Long-time residents and newcomers alike have a fascination for Grand Avenue, the diagonal street that slashes across the map of Phoenix. The drive into downtown Phoenix from Surprise, Peoria, or Glendale along Grand seems like the industrial back door of the city until you hit the six-point intersection at 19th Avenue and McDowell Road, where it transforms to a quirky mixture of old storefronts, motels, houses, and vacant lots that is unlike any other. You have entered Lower Grand or Historic Grand Avenue as it has come to be known, an area that in the last twenty years has evolved into the next big thing in downtown revitalization and the focus of latter day urban pioneers.
Historic Grand Avenue has been continuously developing and changing since before the establishment of Phoenix in 1872, and these layers of history may be more evident here than in any other place in the Valley. Here you can get a sense of Phoenix’s rural roots, the boosterism that transformed Phoenix from farms to a gigantic real estate venture, the evolution of the city from walkable neighborhoods to autocentric suburbs, and the decay and rebirth of the central city.
W. J. Murphy and the Roots of Grand Avenue
Phoenix has always been dominated by people making their livings from land development deals. In the early days, those fish were big but the pond was small. The biggest of all was William John “WJ” Murphy, who was a party to many key companies and organizations, most tracing back to his establishment of the Arizona Improvement Company.
Murphy was a man who saw the big picture: desert plus water equals farms, which draw residents, who build homes and businesses, all of which need land. The AIC, led by Murphy, not only bought and sold land, but also as a private business invested in the kind of infrastructure and institutions that we associate with government: canals, streets, railroads, water systems, landscape, and streetcars. These improvements made settlement possible, and in turn, increased the value of everyone’s landholdings.
When Murphy, an earthwork contractor, came to Arizona to work on the transcontinental railroad, Phoenix was a small hamlet of farmsteads making use of recycled Hohokam canals for irrigation. The topography of the Salt River Valley allowed for potential reclamation of vast areas, far beyond the capabilities of prehistoric natives, and a group of investors came together in 1883 to build a canal as far uphill has they could manage: the Arizona Canal. Murphy’s grading company was in the territory, and had the capacity to perform on such a large contract. Further, Murphy was so convinced by the concept that he was willing to forego payment until the job was half done. Taking much of his payment in company stock, he emerged from the experience in 1886 as majority owner of the largest irrigation system in Arizona, as well as owner or controller of significant land holdings.
But how to sell this arid desert land, most of which was still covered in cactus and mesquite? Murphy saw that irrigation was not enough, that people needed to see how rich the returns could be, and how civilized and modern the settlements were. With local and California investors, Murphy formed the Arizona Improvement Company. Among other ventures, a series of settlements were conceived by the AIC west of Phoenix –Alhambra, Glendale, Peoria, and Marionette – all conveniently located four to six miles south of the Arizona Canal, cutting through the center of the newly arable lands. Connecting all of these new towns to the County seat would be a highway set on the diagonal. This would be Grand Avenue.
Grand Avenue replaced, within the Salt River Valley, the old wagon road that connected Phoenix to Wickenburg and the mines in that area. Of course, at the point where the new highway came in to the Phoenix townsite at 7th Avenue and Van Buren Street, there were additional opportunities for commercial development and suburban (for the time) homes. The AIC did not miss out. They purchased some land in this key area and in 1887 partnered with other landholders to plat the Grand Avenue Addition and the University Addition, which together set the direction for development of Grand Avenue and the tracts on either side from Van Buren up to Christy (McDowell) Road. A land boom took hold immediately, with speculators wildly buying and selling tracts in the new addition. Murphy himself built a mansion on the west side of the Grand two blocks north of Roosevelt (then Ash) street, and paid to have 1,000 two-year-old ash trees planted along the street.
In creating the plats for these areas the AIC retained the rights to water and gas service as well as for streetcar infrastructure. True to plan, in 1890, mule-drawn streetcars operated by the Arizona Improvement Company were put into service, on rail lines installed by Murphy’s grading firm. This was the first major extension of streetcar service away from the main Washington Street line. Murphy was also involved in organization and construction of the Santa Fe, Prescott, and Phoenix railroad line, which parallels Grand Avenue north of McDowell Road and provided freight rail service to the settlements in the northwest Valley as well as to the mines in which Murphy was invested.
