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Why Phoenix tore down so many of its buildings in the 1970s

If you're like me, and you like looking at old photos of Phoenix, Arizona, you may be puzzled as to why so many of the buildings, especially downtown, are gone. It seems like there was some kind of conspiracy that the city went on some great rampage and destroyed a vibrant downtown area. The truth, unfortunately, is much more grim, and much more complex.

I never saw a vibrant downtown Phoenix. The downtown Phoenix that I first saw looked kind'a like the photo above. And the city had already been working as fast as it could to clear out these areas, which had become some of the seediest, dirtiest, most crime-infested areas that you could imagine.

Whatever went wrong with downtown Phoenix began happening in the late 1960s. By the 1970s it was not only an embarrassment to the city, it was dangerous. Even up through the 1990s, when I worked downtown, there were still plenty of places where it was unwise to walk past. The flophouse across the street from where I worked (which is now Chase Tower) always had people sleeping on the sidewalks, and doing, uh, other things.

I can understand why nobody talks about this. It must have been heartbreaking for the people who remembered downtown Phoenix as a vibrant place to work, and live, to see it become filled with X-rated theaters, dive bars, and flop houses. And many of these old buildings weren't fit for animals to live in, let alone people.

7th Street and Jefferson in the 1960s, Phoenix, Arizona. You're looking north.

Nowadays when I visit downtown Phoenix I am absolutely amazed at how successful it has become. I didn't see the worst of it, but I know about it, and that makes what I see today all that more beautiful.

Image above: looking east on Washington at 3rd Street in 1977, Phoenix, Arizona.

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  1. One sure thing that killed downtown was the advent of the shopping mall.
    When Park Central opened that was the beginning of the end. Soon malls popped up all over the valley and folks didn't have to trek so far to get a new pair of shoes. Vendors moved away (to the malls) and storefront space became more available and therefore cheaper. Lots of things became less desirable and what did stay behind spread and just decayed like an urban cancer.

  2. Maybe. But the malls are more of a symptom, frankly. When the outskirts of Phoenix was farmland, there was very little reason for businesses to locate out there. There just wasn't enough people to support the activity.

    As the population center of Phoenix shifted outward, the opposite problem ensued. More people were outside of downtown and didn't want to make the trip in to buy a pair of shoes. Once options arose, they patronized them. And can you really blame them?

    Pro-growth policies are what doomed downtown. What destroyed the buildings downtown was an attitude akin to the mythological phoenix: rebuild after tearing down. That mostly continued into the 80s, with some exceptions.

  3. Yes! And the reference to the mythical Phoenix is absolutely right - and it's what people mostly wanted. Kind'a like throwing away your old car, and getting a new one, and never looking back. It's interesting to see attitudes changing in the last decade or so.