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March 11, 2013


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From which platform does the Time Machine leave for 1945, Jon?

"But Phoenix is about to undergo a stunning transformation, and downtown would be the loser." - Rogue

Loser = Phoenix. It is a mathematical identity. f(x) = 'Loser', for all elements x in Phoenix.

Where did 'Dick Smith's Swim Gym' fit in the narrative of mid 20th century Phoenix?

I love the historical "looking back" posts about Phoenix -- which are surprisingly hard to find -- but the absolute negative about the future is pretty frustrating. I moved here about 4 years ago from Chicago, and settled in Central Phoenix (Windsor Square -- best neighborhood in Phoenix!). As far as I can tell, despite all of the kooky legislators and uniform suburbs, it's still a really neat state and a nice place to live. When people say you "hate" Arizona, I think it's because of the unrelentingly negative tone about everything Phoenix in your recent writings.

It's nice to look at the past, and see what went wrong, but the doomsday, nothing-will-ever-be-good-again thing gets a little old. There are still people who live here and love it..

My intent is to be neither "positive" nor "negative," but to provide reality-based commentary based on facts and historical insights. My hope is to start a conversation. I certainly don't have all the answers. With downtown and so many other issues, we need to understand how we got into the mess in order to craft intelligent responses. The Arizona media are filled with cheerleading, but that doesn't tell me they either understand or love Arizona.

I appreciate you taking time to leave a comment.

Don't get me wrong, I love what you do (and what you've written before). But there are still people moving to the central city, that love Arizona for what it is, -- despite all of the obnoxiously stupid things that happen around us -- that walk to the light rail, that hike the mountains for exercise, that grow their own orange trees, etc.

It just feels like your posts are about a Phoenix that used to be, but apparently can never exist again. I'm not a native, but I love my neighborhood, I love Phoenix. Reading your writings, I get the feeling that I live in a hellhole that will never be good again. I just wish you would temper your writings with a little bit of hope for the people that love the central city and still love what the city has to offer right now..

Joe, my hope is that the no longer nice town of Phoenix but now one of the more dangerous places to breathe
will soon be desert filled with Sahuaros. I suggest you consult a heat map when seeking a new place to live.

What killed downtown?
I lean heavily on the digging up of the streetcar lines.

That's not just true for Phoenix. It is true for every city that allowed that to happen. The upshot is you end with what Vonnegut said about Indianapolis: That it became "just another place where automobiles live".

What I find interesting is the sheer existence of those former streetcar lines. How did that come to be? Americans were no more civil-minded back then. In fact there were probably as many Hannitys and Limbaughs shouting "dirty socialists" at "do-gooders" as we see now.

I suspect the streetcar lines came into being because they served the plutocrats of the time. And I suspect they were dug up because they no longer served the plutocracy.

Along these "lines" here is a homework problem:

Create or find an index that measures how much a country is controlled by its native plutocracy.

As far as I know such an index doesn't exist...
Which is interesting, no?


It seems the "planning and zoning" commission was taken over by the "planning and developing" wing of the real estate/industrial complex.That is why we ended up with suburbs that have no interest in the commons or sustainability.Fifty years of being "as dumb as we wanna be" is coming home to roost.

Does greed lower the intelligence?

Starting in the 1950 s Zoning swept out old the Democratic macine corruption as it was in the road of the new finiancial crime set to make The Valley of the Sun sprawl outward not upward.

In fact there were probably as many Hannitys and Limbaughs shouting "dirty socialists" at "do-gooders" as we see now.

That's not a fact. AZ had a strong Progressive streak as did the USA. The Wobbles were represented in the mines and the state had to amend its progressive constitution to be admitted to the Union (and promptly put those provisions back in).

The fact is that now we live detached from one another inside our cars and suburbs. Community effort and pride existed in greater abundance when this nation was primarily farmers or just off the farm. After WWI, the hate stirred up against the Hun would be used against the Reds, including Eugene Debs, labor activists (many were murdered or imprisoned), Emma Goldman, etc., etc., etc. Goebbels would use the same techniques to rile up the Third Reich (good 'ole American know-how courtesy of the Austrian Bernays). Karl Rove is of the same ilk.



Joe Blow: The trouble with the way that Phoenix developed as a city was that the original parts of the city (both good and bad) were destroyed almost completely as the city developed.

I personally observed this occur between the years of 1957 to 1996. Even in L.A., you can visit certain parts of that town and see how the city used to be. You can't do that in Phoenix.

Azreb and Petro. No comment?

