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How Phoenix went from a city of trees to a city of billboards

When I first started collecting old photos of Phoenix, I was amazed by the trees. Up until the late 20th Century, Phoenix was a forest of trees. It was an oasis in the desert. Then suddenly the trees disappeared, and billboards appeared. LOTS of billboards.

Now waitaminute, before you think that this was some big conspiracy, man, think again. Both the trees and the billboards were related to the desire of people to make money. Let's start with the trees.

Trees in Phoenix, Arizona in 1915
Time-travel with me back to the days before there were any trees in Phoenix, which would be the 1860s. When the Phoenix pioneers started building canals they immediately started planting trees. Their goal wasn't just to create a beautiful background to look at, they used trees in combination with agriculture, especially as windbreaks. And of course the trees gave much-needed shade for both humans and livestock.

And the trees did more than that - they transformed the look of Phoenix from a dry, dusty desert to a place that actually looked as if people could live there. Yes, it was all about selling Real Estate. Nowadays Real Estate agents call it "curb appeal", and having trees around made a huge difference to how people saw Phoenix, and it encouraged investment in Real Estate, housing developments, that sort of thing.

If you now fast-forward to the 1950s, Phoenix was booming. The population was exploding, and the main goal was just building housing fast enough for demand, and keeping the streets from getting jammed. The housing shortage after World War II was very acute, and people weren't so picky about what things looked like - they needed houses to raise their families, and roads to drive to work on.

By the time I got to Phoenix, in 1977, the trees were gone. This never surprised me, because I knew that I was moving to the desert. There were a lot of buildings, and very wide roads. I really never gave it a second thought. There were a lot of billboards, but I also never gave them a second thought - they were the "pop-up ads" of the day.

Then things started changing. There were less billboards, and more trees. This makes me optimistic for the future of my beloved city.  Because after all people want to live with shade and beauty, not billboards.

Image at the top of this post: Billboard in Phoenix in the early 1970s, you're looking north on 7th Avenue at Campbell.

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