The Rise of Phoenix

'Desert Visions' may be the definitive history of Arizona's capital city

From the late-1940s until the mid-1970s, a committee of mostly white, largely affluent elites ruled Phoenix through the Charter Government Committee, a bipartisan group formed in opposition to the old-machine politics that had controlled the small desert city for years through graft and back-of-the-saloon deals. The committee sought to make Phoenix run efficiently from the political center. Barry Goldwater was one of its strongest adherents and earliest organizers.

To this ruling committee—called the "country club council" by some skeptics—politics was a "four letter word," according to Arizona State University history professor Philip VanderMeer's new history of one of the nation's most improbable megacities, out now from the University of New Mexico Press. The group met before each election and nominated a slate of candidates, picking only those (mostly) men who did not want the job.

The CGC's members believed that "the public good, or common good, would be achieved by allowing able people of goodwill and without personal and political agendas to choose the city's course, leaving the details to administrators," VanderMeer writes.

Today's loudest voices—those from the far right and the far left—were necessarily left out of the mix. That included organized labor and all but the most centrist-minded minorities. Based on a model created by the National Municipal League, charter government was popular throughout the West for several decades, spurring the region's growth and increasing prominence on the national stage.

Until it became, in a sense, a victim of its own success.

Some of the more creative and self-serving politicians in the Valley of the Sun these days will recognize the tone of the far right's opposition to such technocratic rule. The Stay American Committee organized an opposition slate to challenge the ruling elite in 1961, calling charter government a communist conspiracy.

"Denouncing zoning, housing codes, and land-use planning as steps toward eventual confiscation of all private property, SAC leaders lambasted urban renewal and the purchase of private water companies as elements of the red menace," VanderMeer writes. "No aspect of city life escaped their blasts. They excoriated the collection of money by city children for UNICEF, and they claimed that 'the inexcusably snarled traffic conditions in Phoenix, the ill-timed and repeated tearing up of streets are part of the announced plan of those who would rule the world by planning confusion for the people.'"

The end for the ruling elite came in 1975. Charter government had taken a relatively small, homogenous desert outpost that had benefited from federal investment and the advent of air-conditioning, and placed it at the cusp of becoming one of the nation's largest urban areas. By then, the city had grown to eight times its 1950 size. The increasing movement of Americans during the post-war boom years, an uptick in federal spending in the arid West, high-tech investment and the perennial attractiveness of the region's climate had transformed what was once an agricultural backwater that looked to Denver as its model into a megalopolis that saw Los Angeles as its nearest relative.

The city, which was from the very beginning—in stark contrast to Tucson's Mexican roots—an exclusively Anglo domain, was now becoming more diverse, and there were interest groups, minorities and political true-believers knocking on the door, demanding admittance to the country club.

"The charter government system died primarily because the city in which it began no longer existed," VanderMeer observes. "The passage of time and the influx of new residents created a population with little memory of the 1940s crisis that had inspired the movement. As the initial, relatively cohesive group of Phoenix's postwar leaders retired from public life, they were followed by various and competing groups of leaders, reflecting the city's growing diversity and size."

The story of charter government's rise and fall is just one of many told in VanderMeer's excellent history of Phoenix. In places, it is as dry as the once-mighty Salt River as it passes through the valley, but Desert Visions and the Making of Phoenix does its job admirably, and it will certainly rival Bradford Luckingham's Phoenix: The History of a Southwestern Metropolis (1989) as the city's definitive history. Its tone resembles that of the Charter Government Committee: centrist, a bit removed and with an emphasis on good research and careful analysis.

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