Exploring the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California.

What Phoenix looked like before your neighborhood was built


I collect old photos of Phoenix and I often get requests from people who want to see what Phoenix looked like before their neighborhood was built. And sometimes I have a photo, like the one at the top of this post, which is just a background of a billboard that was at 25th Avenue and Peoria. And yep, dirt. Seems like there'd be a lot of blowing dust, too. Probably garbage dumped, and cars abandoned.

So if you want to see what your neighborhood looked like before all of the houses were built, just look around at any large open area in the Phoenix metro area. There are still a lot of them.

If you want to time-travel further back, go out farther in the desert, where all of the native vegetation hasn't been erased yet. Areas nearby Phoenix were stripped of anything useful years ago. That's what people do - they see something, like an interesting rock, or a cactus, and take it home to put in their yard. And the desert is very slow to regenerate plants like saguaros, which of course were in the Phoenix area, living naturally. And while nowadays most people are more considerate of open spaces, for most of the history of Phoenix any open area was where vehicles drove around, kicking up dust and killing whatever might have tried to grow there. It goes back way before "four wheeling" - people did it when cars were invented, and before that with horses, and wagons.

Most of the people that I talk to imagine that Phoenix was always farmland. And that's because memories are short, and only go back a generation or two. Phoenix was originally the Sonoran Desert, the way that it looks when you go hiking in protected areas. Agriculture wiped out the native desert, and replaced it with endless rows of plants like orange trees. And some neighborhoods were built where the orange groves used to be, and where the native desert plants used to be, not too terribly long before that.

So I apologize in advance if I don't have a photo of your neighborhood before the houses were built there. But you can still see it, there is still a lot of farmland in Phoenix, and orange groves, and if you look farther, the desert, with Saguaros, creosote, and ocotillos.

Image at the top of this post: Looking east towards the Phoenix Mountains from 25th Avenue and Peoria in the 1960s, Phoenix, Arizona. 

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