Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Burgeoning

This photograph of Tempe, Arizona, courtesy of the ASU library, was taken in 1935 from the south slope of the Tempe Butte, which is better known today as the "A" mountain that cradles Sun Devil Stadium. The photographer is facing almost due south.

The road that starts at the lower left corner of the frame and continues through the middle of the picture is College Avenue. You can see the back of the old Mt. Carmel church right about in the center. Today, it is the "old building" at the ASU Newman Center, and thus is still a Catholic church facility, but that particular building is now only used for weddings and special events. Just after and to the left (southeast) of Mt. Carmel, on the left side of College Avenue, is ASU's Old Main building. (Was it called the "New Main" building at the time of this photo? Inquiring minds want to know.) In 1935, Arizona State University was still called the Arizona State Teachers' College, and its president was Grady Gammage.

The north-south road to the west (right) of College Avenue, traversing the middle of the photo, is Forest Avenue, which is much smaller now and has been converted to a pedestrian mall through most of campus. The east-west road closest to the photographer is Sixth Street, which is not a major arterial today as it does not occur at a square-mile interval with other arterial streets. Seventh Street is barely visible; you can tell there is an intersection with it at Forest, but the angle doesn't allow for much more.

Running between the church and the Old Main is the street now known as University Drive, but at the time it was better known as the Atlantic-Pacific Highway. Yes, it was the "main drag," all two lanes of it -- not that many people had cars then, in the depths of the Depression -- and it ran from Los Angeles to New York City. The highway curved slightly southward and eventually met and followed the SR-87 alignment to Tucson. Pieces of this highway alignment are still visible in Tempe -- that's why Eighth Street is off-kilter and follows the old railroad track line as it slants past the Four Peaks Brewery.

The U.S. Highway 60 had been commissioned but not yet built; by the end of the decade, it would follow Apache Boulevard through Tempe. Apache is visible among the vast, empty lots south of Old Main, after the grassy square on the left side of the photo and where that clump of trees and small buildings meets College Avenue. Straight ahead to the south in the photo, what was then county land consisted of rural properties and empty meadows as far as the eye could see. Tempe ended at Apache Boulevard.

This land is now among the densest in the entire Phoenix metropolitan area. Tempe was the first suburb to be landlocked when every city in the Phoenix area raced to annex developable acreage in the 1980s. Mesa and Scottsdale cut Tempe off to the north and east, Phoenix borders to the west, and Chandler galloped across a two-mile-wide sliver south of Tempe until it closed the square.

My parents moved to Tempe in 1978, and I lived there until 1993, from 1999 to 2001 while I ran the Arizona Gamer's main location, and then again from 2003 to 2007 while I finished my undergraduate and law degrees. The thing that strikes me the most about the area's phenomenal development isn't that my former home, which is smack in the middle of Tempe now, was remote enough in 1935 that its location is not even discernible along the horizon of that photograph. No, the thing I find most striking is that I can imagine a day when my current neighborhood in Chandler, which is twice as far from downtown Phoenix as the area depicted in the photo, will have been so much further eclipsed by growth that it will be considered too dense an area for new development.


  1. It would be a cool experiment to line up that exact picture today and frame the two photos side by side. Very interesting post Mike.

  2. Glad you enjoyed. I think I may go somewhere with this "then and now" theme. Maybe over the next couple of weeks of blog posts.