Why Arizona?

By Jake Strickler, Editor-in-Chief

“If there is, in fact, a Heaven and a Hell, all we know for sure is that Hell will be a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix – a clean, well-lighted place full of sunshine and bromides and fast cars where almost everybody seems vaguely happy, except for the ones who know in their hearts what is missing…And being driven slowly and quietly into the kind of terminal craziness that comes with finally understanding that the one thing you want is not there. Missing. Back-ordered. No tengo. Vaya con Dios.”

     – Hunter S. Thompson in his Introduction to Generation of Swine (1988), written in the Arizona Biltmore

Take Highway 85 south out of Phoenix for about two hours, or roughly four-fifths of the way to the border crossing at Sonoita, Mexico, and you’ll find yourself in a town called Why. As of the 2000 Census, Why, AZ, had a population of 116. The story of Why’s name is less interesting than the name itself. The town lies at the spot where Highways 85 and 86 meet in a Y-intersection. Its founders, believing that a simple Y was sufficient for its name, were rebuked by state law, which dictated that city names were required to consist, at a minimum, of three letters. The resulting compromise is more poetic, and more appropriate. Why is an open question. Why does Why exist? And Why do 116 people live there? Why, Arizona? Spend some time there – you won’t need more than a few minutes – and you’re not likely to find an answer

These same questions were asked of most cities in southern Arizona at some point in their histories. Why here? Why not continue on to the coast, or settle in the more temperate mountain regions of north-western Arizona or southern Colorado? Why choose, willingly, to put down roots in a region where the temperature hits 120 degrees and rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas abound? Why reside in an environment that simply is not one in which human beings are made to thrive, let alone survive? A quote attributed to General William T. Sherman (whose notorious Civil War “March to the Sea” left Savannah in flames) encapsulates this attitude: “We had one war with Mexico to take Arizona, and we should have another to make her take it back.”

Why's northern counterpart, Nothing. Population: 4. On Highway 60; blink and you miss it. Photo by Jake Strickler.
Why’s northern counterpart, Nothing. Population: 4. On Highway 60; blink and you miss it. Photo by Jake Strickler.

Sherman’s remark is hardly unique; historical literature is not kind to southern Arizona. While the northern part of the state is routinely praised for its natural beauty (Teddy Roosevelt on the Grand Canyon: “The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it”), the portions closer to sea level are more likely to inspire comments such as those of Martha Summerhayes, the wife of an Army officer posted to a new settlement at Ehrenberg (straight west from Phoenix, on the California border) in the summer of 1874: “Of all the dreary, miserable-looking settlements that one could possibly imagine, that was the worst; an unfriendly, dirty, and Heaven-forsaken place.”

The Federal Government was on the same page as Sherman and Summerhayes, remaining indecisive about just what to do with the Arizona territory. It was viewed as something of a burden; a vast expanse of mostly uninhabitable (though members of the indigenous cultures that had existed in the region for longer than memory could record would likely contest this point), “Heaven-forsaken” land that had to be overseen for the simple reason that it belonged to the country.

Tombstone, AZ. 1880s. Site of the shootout at O.K. Corral. Courtesy legendsofamerica.com
Tombstone, AZ. 1880s. Site of the shootout at O.K. Corral. Courtesy legendsofamerica.com

Arizona became a redoubt for outlaws and misfits; people who were averse to the increasingly modern and tame trappings of Nineteenth-Century America. “Lawless” towns like Tombstone and Yuma became integral parts of the mythos of frontier criminality. Violence and brutality were parts of everyday life. In spite of these elements, Arizona was reluctantly granted statehood by the Taft administration in February of 1912, only after nearly 25 years of negotiation and debate that had nearly led to its being combined with New Mexico into a mammoth state called Montezuma. It was the last contiguous territory to become incorporated, a dubious honor.

By this point, though, a reason had been found. As the West was developed (to the tragic misfortune of the above-mentioned native cultures) and connected to the eastern states by rail, the fortunes of many industrialists and ranchers were built on Arizona’s “Three Cs:” cattle, cotton, and copper. The Salt River Valley, in which Phoenix lies, was cultivated, citrus was added to the “C” list, and local boosters began referring to the area as the “Nile Valley of America.”

Phoenix flooded during a rainstorm. Circa 1950s. Courtesy azcentral.com
Phoenix flooded during a rainstorm, 1950s. Courtesy azcentral.com

But in the slums of early Phoenix, along the city’s southern rim, every summer brought heat that killed the young, the old, and the infirm in waves. Arizona retained the highest infant death rate in the nation long after its incorporation. For those living in the shadow of new, opulent hotels (mainly laborers by whose sweat and toil the bank accounts of the men residing in those same hotels grew) the “desert oasis” that the new capital of Phoenix was being sold to the nation as remained inhospitable and unforgiving in its gentler periods, and lethal in its most aggressive.

In true pioneer spirit, the determination was made that if the natural landscape was inhospitable to man, then man would bring nature to heel with an innovation that proved absolutely crucial to Arizona’s growth. Beginning in the 1930s with the advent of primitive evaporative cooling technology, local tinkerers and entrepreneurs started cobbling together wonky, slapdash “swamp boxes” (so named for the mold that grew in them almost as soon as they were put to use). As historian Thomas Sheridan describes, these “Rube Goldberg-like” contraptions “thrown together out of chicken wire, wallboard, excelsior matting, electric fans, and water sprayers…sprouted like mushrooms on the roofs and in the windows of Arizona buildings.”

