Time Transients

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

Just like today, prisoners were used in chain gangs to clean the streets, which were made from beer bottles. Indians could only be in the city at night if they could prove they were employed by a resident white person.

By the turn of the century, the population stood at 5,544. The first cars arrived, and people suffering from TB were coming to the Valley in the hope of a cure, or at least a longer life. But they had to have money; in 1903, tents were banned from the city limits in an attempt to drive out poor people with TB. This resulted in tent cities being created in areas surrounding Phoenix.

The growth continued. By 1930, it was the largest city in the state, and the second largest in the Southwest, with a population of 48,118. It would take only another 10 years for it to reach 65,000. By 1955, it had more than doubled, to 156,000. Five years later, it had 439,170.

Timothy Chapman

It is 1998, and I am driving south on Central Avenue, passing Dunlap. The man in my passenger seat is visiting Phoenix because he lived here in the late '60s and wants to see what it has turned into. "This," he says, looking out of the window, "was all desert. I mean, it wasn't even rural. It was just desert."

Then it is 1999, approaching the year's end, and a poll shows that nearly half of the city's residents would leave right now if they could.

What happened?

Over the past 20 years, the growth turned into an explosion of uncontrolled development. But that has happened with pretty much every city in the country, and people still want to live in them. What went wrong here?

The answer, appropriately enough, can be found in the opening scenes of a classic horror movie. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, released 40 years ago, begins with a bird's-eye view of Phoenix. The city was instantly recognizable -- Camelback Mountain, the downtown skyline . . .

And it's still instantly recognizable. When you freeze the frame and look closely at it, it's hard to see any difference. Forty years of growth, and no change in the skyline? Nothing blocking the way? Where is all the development, new buildings, houses, offices?

Normally, development is preceded by planning. Not here. We've just thrown buildings up wherever we thought they were needed. We've built out, instead of up. To get from one place to another, instead of taking elevators and walking, you have to drive. And everything is farther than it seems. Think of a place you consider to be nearby, a handy place you go to every day. For a change, walk there instead of driving and see how long it takes you. What seems like it would be a stroll turns out to be a hike.

The growth, the maniacal expansion, has nothing to do with the development of community. In spite of the boom, the community has not grown wealthier. Instead, people have come here and grown wealthy. One of the factors that makes the Valley attractive to big business is the low wages. Poor neighborhoods are ignored, left to themselves, and the rest of us only hear about them when the constantly simmering violence reaches a boiling point and spills out into other areas.

As the new century begins, the Arizona Republic reports that six-shooters have been replaced with cell phones. While in keeping with the paper's new, openly boosterist image, this is simply not true. The reality is that violence has kept pace with development. It is characteristic of this city that, when a county supervisor supported the public bankrolling of Bank One Ballpark without letting the public vote on it, someone shot her in the ass.

On the way downtown for the New Year's Eve bash, I stop at a bar at Seventh Street and Virginia.

The old man's name is Peter. He was born in Phoenix, grew up here and has hardly been anywhere else. He's worked a lot of jobs, mainly construction.

We sit at the bar and he drinks his Budweiser and he talks. I ask him if he knows who Jack Swilling was. He doesn't. But he knows other pieces of the city's history. He talks about Winnie Ruth Judd, who was convicted in 1931 of killing two women, dismembering the bodies and shipping them to California in a trunk. "She was called the trunk murderess, all right? They put her in the loony bin, and she kept on escaping. I was a little boy, and when my dad wanted to scare me, he'd say, 'You better watch out or Winnie Ruth Judd's gonna come and get you.'"

What's he going to do for New Year's?

"Go to my neighbor's house."

What does he think of the party downtown?

"I don't know. I ain't going, that's for sure. So that's what I think about it," he says, laughing.

He doesn't like me much, but I like him, and would like to stay here and drink beer with him all night. But he's going to leave. If he invited me to go with him, I'd be tempted, but he doesn't. I press him for a comment, ask him what he thinks about all the changes he's seen, all the development, all the corruption.

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