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January 11, 2018


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Ah, progress...it must have been so alluring to be "moving forward" back when these beautiful buildings were razed. They obviously weren't thinking about a future where the craftsmanship was intrinsic to the character those very different buildings gave Phoenix.

When everything started to be built for the car, you started losing the very vibrancy that makes a downtown leave an indelible memory in those who experience the social electricity that wonderful architecture enhances.

That last photo really brings home how many trees there used to be near downtown.

What’s left today of Phoenix is a gutted carcass sprawled out and dying in the increasingly inhospitable heat. May the changing climate render her back to ashes dispersing the inhabitants to a better life in the Pacific Northwest.

Any bookstore in a larger American city will have titles like Happyville, Then and Now. I'll admit I'm a junkie for this kind of stuff although it's like being assailed by a Dickensian ghost reminding me forever of our collective bad choices. It's a pornography of loss for those who sense a golden age has passed: abandon hope, all ye who turn these pages.

Given the current challenges to sanity and democracy, I'm taking a break from this kind of recreational self-flagellation. Yet every beautiful relic I pass in Portland reminds me why good buildings are a social grace and spiritual necessity. You want anomie and despair? Build cheaply and thoughtlessly. This is why I abandoned my hometown. If I occasionally seem as if I'm smugly superior to Phoenix, it's not because I'm better than the age I grew up in. In fact, none of us are better than one's current time and tribe. Shit happens and only later do we ask why.

We can still create better cities than we currently do. Preservation, of course, is a wonderful thing but so is greater consciousness when it comes to new construction. I'm not sure why this subject is so taboo in our public discourse but the crap we build today is a national scandal. It's killing as as effectively as any dietary toxin or opioid.

The recently published "Phoenix Past and Present," by Paul Scharbach and Robert Melikian provides a pictorial comparison of historic buildings lost and subsumed. An excellent resource.

Great memories Jon. Saw many movies at the Fox. Worked with the Orpheum Foundation in the late 90's, working on their computers, got to roam through the place and enjoy the architecture. Had my first legal alcoholic drink in the bar at the Adams. In early 70's, competed in a pipe smoking contest and the Adams, and won it. Thanks again.

Cal and I are having a mini meeting of the Rogue (or Rouge, as he would say) fan club at Park Central.

When you meet cal, the lady in rouge will ask for your credit card number and password. Don't give it to her.

P.S. Sorry, no such thing as a mini meeting of the club. Four is a quorum. Anything less is a blind date gone wrong.

Helen U been eating them funny candies again that you get from that cult group?

If I were a rich man, I’d buy the Walgreens lot and turn it back into the Helsing’s using the original architectural plans.

When is it?

Something about the sheer number of photos in this post made me say, "God, it's worse than I thought."

When I drive through a town like Pittsburgh I'm always amazed at the grand buildings that punch way above their weight in that smallish city. I've told myself that Phoenix is a bigger city but came of age after the era of urban grandness.

But, we had them! We had the great Western civic buildings that you see in L.A. and San Diego. The photo of the Central Methodist church was the one that got me. That building! The adjacent lush gardens!

I've been reading this column for a long time so I feel like I'm well versed in the how and why of where Phoenix lost it's way. But, man, how could they have torn down almost every last bit of downtown? I mean, all of it, gone? It's like they scraped the center of town and pretended it didn't exist.

I was hanging out at Park Central on 11 January. Missed you and Cal by a day. The energy there is nicer now with the light rail supplanting much of the car traffic on Central. The make shift library was better than I anticipated.

Great article! Those are some nice buildings.

I too am a fan of then and now books. I find them fascinating. The most interesting now photos are when there are at least a few of the original buildings still there, and seeing the changes. In the world outside books, also, I think a cityscape is more engaging when there are some older buildings around.

Another series I love are the Lost X-town books, where they have photos and a short profile of noteworthy buildings no longer with us (rather like this article). I've not seen a Lost Phoenix edition. Right now I'm reading Lost Detroit. I've read several books about that city. It's compelling, I suppose in the same way a car crash is. It's a worst case scenario of what can happen to a great city after 50 or 60 years of unrelenting decline.

It's interesting to hear you put Phoenix and Detroit in the same paragraph relating to historic building decay and demise.

Phoenix just seemed to me to be built cheaply (although I was there only from 2009-2016) because all they had to do was insulate for maybe 70 degrees of temperature variation. The cities further north had to insulate for 120 degrees of variance (-20 to 100).

