Van Buren Street: Phoenix’s Former Main Drag Is Now Just a Drag

Editor's note: This begins an occasional series about Van Buren Street.

I'm obsessed with Van Buren Street. I spend way too much time thinking about this once-bustling thoroughfare, which rather quickly became — and stayed — a miles-long punch line to a joke about how Phoenix is a town that keeps trying and failing to find a spot on our own map.

More than a hundred years after the city was founded, our former main drag is lately just a drag — and has been for nearly half a century.

And everyone, it seems, has a Van Buren story — each as ugly as the street itself. A former colleague of mine ran out of gas there once in the '80s and, while walking to a nearby gas station, stumbled on what he thought was a drunk sleeping on the sidewalk. The drunk turned out to be a dead body. In the '50s, my Aunt Jay met Clark Gable in the parking lot of a Van Buren piano bar; Gable was, she claimed, very drunk and quite rude to her. And the guy who used to cut our lawn told me once that, when he and his sisters misbehaved when they were little, his father would drive them out to the recently renamed State Insane Asylum at 24th Street and Van Buren, park out front, and say, "If you kids don't shape up, I'm going to dump you here and let Winnie Ruth Judd take care of you." (Actually, at the time my pal's father was using this horrible scare tactic, Winnie — a Phoenix gal who'd been unfairly accused of murdering her two best friends in 1931 and sentenced to life in the loony bin — wasn't there, having recently escaped to California.)

But Van Buren once was glorious. The notorious street — home to hookers, an abandoned jailhouse, and a whole lot of sleazy motels — was originally a rural road known as Route 60 that ran between our town and the village of Tempe and was home to Phoenix's most esteemed institution, the Insane Asylum of Arizona, built in 1885. Phoenix's oldest cemetery is located on Van Buren Street, as is its first zoo. Van Buren is the birthplace of the Miranda rights, that legal litany read by every cop in the nation during any routine arrest, the one that begins, "You have the right to remain silent . . ." (In 1966, a fellow named Ernesto Miranda murdered a woman walking home along Van Buren but went free after the Supreme Court ruled that he'd been denied his constitutional rights; the resulting legal warning was named for him.)

With the advent of the automobile in the 1920s, Van Buren became a main thoroughfare jammed with swanky cocktail lounges and "motor lodges," a convenience to those traveling U.S. Highways 70, 80, and 89, all of which intersected Van Buren. In the 1950s, the block began to glitter with de rigueur neon, indicating its hip hotness and trumpeting its spectacular new in-ground pools and the state's first drive-in movie theater.

By the 1970s, though, Van Buren's calling card had gone from urbane to urban decay, thanks in part to the expansion of Interstate 10. No longer the main thoroughfare into Phoenix, Van Buren turned to seed as folks sped past its mid-century motor courts on the shiny new highway, toward Holiday Inns and mega-malls and away from what was now considered "the bad part of town." Phoenix had begun to drift northward, and Van Buren, once a thriving destination north of town, never recovered.

There have been attempts to revitalize Van Buren, of course — most notably Camden Copper Square, that swanky new condominium complex just east of Seventh Street. In 2007, after a yearlong investigation into prostitution, Sheriff Joe Arpaio forced Van Buren's motels to surrender their hour-rate licenses, which probably only resulted in people being fellated in their cars rather than in what's left of Van Buren's rundown motels.

Van Buren is a mess, but it, like our sad and depraved stories about it, belongs entirely to Phoenicians. My own Van Buren story is pretty mundane. On the day my father bought me my first car — a gift for having made it through high school — I phoned my friend Brian and said, "Put your shoes on; we're going to go look at whores on Van Buren." Not because we planned to do business with hookers; Brian's passion at the time was for superhero comics, and mine belonged to Katharine Hepburn movies and guys with mustaches. But we, children of the Phoenix suburbs, were fascinated by the idea that there was a place in our town we could get to by car, an entire other world, where women in hot pants and Afros stood on street corners, their hands on their hips, glowering at passersby like extras from a rerun of Baretta.

We drove slowly east on Van Buren, ogling the booby hatch and the paint-peeling neon signs and the gaudy hookers, my new car doors safely locked against Phoenix's scary past. We were tourists in our own town.

"Wow," I remember Brian saying. "Is this really what Phoenix used to be?"

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela