phoenix in that decade, or at any time until perhaps the 1960s.
The exhaustive report is also helpful in understanding a decade that meant far more than American involvement in World War II and its effects on Phoenix (which I wrote about here). That lasted less than four years out of 10. Much more was going on.
The decade began with a strong local economy, almost entirely thanks to the New Deal’s enormous largesse toward Phoenix and Arizona. The stimulus spending worked and helped pull Phoenix out of the Great Depression. By 1940, Americans were doing better and traveling, including visiting the mostly new resorts including the Arizona Biltmore, Camelback Inn, Jokake Inn, Adobe House, Ingleside Inn, Wigwam Guest Ranch and San Marcos at Chandler, as well as Phoenix’s premier hotels. The “Valley of the Sun” tourist promotion launched by the Chamber of Commerce and the railroads was paying off. To be sure, not everyone was doing better: 10,000 in the county (population 186,000) were on relief.
Agriculture remained the mainstay of the Salt River Valley’s economy. According to Horton, Arizona had 1.1 million grapefruit trees, 625,000 orange trees; 17,000 lemon trees; 5,000 tangerine trees, and 2,675 lime trees. Most of these were in the American Eden in and around Phoenix.
Cotton and alfalfa were among the other major crops. But, as Horton noted, “Almost everything will grow where there is sufficient water for irrigation because of the soil and climate.” Farmers, including my great-grandparents, also grew cantaloupes, honey, dates, sugar beets, grains and hay. Also, 289 acres of vineyards remained from a larger scope of grape production earlier in the century.
Phoenix was a major center for beef cattle with the Tovrea feedlots and slaughterhouses, as well as dairies and poultry operations. In 1939, crops in the valley were valued at nearly $16 million (more than $275 million in 2016 dollars). Livestock and beef products sold for $3 million (nearly $52 million today). The Salt River Valley helped feed the nation.
The city held 65,514 people in about 15 square miles. Arizona had actually been losing population early in the Depression. But with the New Deal turnaround, Phoenix grew by 36 percent — below the 66 percent of the 1920s but growth nonetheless. By comparison, El Paso, which Phoenix was determined to unseat as the business capital of the Southwest, lost 5.5 percent of its population in the 1930s. Tucson, which by 1940 was only about half Phoenix’s size, had added only 10 percent over the previous decade.
Horton tells us that 1939-40 had seen the “greatest retail trade” posted in Phoenix history. The city and surrounding areas had 19 department, dry goods and variety stores; 71 apparel shops; 46 auto dealers; 295 food stores; 165 gas stations; 55 bars, and 45 drug stores. Retail was locally owned and mostly small scale.
The city had three radio stations, as well as 11,852 residential telephones, and 8,721 business phones run by Mountain States Telephone Co. Twenty-three Western Union telegraph messenger boys were kept busy. At the main telegraph office and at Union Station, some 6,000 wires a day were sent or received.
With national railroad service, Phoenix was a significant wholesale center, with 194 establishments. Other industry was small, from Arizona Flour Mills to Allison Steel (which fabricated the KTAR radio tower) and the Holsum Bakery. Phoenix’s claim to manufacturing fame was air conditioning (mostly swamp coolers): 30 manufacturers. But this, too, was modest. Employment totaled 200. One of the largest industries was making ice, for businesses, homes, and the railroad refrigerator cars that transported Valley produce.
The first streamliner train arrived at Union Station in 1940. But more of the sleek passenger trains would have to wait until after the war. Sky Harbor was served by three airlines. Nearly 46,000 cars were registered in the county.
This was the city, by numbers, that greeted the new decade.
In the 1940s, Phoenix remained a Southern and a Western city. Schools and many establishments were segregated. Chinatown was intact downtown, although Chinese entrepreneurs operated groceries throughout the city. Blacks and Hispanics could not buy property or live north of Van Buren Street. About 500 teenagers from reservations were enrolled at Phoenix Indian High School But American Indians could not vote in Arizona, even though President Calvin Coolidge had made all indigenous tribal members American citizens in 1924. This miscarriage of justice would not be righted until the Harrison and Austin v. Laveen lawsuit of 1948, brought by two American Indian World War II veterans.
