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Desert Visions and the Making of Phoenix, 1860-2009

Philip VanderMeer

Publication Year: 2010

From the beginning, Phoenix sought to grow, and although growth has remained central to the city’s history, its importance, meaning, and value have changed substantially over the years. The initial vision of Phoenix as an American Eden gave way to the Cold War Era vision of a High Tech Suburbia, which in turn gave way to rising concerns in the late twentieth century about the environmental, social, and political costs of growth. To understand how such unusual growth occurred in such an improbable location, Philip VanderMeer explores five major themes: the natural environment, urban infrastructure, economic development, social and cultural values, and public leadership. Through investigating Phoenix’s struggle to become a major American metropolis, his study also offers a unique view of what it means to be a desert city.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. vii-x


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pp. xi


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pp. xii

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pp. xv-xvii

One of the pleasures of completing a long-term project like this is the opportunity to reflect on and thank the many people who helped along the way. I benefited greatly from the help of various librarians and archivists. I have been especially fortunate in being able to work primarily in the Phoenix area, which permitted me to avail myself of the abilities and support of these people. The substantial holdings of the Arizona State University Library were made more accessible by the assistance of the library’s able staff. ...

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pp. 1-7

The history of Phoenix over the last fifty years has prompted very different perspectives. The city’s tremendous growth has been its most prominent characteristic, touted by city leaders and many observers as reflecting popular choice. A massive in-migration has fed a burgeoning economy, as new residents have found jobs, affordable housing, and a pleasant living style. Some analysts have considered it within the context of other Sunbelt and postmodern cities. ...

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Part I - The First Desert Vision: An American Eden

From the city’s founding in the 1860s until the onset of World War II, the leaders and residents of Phoenix followed a vision of its future that reflected the physical realities of central Arizona and the American culture of the time. This vision was rooted in agriculture, for the area’s beginnings and its growth during this period depended primarily on the development of farming in the Salt River Valley. Irrigation made these efforts successful, and it fostered an awareness that human labor and ingenuity had transformed this area—Phoenicians felt a sense of pride in civilizing the desert. ...

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1 Civilizing the Desert: The Initial Phase

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pp. 11-35

The defining geological and geographic features of the Salt River Valley are as obvious and significant today as they were a hundred or ten thousand years ago. The Sierra Estrella Mountains define the southwest limit of this central Arizona region, which is also bordered by mountain ranges on the northwest, north, and east, stretching roughly 80 miles from the White Tank Mountains to the Superstition Mountains. Various buttes and mountains protrude from the Valley floor...

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2 Building The Modern City: Physical Form and Function

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pp. 37-56

In 1912 Arizona became the last of the forty-eight contiguous states to enter the Union, last partly because its population was relatively small, and over the next thirty years it remained one of the least populous states. Roughly a third of its residents lived in cities, but unlike more urbanized states, this population was not distributed in a spatially regular hierarchy of towns, villages, hamlets, and farms. ...

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3 Shaping the Modern American City: Social Construction

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pp. 57-91

The creation of social or cultural organizations, like the construction of buildings, often reflects the choices and efforts of one or several individuals. George Luhrs determined to build impressive buildings downtown; Blanche Korrick hosted musical events in support of the Musicians Club; and Maie Heard created the Heard Museum. But just as constructing buildings fit within a larger purpose, so too did developing social organizations. ...

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Part II - Creating and Pursuing a New Vision, 1940–60

In celebrating and pursuing growth, Phoenix was Everytown, following the American dream. From its beginnings into the early twentieth century, its expectations reflected a common frontier expansionism in which boosters described accomplishments in exaggerated language and painted fanciful notions about future expansion and prosperity. While resting on some real possibilities, such optimism was inflated by the ambitions and self-interest of boosters. ...

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4 Creating a New Vision: The War and After

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pp. 95-123

In its first era, Phoenix had some military connections. This relationship began in the 1860s, to meet Fort McDowell’s need for local provisions, and for several decades military supply remained a source of local income. By the 1890s, with the frontier era ending, the military’s influence in Arizona and Phoenix receded. ...

