Best Dirt 2011 | Phoenix | People & Places | Phoenix
Here's the dirt: The soil in Phoenix is made mostly of minerals.

That's a no-brainer, to be sure. But consider this. In an era when levels of hazardous pollutants are rising alarmingly worldwide, our Arizona soil continues to maintain a shockingly healthy profile.

It must be all that dry heat. Or the fact that the soil in Phoenix is composed mainly of clay, with large deposits of calcium carbonate, which makes it highly alkaline and, therefore, generally great for planting. That's the good news; the bad news is that calcium carbonate also forms layers of rock-hard caliche, making it impossible to dig a hole in many parts of town. (Ever wonder why there's so little underground parking here? Or why so few houses are built atop basements?)

Plants don't care about parking, though; what they really want is water. Because our lower desert soil is often high in iron (a chemical typically unavailable to plants, which like a drink that's lower in alkalinity), and our water is fairly alkaline and salty, it's not a bad idea to mulch the heck out of your topsoil before planting a temperamental tiger lily (or whatever), to create a better-balanced soil that quenches a plant's thirst for lower-pH water.

Because Phoenix's dense clay soil packs together tightly, becoming like soup when it's wet and preventing proper soil aeration, green thumb gardeners recommend making the soil around a plant more permeable to air with a bagful of large-grained sand to improve aeration. Ironic, isn't it? Adding sand to the soil of the desert. But there you go — another thing about Phoenix that doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense.

To see an illustrated infographic of caliche, visit

Right in the middle of metropolitan Phoenix, they've been digging for decades at Pueblo Grande. Usually the cache includes clay pots, shell jewelry, and stoneware — Arizona's alkaline dirt isn't good for preserving centuries-old textiles, baskets or bones, although sometimes the intense heat has preserved impressions of such items (or even the rare footprint) onto rock.

In the late 1980s, archaeologists made an usual discovery at Pueblo Grande: a group of clay animal figurines. Seven dogs, about four to five inches in height, rested 12 centimeters below the soil in the floor of a Hohokam pit house. Why they were made and what they were used for remains a mystery.

Holly Young, collections curator for the museum, speculates that the dogs, two of which appear to be pregnant, may have been part of fertility rituals. Each figure has a hole in its posterior that Young suggests could indicate a dog in heat rather than being a generic representation of — well, you can use your imagination. Archaeologists do that all the time, since very little is known about the religious beliefs and practices of the Hohokam Indians, who originally settled the Valley. Though animal figures and effigies can be found in their art, any meaning suggested remains speculative. For example, representations of frogs are found fairly frequently, leading researchers to believe that they were symbols of water.

The Hohokam flourished in this region from about 500 to 1450 A.D., though the starting dates continue to be pushed back as more and more evidence is unearthed and as archaeological methods become more sophisticated. They were an agricultural people who developed a complex irrigation system to grow crops like corn, beans, and squash.

Evidence from the soil has shown that the area was densely settled. "The landscape was dotted with villages," said Young. "There were quite a few people actually living here, farming, working." After the Hohokam society collapsed — perhaps due to natural disasters or disease — the Valley did not regain the same population density again until after World War II.

"It's a very subtle archaeology," Young says of her work. "It's not like going to places like Egypt — it's hot and dry and dusty there — but you've got big buildings that you're digging around and that kind of thing, whereas here we're basically looking at stains in the soil.

"The depth of digs in the Valley ranges from a few inches to several hundred feet, depending on the position of the bedrock. Closer to the Salt River, where hundreds of years' worth of silt deposits have accumulated, excavations tend to go deeper. But just as mid-century homebuilders discovered that the layer of caliche made house construction complicated, archaeologists found it to be an obstacle for their work as well.

The Hohokam themselves encountered caliche in their own time. It was used to carve artifacts, added in pottery clay, as well as mixed in with plaster to create smooth surfaces.

So what of our society? How will our remains fare over the ages? "It depends on how we go away," Young says, laughing. Within a few hundred years, everything that makes up Phoenix probably will be underground.

"Obviously, the glass is not going to last that long because it's brittle and it will break. Steel is going to last a little bit longer, until it starts rusting. So it all depends on how a society gets destroyed, what happens to its structures to begin with. If there's a neutron bomb and buildings are still left standing, it may take a lot longer to degrade. If it's something like a massive earthquake or a conventional nuclear weapon, it might go away fairly quickly," she says.

But our day-to-day materials do not stand a chance of outlasting Hohokam treasures.

"Plastics, of course, fall apart pretty quickly, especially when exposed to sunlight," Young says. "Most of the metals that we use, like iron alloys for cans and stuff like that, they fall apart incredibly fast in the desert . . . We're talking a matter of centuries for all of the metal things to go away."

