But now, if all goes as planned, they might find the remnants of cleverly designed bridges, parks and trails concrete and steel monuments to a way of life past, present and future that is uniquely Phoenix.
At least half a dozen major projects are in the works or at least on artists' drawing boards that will be icons for a city that could certainly use more flavor and flair.
The City of Phoenix has had a solid public arts program in place since the late 1980s. It captured national attention in 1992 with the Squaw Peak pots, a series of large and small artfully designed vessels erected in the neighborhoods near Highway 51 and along the freeway's retaining walls. Since then, the city has engaged artists to put creative touches at other spots around town, including some pedestrian overpasses, in parks and along streets, at transit centers and public buildings.
Now Phoenix is about to get more interesting, as the city moves forward with an ambitious group of new projects.
The one that will be perhaps the most visible stems from a public safety problem at the intersection of 24th Street and Camelback Road, one of the city's premier shopping, dining and business addresses. People crossing between the Esplanade on the south side of Camelback and Biltmore Fashion Park on the north embrace another Phoenix tradition jaywalking not bothering with the crosswalks and traffic signals at the intersection. This is the infamous spot where, a few years ago, radio personality Carla Foxx speared a local attorney who was attempting a dash across in front of her car.
By 2006, the city hopes to have in place the first of what may eventually be four skybridges the kinds of pedestrian overpasses common in many cities that link shopping centers and restaurant or office complexes. City planners and business groups in the area envision a series of bridges that would link buildings in a kind of square of crossovers spanning all four sides of the intersection.
Traffic engineering supervisor John Siefert says a consultant, chosen from 10 who submitted bids and preliminary plans, has begun designing the first bridge, a $3.3 million project between the Esplanade and Biltmore Fashion Park, but it will be about six months before officials have a glimpse of what the bridge might look like.
Eventually, the city's innovative arts commission will get involved, and an artist will be included to help give the structure the same touch of imagination that has worked well in other public arts projects around town.
"It's become a really important part of community-building," says Greg Esser of the arts commission.
Indeed, another project that is expected to be finished by the end of the year is a testament to the creativity that comes when artists team up with engineers and builders. Arizona Falls, a $6 million re-creation of a historic waterfall on the Salt River Project's Arizona Canal at 56th Street and Indian School Road, casts an artistic shroud over functional structures that house electrical generators and other equipment as well as providing a historical and educational opportunity.
"Left to our own devices, we tend to do things in our own utilitarian fashion," says SRP's Jim Duncan. "This has been kind of an adventure for SRP."
For decades, SRP's canals have been arguably the most significant icon in the Valley. So it's perhaps no surprise that city officials are taking advantage of them in creating other visionary monuments to life in the Valley.
Still another major project, expected to take shape in segments over the next five years, is being spearheaded by the Papago Salado Association, in conjunction with Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and SRP. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts helped spur a design competition that featured teams of local and national experts creating a vision for an 11-mile trail (generally around Papago Park) that connects the three cities along the banks of three canals.
If the project, which will include a heavy dose of shade, water features, paths, historic trail signs and perhaps even a skate park, turns out well, SRP likely will continue in a similar vein along the entire 131-mile canal system in the Valley, Duncan says.
In this issue, New Times provides a look at some of the bigger projects in the works.
So Phoenix may not be getting a Space Needle or a Golden Gate Bridge. Yet. But at least we'll have more to show future generations than the Hohokam left behind.
The Ones That Got Away
Projects that never made it past the drawing board.
Artists Mags Harries and Lajos Hder (who did the Squaw Peak pots) are designing this canal project.
Portals & Loops
Papago Trail's winning design: A multifaceted team of national and local artists and designers is led by architects Christopher Alt and Dan Hoffman.
Developments go up and over at various Valley sites.