This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. This blog is not supported by advertising, it's supported by the generosity of my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!

The awkward years of Phoenix, Arizona - the 1970s through the 1990s


As much as I love Phoenix, I have to admit that the Phoenix that I knew was actually pretty awful. I first saw it in 1979, and by that time it had already become one of the worst air quality cities in the United States, and the downtown area looked like it had been hit with a tornado, there were so many empty lots. But it wasn't until I started collecting old photos of Phoenix that I realized that I had seen Phoenix during its "awkward years".

Phoenix is much older than I had ever imagined, going back to 1870. When I first started collecting photos, I would categorize the oldest ones as just "territorial" - but that spanned a big chunk of time, up to 1912. And in that time the Phoenix was transformed from a bare desert to an oasis. And after 1912, it really got started, because of the new dam, Roosevelt, which had been built in 1911. The canals had been built by the pioneers as early as the 1860s (following the path of the abandoned Hohokam Canals), but the dam helped protect them from the terrible floods that hit every summer.

The Phoenix that I moved to had no light rail. The trolley lines had been abandoned in 1949, after being a part of the city for over sixty years. They're back now, but for decades there was no other way to get around Phoenix than by car, or the bus, or by walking.

What really caught my eye in the old photos were the trees. The Phoenix that I knew had been mostly stripped bare of trees. Like a lot of people my age, we just figured that Phoenix never had any trees, because it was a desert. Not true. Phoenix had a LOT of trees. There may not have been air conditioning for many generations, but there was shade. It was everywhere, and it's coming back. I see a lot of trees being planted nowadays.

Phoenix street in the 1920s

Phoenix street in the 1890s

Future generations will look back on the "awkward years" of Phoenix and wonder why? I wonder why myself, and I wonder what went wrong. But mostly I like to focus on what went right, and what's happening now. And Phoenix is growing out of its awkward era. It was just a stage that hopefully will be just considered a bad time, not what Phoenix has been, or is.


Image at the top of this post: Looking southeast over Heritage Square in the 1980s, 7th Street and Monroe, Phoenix, Arizona.

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