Indeed, she says, a copper bell found at another Hohokam site nearby — likely dating to the 15th century — "probably survived better than just about any of our metal artifacts will."

To see a slideshow of artifacts from Pueblo Grande, visit
One thing downtown Phoenix has in abundance is empty dirt lots. Not for long, if one energetic group of civic-minded garderners has anything to do with it. We love simple ideas — those knock-yourself-on-the-side-of-the-head and say, "Why didn't I think of that?!" ideas that make a big splash. In this case, a big splash of color. A highfalutin-sounding partnership of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation and Phoenix Union Bioscience High School (translation: a bunch of artists and some high school kids) have leased empty lots with plans to plant two acres of sunflowers in the Evans Churchill neighborhood between Fifth and Sixth streets and Garfield and McKinley streets. Eventually the sunflowers will be pressed for oil and used for biodiesel fuel, and seeds/flowers will be sold at the Phoenix Public Market, but to be honest, the part we're most excited is about the a big field of yellow flowers that will take over an empty dirt lot early next year. Consider it a bouquet to the city. And a really great — if simple — idea.
In 1974, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson unearthed a revolutionary fossil in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia: the 3.18-million-year-old remains of a female hominid known today as Lucy. Johanson and graduate student Tom Gray were about to return to their camp after long hours of searching for fossilized remains when, on a whim, Johanson insisted on checking a nearby gully one more time. As luck (or instinct?) would have it, they noticed human bone fossils and returned later that day to uncover the remains of a skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis, at that time the oldest upright walking humanoid known to man. At the celebration held by the expedition that night, a recording of The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was played over and over again, inspiring the skeleton's name. In 1981, Johanson established the Institute of Human Origin in Berkeley, California, which was moved to Arizona State University in 1997 — and that is how the Valley came to be home to the man who discovered one of the world's most famous women.
What makes the buried treasure story of Sierra Estrella (southwest of Phoenix) so cool is that there's not one, but several buried treasure legends tied to the area. One is the "Montezuma Head" treasure, which was supposedly left in a cave at Montezuma Point by a guy named either Campoy or Ortega, depending on which version of the story you hear.

The legend says that Campoy/Ortega found 3,000 pounds of gold in the Estrellas, and because the local natives were after him, he hid the gold in a peak just below Montezuma Head and died before he could retrieve it. Another legend talks about the lost mine of Don Joaquim, who reportedly dug a gold mine in the Estrellas in 1847 and made off with tons of gold packed onto the backs of 15 mules. Joaquim is said to have ridden south over the Estrella Mountains to a hidden cave, where he tucked away his haul, and, of course, died before getting back to it.

A third buried treasure legend talks about a small wagon train being ambushed just past Montezuma Head during the gold rush of 1847-1849. The looters supposedly made off with $50,000 and buried the money piecemeal over several nights. Of course, none of these treasures have ever been found, but you can't kill a legend — especially one that involves looking for a ton of riches.

Best Buried Indian Treasures Best Secret

Heard Museum

At the bottom of an elevator shaft at the end of a clean hallway in downtown Phoenix's Heard Museum is a basement full of boxes, tubes, and bags.

Take a few (very) wrong turns and press a couple of wrong buttons, and you might end up down there — but don't expect to see anything good without a curator.

The basement's main hallway is piled high with books for the annual book sale and years' worth of display cases, forgotten mannequins, and shipping crates full of rare, and often ancient, artwork.

And behind a series of highly secured doors is what Heard Museum staff call the underbelly of the world-class museum of Native American art.

The museum built the underground facility in 1967, after Senator Barry Goldwater gave the museum his collection of kachina dolls. Decades later, the space is home to moving shelves full of historic baskets, textiles, paintings, and ceramics (all catalogued in the archive's yellowing, basement computer) from various discoveries and private donations of larger collections, including those of entrepreneur Fred Harvey and local real estate big hitter Russ Lyon.

Curators and staff are careful to note the museum's history of repatriating items to their communities, though a few items waiting to be transferred require special care and honoring of the original artist's customs and traditions. They also insist that there are no shrunken human heads in the archives (though a few locals remember seeing them on Boy Scout trips and museum visits decades ago, and others in a position to know claim the skulls are, or were, actually those of chimps).

A number of pieces at the Heard will never be showcased and even more are in the process of being packed up and sent home. Other than an upcoming exhibition of gold jewelry, we may never know what else lies behind the vaulted door in the curator zone, and if security and museum traditions get their way, we never will.