And Phx Planner?

about what??


Create or find an index that measures how much a country is controlled by its native plutocracy.

Wouldn't that be the gini coefficient so often refered to on income inequality?

Swim Gym! Haven't thought of that place in a long time (around 36th Street and Thomas maybe?). My mom had a membership in the '60s.

It is a shame about the trolley lines. If you know the routes, you can kinda imagine what was.

Wouldn't that be the gini coefficient so often refered to on income inequality?

I thought of the gini coefficient too. I suspect it would be one ingredient of such an index. It is a good starting place.

Another thing to add would be a term that measures plutocratic money in political campaigns. And perhaps one could figure out some way to capture "regulatory capture" in numbers. And how about lobbyists per capita? Or severity of laws on the books against those found guilty of white crime? Or actual punishments meted out to rich people found guilty of such crimes? And how about a country's actual top tax rate, AND... which way it has been trending: up or down?

I see this as a big problem. Lots of homework. But I think the world could definitely use such an index. It would be talked about that's for sure...

It may seem like a social and political long shot, but I too think Phoenix can be a great city. It just means we need to remain steadfast in our focus on what we want here and, infinitely more difficult, we must shift public opinion of what is desirable. If someone says they want to live in the burbs, do we have the gall to tell them how much their values suck? Will you shun the businesses that cater to boomburbs? But, but, but.... Yeah, we've got to become ever more insistent that people opt into the good things happening in Phoenix and Tempe (and even some of the burbs), or else economic realities will continue to work against those efforts.

Here's my comment, cal:

'Though I was just being born then, and nearly three thousand miles away at that, that last photograph, above, of Washington & Central in the '50's fills me with an eerie sense of nostalgia, or déjà vu.

City at night.

I figured it was probably a little too personal to mention - like boring someone with a dream - but, since you asked...

More cheer!

Phoenix in the Climate Crosshairs

Heh. They said "haboob."

Petro -- If you really want that old-time Phoenix vibe, go the Miracle Mile Deli at Park Central with a stack of AZ Highways magazines from the 50's and slowly page through them as you relish the flavor of your 'Jax Special' pastrami sandwich.

That photo elicited the same response from me. Ghosts ran up my spine.

I've been a bit busy, arguing with an ignorant troll in email and having the bulk of my online time otherwise wasted by irrationally hostile defectives.

Here's something brief but amusing:


Incidentally, I came across this in the Travel section recently. It says a lot about differences between Europe and America as to the extent and coordination of infrastructure:

"We first checked the website of Switzerland Tourism, and found a two-for-one transit pass promotion good as long as both travelers traveled together. . . The Swiss Pass allowed unlimited travel by rail, bus and boat throughout Switzerland, plus free entry to 400 museums. The pass was available only to tourists and we had to purchase it before we arrived."

I think the answer is pretty simple, and it was repeated in countless cities across the nation.

A downtown (or other area dependent upon consumer activities to fund retail, nightlife, etc.) is vital just as long as it is peopled by those with disposable income. By peopled, I mean residing there or nearby.

After WW II the number of private automobiles grew enormously. Rail declined as more and more households could own a family car and as trucking supplanted freight rail. The number of single-family homes also exploded.

So, what do you do when you want more space, a private residence for a family rather than an apartment, and can now afford to commute? You move to the suburbs, where land is cheap, everything is new and in good repair (for the time being), and crime is way lower than in the heart of the city. You have your own yard, your own garage, and can drink cold beers or martinis while barbecuing steaks; maybe the kids watch from the pool. That was once known as the American Dream.

Businesses and developers created shopping, dining, and other retail opportunities within the new communities or at least far closer than the downtown. Why drive all the way into central Phoenix?

When the number of residents with significant disposable income drops, the profits of local retailers drops. What do they do? Cut back on employment (which accelerates the problem) and close down or relocate.

Soon, the downtown has few retailers and is peopled by those who can't afford to move. Blight sets in because the local tax base (e.g., sales taxes) no longer supports the district; because closed unoccupied businesses aren't maintained; because those few businesses that remain lack the income to make capital investments worthwhile; and because the remaining residents are mostly poor and can't afford to fix and repaint and otherwise maintain things. Old buildings get older and more run down. Tenemented areas expand and criminal classes who nest in such areas come to dominate. Unemployment continues to increase and the whole thing is a vicious cycle.

Phoenix had plenty of surrounding land that it could annex and incorporate.

