How air conditioning saved, and ruined, Phoenix, Arizona
I collect old photos of Phoenix and I post them on the web. I have collected thousands of images and sometimes I just look through them and wonder, "How did these people survive without air conditioning?" Then I wonder, "Whatever happened to the trees? And the beautiful buildings with shady porches?" And the answer seems to be air conditioning.
Now, don't get me wrong. I like air conditioning. I have a house in Glendale with a wonderful heat pump A/C that just cost me about $5,000 to replace a couple of years ago. And my car has great air conditioning, too. Without A/C I wouldn't dream of living in a place that consistently gets over 100 degrees every year, even into the teens. I've even experienced over 120 degrees (that was back in the '90s).
But people were living in this desert long before the invention of air conditioning. And I'm not just talking about the Hohokams. The city of Phoenix itself goes back to 1870. Do the math, that's over fifty years of waiting for air conditioning to be invented. And like any technology, it was expensive, and rare, in the beginning. So there were many generations of people living in Phoenix who lived without air conditioning. And even if you say, "Yeah, it wasn't quite so hot then", it was still ridiculously hot.
The images of Phoenix that catch my eye are the ones that show how wonderful it is in the winter. Even before the common use of air conditioning, Phoenix had a strong tourism industry. And it was aimed at people back east who dreamed of playing golf in January. Tourism was, and still is, very important to the city of Phoenix. And to attract winter visitors, Phoenix became a beautiful outdoor place, with trees, and riding trails.
Air conditioning changed all that. With air conditioning, the outdoors don't matter as much. Shady porches, and trees, were no longer necessary, and just took up much-needed parking lot room, anyway. Like Las Vegas, Nevada, Phoenix became an indoor space. Tourism became a year-round industry. This is the Phoenix that I know. The Phoenix that I visit when I'm history adventuring didn't have air conditioning, it had trees, and shady porches.
Image above: under the palms in 1925, Phoenix, Arizona.
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Posted by Brad Hall