Stucco is cheap, obviously, but it does have a problem being repurposed--and it certainly doesn't age well. Huge swaths of Phoenix looked just a bit weather-worn and tawdry, which was a visual depressant.

A bifurcated downtown, with no real architectural standouts, was certainly rather odd.

Maybe that's why Phoenix has no real soul: the masterpieces were gutted many decades ago.


1,000 to 1,500 years ago, our ancestors in the southwest discovered though trial and error that adobe type buildings, single level and in many cases, partially excavated into the ground were the best building materials to use in a desert environment. Those structures lasted, well......1,000 to 1,500 years. Then John F. Long showed up.

Hey, AzReb, you don't know a goddamn thing about John F. Long.

AzReb, Hmmm, wonder how long the stucco will last...but it won't be esthetically pleasing, that's for sure. There won't be any books memorializing them.

But B Franklin Reb knows about adobe mud.
A great product. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer. Was popular back when the valley of the sun was a "village".
Long was a nice guy that built a lot of "inexpensive homes"
As I recall he may have put up the first off site pre-manufactured truss joist site.

Bradley, interesting point about the weather in AZ dictating the less substantial looking architecture. Where I live in Houston, we also have a relatively narrow temperature range yet the buildings tend to look more traditional and sturdy (not to say they aren't often built plenty cheap, but all the brick makes them look good).

Detroit was chock full of excellently built high quality structures, the majority made in the architectural sweet spot of the 1880's to 1930's. A lot of them are still standing, but even the best buildings look terrible when neglected or abandoned. Phoenix isn't going the way of Detroit yet, but there is potential for it. At least so far the Valley loses most of its buildings through redevelopment rather than fire and blight.

I have never visited Detroit but like Jon7190 I am fascinated by it. I occasionally look on real-estate sites like Curbed and it's stunning how cheap their housing is priced. Granted, Detroit may be a Rust Belt basket case, but it has some magnificent gems.

By contrast, Phoenix is the homely sister who married money late in life. She's got lots of costume jewelry but it can't quite disguise her weak bones and huge girth. As Rogue has previously written, he has talked to people who call Phoenix a Hispanic Detroit, which was not intended as a compliment.

Detroit is making something of a comeback although it will never be the powerhouse of 1950 again. Still, it's on a major waterway and very well connected to America's remaining industrial infrastructure. I wouldn't bet against Detroit for that reason. There's actually a good reason for a large city in its location.

Having lived in Dayton and Cincinnati, I was struck by the magnificent buildings and civic design that was once commonplace in American cities. It's still there to be reclaimed in many, although "urban renewal" did tremendous damage. Detroit might even restore the Michigan Central Station, one for the ages (but not a beautiful as Cincinnati Union Terminal, which was saved).

The quality future is not found moving further out. It's in the heart of good cities.

Soleri wrote: "Phoenix is the homely sister who married money late in life. She's got lots of costume jewelry but it can't quite disguise her weak bones and huge girth."

That is funny! And really true. The only thing that makes Phoenix visually interesting and kind of unique is the desert scenery. The smooth, easily navigable streets help make the bland architecture go down easier.

New York in the 70's and 80's was as bad as Detroit today in many ways. Its inherent assets helped it come back strong. If Detroit can follow their example, it may be OK.

Chicago is a city that never collapsed like other Rust Belt disasters. Today, it is vibrant bordering on spectacular. Forget all the racial hysteria about Chicagoland. To walk around the loop or uptown is to experience some extraordinary energy and great architecture.

Philadelphia, which recently lost its bragging rights to being the nation's fifth largest city is not quite Chicago but it does have virtues Phoenix will never know. Its downtown skyline is stunning. More importantly, it has irreplaceable assets like a world-class art museum, great universities, and a location midway between the country's two most powerful cities, New York and Washington. If location is destiny, Philadelphia's future is sunny.

There are the obvious winner cities (Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles, et al) but there are others like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and St Louis that can leverage urban assets no Sunbelt megalopolis could ever approach. This nation's future lies in its robust urban centers, not suburbs or exurbs. If we can somehow finesse the current political crisis and catastrophic climate change, the future is very bright in this country.

Not every state or city is equally blessed, of course. This doesn't mean we should turn our backs on those places but we need to appreciate what makes any place worthwhile is its economic and human diversity along with its architectural heritage and random felicities (see: Nashville, Kansas City, New Orleans, Charlotte). This, too, is America's greatness. It has nothing to do with "heartland values" and everything to do with adaptability and connectedness. Even in Texas cities you will see this human capital and capacity for reinvention. Phoenix is not a great city but it is in some important ways getting better. I doubt I'll live long enough to see the definitive transformation, but I've got my bony fingers crossed just the same.