To see more photos of the Heard Museum's basement, visit

You can call David Quan the guy behind many of the large-scale murals on the sides of buildings along Grand Avenue — but he prefers to stick to the moniker Luster Kaboom. The local artist and comic started his Grand Ave. mural habit on The Trunk Space with the huge green face of a slobbering monster (sporting very sophisticated glasses). Since then, he's painted the insides of the avenue's galleries and on the front of Citywide studios. Our favorite so far (along with the one he painted on our own building, in honor of Best of Phoenix) is his blue "goo-scape" on the side of the Chocolate Factory. Quan jokes that the bright aquamarine was the cheapest color for his airbrush machine. If that's true, thank the hardware store, because the dripping, oozing, mural that wraps around the building just gave us yet another reason to park the car along the avenue for a closer look.
Ike doesn't consider himself a street artist like Banksy of Exit Through the Gift Shop fame. That film presents street artists as talented, cerebral, invested, politically clever, sometimes disturbed guerillas, and it's brought street art into the public consciousness. Some might argue that these artists do us all a public service. They make us laugh and think. Others, and the law, label them criminals, which is why they fiercely protect their identities and practice their art under cover of night.

Ike — a college student who studies art and marketing — is part of a local graffiti crew that actually accepts commissions and participates in competitions, which means he lives with one foot above ground and the other deep underground.

Ike's been busted. The first time, he was 13. He tagged a bathroom and the school pressed charges. Then, when he was 16, he was arrested for painting downtown — a felony carrying serious consequences that bleed into his adult life. Ike is undeterred. "I'm gonna get my message out there whether you like it or not," he says, and describes some anti-SB 1070 writing a lot of crews have been putting out there. But there isn't a trace of aggression or threat in his voice.

In fact, Ike might be considered a pacifist. He says, "Trying to bang on each other through graffiti — that needs to stop." Along with competition among top crews, there are rules in this world. When one writer goes over someone else's graffiti, it can escalate to violence. "Some crews hook up with the gangs for protection," admits Ike, who's seen and been in the throes of serious violence, even gunplay. But, he's careful to emphasize, graffiti and gangs are not mutually exclusive.

There's legal painting — businesses like carwashes and pawnshops, skate parks, fundraisers — that brings graffiti into the mainstream, but not without a cost to the artist. "People call you a sell-out, bitch, pussy, artsy-fartsy when you try to go legit," he acknowledges.

Staying underground is harder work, more purposeful, and dangerous. "The craziest thing is painting the freeway signs," he says, then describes running across five lanes of traffic, shimmying up a sign pole, hanging over it and onto it for dear life while painting one-handed and upside down as traffic thunders by below. Painting train cars is safer footing but requires ninja-like skills in getting over fences and past security.

"We are like ninjas," says Ike. "We're really smart. That's how we gotta be."

As a kid, Ike got into graffiti through skateboarding and hip-hop. Now it's all about letters and depth. He likes text, and that affinity is literally expensive. He uses mostly spray paint, favoring Montana, a high-end German product designed by and for graffiti artists, and he budgeted about $1,500 last year for paint. A local hardware store cuts him a deal.

"Writers are doing graffiti for a reason. You have to have some emotional problems. Other people smoke pot or read the Bible. It's my way to stabilize myself," Ike says before pausing and becoming thoughtful for a minute. "Probably in an unstable way."To see more photos of Ike's graffiti, visit

Like any good (and smart) graffiti artist, KENO keeps a low profile — until he decides to put up a piece in one of his signature spots or a huge roller (i.e., a thick tag, literally done with a bucket of paint and standard paint roller). His work is recognizable by clean letters and wild styles, and it's traditional by graffiti standards: He sticks to writing his name and the name of his crew, BAMC, on walls, boxes, bridges, and trains throughout Phoenix. But unlike any of the dozens of other crew members or big names within the graffiti scene, KENO's developed a knack for documenting the work of others in addition to his own. He started KENO TV ( a year ago and has since shot, edited, and published 14 short films that feature local graffiti and graffiti artists. Now that's style.
Sure, there are plenty of sidewalk spots and electrical boxes in Phoenix that are decorated by a few secretive street artists in town.

But when we want to see something fresh and impressive, we head to the northeast corner of Fourth and Garfield streets. Just behind reBAR, around the corner from the fading Soldierleisure mural, theres an abandoned, red-brick building whose boarded-up windows serve as frames for some of our favorite stencils. Artists Nomas and SIKE have been here HMPH and CITIZEN, too.

Theyve sprayed Madonnas, monikers, gorillas, and political messages onto the buildings plywood and paper-pasted front door, and theyve given us a sure-fire spot to catch some seriously cool artwork.

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