Best of Phoenix

Best of Phoenix: Cruising Down Central Avenue

Best of Phoenix: Cruising Down Central Avenue
Jacob Tyler Dunn/Peter Speyer

You’re cruising Central, headed south. Because you’ve lived in Phoenix longer than you care to remember, you’re seeing not just the buildings on either side of this wide expanse of road, but what used to stand in their places as well. You’ve been here so long, you remember when driving up and down this street, looking to hook up, was a weekend activity of every baby boomer in town.

Here on your right is Park Central Mall. Its recent facelift gives Phoenix’s first outdoor shopping mall a Midcentury Modern feel, but you’re not fooled. You recall when there were actual department stores there, where today there’s a collection of business offices, a handful of chain restaurants, and — huzzah! — a Starbucks. One thing they got right was returning the Walter Emory Sun Worshipper statue, a long-ago Park Central mainstay, to the property. Even if it is on the wrong side of the mall.

Up here on the left is Durant’s, where you’ve consumed many a Caesar salad, and then the Heard Museum, founded in 1929. You’ve never eaten a salad there, but you’ve enjoyed its unmatched collection of Native American art. Someone asked you once if Phoenix Towers, Ralph Harris’s 13-story Modern Movement residential high-rise, has always been pink. Before you can remember how you replied, you’re distracted by the BMO Tower, originally built by cosmetics company Dial Corporation to resemble a well-worn bar of Dial soap (yet known far and wide as “the cockroach” because it so closely resembles a giant insect jammed into the earth). There’s a quick tug at your heartstrings when you glance at the cultural supermall on your left, because that’s where your favorite library used to be. It’s gone now, eaten up by the expanded and improved Phoenix Art Museum and Phoenix Theatre Company venues.

Your melancholy only lasts a minute, because just past the light at McDowell you’re greeted by the gorgeous, copper-clad five-story Burton Barr Library, a Will Bruder masterpiece you always think of as “the new library” even though it was built in 1995 — 100 years after many of the mansions that used to line this stretch of Central, known then as Millionaires’ Row, had all been torn down. Well, all but the Ellis-Shackelford House, a gorgeous Prairie Style two-story built in 1917 and now home to Arizona Humanities Council, a nonprofit that encourages Arizonans to explore history and culture.

Over a bridge, past the park and the castle-like Irish Cultural Center, and suddenly you’re on First Avenue, somehow. That’s Central Avenue for you, sneaking off and becoming another street the farther south you take it. You won’t be fooled by Central’s whims, though, and a quick left at Fillmore gives you a peek at that big, elegant Spanish Colonial Revival post office built in 1932 as you take another left back onto Central.

Headed back home, you catch a glimpse in your rearview mirror of the radio-tower-antennaed Westward Ho, once the tallest building in the state, its 16 stories a hotel until 1980 and now a home for the elderly and disabled. Like the post office and so many other old buildings down here, a big chunk of the Ho’s lower level is occupied by various departments of ASU.

And suddenly, here’s Circles Records, or what you’ll always think of as Circles Records, anyhow, even though that venerable music shop has been closed for more than a decade now. Before it was the best place in town to buy LPs and 8-tracks, Circles was the Stewart Motor Company, a Studebaker dealership where passersby could watch a giant automobile slowly spinning on a turntable in the rotunda right on Central. The rotunda is still there, from which a breakfast place called Snooze sells habanero pork belly eggs Benedict and orange juice.

You think about stopping for a bloody mary, and then decide to keep going, up and down Central, reliving your own past and the downtown heyday of the city you love.
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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