Really b. Franklin, taking the Lord's name in vain???

I met Mr. Long on several occasions and you couldn't find a nicer person. He was the Henry Ford of home building. Regardless of how you feel about the market niche he filled, he was a great Arizonan.

He would have frowned on your your language.

Jon, Rogue columnist is an honest straight foward hard biting column without Rouge.

60 Minutes had a thumbnail sketch of Portland on Sunday that did a reasonably good job depicting my late-life refuge: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/is-portland-still-portlandia/

Everyone I know who lives here complains long and hard about this place. The traffic is already intolerable and getting worse. The homeless situation is out of control. Housing is increasingly unaffordable for the working class and the many young hipsters who give this place its distinctive buzz. Don't move here.

That said, Portland will probably stay precious at least in the eyes of opinion-shapers. That's because it's still the most affordable large city on the left coast. In fact, its economy is dependent for many back-office jobs from companies headquartered elsewhere (e.g., Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce, et al). Portland is not an alpha city but it benefits from being reasonably close to several.

Unlike Seattle and the Bay area, Portland does not have a great university although it does benefit from having a strong medical education and research complex. I suspect as time goes on the wealth magnets that universities create will matter less as technology makes physical campuses less crucial.

People still want to live here, of course, and if they're like me, it's because this city has a treasure trove of great old buildings and houses. Like nearly every city in America, however, this city was profligate in demolishing many irreplaceable gems, including the nation's largest cache of cast-iron buildings outside NYC. There were 200,000 people living here in 1910 so, unlike Phoenix, it was impossible to tear it all down.

The tragedy of Phoenix is that its boom came after WWII so the city shaped itself around the car. You don't retrofit Phoenix with a tight urban fabric because the streets are too wide to allow that. Even with thousands of new apartments in and around downtown, the necessity of car travel doesn't go away.

I caught most of that story on Portland. Don't worry, it did not fill me with a irresistible desire to move there. Sounds like a wonderful place to live, expecially for those of the far left persuasion, but you have to have serious money for a home lest you be stuck on the streets with lots of company.

Do you know much about the fire department? I'm always interested in that. I know they call it the "Bureau of Fire" rather than "Fire Department". That's pretty unique.

And then just for Soleri, a reminder of when the Movie Blue Moon permanently closed the doors of the PIX theater.


Jon1790, as near as I can tell, it's like every fire department I've seen. The firefighters are at my gym every morning working out and occasionally race back to their truck when a call comes in.

There are still some vintage firehouses around Portland and they are quite beautiful. Check them out on Google images.

I think the political part of the 60 Minutes piece was slightly overwrought. Most people who live here are liberal but I only occasionally meet "far left" types. Now, I know I might impress some people as that way myself despite incurring the wrath of the Bernie Brigade on this blog. The well-meaning and earnest citizen is a justifiable stereotype. Many put Black Lives Matters signs on the front of their houses, for example. Still, you'll be reassured that blacks and whites still have tense relations here. A rapidly gentrifying part of town near where I live has had a few bitter episodes where black motorists threaten white bicyclists as they zip through their community in new bike lanes that took out a lane of car traffic.

I think Portland is much closer to the Oprah ideal of kindness than it is the dialectical rigors of Karl Marx. People mean well here and it's a cultural ideal. It's actually not that different from Midwestern Niceness except it colors the way people vote, too. Not a bad thing, in my opinion.

Cal, I went to the Pix as a child although I can't remember what I saw - western serials and stuff like that. I saw Ida Lupino's name on the marquee in the pic and it reminded me of a movie Zonies might like: Lust for Gold starring Lupino and Glenn Ford. It's about the Jacob Waltz and the Lost Dutchman mine. It was shot on location in the Superstitions, so that by itself would recommend this potboiler.

I interviewed with Marshall Shore, who made himself a jack-of-all-local-lore for Phoenix. I used to think Sunnyslope was a kind of anomalous treasure, a woebegone yet magical place where childhood was both rough and sane. Now, I think this nostalgia overstates its uniqueness. All of Phoenix was really wonderful back then, partly because the city still had real character, and partly because the time itself was still informed by shared values. The difference between 1945 and 1965 cannot be overstated. The country changed dramatically and we all had a front-row seat. Obviously, change was necessary but it also washed away local color as an embarrassment of provincialism.

