Short Essay on Phoenix

![Fishhook Barrel Cactus](/images/cactus_fishhook_barrel.jpg" alt="Fishhook Barrel Cactus "Fishhook Barrel Cactus")

Copyright © 2015 by Cam Riley All Rights Reserved

Why Write This?

I moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 2007. I had grown up in Australia and through good luck and fortune had been able to work in New Jersey and Washington DC. Arizona was the next stop in my exploration of the United States. Since then I have become happily married and Phoenix is where I call home. This essay is a written attempt to understand the city, the state and its place in the United States as well as its history to ken why the city and state is such a wonderful place to live.


Phoenix was not a viable metropolis until recently. Prior to the late 20th century small communities eked out a marginal agricultural living on the alluvial plains of the Salt River. In prehistoric times the Hohokam managed to build a stable culture that lasted nearly one thousand years due to their irrigation and canal technology. After the collapse of the Hohokam, small Indian tribes managed to survive in the Salt River basin but it was not until universal air conditioning coupled with cheap and reliable transportation by car and air that Phoenix flourished into a wonderful metropolis.

It is a sign of American wealth and nation building that the country can do the national works required to transport water, people and power to a desert outpost which now supports a population of millions. During the 1800s Arizona was a railroad version of the modern fly over state. It was an impediment for travelers on their way to California by train. With the CAP water project, and the national highways that connect Phoenix with California, Nevada and New Mexico plus the national aviation system that enables businesses and tourists to fly in and out of Phoenix quickly and cheaply, Phoenix has become a large and thriving city that is an integral part of the national American economy. No longer is it a desolate state that is in the way.

The main problem for any community trying to establish a permanent settlement in Southern Arizona is the desert. The Sonoran Desert is so hot that any moisture that lands on the ground is almost immediately evaporated away by the sheer heat of the desert plains. The Sonoran is unusual in having two wet seasons but it does not matter. The desert is so hot no moisture hangs around and is soon whisked away to cooler climes such as the northern Arizona mountains or coastal California.

Phoenix started as an agricultural community and water management was an early priority. This was fortunate as Phoenix established a mechanism of governance for managing water in the early 20thC before metropolitan Phoenix exploded in population as a Sunbelt city. Las Vegas did not start with agriculture and consequently is having more governance issues with fresh water than Phoenix is. The main government entity for managing water and power in Phoenix is the Salt River Project [SRP]. In the 1980s SRP was augmented with the Central Arizona Project [CAP] . Like the Hohokam a millennia before who created the most sophisticated canal system in the America’s a thousand years ago, it is the same with the CAP project in the 1980s. The canal system in Arizona is once again the most sophisticated in the America’s.


The Hohokam were agricultural. They managed to tame the Salt River and make it sufficiently sustainable that they survived as a culture for close to one thousand years. This is quite remarkable considering how hostile the Salt River basin is to human life. The Hohokam were hydraulic engineers who managed to create the largest and most comprehensive canal system of the prehistoric world outside of Egypt. There were upwards of 1000 miles of canals dug by the Hohokam. Even more remarkably they managed this with tools as simple as wooden sticks for digging implements. These works were built without metallurgical technology or beasts of burden such as oxen, cows or horses. They also achieved this mastery of engineering and hydrology without a known written language or numeral system.

By 1500 AD the Hohokam had disappeared as a culture and society. It was not until the 1900s that the new state of Arizona began public works with the Salt River Project to match the canal system of the Hohokam from six hundred years before. The Salt River is prone to both flooding and droughts. To make a more regular supply of water dams were created upstream. Multiple dams and reservoirs were created north east of Phoenix including the Roosevelt, Canyon, Apache and Saguaro lakes.

SRP also manages the canals that run through metropolitan Phoenix which supplies water to the city. Many of these canals were built over the top of existing Hohokam canals. SRP manages several hydroelectric power stations throughout the state. SRP is an important part of the urban fabric in Phoenix. The modern city would be impossible without it.

CAP is predominantly about Arizona getting a cut of the water volume that flows down the Colorado River through Nevada, Arizona, California and Mexico. The SRP limited itself to managing water for metropolitan Phoenix which stretches from Peoria to North Scottsdale to Gilbert. For populations outside of that area, such as the southern Arizona city of Tucson, it is CAP which supplies the fresh water.

Water rights and management have changed as Arizona has grown and new challenges in water use and management are met. As a territory the law was based on the doctrine of prior appropriation or "first in time is first in right". Basically upstream users of the water got first go at it. Water rights changed as water conservation was seen to be necessary, water rights became apt only if those "first in time" did something useful with it such as irrigation or cultivation.

Slowly the state accrued more control over water and started managing groundwater as a public good. State management of water also began to give precedence to residential populations over the agricultural use of water and started limiting the creation of new bodies of fresh water. Today these different mechanisms of water management supply fresh water to a population of six million.

Sonoran Desert

The Salt River Basin where Phoenix is located is part of the Sonoran Desert. This covers the southern half of the state of Arizona. The Sonoran Desert then touches eastern California, before stretching down the peninsula to encompass the Mexican states of Baja California and Baja California Sur. South of Arizona the desert covers most of the Mexican state of Sonora.