Air conditioning ad, 1950s. Courtesy pinterest.com
Air conditioning ad, 1950s. Courtesy pinterest.com

By the end of the 1930s, Phoenix was billed as the “Air Conditioned Capital of the World.” And by 1951, five local manufacturers were producing over half of the country’s air conditioning units (injecting $15 million in taxes back into the local economy annually). With this technology growing increasingly sophisticated, major manufacturers like Motorola and General Electric took advantage of the state’s cheap, plentiful land and invested in new plants. Proclaimed Motorola executive Daniel Noble, “Motorola management feels that refrigeration cooling is the complete solution to the Phoenix summer heat problem…[it] has transformed Phoenix into a year-round city of delightful living!” Not coincidentally, Phoenix’s population rose from 65,400 in 1940 to 156,000 in 1955.

Concurrently, Arizona would play a key role in another stridently modern industry: military technology. With the rumblings of another conflict in Europe, the massive tracts of unused land in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada became proving grounds for nascent innovations. New Mexico would become the home of the atomic bomb, while Arizona was largely given over to the aviators.

Sky Harbor, 1950s. Courtesy blogspot.com
Sky Harbor, 1950s. Courtesy blogspot.com

Following the precedent set by Howard Hughes, who favored the desert for testing new planes because of its clear sky, infrequent storms, and vast stretches of flat land, those involved in the industry flocked to the state. The first runway at Sky Harbor Airport was built in 1928. And in 1940, work began on Luke Air Force base, named after Phoenix-born World War I hero Frank Luke, who was killed in in combat in France in 1918. The following year, construction began on Thunderbird Field #1 (in Glendale), and #2 (now the Scottsdale airport).

Following the Allied victory in 1945, the defense industry stayed in Phoenix. The city experienced both a Postwar and a Cold War economic boom. The US Army opened its Electronics Proving Ground at Fort Huachuca in southeastern Arizona in 1954, changing the name, fascinatingly, to the Electronic Warfare School in 1966. This sparked an inflow of technology manufacturers, like GE and Motorola. Employment in manufacturing and mining exploded, while the agricultural sector fell by the wayside. Today, it’s hard to believe that Thunderbird Field was once surrounded by cotton farms.

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare: Dunlap and 7th St, 1970s. Courtesy hemmings.com
The Air-Conditioned Nightmare: Dunlap and 7th St, 1970s. Courtesy hemmings.com

This willingness to embrace new technologies, and more specifically the lifestyles and consumption habits that these technologies made possible, sparked a new round of Arizona bashing. In 1939, the Brooklyn-born writer Henry Miller set out on a road trip to rediscover his country after spending most of the decade in Europe. The title of the resulting book was a slap in the face to the technology that had made Arizona’s growth possible: The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. This book gave shape to many of the arguments that would be picked up by conservationists and opponents of suburbanization in the decades following World War II.

Phoenix’s unique growth pattern gave rise to the commonly-held picture of the city as a gigantic, bland, sprawling series of malls and tract housing. Unrestrained by the natural limits that many major cities face, it went out, not up. By the 1970s, the naturalist, writer, and proud Luddite Edward Abbey was, hilariously, calling Phoenix a “mad amoeba” and the “blob that’s eating Arizona.” Its size, climate, and lack of public transportation necessitated car ownership, perpetuating the characterization of its residents as people bouncing about from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office, day in and day out. By the 1980s, we see writing like the above passage by Hunter Thompson: Phoenix as an antiseptic, Disney-fied mega-mall that had pushed its living ties to the past onto barren reservations in a mad rush toward blind, hypermodern consumerism. Its mythology was kept present only through simulacra; the pop-gun Wild West show and the tipi-shaped cabins at Holbrook’s Wigwam Motel.

Holbrook's Wigwam Motel. Courtesy wordpress.com
Holbrook’s Wigwam Motel. Courtesy wordpress.com

These comments, while containing kernels of truth, largely miss the forest for the trees. What they ignore is the fact that from nearly any point in the Phoenix area, one can get in their car (albeit an air-conditioned one), point it away from the metro-blob’s center, and be in the undeveloped desert inside of an hour.

Some numbers help here. With about seven million inhabitants, Arizona is the fourteenth most populous state in the country, and has been at or near the top of the “Fastest Growing States” list since the early 1990s. But of these seven million, over 81% live in the metro areas centered in Tucson and Phoenix, which, together, take up just 13% of the state’s land. Of this 13%, only 9% (or 1.2% of the state’s total area) is classified as “urban.” The lion’s share of the remainder of the population is spread between Prescott, Sedona, and Flagstaff. In comparison, 25% of the state’s area consists of reservation land, and contains just 300,000 people.

Away from the bustle and traffic of this handful of cities, then, it is very possible to experience the old, wild-at-heart Arizona. This is why people live contentedly in Why; the desert fires up some sort of reptile-brain desire within them that can only be satisfied by the terrain’s roughness and desolation. Through adversity comes innovation, and strength.

A Phoenix industrialist, speaking in the 1950s, summed it up perfectly: “This country pumps new life and energy and thinking into a man! Back East, there’s nothing left to make the blood circulate; hell, it’s all been done before your time by your grandfather. For the big and small alike, out West there is release from the staid, old ordinary ways of life and thinking. The same thing is true today in Phoenix as in the Gold Rush, except in a more civilized way.” Why? Well, why the hell not?

Much of the history in this article came from two completely fascinating books: Bradford Luckingham’s Phoenix: The History of a Southwestern Metropolis, and Thomas E. Sheridan’s Arizona: A History.

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