The Way We Were

Jan 23, 2009

Over the years, I have heard my share of complaints about Phoenix from visitors and transplants. One thing that has always bothered me is when people accuse Arizona of being a place with no history or culture. That's simply not true, and to exclaim otherwise is to exclaim one's own ignorance.

Black and white photo of Downtown PhoenixVisitors often get the wrong idea about Phoenix, and it's easy to see why. They come here and see brand new master-planned communities like Anthem, Verrado, and Sun City. They see mile after mile of homes and businesses painted in the same "earth tone" colors and made of stucco. They drive by retail "power centers" like Desert Ridge and Tempe Marketplace on brand new freeways. It seems like everywhere you look, something is under construction.

There are no wooden sidewalks or town squares and our most historic neighborhoods consist of homes from the 1950s. For whatever reason, these critics imagine that Phoenix has always looked exactly as it looks now. This is not the case at all!

Contrary to popular opinion, Phoenix is very different from what it was just fifty or a hundred years ago. Several books and magazines that I have come across paint a fascinating picture of how this agricultural community grew to become a sprawling metropolis in such a short amount of time.

Phoenix Then and NowIn Phoenix Then and Now, photographer Paul Scharbach has traveled around the valley to retake historic photographs at the same locations in modern times. With each turn of the page, acres of farmland become housing subdivisions and wagon tracks become roads and highways. It provides a full visual comparison of how much the city has grown.

Arizona Then and Now by Allen Dutton takes the same idea and applies it to the whole state of Arizona. With locations ranging from the Grand Canyon to Tucson and everything in between, Dutton has a sharp eye for detail in this photographic history of the Grand Canyon State.

Explore Arizona's rich history in mining, agriculture, and farming in the book Historic Photos of Phoenix by Eduardo Obregon Paga. Journey back to the frontier days when horses and buggies were more common than automobiles. Follow through with photos of Phoenix as an idealistic retirement location during the mid-century. It's all here in this collection of photos from Mr. Paga, an Arizona native.

The next time you visit your local bookstore, be sure to keep your eyes open for any books by Marshall Trimble (the State Historian of Arizona) and for Weird Arizona (featuring stories and photos by yours truly).

If books aren't your thing, here are some good websites that have historic pictures of Phoenix:
Vintage Phoenix, Arizona Photos
Historic Phoenix Architecture on Flickr
Phoenix High Schools and Shopping Malls
A Photographic History of Van Buren Ave
Amazing Collection of Vintage Phoenix Photos (organized by decade)

The point of all this is to illustrate that like any other city, Phoenix is constantly growing and changing with the times. There's more to this place than you might think, and if you look past all of the new construction and shopping malls you will find the real treasures of Phoenix: culture and history.

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