Outside of the metropolitan areas of Phoenix and Tucson the landscape is pretty flat and punctuated by rocky mountains that rise up to over 4,000 feet in places. Vegetation tends to be sparse and water starved. This does not mean there are no plants or animals. Mother nature is particularly good at populating every niche and the desert is full of life even during extended drought.

If you hike to Bell Pass in the McDowell Ranges, you can look down through the ridges of the McDowell mountains, across the levee and into North Scottsdale. In the distance is Camelback and Phoenix preserve. The area from Bell Rd up to the pass is filled with Pale Verde trees, Saguaros, Ocotillos, Saltbrush, Leaping Cholla’s, fishhook cactus and all other manner of Sonoran desert flora. While the vegetation is not dense, there is a lot of it, and the yellow green of the desert vegetation overwhelms the bright red of the dirt and rocks underneath it.

If you look past the McDowell preserve into North Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and Phoenix the vegetation changes; trees are taller, the green is darker as more water hungry plants are used in the urban landscape of the suburbs. Most of the newer suburbs such as North Scottsdale are aware that water is a finite resource and use native plants. This is called Xeriscaping where native plants and drought tolerant plants are used. In the urban areas there is more water, trees are taller and the vegetation denser, than in the desert. Outside species such as Mesquite, Palm tree, Acacia’s, Fairy Duster’s, Oleanders, Bougainvilleas, etc grow well and dominate the urban skyline.

Monsoons and Haboobs

The monsoon season in the Sonoran desert is between July and September when the desert is at its hottest. The Arizona monsoons are due to wind shifts where the winds come from the Pacific Ocean rather than the Nevada desert to the north. The air above the desert superheats in the sweltering summer temperatures and then clashes with the moisture laden air of the southern winds generating thunderstorms and haboobs.

The monsoon season can be particularly brutal for people living in Phoenix. The outside temperatures will be over 100F and houses, even with air conditioning, cannot deal with the high humidity from the monsoons. It often feels like the house is a bathroom after a shower. The upside is there are beautiful sunsets. The southern plains of Arizona are cloudless most of the year as the desert does not have enough moisture. During monsoon season you get stunning sunsets, with tall majestic cloud formations touched by yellow, orange and red.

Haboobs are dust storms that often occur during the monsoon season. They are probably best known due to people taking photos from the air, or from one of the many mountain peaks around the city. The Haboob is a large wall of dust slowly chewing up the buildings and landscape. Often they will be a dust wall that is several hundred feet high and lazily rolling across the landscape.

When you are in a Haboob they are less visually stunning. Mostly a Haboob is denoted by the wind picking up and visibility dropping until you can only see about a quarter of a mile. The sky becomes dark and the air becomes less breathable. As an added bonus the Haboobs are dirty and usually dump dust everywhere including on houses, cars and pools. I can recall a particularly bad Haboob in 2012 left the pool in our backyard stained with a couple of inches of thick caked red dirt that took a week to clean.

The thunderstorms that come through with the monsoons are like the storms that hit the Australian outback in the Northern Territory. They are gloriously high clouds of deep dark grey that emanate power and nature’s strength. Like the Haboobs, the first warning the storms are coming through is a strong wind and a darkening sky. The rain that falls as part of a monsoon is often very dirty and will stain anything left outdoors such as pool furniture. The storms more often than not come through in a scouring whip of wind and rain violence before leaving just as quickly as they came. There is none of the sustained rain you see on the east coast of the United States that can ruin an entire week.


Cactus hold water in their leaves, stems or roots. It is a good survival strategy for drought ridden areas such as the Sonoran Desert. As a result there are a lot of cactus in Arizona’s desert plain. A common trait of cactus are the sharp spines that stick out of them. These spines help provide shade, reduce water evaporation and protect the cactus from being eaten by desert animals.

One of the most beautiful cactus of the northern Sonoran landscape is the tall Saguaro Cactus. These are known by the botanical name Carnegiea Gigantea, with the nomenclature "gigantea" being obvious as these cactus can grow to sixty feet in height. The Saguaro is long lived and can be up to one hundred and fifty years old with arms not growing until they are over seventy five years in age.

Moving a Saguaro is protected under Arizona law and permits are required to relocate them. The vandalism of Saguaros are also illegal. It was popular in the past to shoot Saguaros until they fell over or to pack a saguaro with explosives and then blow it up. In 1982, a young Arizonian and his roommate decided to shoot at Saguaros, after destroying one, the Arizonian then shot at a tall Saguaro which collapsed and he was crushed by the heavy arm of the Saguaro. It is impossible to read the prior sentences without thinking that he got what he deserved while still having empathy as a horrible loss for his parents.

The other large cactus is the Fishhook barrel cactus. Their distinctive feature is large reddish hooks that grow out of the cactus barrel. These cactus grow large enough that they are often mistaken for young Saguaros despite the Fish Hook having a barrel shape and the Saguaro a club shape when young. Fish Hooks can grow to eight feet tall and a width of three feet. In the national parks around Phoenix, such as Camelback Mountain and the McDowell ranges it is common to see very large fish hooks along the trails. Along with the Saguaro they stand out for their size and how they dominate the desert scrub.