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5 Building a New Politics

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pp. 125-151

City government held a central place in the new postwar vision. While economic planning would be largely done by the private sector, especially the Chamber of Commerce, civic leaders recognized that public-private partnership had landed the beneficial defense plants and air bases, and that it was a key part of the strategizing they observed in San Diego. Believing that growth was desirable, possible, and generally beneficial, Phoenix leaders sought a city government that could provide efficient and economical services.1 ...

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6 Growing the City: Economic, Cultural, and Spatial Expansion

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pp. 153-181

The economic and social leaders of Phoenix became politically active not only for the sake of effective and efficient government but also to serve their larger goal of building a bigger and more prosperous city. Several key factors marked their efforts and explain their accomplishment. Their wartime experiences taught them about connections between the military, government, and politics, and they successfully applied those lessons and skills in the postwar era. ...

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Part III - Elaborating and Modifying the High-Tech Suburban Vision

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pp. 183-186

The high-tech suburban vision that Phoenix leaders developed and implemented after World War II reflected key elements of postwar American culture, especially a belief in the possibilities of growth, the transformative power of technology and science, and a prosperous future of suburban homes, malls, and cars. The rapid growth of high-tech manufacturing and tourism in Phoenix boosted construction and was tied to continuing economic strengths in agriculture, retail, and service. ...

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7 From Houses to Communities: Suburban Growth in the Postwar Metropolis, 1945–1980

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pp. 187-229

The end of World War II propelled the nation into a new era of rising prosperity, growth, and social change. Peace and the return of soldiers unleashed Americans’ desires for families, homes, and material possessions that the Depression and war had checked. Marriage and birthrates soared, while wartime savings, government loan guarantees, and financial grants to veterans fueled the demand for houses and cars, changing how and where Americans lived. ...

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8 Political Change and Changing Policies in the 1960s and 1970s

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pp. 231-263

The success of the postwar vision required affordable houses and quality neighborhoods; but attracting buyers depended on able builders and a prosperous economy, as well as social and cultural amenities; and all of them relied, in one fashion or another, on an efficiently functioning city government. Building a livable and desirable city as outlined in the high-tech suburban vision was a balancing act. ...

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9 Changing the Urban Form: The Politics of Place and Space

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pp. 265-293

The emergence of minority and interest-group politics in Phoenix, and the changing focus of city government from narrowly defined services to a broader perspective that also addressed issues of poverty, coincided with the rise of major problems plaguing the older city. The decay of Phoenix’s center-city housing and the virtual collapse of its downtown echoed the experiences of cities across the nation, but their occurrence within a community so committed to suburban sprawl and so oriented to automobile use created public...

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10 An Uncertain Future: Looking for a New Vision

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pp. 295-359

Phoenicians continued to demonstrate enthusiasm for growth during the last decades of the twentieth century and into the next millennium. In 2004, under a puckish headline of “Git Along, Little Philly,” the Arizona Republic trumpeted the claim that Phoenix had passed the City of Brotherly Love to become the nation’s fifth largest city.1 Such praise for the city’s continued population growth was characteristic, as many Phoenicians treated new population statistics like a sports box score—the report of the local team’s success and an occasion to cheer. ...

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Conclusion: Desert Vision, Desert City

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pp. 361-366

Growth has been central to Phoenix’s history, but its importance, meaning, and value have changed considerably over the years. From its beginning, Phoenix sought to grow. As in virtually all new communities, its citizens saw growth as the normal condition and goal. Phoenicians knew that not all communities thrived, of course, and some even busted, but these seemed exceptions that proved the rule. ...


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pp. 367-444


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pp. 445-459

E-ISBN-13: 9780826348937
E-ISBN-10: 0826348939
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826348913
Print-ISBN-10: 0826348912

Page Count: 478
Illustrations: 20 halftones, 20 illustrations, 10 charts
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • City and town life -- Arizona -- Phoenix -- History.
  • Phoenix (Ariz.) -- Politics and government.
  • City planning -- Arizona -- Phoenix -- History.
  • Phoenix (Ariz.) -- History.
  • Phoenix (Ariz.) -- Economic conditions.
  • Phoenix (Ariz.) -- Social conditions.
  • Social change -- Arizona -- Phoenix -- History.
  • Cities and towns -- United States -- Growth -- Case studies.
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