Jon Talton Book: “A Brief History of Phoenix”

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Jon Talton, who bills himself as “The Rouge Columnist,” has a new book out on the history of Phoenix. Talton will talk about new interpretive work “A Brief History of Phoenix.”

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," former "Arizona republic" columnist Jon Talton joins us to discuss his new book on the history of Phoenix. That's next on "Arizona Horizon."

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Jon Talton is a former "Arizona republic" columnist who now writes for "the Seattle times" and edits and publishes the rogue columnist blog. Jon Talton is also an Accomplished author of 12 critically-acclaimed mystery novels and he's just released a nonfiction book titled "a brief history of Phoenix." here now is Jon Talton. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon."

JON TALTON: I am so glad to be here, thank you.

TED SIMONS: Great to have you here. This book -- I love stuff that puts Phoenix in context, looks at what was, not just what is, and what could be. The book, though, they describe the book I think on the back as America's improbable Metropolis. Do you agree with that?

JON TALTON: Sure, I mean, you put 4 million people in to this frying pan. That's pretty improbable. And also, Phoenix was historically very isolated. It was not on the navigable river. It was not a port. It was blocked from the railroads initially by very high mountains to the east and to the north. And it didn't have gold. It didn't have copper. It had something very special that would be later discovered, but the -- isolation was one of Phoenix's historic enemies. You won't believe that if you go to sky harbor now, but it was.

TED SIMONS: Indeed. And it was -- I think the book also describes your story here as -- Phoenix as being one of American civilizations great accomplishments. Again, does that make sense to you?

JON TALTON: I absolutely believe that. We as a civilization have built this Metropolis in a hostile environment where people can without thinking turn on the faucet, never wonder where the water comes from. They can live when it is 140 degrees on the sidewalk. They can travel around. They can have something that is called a life-style that is a resort kind of a life-style, and the cities are the great accomplishments of America. This one is very special.

TED SIMONS: It is special. Let's talk about how it got started, at least as far as the Phoenix that we recognize. Who is Jack Swilling?

JON TALTON: Well, Jack Swilling for better or worse is credited as the founder of Phoenix. And I think he gets a bad rap in a lot of ways because he is not upright enough or he was a confederate deserter, or he was a drunkard. But Jack Swilling had a key insight. Jack Swilling saw the prehistoric canals, and the lay of the land that other travelers had seen, but Swilling understood it was ideal for agriculture. That what you have here is one of the great alluvial river valleys of the world, where multiple rivers come together. The soil is incredibly rich. As a result, this would be one of the great farm centers of America for decades. They called it American Eden.

TED SIMONS: Indeed. And when Phoenix first got underway and the feds were looking out here, obviously we will talk more about how much the feds look out here and how responsible the feds are for what we live in today but they saw Phoenix as a model for Jeffersonian farmers.

JON TALTON: They did indeed. When Phoenix was in the 1890s, it went through a terrible drought. And the private water companies and canal companies went bankrupt. The farmers started to lose their crops and go away and these were followed by terrible floods. We were lucky enough to get in one of the first projects of the reclamation act in 1901, this built Theodore Roosevelt dam. As a consequence of this, the Federal Government wanted to get people out of the teaming evil cities of the east and on to these Jeffersonian farms of 160 acres on up. But people would be equal, people would be Yeoman farmers, people would be friends of small deed democracy, and they would learn all of the idealized virtues of farming and my family came here in the 1890s and I can tell you farming is harder than that.

TED SIMONS: I don't know where this exactly is, if it -- you look at that and you go goodness gracious, this was a farming Mecca at one point.

JON TALTON: We grew everything here. All -- the soil is so rich. All you need to do is add water and you can grow everything, and Phoenix and the Salt River valley fed much of America for decades. And the -- this was an accomplishment of the Federal Government through reclamation. It was an accomplishment of Phoenicians coming together to make this happen. And it was an accomplishment of this wonderful place.

TED SIMONS: I think you write that president Roosevelt, the dam was second to the Panama Canal as far as what he thought his accomplishments in office were.

JON TALTON: That's what he said.

TED SIMONS: Isn't that something?

JON TALTON: I'm not surprised. And then the dam system that we built, what we had that the Hohokam did not have was superior technology. We cleaned out the Hohokam canals, we built more, we built the dams. It doesn't mean that we can go on forever this way. But what we did so far is an amazing accomplishment.

TED SIMONS: Now, also again, I believe, I remember you writing that this - the reclamation in Phoenix and the idea of controlling these waters became a template for the Tennessee valley authority, TVA?

JON TALTON: Remember that Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore's cousin, was very inspired by Theodore, and so the reclamation projects done under the first Roosevelt's administration, would go on to inspire FDR during the new deal as to what the Federal Government could do to reclaim and help areas. There are were differences, of course, but, yes, it was an inspiration.