Another cactus which should get a mention is the Leaping Cholla. These are terrifying cactus as their pads tend to get stuck to anything passing by and give the appearance that the pads are leaping off the cactus. In reality their hooks are very able at attaching to anything going by. I have had a leaping chollas stuck to my shirt and shoes. It is not fun. You cannot handle the pads with your fingers as the spines are so sharp and irritating. The Leaping Cholla is absolutely gorgeous when it is lit up by the morning sun though. You see these cactus in the national parks a lot, but unlike the Saguaro and Fishhook they are not used in urban or suburban landscaping despite their beauty.

The main tree in the Sonoran is the Pale Verde. It is a pretty yellow green tree with small leaves that shed at different times. Most Pale Verdes have spines on them but landscapers have bred that gene out of them. The Museum Pale Verde is spineless which makes it easier to handle. There are also blue Pale Verdes that have leaves in the blue end of the green spectrum and make a nice contrast to the standard Palo Verde. These are beautiful trees which are hardy and grow in very picturesque ways. They are a staple of all landscaping in southern Arizona.

The Sonoran desert is large, very large. In the Phoenix area the Saguaro, fishhook and Palo Verde dominate, but as you travel south into Mexico toward the Gulf Of California the main flora changes. Organ Pipe cactus become the dominate cactus and Ocotillos are more common. The Arizona Saguaro also has a genetic brother in the southern Sonoran which grows larger than the Saguaro around Phoenix. The Mexican Saguaros are woodier, grow larger and get arms lower in the main stem. It is a great experience to travel through parts of the Sonoran and watch the desert scrub change as it meets the local challenges of a water sparse environment.

Arizona was prescient enough to put areas aside for preservation and hiking. One of the larger national parks near the city is the McDowell Ranges. Hiking the four miles from Thompson Peak Parkway to Bell Pass gives you a wonderful view of the northern Sonoran flora and fauna. The hike has you walk for a mile along the levee where there are Saguaros, Cholla and Palo Verdes before taking switchbacks up to the pass itself. The beauty of the desert is obvious, cactus, trees, mountains, rock; just beautiful.

Phoenix as an urban environment started to become more popular in the 1970s and landscapers tried to emulate the water heavy plantings of the Mid-West and North-East. Water is always an issue in Phoenix and the modern landscaping philosophy has been Xeriscaping. This can be summarized as; use natives and drought resistant plants so you don’t put more pressure on the fresh water supply by having water thirsty landscapes such as lawns, European plants or Northern American plants.

Human populations are constantly growing and fresh water supplies are becoming a concern. There is no doubt that Xeriscaping will become the norm, whether it is by market means where water becomes more expensive, or by cultural means, where it no longer becomes socially acceptable to have a lawn. Another alternative is that the culture changes and starts to see a Xeriscaped yard as simply looking better. Most likely it will be a mixture of all of the above. As it is now, the flooding of properties in Arcadia is done with grey water rather than fresh water. The changes toward Xeriscaping will be ongoing and speed of adoption will fluctuate with water availability and cost.

Arizona Prehistory

The history of Arizona can be split into Pre-Columbian, Spanish and American history. Prehistoric times include the Hohokam, Anasazi and Mogollon cultures. The Hohokam settled the areas between the Salt, Gila and Colorado Rivers. They were able farmers who produced a sufficiently technical culture that was able to irrigate large acreage using canals and weirs. The Hohokam canals are the basis for the modern day canals that run through Phoenix.

The Mogollon culture occupied the far east of Arizona but were mainly in New Mexico and Mexico. The Anasazi populated the mountains and high desert of Northern Arizona. The Anasazi are best known for building houses along cliff faces. These structures have proven exceptionally durable and are viewable in numerous national parks in Arizona’s north. The mis-named Montezuma’s Castle in northern Arizona is particularly amazing to see as the houses look near to collapse despite being built into the rock wall.

The agricultural basis for the larger cultures of the Hohokam, Mogollon and Anasazi cultures was maize. Somehow maize made it from Mexico to the American South West before it traveled to the American Southeast in the Mississippi delta. Maize became the crop that helped sustain the larger numbers of the Hohokam, Mogollon and Anasazi in the different villages and the sedentary agricultural lifestyle as opposed to the nomadic hunter gatherers’ way of living.

When the Spanish arrived in Arizona the Hohokam culture had dissipated and the large canals that supported the intensive agriculture of the Hohokam had silted or dried up. The local Indian tribes of the Pima and Papago lived in the same area but with a much smaller population than the Hohokam were able to maintain.

By the time the Spanish started exploring and laying claim to the American South-West several nomadic Indian tribes such as the Apache, Navajo and Yavapai were well established in modern day Arizona. The Spanish brought with them horses and the Apache were quick to train themselves on this new military technology. The Spanish also brought goats and sheep which the Navajo adopted and added herding to their mechanisms of producing food.