Although the county was nearly 21 percent Hispanic, far fewer lived within the city limits. Of the 6,200 "Negroes" counted in the Census, only 1,750 lived in the city. The Chinese population was about 600. African-Americans were heavily represented in what had been named one of America's worst slums, south of the railroad tracks around Seventh Avenue and Buckeye. This was where Father Emmett McLoughlin worked, pushing for the Matthew Henson Homes project, which opened in 1940, and founding St. Monica's Hospital nearby. He left the priesthood in 1948 after long conflicts with his superiors, who said he was spending too much time working to improve the slums and aid residents by such endeavors as being the first head of the city housing authority.
The police department had 15 radio cars and the fire department eight pieces of apparatus. But beyond the equipment, law enforcement was often deeply corrupt. Phoenix was a wide-open town, with brothels and gambling dens along with bars. The brothel owners paid "fines" to city coffers and were protected by the police. Much of the gambling, especially the wire betting nationally, was controlled by the Chicago Outfit and its local kingpin, Gus Greenbaum. Operating from offices in the Luhrs Tower, Greenbaum was friendly with the political establishment, the merchant princes Barry and Robert Goldwater and Harry Rosenzweig, and wealthy contractor Del Webb. In 1945, the mob forced him to move to Las Vegas to run its casino interests, but Gus kept his main home in Phoenix. He also successfully fended off the efforts to take over his off-track betting by powerful liquor baron and landowner Kemper Marley.
Only very rarely did the inherent tensions explode the bubble of respectable Phoenix. The most prominent example was in 1944, when Phoenix Police Officer David "Star" Johnson, an African-American, was gunned down by white Detective "Frenchy" Navarre. Navarre was acquitted by an all-white jury but was later shot to death at police headquarters by Johnson's partner. The crime had complex roots beyond racial animus, including Frenchy's connections with organized crime.
The reality and image of corruption, especially when the city was briefly placed off-limits to soldiers by the military, gave rise to a generation of civic reformers. Chief among them was lawyer and fixer Frank Snell, who was 41 years old in 1940. Together with Mark Wilmer, he created the most prominent law firm in the state. Wilmer worked the courtroom while Snell worked the boardrooms, so the saying went (for example, he led the effort to have Central Arizona Light and Power, forerunner of APS, acquired from eastern investors in 1945). Snell wanted a "clean" Phoenix. He led the 1942 "card room putsch" during the war to oust the police chief and city manager. But after the City Commissioners reneged on the deal, Snell dedicated himself to changing Phoenix city government. The result would be a city council, a strong city manager, and the non-partisan Charter Government Committee, whose council candidates would rule until the 1970s. This came after repeated battles through the decade.
Other reformers included the Goldwaters, Newton and Harry Rosenzweig, and Eugene C. Pulliam, an Indianapolis newspaper published who bought the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette in 1946. Pulliam used this powerful megaphone to crusade against corruption and in favor of a business-friendly, well-run city. All of them saw a post-war Phoenix that would grow into a major city.
But the crusade has definite political shadings. The old City Commission was Democratic and pro-union. The Democratic Party was dominant in the city and state, and organized labor held substantial influence. Pulliam, especially, as well as the Goldwaters and Rosenzweigs were Republicans and wanted to flip the political calculus. Greenbaum, who was a behind-the-scenes political player, saw the shift ahead and switched from being a Democrat to a Republican. Nor did corruption ever go away. As author and journalist Dave Wagner recounts, Harry Rosenzweig said of his successful candidacy for City Council: "Barry and I ran. We were against gambling, prostitution, and vice... And Barry said, 'The three things I like the best.' "
Phoenix had three high schools: Phoenix Union, George Washington Carver (for Negroes) and the new North High School, with handsome buildings on a lovely, verdant campus on Thomas Road at the edge of the city. Old-timers trace this as the origins of cruising on Central, where students could meet their counterparts from other schools — and find romantic partners. (The federal Works Progress Administration, the WPA, built North, as well as Phoenix College).
The decade saw Phoenix straddling the amenities and ambitions of a small town of the West and a modern city. The Carnegie Library, with 67,000 volumes, was too small. The Phoenix Symphony Association, founded in 1929, held only two free concerts a year, along with one by the Oratorio Society. There was the Little Theater, also amateur. The Lyceum Society brought in famous lecturers, including H.G. Wells and Archduke Felix of Austria. The latter spoke on "Is a United States of Europe Possible?" The city was badly behind in developing parks.
