Time Transients

A new millennium in Phoenix, where the motorist in the next lane is your auld acquaintance

It's because of the incomers that the air is so bad. A hundred years ago, Arizona was a place people came to because of its air, hoping it would ease their respiratory ailments. Doc Holliday, dentist and killer, came because he had TB. He wouldn't be advised to come now. When people come here for a while, they bring their homes with them, bring plants that were never intended to live in the desert. So now we have the most violent allergic reactions to the air we breathe.


If there's any one thing that distinguishes Phoenix as a place, it's that the city is still becoming. There may be arguments as to what it's becoming, but no one disputes the becoming, no one can reasonably doubt that the place is still in the process of giving birth to itself, becoming whatever it will eventually be. Everything here is so stark, so obvious; everyone is on the make, everything is a hustle, everyone wants something from someone else.

Timothy Chapman

This is true of every place, but in Phoenix it's so undisguised. The city lacks the sophistication to even attempt to conceal its hungers and lusts.

Convicted on six charges of fraud, Governor J. Fife Symington leaves office, blithely appeals his conviction and enrolls at an exclusive culinary school. No apology or explanation is offered.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, one of the state's most popular politicians, is declared by Amnesty International to be a human rights violator, and the lawsuits brought by the families of people tortured and murdered in his custody cost millions in damages. His supporters declare that this is a worthwhile cost in the war against crime. But Arpaio has had no effect at all on the rate of crime or the rate of criminal recidivism. No apology or explanation is offered.

We are among the leaders of the country when it comes to shootings by the cops, and no apology or explanation is offered.

Our elected representatives use taxpayer money to fund the building of a baseball stadium, and to open new hotels downtown. The taxpayers are not allowed to vote on these matters. No apology or explanation is offered.

A crooked land developer once said that, in Phoenix, when you try to sell people out, they take the first offer.

Some of us rail against these things, call them outrageous. But to be surprised is to show a lack of knowledge of the history of this place. It has always been this way. Phoenix was founded as a hustle, a get-rich-quick scheme. Symington, Arpaio, Mecham, Keating -- none of them are anomalous. They are the proud bearers of the city's heritage. They are the sons of Jack Swilling.


His face looks up through the grain of the black-and-white photograph. His dark hair is long and tumbling, his mustache is bushy and reaches to his chin. His left hand holds a cowboy hat, his right holds what appears to be a gun slung over his shoulder. His eyes are large and surprised-looking, and he seems to be smirking a little. There is no date on the picture, so it is hard to guess how long it will be until he dies in Yuma Territorial Prison at the age of 48. From what is known of John William Swilling, it is a safe bet that he would have approved of the city he founded.

Jack Swilling was a drunk and an opium addict. He was also an Army scout, Army deserter, teamster, farmer, prospector, speculator, anything he thought would make him a fast buck. He was as corrupt as he was hardworking, and his imagination was exceeded only by his bad luck.

He was born in South Carolina in 1830. He was 37 when he found himself passing through the Valley. Few people lived here then -- most settlers considered it too hot, and opted for regions further north or south -- but the Army had established Fort McDowell two years earlier, as part of the war against the Apache.

Swilling could find a potential hustle anywhere, and a new one occurred to him when he saw the remains of the irrigation canals left behind by the Hohokam when they disappeared 400 years earlier. He headed to Wickenburg, a town based on mining, and got together enough of a bankroll to set up the Swilling Irrigating and Canal Company. He hired 16 employees and had them clean some of the canals. Then he started growing hay to sell to Fort McDowell.

That got things rolling. Other people came to the Valley on the make, and in 1870 there were 235 residents. A year later, the Valley separated from Yavapai County. John T. Alsap came down from Prescott to be our first mayor. Assorted groups of interested parties began fighting over the question of where to locate the county seat. There was bribery, fraud, intimidation, and in the end a townsite was prepared on Central and Washington.

Welcome to Phoenix, best-run city in the world.

No one knows who named the town "Phoenix." We do know that it wasn't Swilling. He busily carried on drinking and brawling, and ended up in prison for a robbery there's little evidence that he committed. In 1880, two years after his death, Phoenix had a population of 1,708.

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