Apache Indians

Arizona’s written history starts with the Spanish. Until the arrival of large numbers of Americans into Arizona in the mid-1800s the effective rulers of Arizona were the Apache tribes. The Apache were Athabaskan speakers who originated in modern Alaska and western Canada. Along with the Navajo, the Apache migrated through the Great Plains of the United States before ending up in Arizona and the American South West.

An early Spanish conquistador, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, came across an Apache hunter gatherer tribe during his exploration of the American south west and south east in 1540. The tribe was moving to a new location and had dogs pulling sleds to move their belongings. With the arrival of the Spanish this soon changed. While the Apache remained a hunter gatherer tribe, they quickly adopted the Spanish horses and used them for war and raiding. They also incorporated the Spanish introduced goats and sheep into their diet as well. The Navajo were more sedentary and agrarian than the Apache and sheep became a major source of wealth in Navajo culture and society.

Like most hunter gatherer tribes, the Apache were a violent group, who warred and raided against each other, against the O’odham Indians, Pima Indians, and the Spanish military garrison and settlement in modern day Tucson. When the Apache would attack the Tucson settlement the Spanish, Indians and Mexicans would retire behind Tucson’s walls for safety. There were never sufficient numbers of Spanish military to stop the raiding. The population of Tucson never grew large enough that it could displace the Apache Indians through sheer numbers either.

The Apache Indians practiced primitive warfare and differentiated between raiding and warring. Raids were signs of strength where livestock would be run off and displays were by the attackers made to instill fear in those they raided. Warring was a separate matter where blood was to be spilt. Some Spanish military commanders understood the distinction but to the Spanish, O’odham and Mexicans it was a meaningless distinction. In the drought stricken Southwest, running livestock off and warring may as well have been the same thing in the victim’s eyes.

The Spanish brought the European idea of property and capitalism with them. Under European rationality, raiding and warring were the same act. The Spanish responded as best they could with military and diplomatic solutions given their small numbers. The main issue with diplomacy was that no one person spoke for all the Apache and making a peace with one Apache tribe would not stop another from raiding. Despite the brutal Southwest climate and the constant intrusions from the Apache, the Spanish were successful in making Tucson a permanent, if small, settlement.

Mexican Arizona

With the slow collapse of Spanish power in Europe and the New World, Mexico achieved its independence through a decade of warfare and rebellion when the Army of Three Guarantees conquered Mexico City. The new Mexican state was not a strong one, and was at its weakest in the far northern Mexican states such as Sonora. To add to Mexican governance concerns, trappers from the United States were appearing in Mexican territory and blurring the borders between the two countries. This trickle became a flood and then an army as the United States annexed a large part of Mexico during the Mexican-American War. The new territories included modern day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Soon after the Mexican-American war the United States Government bought land from Mexico - the Gadsden Purchase - that makes up modern day southern Arizona and New Mexico. The only significant settlement in this new purchased part of the United States was Tucson. At the time of the purchase Tucson probably did not number more than one thousand in population.

The short time that Mexico governed Arizona was similar to how the Spanish fared. The Apache Indians were the dominant military during the period and their raiding and warring caused constant problems for the settlements in southern Arizona. Mexico was a weak state during this period due to internal turmoil and bankruptcy. Consequently the northern regions were not governed strongly. It was the same problem that Spanish governance faced, the northern Sonoran desert was a long way away from Mexico City and there was nothing economically to suggest more military or civil resources should be poured into Tucson and southern Arizona.

Frontier American Arizona

During the frontier period Arizona had a small population. The Colorado River offered the most useful means of transport with large steam engined paddle boats traversing up and down the river. As the frontier penetrated further into Arizona, military forts were established as the most obvious face of the US Government’s interests. The first large fort to be established was Fort Yuma on the Colorado River. With each new fort being established the conflict between the US military and the Indian tribes escalated. Every fort further cemented the grip the US military had in the territories. Unlike Spain and Mexico, the United States had the strength and wealth to remove all doubt as to who was the primary authority in the area.

The Indian tribes had managed to hold their own with the small Spanish and Mexican garrisons in Arizona but with the gold and silver strikes that were occurring in Arizona and California they were also being out populated by the Americans. As mining towns went through boom and bust, and people moved on to the next boom town, not everyone did. Others stayed behind with their families and established permanent settlements that grew into towns. Through this mechanism the Indians were displaced and when the Indians attacked these towns, the people living there either appealed to the American military for help or established their own civil militias.

The American government and people had decided the land in Arizona was theirs. The Indians did not have the wealth, the technology or the numbers to resist. Through warfare, settlement, force and treaties they were displaced, isolated and forced off their lands. Nineteenth century America was a racialized one, and the Indian Wars were a particularly violent process where Indian families were slaughtered as part of the constant warfare between the American military, settlers and Indians.

The Yavapai and Apache resisted the most but could not hold against the US Military warring against them all year round. The American Civil War had led to the tactics of total war, and the United States military practiced it against the Apache and Yavapai by burning their winter food and clothing stocks. Hunger and cold was as big a problem as losses through military action for the Indians. Ultimately the Indian tribes surrendered and were forced into the Reservation system.