The last piece of the Grand Avenue puzzle fell into place in 1905, when the Arizona Territorial Exposition was moved to permanent grounds at the northwest corner of 19th Avenue and McDowell, providing the Grand Avenue streetcar (thereafter known as the “Fairgrounds Line”) a destination and terminus. The land for the fairgrounds was initially purchased by J.C. Adams, President of the Valley Bank and a Murphy associate, and later conveyed to a citizen’s group, the Arizona Fair Association.
Floods and Slow Development
The Grand Avenue and University Additions didn’t take off quite as the speculators hoped. The biggest problem was flooding. Cave Creek, an intermittent stream with fairly indeterminate banks, flowed south through just about the entire area from 7th to 19th Avenues. The years after 1889 were wet ones and the Grand Avenue and University additions were regularly inundated. Eight major floods flowed through the area between 1889 and 1921. Most notably, in 1919 Cave Creek flowed down Grand Avenue and the fairgrounds were under water. In 1921 the State Capitol was flooded.
So while a few hardy souls trusted to Providence and built in the area anyway, development in Phoenix generally shifted instead to the higher ground north of the townsite rather than going west. While a commercial center quickly arose around the intersection of Grand with 7th Avenue and Van Buren, known as “Five Points,” past Polk (one block north) there was nothing but sparse homes and empty lots until at least 1915.
Area investors continued to boost development the best they could. Hopeful that improved streetcar service might do the trick, in 1905 they took up a collection of $1,000 and pledged it to the streetcar company if they would improve the line and commit to service from 7 AM to 10 PM every day at 40 minute intervals. In 1909 the streetcar company, which had reincorporated as the Phoenix Railway Company under the leadership of Murphy associate General Moses H. Sherman, did upgrade and electrify the Fairgrounds line. The streetcar was busiest when the State Fair or some other event was occurring at the fairgrounds. The rest of the time, the sporadic development between Five Points and Six Points barely justified the cost of operation.
The Rise of Commerce and Tourism
The threat of flooding finally abated in 1923 with the construction of Cave Creek Dam. Development in the Grand Avenue area sputtered to life in anticipation its completion, with commercial development creeping north of Five Points, and Six Points becoming more established as a business node on the north end. In between, Grand slowly infilled with a mixture of businesses and residences.
The Great Depression was a time of transition along Grand Avenue, as it was during this period that automobile travel was in ascendance. Tourist camps began to spring up at the end of the 1920s to cater to the rising tide of motorists looking for cheap accommodations. Since the Grand Avenue addition was on the outskirts of town (the city limits were at 19th & McDowell for years), and Grand was the road coming in from Los Angeles, it was the perfect place to catch weary drivers as they came into town. Anyone with extra land could easily establish a camp, only needing to provide campsites and common toilet and shower facilities.
In 1932, Grand Avenue was designated part of U.S. Route 60, reflecting the growth in auto travel. (It was later to receive the additional designations as U.S. 89 and S.R. 93.) As the Depression faded and people could afford better accommodations, many of these camps turned into Auto Courts with permanent cabins and more private facilities. Auto courts reached their peak on Grand in about 1940, when there were at least 13 such businesses in the area. A few of these even survived into the 1960s, including the Shaughnessey Auto Court, Ideal Auto Court, and Minnie’s Auto Court.
Other Grand Avenue businesses were a mixture of those based on the tourist trade and those providing local services. Auto repair garages, gas stations, and restaurants were numerous, but so were groceries, barber and beauty shops, hardware stores and second-hand shops. Grand was already acquiring the eclectic texture that can be seen today.
The Fairgrounds streetcar line was finally shut down at the height of the Depression in 1934 due to lack of ridership. Grand never did become a residential “streetcar suburb” like the northern additions, and people began to drive to the fairgrounds instead of paying to take the streetcar. The switch to driving was affecting the other streetcar lines as well, and trolley service throughout Phoenix ended in 1948.