TED SIMONS: A big deal was allowing this new water system to help urban areas as well as agriculture, which was kind of new in and of itself.

JON TALTON: That was an amazing little slip of a the pen that allowed urban areas to benefit from reclamation as well as farming. So, Phoenix began to take off as a small town and a small city.

TED SIMONS: Indeed, a small city, but it was a dense and kind of diverse city early on, wasn't it?
JON TALTON: Oh, up into 1950, the city itself had only about 17 square miles. And everything that you hear today about new urbanism, walkability, and every eight steps a new store to be seen. I saw this in my lifetime when I was a boy. The trains came into union station, and -- but then annexation took the city out further and further, because the city fathers wanted to not get hemmed in like a St. Louis or Columbus or a Cincinnati. With suburbs all around them. This is what they were thinking in the late '50s and '60s. So, they embarked on an incredibly ambitious annexation effort. 1950, Phoenix enters the 100 top cities at number 99. About 105,000 people. By 1960, it's about 27 or 28, 431,000, and part of that was immigration, but part of that also was annexation. Because Phoenix did very ambitious annexation.

TED SIMONS: Earlier day, city beautiful movement, how did that impact Phoenix in the 1920s?

JON TALTON: The city beautiful movement urban design movement meant to compliment pedestrians, and help pedestrians and all of those navigate the same space together, and it was what it intended to be to make cities beautiful. And, so, if you go to Portland Street today between 3rd avenue and central, you will see a parkway. And in the parkway, trees, grass, and on both sides are apartments. There used to be two of those before the freeway. Those were built in the city beautiful movement, as a way of making this urban environment a beautiful place. Phoenix isn't the best example of city beautiful, but for a small city of the time, we got a number of things like that.

TED SIMONS: The '30s obviously, the depression. FDR, the projects, how much did they bail out Arizona?

JON TALTON: Oh, they bailed us out enormously. Arizona probably benefited more per capita than any other state from the new deal. And Phoenix especially. Remember, back in those days, Arizona was reliable democratic state, and FDR campaigned here. And he was elected whole-heartedly by Arizonans and -- remember, there was living memory of Theodore Roosevelt and the reclamation projects that saved the city and saved the Salt River Valley. And, so, and everything from building North High and the desert botanical garden, park and things like that, and the botanical garden was also a private effort, but roads, bridges, canals, the new deal spent tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, it would be much more of that in real money today.


JON TALTON: Saving Phoenix from a terrible fate. Because we had our Hoovervilles. We had one of the worst slums in America. And Phoenix was hit very hard by the Depression early on. A lot harder than the local myth has it.

TED SIMONS: As much of the country, though, when World War II hit, that seemed to get things moving. I know military bases out here west of town, very important during WWII. Patton trained out here.

JON TALTON: He did. We were fortunate to get a number of army, Air Force training bases, really all around the city. Everything from Falcon Field to the east around Mesa, to the different thunderbird fields. One now Scottsdale air park, and these trained pilots. But Patton trained in desert warfare about 100 miles to the west of here.

TED SIMONS: Interesting, but after World War II, I think a lot of folks figured that's when Arizona in general, Phoenix in particular, really took off. Did we take off like other regions in the country?

JON TALTON: We actually didn't. This is an interesting discovery I made in my research. We were not prepared. City leaders were not prepared for the sudden drop-off of defense contracts, defense work, industries that had been located inland for safety. All of that went away. And it went away suddenly and Phoenix went into this little mini recession. And a lot of people feared there would be a depression. More people had come here, but the large migration that followed had not really taken up. So, in the late 40s, Phoenix leaders had to really step up and recruit new kinds of industries. And get the city beyond just agriculture and just real estate.

TED SIMONS: It also had to, these leaders had to sell a life-style. We have a lot of people hanging around their pool. This could be yesterday at some apartment complex here in town. But the idea of the sun and the good life and these folks, they're just having a great old time. You had to sell that, didn't you?

JON TALTON: Well, you had to have it first.

TED SIMONS: There we go.

JON TALTON: And that meant air conditioning. Phoenix was one of the major centers of air conditioning construction and manufacturing in the United States. And because of air conditioning being affordable for a single family house, suddenly in the years after World War II, you could have this life-style marketing all across the country, come here in Phoenix, even here in the hot months, you'll be cool. You will have a pool in the back yard.

TED SIMONS: Yeah. You mentioned -- did air conditioning, was it developed here? Or was it early development here?

