Jon Talton's Brief History of Phoenix Is Nostalgic Without Romance or Schmaltz

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I worry that Jon Talton’s new book will be mistaken for one of those sometimes pleasant Images of America photo books about Arizona, and therefore overlooked. At first glance, A Brief History of Phoenix looks like another installment in the Arcadia Publishing series; its trim size is the same, its cover art recalls Arcadia’s sepia-tinted jacket photos.

A Brief History of Phoenix is something more than a collection of archival photographs of streets and buildings. Talton covers familiar ground — Jack Swilling and the canal system; the impact of the WPA and the setbacks of urban renewal; Barry Goldwater’s run for presidency — while placing Phoenix squarely in a bigger-picture story of America’s evolution.

But there’s more here. A chapter about the Great Depression and its lasting impact, for example, is filled with tiny revelations: Who remembers the Anti-Alien Association, a group of beleaguered farm workers who threatened Japanese farmers? Or Father Emmett McLoughlin’s Phoenix Housing Authority, which advocated for impoverished blacks and Mexicans? Fortunately for us, Talton does.

There’s plenty of nostalgia, to be sure. Photos of the Fox Theatre and ruminations on the failure of John F. Long’s Maryvale will please anyone who thrills to mentions of the Valley National Bank sign or who finds references to Sunnyslope amusing. But Talton, who has made his name in recent years as a writer of noir mysteries, is no city booster. He casts a critical eye where it’s deserved, and keeps his affection for Phoenix in check. He allows his fondness for his hometown (Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan) to inform his story without romance or schmaltz.

No one familiar with Talton’s work — he was a columnist at the Republic for seven years, covering economic and environmental issues with equal aplomb — will be surprised by the elegance of his writing. As he does in his Rogue Columnist blog these days, he reshapes our thinking about local history by folding gentle commentary into simple sketches of times gone by. That smooth storytelling is all the more impressive when one realizes that much of this content is neatly reworked essays Talton has published before.

This is a coherent and valuable assessment of our past, useful and accessible and deeply informative. More important, A Brief History of Phoenix offers an entertaining read, even for readers with only a passing interest in our desert city.

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