I think our current political distemper was born when people lost their sense that a community could sustain them spiritually. Everyone was in favor of the amazing prosperity in that period but it ultimately came with a high price. In some ways, this change presaged globalization. America had become nationalized as a consumer culture. Buying stuff became our national pastime and other people were less necessary for a family's survival. You could move to a nice new house in a subdivision and away from old neighbors and friends. Again, it was a bargain most of us gladly enjoyed, so there's no blame to infer here. That said, you can understand how consumerism and entertainment are carrying heavy psychic burdens in a country adrift with a loss of meaning and social support.

Reb, I don't have any reason to believe in the M.I.A. Invisible Sky God, so that "in vain" stuff is wasted on me...

Perhaps I overreacted. But using Fred Long as shorthand for the reason behind the "lost paradise" of Phoenix just rubs me the wrong way.

His "market niche" was affordable housing for working class people. Kinda hard to argue against that, ain't it?

And, trust me, he wouldn't have frowned on my language. At least he never did in my experience. In fact, "goddamn son of a bitch" was one of his favorite expletives.

By the way, is it just coincidental that our "sense of community" started to fall apart when the civil rights' movement began to pick up speed and make real progress?

B F.
U trying to tell us something?

B. Franklin, yes, the two were coincident but I'm not sure they were codependent. It troubles me because I don't really know if there was a way for America to integrate socially, which has been fitful at best. Schools, for example, are as segregated in most cities as they ever were. Politically, we passed landmark civil rights legislation, but the courts are now rolling back legal protections, so even that is imperiled. The divide is, in many ways, as deep as it's ever been.

Here in Portland, the historic black section is called Albina. It's the gentrifying area with bike lanes I referred to above. A couple of years ago, black activists decided to fight back. They released a video with a title like A Place Called Home in order to suggest their community was under attack and that they felt alienated by all the new yoga studios, food carts, and bicyclists. This was yet one more example of white privilege exerting itself at their expense. They were being victimized one more time, but this time by well-meaning liberals.

Is there ever an end to this? I think there is hope, at least in some places. I see interracial couples, for example, confidently walking hand in hand. I see some schools, particularly in my central Portland neighborhood where black and white kids play together. It is my fervent hope this becomes America's dominant social reality. Right now, it's too limited but these are good signs.

Community is something central to human development. We are social creatures who are increasingly isolated in social media for our human contact. It is why there is, in my opinion, so much alienation and anger. We need more than random social contact and television. Without a vibrant social matrix, we contract and wither.

We are in transition away from Our Town to something one might call Nowhere in Particular. It cannot be stopped since these trends are as determined as atmospheric forcing. There is only one America and it's future is multiracial. Portland does as good a job as any city I've seen in meeting this reality with open eyes and good intent. But it won't be easy, either politically or socially. Patriots will struggle with open eyes. Charlatans (see: Donald Trump) will pick the scabs of our social wounds for political gain. Underneath it all is the old-as-time human need for connection and meaning.

"sense of community"
frightened bigoted white evangelistic community?

That Phoenix failed to even get in the top 20 of cities considered for Amazons new HQ is telling.

These comments echo my feelings about the lose of the Beauty that was Downtown Phoenix. Born there in 1933, I at least have Fond Memories. Thank you, Penelope Krueger Pigottq

Phoenix Arizona is now a toxic landscape 80s and 90s buildings with no class of the 30sand 40s !!

A Phoenix native born at St Joe's, I left in 1990 when I saw what Phoenix was becoming. Every time I'd come back and visit relatives, I'd get more disgusted with all the glass laden and uninspiring buildings going up at the expense of our great old buildings which were perfectly usable. During those visits I was ready to leave in no more than two or three days. Then starting about 2005 the wreckers were going into residential neighborhoods tearing down old but well maintained homes and single level apartments and building the same junk on them. After mom died in 2014 I said that's it, I'm done ever coming out to Phoenix ever again.
On the same token I've been to dozens of small and larger cities in the last 30 years and NONE of these places have ever done so much carnage to their landscape as Phoenix has. Phoenix stopped being my home 30 years ago and the move was planned even before that. And now with COVID being a part of life, it would be highly unadvisable to keep cramming in more and more buildings and houses in such little space (such as three or four houses per acre which is insane) More people moving in and so closely is a virus machine just waiting to implode.

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