The Booming Fifties
Grand Avenue fully matured during the postwar years. The economy was booming, and as people took once again to their cars for vacation travel, they wanted better and more modern accommodations. So as most of the tourist courts faded away, a new generation of lodgings rose up in the mid-fifties to satisfy this demand. Many auto courts and homes were cleared to make way for these larger “motels” that were iconic of the period, with romantic, travel-inspired names: the Western Village, the Bali Hi, the Egyptian, the Desert Sun, the Caravan Inn West.
Other businesses were established and grew. Many homes were either converted to commercial use, or had commercial additions made to the front of the property. This phenomenon was prompted by City policies that encouraged commercial redevelopment along the major streets, and is common in the older parts of Phoenix, where steep residential roofs can be seen rising behind flat commercial facades.
As one example, in 1927 Julia Elders (McDonald), a divorcée, acquired and moved into the home of her parents, mining businessman Martin Elders and his wife Maria. True pioneers, the Elders family was in the Salt River Valley at least as early as 1872. They were one of the earliest to buy in to the University Addition and lived at 1020 Grand Avenue since 1909. Julia took in boarders to help support herself. In 1940, she built a three-unit commercial block in her front yard, and for many years thereafter lived in back and leased out the front to various businesses, such as the Arizona Gem Shop, the Y.P. Amusement Co. (phonograph sales), Beaver TV & Radio Co., and the Grand Avenue Beauty Salon. Mrs. Elders held the property in this way through 1979, just before her death at the age of about 96, which probably qualifies her and her parents as the longest tenured landowners in the history of the street. The property is currently in use as part of the La Melgosa art galleries.
Decline and Rebirth
By 1960, Grand Avenue was almost entirely commercial and profited mainly from the passing traffic from the highway and from commuters to downtown. Shadows loomed beginning with the planning of Interstate Highway 10 in 1957. When constructed, people would no longer need to travel through Phoenix on the surface streets of Van Buren and Grand to get through town; instead they could bypass the inner city entirely. Commuters from the west valley could also take the freeway and come downtown on 7th Avenue instead of along Grand.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s the famed “Moreland Corridor” was cut through the heart of established downtown neighborhoods in order to create right-of way for the Interstate. Hundreds of historic buildings were demolished. At Grand Avenue, the freeway was elevated but still about a block of space was cleared on either side of the street north of Moreland, then containing mostly auto sales companies and a gas station. Traffic quickly declined through the 1980s as the new freeway was completed in stages from the west, and by 1990 traffic flowed freely on the Interstate carried high above Grand Avenue and through central Phoenix.
Grand stagnated. The properties on the street as well as those in the adjacent neighborhoods aged and deteriorated. By the early 1990s, property values had declined significantly and the area became attractive for investment by urban pioneers – including artists and studio owners who had been gentrified out of the Warehouse District.
Slowed only by the recession of 2007, Grand Avenue has come back together to form a cohesive neighborhood that embraces both the eclectic past and the artistic future. The Grand Avenue Members Association now acts as the voice of Historic Grand Avenue and is working to revitalize the area. The Grand Avenue Rail Project is working to reconstruct the streetcar line on Grand, partnering with the Phoenix Trolley Museum to explore the possibility of moving the museum there. The project could run the only known remaining original Phoenix streetcar on the Fairgrounds line once again. The group envisions eventually extending the line around downtown Phoenix.
The City of Phoenix, too, has begun to support revitalization efforts led by the community. A recent grant from the EPA paid for planning of the Greening of Grand, a so-called “complete streets” initiative. In 2013 the City constructed the first phase of the plan, reducing the number of traffic lanes, adding bike lanes and street parking, and installing landscape planters and LED lighting. The local artists have decorated the planters with paint, mosaics, and sculpture. Passing traffic slows, and notices not only the bespoke and brightly colored planters, but also the varied and mysterious streetscape along the side of the road.