The cities that tended to have longer lived downtowns were those with fixed geographic boundaries which discouraged suburbanization. You either stayed in the city, or else the city itself was abandoned. (That happened too in some cases.)

Emil: In broad brush strokes, that's a great explanation, but the devil is often in the details. The suburbanization as it occurred in the Valley of the Sun would have been better suited to somewhere in the Midwest or, better yet, in the Levittown's of Long Island.

This was a subject often discussed in the history, civics, and geography classes of high schools in Phoenix in the 60's.

I could write about this at length, but my main point is that the 'burbs were built to accommodate the expectations of Easterners and Midwestern transplants to the area with little or no thought given to the desert environment into which these 'Jetson's' like 'burbs were dropped.

Why did every house need a 'lawn', for instance? This,and questions like this, I think, are the real issue of the current lack of quality of life in Phoenix.

One way to revitalize a downtown area is to make it an interesting destination. The 'burbites can drive their cars into town as well as out -- like in the Seattle area -- where I live.

Seattle (the city, not the metropolitan area) has fixed boundaries and laws making annexation problematic. The downtown there remains vital because there are plenty of nearby residents (within the city) with disposable income who live, work, and play in the downtown and central city area there. If downtown Seattle was marketed as nothing more than an interesting place for suburbanites to visit, it would have collapsed long ago.

Similarly, Phoenix will never revitalize its downtown and city center until it repopulates it. At this point, that can only occur by means of judicious zoning policies and generous, preferential tax, fee, and regulatory treatment of potential residential developers. The city simply doesn't understand that residents drive business activity, not the other way around (at least in the retail sector, which is what downtown Phoenix aspires to be). True, creating a lot of great jobs centered downtown could lure in residents, but that's really the tail wagging the dog. Who is going to create jobs for a ghost town? A few big, government driven projects like the biosciences center are great but only attack the problem at the margins.

Retail development follows the consumer money, and that means local residents. Why do you suppose all of the oldest hospitals are in the old city center and nearly every new medical development has been on the periphery? That's where population growth has been strongest.

Emil: Your vision of downtown revitalization is oddly mechanistic and lacks the 'vision thing' that Bush I lacked.

'Developers' can build nice condos and apartments in the downtown area, but without a reason to move ther, who will come?

The same interesting things that invite suburbanites into Seattle also attract many hundreds of thousands of travelers from around the world.

Sports, theatre, concerts, shopping, the original Starbucks, good local beer -- you name it -- it's all in downtown Seattle.

Your proposition that the Phoenix downtown will revitalize because of favorable zoning policies and such is as simplistic to my mind as mine seems to be to yours.

P.S. The city should be lobbying to get every last dollar in federal housing subsidies that it can, and apply those in addition to generous local tax credits for residential developers willing to create affordable multi-family housing in the city center. And affordability should be written into the contract as a qualifier for the credits.

When renters find that they can get a better deal in the city center than elsewhere, then and only then will they be motivated to resettle the area. Retail businesses eager for their money will follow like hounds at the scent.

Ah, here we are arguing about saving what is really now indefensible- and mostly economically doomed.

I now get what Jon regrets, which is losing the small town he grew up in to the major city that now inhabits this place. In 1950 Phoenix had 100k people- it was just a little larger than Flagstaff of today. By 1970 it had blown up to nearly 600k people, which started the entire destruction of the small town agrivibe, with the old fashioned downtown providing a hub.

That was dead and gone with growth, and no matter how much nostalgia one emits, it ain't coming back. The artificially high land prices downtown magnify that mistake, because so many landbankers can hold decaying or scraped properties cheap until they win the high rise development lottery.

Now, let us think about mass transit, and use the example of Milwaukee- why did mass transit develop in Milwaukee- well look at this panorama view http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Milwaukee_05741u.jpg Note is from 1898- note how dense and compact was the city- guess what! It already had nascent suburbs built off of the trolley lines! In 1900, the population was 285k! A very large city, that built trolley lines that lasted until- wait for it- 1958!

Population in 1960 was now 741k in a land locked city. I would note they did create a real bus system, unlike Phoenix, but then they did not sprawl out as fast as Phoenix, they were simply replacement transit at that point.

But- note an odd fact- 1960 was the demographic high for Milwaukee! It started losing population from that point, and today has 597K! Where did the population grow- oh wait, let us check Milwaukee County- why that peaked in 1970- but was roughly the same as 1960.