JON TALTON: It was not developed here. And it -- it goes back. I mean, we had refrigeration in the movie theaters starting in the 1920s, and in some of the high-end hotels like the Westward Hoe and San Carlos, and then we had -- after World War II, the technology became available to make these central air units that were affordable enough for a single family house, and it was revolutionary, especially for Phoenix, but all cities in the south and southwest. And we manufactured a tremendous number of air conditioning units here. We had several companies that set up shop here because, why export the things here if you can just make them here.

TED SIMONS: Indeed. You got your air conditioning set, come on out here, life-style, you saw these people sitting by the pool. This could be you. You have to house them. Enter someone like Dell Webb, who is that?

JON TALTON: Dell Webb was one of the most influential contractors in American history, and he was a Phoenician. Dell Webb got rich of the New Deal, off of contracts for building things with the New Deal, and then with World War II, and sadly that includes Japanese internment camp. After the war, Webb built all up and down north central, Phoenix towers, the Pink Towers, around cypress and central. That was Dell Webb. He went on to build Sun City, and then the other huge influence was John F. Long and Maryvale.

TED SIMONS: Talk about Maryvale. You think in -- Maryvale was the future at one time.

JON TALTON: Well, it was. I remember that we lived in this old 1924 Spanish colonial falling down in what is now Willo, and my uncle bought a house from John Long. All electric kitchen, carport, and pool in the back. I was so envious. He had cinder block walls. But seriously, the Maryvale was Phoenix's first large-scale automobile sub division, rather like Levittown back east, but John F. Long made a lot of innovations himself in distinctive construction types and in making costs affordable, including to GIs especially, Anglo GIs, and so the people who were coming here had that kind of an option to live in a place where you have got a lawn, you've got trees, you've got a pool. Things that you never thought you could afford in the depression. Now you can afford them.

TED SIMONS: And come they did. '60s, '70s, '80s, just explosive population growth. I mean, we -- you talked about us being a top 100 city. It got to the point where we were 50, top 20, I mean at one point here not too long ago, we were top 6 or 5 or whatever it is. Did we lose -- did Phoenix, talking about Phoenix, did Phoenix lose its character, what made it unique?

JON TALTON: It did to a great degree. Phoenix used to be very much an oasis with a lot of shade and a lot of green and it was surrounded by agriculture. The Japanese gardens along Baseline Road, citrus, horses, farm fields. We exported food all over the country. And we had a relatively compact city with downtown and midtown. In the '70s and '80s midtown was hopping. We had our own playboy club. Phoenix had a very distinctive character. A good deal of that has been lost. Although it is still there. That is one reason I wrote this. So that people understand that this place has a history and has a soul.

TED SIMONS: Social scientist Andrew Ross, I think you quote him in the book, I think it said Phoenix has overshot its carrying capacity -- do you agree with that?

JON TALTON: I think there is a risk of that. I think what Ross means is in a world of climate change and the effects it will have including on our renewable water supply, which is the snow melt in the mountains, how many people can Phoenix sustain, and especially how many people can Phoenix sustain in a single-family house sprawl? That's the big debate that has been going on since I was writing at the "Arizona Republic." It hasn't been settled. It has been paused but mostly by the great recession.

TED SIMONS: Also I think you mention in the book as well, we could be top five in population. Philadelphia and Phoenix seem like they switch around here a bit. Top five in population, but what about the top five economy? What about a top five education system? What about top five in terms of arts and culture? Are we anywhere close?

JON TOLTON: No, we're not. I say that with no pleasure. But we have a long way to go in those areas, and for a complex set of reasons, we did not keep up with business recruitment that began in the late 40s and reached its apogee in the late '60s when we won Greyhound from Chicago. We thought that would be the start of a bunch of fortune 500 headquarters coming here to central Phoenix. We have far fewer universities than any city of this size or even less. We don't have the kind of diverse economy that we need with the high wage jobs. Leaders know this. It is digging out of this hole and working to make the proper investments is where the debate is.

TED SIMONS: Optimism is a ruling emotion -- do you still think that is the case?

JON TOLTON: There was a poll done maybe 15, 16 years ago, that said that this very large percentage of people, if they had a choice, would leave Phoenix. But we have a lot of population turn. By and large, the people who come here and stay here even for a while are optimists. And they do see history as a rising road, because they can reinvent themselves in a place like this. And if they understand the history better, they understand the challenges better and Phoenix has a future assured.

TED SIMONS: You can certainly understand the history with your new book, "A Brief History of Phoenix." Great to have you here.

JON TOLTON: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

TED SIMONS: Thank you. Thursday on "Arizona Horizon," we'll hear about a research effort to enrich and deliver CO2 to help cultivate micro algae and bring down the price of algae-based biofuels. That's at 5:30 on the next "Arizona Horizon." That's it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Jon Talton: Columnist

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