The frontier had been conquered by the sheer wealth and power of the American Westphalian state which was integrated into a global economy through rail and shipping. The Indian hunter gathers, agrarians and sheep herders never stood a chance.

Territorial Arizona

The period between 1863 and 1912 when Arizona became a state of the United States of America is when most of the myths of the Wild West appeared. Arizona is blessed with famous mining towns such as Tombstone where the Earp’s faced off with the Clanton’s at the OK Corral gunfight. Or the ghost towns such as Vulture Mine in Wickenburg which was active until the gold ran out in 1942. These days it is a privately owned tourist attraction.

The capital of the territory was like a hot potato. Originally it was in Fort Whipple, before moving to Prescott in Northern Arizona, then Tucson and finally, in 1889, Phoenix which has been the capital ever since.

The connection of rail in the 1870s across Arizona, connecting California and Oregon to the East Coast ended the frontier as much as the US Military did. Arizona was now part of an economy connected by rail nationally and by sea globally. The riches in Arizona’s dirt were extracted, carted off in freight rail, converted into good in the factories on the West and East coasts, which then came back to Arizona in freight rail once again.

With access to this inter-connected economy, came the possibility of raising cattle in large numbers and then freighting their meat by rail all over the US. Ranching developed rules around water. If you owned the water, you owned the range. The open range died as Ranchers fenced off springs, and built their own well systems. By 1883 the ranges were fully stocked with 34MM acres of pasture and 7.6MM head of cattle. Today Arizona maintains 26MM acres of pasture and 870k head of cattle a 23% reduction in acreage and 700% reduction in head of cattle.

Sheep herds and the dominance of grazing ranges led to the Graham and Tewkesbury feud in Pleasant Valley in Northern Arizona. Known as the Pleasant Valley War which included significant ugliness. Tom Graham, enraged by his brothers death, attacked the Tewkesbury Ranch in 1887, killing Frank Jacobs and Tom Tewkesbury. Graham did not allow Tewkesbury’s wife to bury the dead, instead allowing hogs to eat them instead. Graham was ambushed in Tempe in 1892. It was more than economic and involved enmity between the families and ranch hands, the US State did still not reach far enough for every day law and order. Up to 50 individuals died in the violence.

By the end of the territorial period, the open range ended due to drought, over grazing, environmental damage from herds too large and other stuff.

Tombstone got its name from Edward Schieffelin, a prospector who found gold and silver, when he was told by US soldiers that prospecting in Apache areas would mean all they found was his tombstone. The gold and solver finds led to a boom town. With rail and technological advancements, Arizona went from mining boom towns to the large scale extraction of copper. Tombstone went from 0 ppl in 1878 to 12k in 1880. Thomas Sheridan: “Places like Tombstone epitomized the frontier at its worst: a rootless community where people risked everything - their lives, their fortunes, the land itself - for short term gain.”

The mines produced up to 30MM (~350MM in today’s money) in silver. Miners hit water and Silver Dollar was no longer back by Federal Government. Wages were slashed and miners held strikes. Silver production decreased as seams ran out and the town shut down.

The myth of the Wild West allowed the ‘dude ranch’ tourism industry to grow in Arizona. This was where city slickers could dress up in Cowboy clothes and wrangle with cattle in a controlled environment. The ‘dude ranches’ had the added advantage that you got a shower every night and ate good food, unlike the real cowboys who slept in tents, spent weeks unwashed and ate quality poor food. Modern representations of the ‘dude ranch’ still exist in Wickenburg, sometimes with the added advantage of drug or alcohol rehab thrown in as extra.

It is hard to understate the civilizing aspect of rail. It was railroads that connected Arizona to the US national economy, which was in turned were linked to the global economy by shipping. Rail moved cattle and ore out, but also brought in manufactured goods and the rule of law. These are good things.

Arizona Statehood

Arizona became a US State and an additional star on the US Flag on February 14th, 1912. The path to statehood has to be viewed under the predominant politics of the time. Arizona was a Democratic state and the administration in Washington DC was Republican. The state politics of the time was dominated by the ‘copper collar’ so many saw the constitutional convention in Arizona as a chance to slip the copper collar, advance labor concerns, and also make a more progressive state constitution.

The Constitutional Convention was dominated by Democrats. The president of the convention was George W.P. Hunt who later became the first Governor of Arizona. The constitution the convention came up with for Arizona was progressive but not radical. It was similar in structure and reach to the progressive constitutions in Oregon and Oklahoma. The Arizona constitution included popular initiatives, referendum and recall of elected politicians and judges.

There was also the popular vote for the position of Mine Inspector - if you ever wonder why you are voting for a mine inspector in the twenty first century - this is why. It was labor’s attempt to limit the political reach of Copper Mine owners.

For the most part the Arizona Constitution was a standard US Washington style constitution with a separate and elected Executive in the Governor, a legislative comprised of a Senate and a Legislature, and a separate Judicial with appointed positions agreed upon by the Executive and Legislative.

Statehood was another important moment, as the speculation in canals and water rights during the nineteenth century were never enough, there were floods which destroyed infrastructure and investments, and then drought which destroyed the farms themselves and made them not economically viable. There needed to be damns built for Phoenix to be an on-going agricultural concern it required investment from the Federal Government to protect the farmers and town from flood, rain and drought.

