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If you're driving back into Phoenix from a trip to San Diego, somewhere along I-10, after brain-numbing miles of creosote, you will realize subconsciously that you are getting close to home because you will begin to notice palm trees sprinkled here and there. You'll see little groups of them planted around isolated houses, like the trees the pioneers planted around their homesteads in Nebraska, proof that they were domesticating that wild land.
Palm trees look peculiar in the desert. There are plenty of palm trees in the city of Phoenix, of course, hundreds of thousands of them. They are as much a part of the city as canals, Mexican restaurants, golf courses and traffic accidents. They are background music. Folks hardly give them a second thought, except when a city administration cuts them down on Central Avenue. It's only when you see them on the outskirts of town, looking decidedly out of their element, that you begin to wonder how palm trees got here, and once they got here, what they've been doing since.
The palm trees of Phoenix are not the gracefully swaying species of the postcards from the Caribbean. Local members of the family Palmaceae tend to be squat, trees that would hold their own in encounters with pickup trucks, but not trees that inspire dreams of chucking it all and becoming a beachcomber. Palm trees are not really good at giving shade. They become a positive nuisance in November when they drop black fruit on the sidewalk and make an unpleasant mess. One species grows a bushy and unattractive skirt of dead palm fronds that hangs in silent witness to one's lack of interest in yard work. This mass of dead foliage can tempt nasty children with matches. (It's happened.) This species of landscaping can also get hit by lightning, catch fire--no problem!--and burn your house down. On the other hand, you can't chop a palm tree down and use it for firewood. You can't get orange juice from it. You can't have fun climbing a palm tree. No footholds. Clearly, the palm tree did not insinuate itself into every neighborhood in Phoenix by selling its utilitarian value. The palm trees of Phoenix are symbols. You can figure this out by looking at the sign in the rear window of a pickup truck headed downtown on the Squaw Peak Parkway one workday morning.
"Lazy Lifestyles, Jay and Diane," the sign says, and there is a picture of a palm tree beside those words. The Dos Flamingos restaurant in Scottsdale features huge, metal palm trees as elements of its decor. And the owners of the Scottsdale Galleria felt so deeply about palm trees, they spent $8,000 apiece for eight artificial ones. (Check it out! They're Styrofoam!)
Palm trees seem to pop up whenever someone wants to let you know you're having a good time. As anyone who has ever received a postcard knows, palm trees are a symbol of vacation. They indicate "earthly paradise." The palm trees of Phoenix tell us we are living in heaven, or at least, that we are all here on a sort of permanent vacation, even if we are heading downtown on the Squaw Peak Parkway for another day and another dollar.
They are an indication that, finally, goddamnit, we are having fun.
@body:The first palm tree in Phoenix was said to have been a tourist attraction. "The tree was photographed by every winter visitor who came to Phoenix until it adorned Kodak collections in all parts of the United States and many parts of Europe," bragged an article about it. Clara Evans' palm tree grew from seeds brought from the Sandwich Islands in 1879 by Judge Alexander D. Lemon, and planted in her yard at 234 West Monroe, a site now frequented only by tourists who are lost, since it contains the parking lot of the First American Title building. Palm trees were something folks in Phoenix, newcomers and winter visitors, bragged about to the chilly unfortunates back home. A picture in the Arizona Graphic of December 23, 1899, shows a smug gentleman sitting under palm trees with an exotic drink and a watermelon on a table in front of him. "Merry Christmas, Phoenix, Arizona," reads a hand-lettered sign.
The precursor of Walgreen's photo Christmas card, this homemade special served the same purpose: to show the recipient how much better the sender's life is than his own. "Better" in this case translates roughly to, "You don't have to shovel sunshine."
Local mythology, however, has ignored Clara Evans and credited the first palm trees in Phoenix to Dwight Heard, he of the museum fame. Folks at the museum get a little tired of denying the story, but there is a kernel of truth to it. Dwight Heard, in addition to collecting Indian art, was a developer. He platted and sold the Los Olivos neighborhood downtown, one of whose selling points was its streets lined with palm trees.
So important were palms to the Heards, they came in for specific mention at Maie Bartlett Heard's funeral in 1951: "Early in their residence here, believing in the great possibilities of reclaiming the desert and of making the town and the valley more beautiful, they began to set out palm trees, lots of them, at their home. . . ."