Hmmm, let's look at the county just to the west of Milwaukee and see what happened- in 1900 Waukesha had 35K- pretty empty. In 1950 it had grown to 86K and was losing it's rural character. But look at 1960 -boom! 158K. Nearly a double in ten years. Now, 2010- 389k. Solid growth, following the automobile. Check out Washington County up US45- doubled to 131k in 2010 from 63k in 1960.

So, the land constrained core has been stagnant or in recession since the second world war (which provided massive employment in industry- which was heavily concentrated in Milwaukee), and after that, it was growth out in the suburbs, not in the urban core. Why?

The car. Period. Cars and development designed for cars have dominated since the second world war.

Energy was cheap, and everyone wanted their own yard (Yes, Emil, the midwest was not the only place, I can trace this kind of development in the northeast as well!).

Now, this is what has killed downtown, because folks who live outside the downtown are never going to spend a lot of time there once they get past the party scene. I was on Mill Avenue two weeks ago and felt ancient, plus the drunks were such a great thing for the children with us to enjoy on the way to the ASU basketball game. I felt like never bothering to come back again, once was enough. The same dynamic exists in downtown Milwaukee, go the ballgames, and split. The local universities have some nightlife, and the cultural center is still there, but thriving Manhattan style does not exist.

Cut off, I continue my comment from above:

Looking at the history of a dense place, you can see the history of weakness with the first trolleys founding inner ring suburbs, which peak much earlier than the outer ring which grows from the automobile.

The real growth comes from the movement of people with money to spend in search of a "better lifestyle". This ruthless trend has led to larger and larger houses (in land constrained areas on smaller and smaller lots leading to McMansions), with new suburbs founded by rich, colonized by the middle class, and the poor are left behind. The real testament to this pattern is the near total urban decay of much of the inner city ring outside of the traditional downtown in almost every single major city in America. Phoenix gentrified and recolonized the northern part of that ring in the last two decades- reoccupying what had been rich and upper middle class at the first suburban rush- but I note the capital district and south of downtown did not do anywhere near as well.

Land prices also drive this dynamic. Aside from Scottsdale, as you go further out, land prices fall. So, now the property owners have to find economic uses for expensive property, so they hope some damned fools will build some more highrise projects and overpay for the dirt.

Now, we come to the next big property nuke for offices- the internet. The dawn of distributed work is here, and it is done sitting at home on the computer. What does this do for the value of those office high rises? Uh, yeah, look at midtown. Want some space?

How much space, and cheaper than you would believe, because it is no longer primo space.

The distributed city is the fact on the ground. The lousy public transportation system is a further fact on the ground. Dig into the Milwaukee stuff and you find a real regional transit system with a much larger and better designed number of bus routes, with much better service. This service costs money, which they subsidize with taxes- which are hated immensely by the folks who don't use them.

As usual. I would note Milwaukee is trying (and failing partially) to get a real light rail system off the ground.

There, a tale of two cities.

"And affordability should be written into the contract as a qualifier for the credits."

But you said before that the downtown was viable in years past because people lived there who had DISPOSABLE INCOME. Now you want to move a lot of poor people there into 'privatized' public housing.

I guess the 'developers' will go for that, but I doubt that it will revitalize anything but already overstuffed corporate coffers.

Dick Smith's Swim Gym was on the southeast corner of 20th Street and East Campbell Roads. My brother, sister and I were all fortunate to have learned to swim there as kids. It was staffed with friendly instructors. We all recall it being good times...

Affordability has to be written into the contract because the main attraction for luring large numbers of new residents into the central city has to be economic: making urban life more appealing to household budgets. I didn't say "fill the downtown with poor people" though they will doubtless be present in the mix.

Also, with less of their income devoted to housing, working and lower middle class residents WILL have more disposable income.

I agree with many of AllenM's remarks, especially regarding the movement of those seeking lifestyle improvements and the dynamic being driven by cheap land on the outskirts.

the money boys traded the equity of a downtown for the dirt they had on the outskirts. drive till you qualify for the nice wall board and sticks with the popcorn ceilings...

ready killowatt and the gold medallion home with never pooped in toilet on a VA/FHA loan. grandma's house is soo 1945, and that new freeway that runs straight to the developers front door---heaven!

The death of downtown Phoenix has been a slow and painful process. Once a thriving hub of activity, the downtown core has been dying a slow death for years. There are a number of factors that have contributed to its decline, but the three most significant are the rise of the suburbs, the flight of the middle class, and the decline of the city’s manufacturing base. While many factors have contributed to the decline of downtown Phoenix, there is still hope for the area. If the city can address the issues of crime and the economy, there is a chance that downtown Phoenix can make a comeback.

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