Twentieth Century Arizona

The World Wars, and in particular the Second World War was when Arizona industrialized.

Arizona’s economy in the 20thC was dominated by the five C’s; coper, cattle, cotton, citrus and climate.

Copper was an especially important part of the industrial economy as, until fibre, it was the basis for electrical transmission and telecommunications.

Copper is important in human history, it was the first metal smelted by humanity in 800 BC, it was first smelted from its ore in 5000 BC, the first cast into a mould in 4000 BC and first metal to be alloyed, with tin to make Bronze in 3,500 BC. In the modern world, copper is the preferred electrical conductor in electrical wiring. Today Arizona produces 60% of all copper in the US at 750k metric tonnes of copper. It is estimated 80% of all copper ever mined is still available due to recycling.

The first large copper mine in Arizona was at Chase Creek in 1864. It was pretty ram shackle affair with the ore being carted by donkeys to a smelter and then by wagons to Missouri. Later there were mines developed in Prescott, Globe, Clifton, Bisbee and Jerome. The Bisbee mine grew into one of the biggest mines in the world after adopting the Bessemer process. By 1910 Arizona was the biggest copper producer in the United States.

Politics in Arizona was dominated by the ‘copper collar’ until the 1940s such was the economic dominance of a small number of copper companies and their inter mingling with the economic and political systems within Arizona.

During the First World War Arizona became well known for long staple cotton which was grown in the Salt River basin. This cotton was required by Goodyear for their tires. Goodyear sensed how important the long fiber cotton was to their future and bought a large tract of land in the West Valley which is now known as Goodyear, AZ.

Cars, Suburbs and Air Conditioners

Phoenix is a suburban city which grew in the latter half of the 20thC when automobiles and aircraft dominated how people connected between places and each other. During the period when Phoenix grew from tens of thousands to millions, the single family home in a small community was the preferred choice of American for living, raising families and how they spent their time outside of work.

The agricultural basis for Phoenix led to a grid pattern of roads running North and South, and East and West. Since most of the suburbs grew in the age of the automobile the roads in the grid pattern were developed with two to three lanes each way and in many cases a middle turning lane. Phoenix roads are wide, especially in comparison to the North East United States, and the extra turning lane is very unusual when compared to non-Sunbelt cities.

The dominance of the car, and the building of single home suburbs coincided with air conditioning becoming cheap and hence universal. The Phoenix suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s were dominated by new farms being bulldozed, new roads being laid and single family homes being built with multi-tonne air conditioners craned onto roofs.

Up until the 1990s standard Arizona practice was to put air-conditioners on the roof. Why? I am not sure. Larger houses had more than one air conditioner on the roof. For instance my 1947 ranch house has a 5 tonne unit and 2.5 tonne unit on the roof. One possibility is that in older developments the air conditioner replaced the swamp cooler which was on the roof for efficiency reasons. Why that would be continued after the swamp cooler was replaced in the 1960s, I don't know. Suburbs and developments in the 21st Century have the air conditioners on the ground next to the single family home.

In terms of efficiency, air conditioning has advanced enough that it is more energy efficient to provide air conditioning than heating.

Between 1950 and 2000, Phoenix added 1.1MM new houses, compared to 43.9k for the previous 50 years increasing the population from 106k to 1.3MM in the same period. Between 2000 and 2015 there have been 283k new homes created leading to a Phoenix population of 1.5MM.


The winter in Phoenix and other parts of the Sonoran, including Tucson, Yuma, etc is very mild, with temperatures averaging 65F during winter days and beautiful clear blue skies with a warm sun. Along with the low taxes in Arizona, this has led to retiree's from Canada, Alaska, the Mid-West and North-East of the US migrating to Arizona for the winter to escape the frigid and miserable winters of their home towns.

In Arizona, those flocking to our mild winters are called 'Snowbirds'. As one redditor put it a Snowbird is; "Someone who vacations in Phoenix for the winter. Typically old people." There is a lot of mythology around Snowbirds. Native Phoenicians believe they clog the highways and roads, driving slowly, creating chaos during commutes by not knowing where they are going and causing people to get to work late.

Phoenicians also believe Snowbirds are responsible for the poor schools in Arizona. It is assumed Snowbirds selfishly vote to keep taxes down and since they have no children; that they vote down any education or school proposition. Phoenicians also resent that Snowbirds come for just a few months, and are not part of the year round fabric of the community and state.

So is all that true? ASU Professor Stephen Happel determined there were 300,000 Snowbirds in 2002. At the time the AZ population as 5.3MM which means snowbirds made up 5%. The study covered RV parks, and with Snowbirds buying homes since that study, it has become impossible to count how many Snowbirds there are.

Do they vote? There is no data on how many Snowbirds are registered to vote in Arizona. Residency requires a domicile in Arizona and intent that your out of state residency is temporary. Paying more than nine months of taxes in Arizona also counts as residency. So it is possible that Snowbirds are registered to vote in Arizona, but again, there is no data on how many.