On the other hand, some cultural bones were in place that would be important as Phoenix grew. Maie Bartlett Heard had donated the house that became the Heard Museum in 1929. The Arizona Museum was on west Van Buren. Pueblo Grande had been well-restored and preserved as an archeological site and museum by the New Deal. Under the leadership of Gertrude Webster, a group of citizens had established the 140-acre Desert Botanical Garden in 1938. All these were enhanced in the 1940s.
The big events included the Masque of the Yellow Moon, Fiesta Del Sol sponsored by the Thunderbirds, the Cotton Festival, and the JayCees World Championship Rodeo. After the war, Phoenix tried something more ambitious, sponsoring a post-season college football game. The Salad Bowl, complete with a parade on Central, lasted from 1948 to 1955, played in Phoenix Union High School's imposing Montgomery Stadium.
Downtown was the unquestioned business, retail, and commercial center of the city, county, and state. Malls were years in the future. Park Central's site was the prosperous Central Dairy. The Phoenix Street Railway operated streetcars on six lines for a total of 33 miles. Unfortunately, most of its rolling stock was destroyed in a 1947 fire at the car barn. This was the era when General Motors was (criminally) pushing cities to adopt buses, a decision Phoenix made.
World War II brought tremendous stresses to Phoenix. So did its aftermath. Little new construction had happened in the 1930s and wartime material restrictions, along with the draft, ensured that the first half of the 1940s saw few new houses or apartments built. Yet the city grew fast, even within the 17 square miles it occupied by decade's end. Population grew by 63 percent. During the war, people were encouraged to take in boarders. Afterwards, contractors slowly ramped up to the building boom that would mark Phoenix's next decades.
The end of the war saw a sudden, sharp downturn in business as military bases and wartime factories closed. Phoenix leaders had been unprepared for the situation, even though such cities as San Diego had been planning for a post-war economic transition for years. Some Phoenicians worried that the Depression might return. With Snell in the lead again, and helped by Cold War defense contracts, Phoenix gradually attracted new employers. The most prized among them was Motorola, which opened a research and development lab in 1949, the first of many more operations. The future was coming fast. Unfortunately, it would destroy much of the magic of the old city.
Here is how the Santa Fe Railway described 1940s Phoenix to its passengers, in the guidebook, Along the Route:
Alt. 1,080; pop. Metropolitan Phoenix 141,000. County seat of Maricopa County and capital of Arizona; founded in 1867. Located on north side of Salt River in fertile Salt River valley. Noted winter resort, climate warm, dry and sunny; many resort hotels and guest ranches; numerous sanitariums. Ideal farming section; lands under irrigation from Roosevelt reservoir and Salt River project of U. S. Reclamation service and other projects. Large groves of orange, olive, lemon, grapefruit, date and plum trees. Long avenues of palms, pepper trees and other semi-tropical foliage in suburbs. Phoenix controls its own water supply from Verde River. Transportation system municipally owned. State capital is situated in a beautiful park. Many fine office and business buildings -- churches, schools, hotels, theaters, etc. Headquarters, Tonto National Forest. Fine resort hotels.... Business, social and country clubs. U. S. Indian School, one of the largest in the United States. Papago Park four miles east of city. Encanto Municipal Park. Remains of large prehistoric pueblos and irrigation canals in the valley.
Gallery — Phoenix in the forties:
Click to see the image larger
A Goldwater's display window facing Washington Street, with coed testimonials. McCulloch Brothers/ASU Archives
A moody night outside Gass Brothers Chop House on Central just north of Washington.
Harpo Marx and his wife Susan "The Girl With the Million-Dollar Legs" Fleming at the Biltmore.
Camelback Mountain, from 40th Street.
In 1949, the Hotel Westward Ho was topped with a radio mast. But it remains as built in this late 1940s shot looking north on Central. The substantial building a little north of the hotel was Central Methodist Church. My great aunt's designer dress shop was in the vicinity, too. McCulloch Brothers/ASU Archives.
At 20th Avenue on Van Buren, you have left the city behind and are headed into farm country.
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.