As to Snowbirds being the cause of poor education outcomes in Arizona, that does not seem to be true. In the 2016 Maricopa County elections there were 11 bond approval or budget increases on the ballot for school districts. Of those 8 passed (72%) and 3 failed (27%). If Snowbirds were using their voting power, it would be expected all would have failed. Responsibility for the poor education outcomes in Arizona lands at the feet of the Arizona State Legislature, not Snowbirds.

Twenty First Century Arizona

Phoenix and Arizona face the same challenges that all cities do in the twenty first century. The 20thC industrial economy and its suburban structure have changed, it has not disappeared, but the network effects and density that the technology and service industries require to be fully efficient favor the urban environment.

Where once cities built baseball stadiums and museums, they are now building anchor institutions such as Colleges, Universities and Medical campuses. This is part of Richard Florida’s Creative Class style of urban renewal. A good example of this change in mentality was when the Phoenix City Government wanted to put a football stadium in Roosevelt Street. This is a well known arts district. Under the Creative Class urban renewal methodology arts districts are to be protected as this is where the tech yuppies and hipsters also hang out and spend their tech wealth [Disclaimer I fit this description]. As a result of the artists opposing the stadium, and the new fashion in urbanism, the football stadium was moved to Glendale and resides off a highway exit twenty miles from Phoenix downtown.

The real winner of this urban change has been Tempe. The old Mill Avenue is gone, it is now Downtown Tempe, with the massive ASU campus as its anchor and numerous startups and high growth companies around it. Limelight Networks, Lifelock and Fetchback (Ebay) are good examples. Older companies seeking that startup tech like energy and innovation are establishing themselves in Tempe such as Microsoft, Google Ad-words and State Farm. Amazon recently opened an engineering office in Phoenix and it was downtown Tempe they chose as the location for the new office.

The anchor institutions are important as technology companies cluster around them. Ticketmaster is the original Phoenix startup. Four ASU students in 1976 thought ticketing could be done more efficiently with software and make a profit for venues rather than ticketing be a cost center. They proved that bet by writing their ticketing system on a mainframe in assembly. Forty years later Ticketmaster is still in Phoenix and their engineering office is in the ASU Skysong Center at McDowell Rd and Scottsdale Rd.

Humans rarely respond to rapid change well and there are save Mill Avenue groups who wish to slow the rate of development in Tempe. This is understandable as Mill Avenue has gone from ‘The Tavern on Mill’ offering $1 PBRs to ‘Blasted Barley’ selling $7 India Pale Ales in under a decade. Julian Wright was one of the first entrepreneurs to recognize that the wealthy tech companies on Mill Avenue’s fringe were driving Mill Avenue upscale. He opened La Bocca which was a Postinos like wine bar and then later Handle Bar which was a craft brew pub. The owners of Le Grand Orange have responded by opening Postinos in Tempe and Pedal Haus on Mill Avenue. All are favorites of the tech hipster scene.

The dynamics driving Tempe’s growth are larger than any one protest group or even than a city government can handle. Startup companies are designed to manage, encourage and exploit rapid growth. They need access to educated workers and ASU is the main institution in Phoenix producing those workers. As startups grow exponentially, they hire exponentially and the wealth being generated by these workers demands public and private spaces that serve food, beer, coffee, wifi, work colo’s, etc. It is a strong feedback loop which is amplified when workers from existing startups create their own startups.

Currently it appears Tempe is winning the urban tech challenge. The closest competitor is downtown Phoenix which has a similar urban environment but one which is more spread out than Tempe’s. Scottsdale has opted out of this and gone the more traditional suburban style “office park off a highway design” for locating business. Chandler and Mesa are similar in style to Scottsdale though Chandler is trying to innovate in its downtown area with colo workspaces such as Gangplank.

Construction Boom and Bust

Arizona was one of the states where housing and construction took off in the boom (2001-2006) and collapsed in the bust (2007). From 1990 to 1999 prior to the boom, housing starts were 300k, from 2000 to 2009 during the boom starts were 425k (+41%). In the five years prior to the bust, Phoenix started 217k new houses, and in the fives years after bust, 66k (-69%). Expansions and contractions of this size are difficult for an industry, city and economy to go through in a twenty year period.

Arizona also suffered more than other states when the bust came as the construction economy collapsed and houses were left abandoned as people foreclosed and walked away from their sub prime mortgages. In Arizona it was not until 2012 that the market correction that started in 2006 finally began to reverse itself and households eventually got above water in their mortgages.

The boom in Arizona followed national and global changes with the financialization of national economies. In the United States this meant Wall Street in New York boomed along with housing as it created new financial products that hid the real risk with sub-prime mortgages. There was genuine demand in the Sun-Belt states for housing during the aughts which drove a lot of the new housing but the boom went far beyond that demand. Arizona traditionally has been laissez faire and city governments opened up new land to development with more ease than they should have given the costs of sprawl and the long term issue of water supply.

There is no doubt though, in the early aughts there was a lot of money to be made in flipping houses, the housing market was insanely irrational. A friend I worked with post-bubble told me how he and his cousin flipped houses during the boom. His cousin was a teacher and worked weekends on the first house they flipped. My friend said that the money they made from flipping that house was more than his cousin made in a year as a teacher in Chandler. His cousin handed in his notice to the school district the next day and embarked on a career of house flipping.

When the bust came and financial institutions started collapsing, Arizona truly paid the piper with unemployment and rock bottom housing prices. Development had always been a central part of the Arizona economy as people from the Mid-West and North-East chose cheap housing and a beautiful winter sun over expensive housing and snow. Suddenly state and local government were forced to look at the economy as something more sustainable than construction as their tax revenues disappeared. The loss in taxes was so bad that the Arizona state government sold their Capitol building and then leased it back.

Modern Arizona Politics

Arizona is viewed as a red state at the national level. The US two party system makes this seem binary, but Arizona is very purple with an average of 51.9% voting for a Republican President and 44.9% voting for a Democratic President between 2008 and 2016.

The drawing of districts is partisan in the United States, with the legislature redrawing them every ten years based on the census, a process which has led to gerrymandering in US history. Arizona created an independent redistricting commission with two members from each party and a non-partisan chair. The districts drawn by the commission came into effect in 2013.

The previous set of districts, from 2003/2013 did not appear to be gerrymandered despite being created by a partisan process. The eight seats came up for election 5 times, with Republicans winning 23/40 (57.5%) and Democrats 17/40 (44.6%) compared to the average presidential vote over this period of 54.1% (+3.1%) for Republicans and 44.4% (-0.2%) for Democrats.

The new districts have only been in two elections prior to the 2016 election with the nine seats coming for election twice with Republicans winning 9/18 (50%) and Democrats 9/8 (50%) compared to the average presidential vote over this period of 53.4% for Republicans (-3.4%) and 44.4% (+5.6%) for Democrats. The 2013 districts need time for more data, looking at the first two elections of the 2003/2013 districts, Republicans won 12/16 (75%) but over the 5 elections came close to the presidential vote percentages.


The Phoenix Metropolitan Area [PMA] is the statistical definition used by the US Federal Government to describe the urban and suburban area that covers the entirety of Phoenix. The two main population areas in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area (2014) are Phoenix at 1.5MM and Mesa at 454k. Together they make up 2MM of the PMA's total of 4.5MM (44%).

Phoenix Metropolitan Area population histogram (2014) Phoenix 2014 Population Histogram

The Future

As a desert outpost Phoenix has managed water as a scarce resource for as long as the US State has had an interest in growth in the South West. Good governance when it comes to water has put Phoenix and Arizona in a strong position when it comes to growth, sustainability and climate change.


Other topics that don't fit neatly into the essay.

Speed Cameras

Speed Cameras are common place in Australia. A lot of the technology for them was developed there. It was no coincidence that when speed cameras came to Arizona it was the Australian company, Redflex, that helped introduce them.

In Arizona speed cameras appeared at the state and city level. With the state’s camera tending to be fixed along state roads such as highways and for the cities they were either red light cameras with speed cameras at the light or they were in mobile vans.

Speed cameras are incredibly unpopular. When ever they appear on referenda or initiatives they lose heavily with often 70% voting against them. A fellow I worked with once stood in front of the camera of a mobile van while his car was being worked on. Drivers waved to him and beeped their horns in thank you. The mobile camera van operator called the police on him. He said his heart was thumping when the police man arrived, but the police officer did nothing as he was not causing a public nuisance.

Unfortunately opposition to the cameras was not always non violent civil disobedience. Thomas Destories shot a camera operator three times killing Douglas Georgianni. Destories was justifiably sentenced to 22 years in prison for the violent murder.

A ruling in an Arizonan court meant that speed camera offenders had to be served personally. If the offender could avoid being personally served for ninety days then the ticket was no longer valid. This was very common behavior in Arizona. At the state level only 40% paid their tickets. Scottsdale got around this by claiming that someone personally putting a letter in your mail box counted as ‘personal service’. I was served this way when I lived in Scottsdale.

One of the annoying aspects of the speed cameras on the highway was the people would slow down to ten or fifteen miles below the speed limit to avoid being caught on the camera. It meant that the areas where the fixed cameras were located got backed up very quickly. Driving down the highway became a choppy, unpleasant affair where traffic did not flow freely.

On the surface roads it did not matter as much as they were choppy and low speed away. The surface streets tend to be forty miles an hour speed limited. Because Phoenix is one big grid the roads have lots of cross sections, traffic lights, houses, shops, malls, schools, etc. The mobile vans tended to be located in areas where the speed changes were drastic and they were right on the edge of the speed change, which felt like they were located for revenue raising purposes. The irony was that these cameras were great for Redflex but tended to leave the cities in the red. It was tax money making up the difference.

The speed cameras were sufficiently socially, politically and economically repugnant that Governor Jan Brewer refused to re-up the contract with Redflex and the fixed highway cameras were torn down. Most cities wound back their speed camera operations such as Scottsdale which kept the red light cameras and only places mobile speed cameras in school areas. Several cities such as Paradise Valley and Mesa still operate speed cameras though.


Books that were used to write this essay:

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