The City The Grew Around Me

“When I first moved to Phoenix, my grandma took every opportunity to tell her friends that she was older than the state her grandson now called home.” When my chiropractor told me this the other day, I cocked me head to the side to consider the comment. But, indeed, his grandma (born in 1910) was older than the state of Arizona (which joined the union in 1912).

I grew up in a tiny town that, itself, grew up to earn the title of fast-growing, safest town, and best place to raise a family. The hay capital of the world had ceased to be so by the time I reached middle school.

The empty dirt lots where I once chased bunnies and searched for seashells were slowly replaced by big box stores, town homes, and scorching asphalt.

In many ways, 1980s Phoenix was still the wild, wild west. It was adventure and a glorious unknown.

My father moved to Phoenix in the late-1960s when his father was transferred from the Chicago Motorola plant. All five of his kids went on to work there, at least for a time. Growing up, it seemed that everyone worked at Motorola.

My mother moved to Phoenix as a child and was the youngest resident of the first age-restricted retirement community in the U.S. and, in fact, was the only resident under age 55.

My parents still have their ASU ID cards. They were the 5,000-somethingth students to attend. The monstrosity now welcomes 100,000 new students per year.

Both of my parents worked to pay their way for college and both, separately, were homeowners before earning their degrees. Real estate was cheap. They paid $20,000-$30,000 for houses just around the corner from ASU, house that are today listed at over $1,000,000.

If you look at aerial photos of Phoenix from the 1960s, when my parents’ families moved to out here, it’s a dense and tiny downtown surrounded by undeveloped farmland. Maps from the 1980s-2000s, when I was growing up, aren’t too different.

However, today, the Phoenix metropolitan area is a 6,400-square-mile block of homes, businesses, and roads. On the periphery, you can small patches of green. Those patches of green used to be just around the corner, and the smell of manure was pervasive.

Without the confines of natural barriers, the city just keeps expanding outward.

Every few years during my childhood, a highway would be erected a few miles up the road from my childhood home–first to the North, than the West, to the South, and finally the East. My uncle’s sister had her farm taken via eminent domain to build the freeway to the South. Seemingly overnight, our little farm town had replaced it’s cows with an endless streams of cars.

I grew up camping and taking road trips around the state. I participated in a Tombstone “shootout” before the ghost town turned into a tourist trap. I bought tumbled rocks and Mackinaw Island fudge in Sedona before it became an hoity-toity woo-woo town. I played at Slide Rock and hiked West Fork before there were long lines and and admission fees.

I remember when they replaced the tiny air control tower at the airport and when they built the new terminals. I remember when they built Bank One Ballpark, and how it seemed that everyone in Phoenix attended the Diamondback baseball team’s inaugural game.

I remember when my dad would call into the local radio station to answer trivia questions, frequently winning prizes, including tickets to see the Suns basketball team play at America West Arena. With only 2 million people in the whole metro area, my dad was probably one of just a handful of nerdy callers. I remember seeing Charles Barkley, Jason Kidd, and the gang up close, thanks to my father’s brilliance.

I remember when they built the Arizona Science Center and my grandparents bought all the grandkids a membership for the first few years.

I remember learning about the Five C’s of Commerce in Phoenix in school: citrus, cotton, copper, cattle, and climate. It’s the best litmus test to see whether someone grew up here.

I remember watching Ruby the elephant paint abstract pieces to raise money for a new habitat at the Phoenix Zoo. Everyone I knew had one of Ruby’s paintings hanging in their home. I remember how grief-stricken the entire state was when she died in labor.

I remember when the Phoenix Zoo erected a memorial statute for Hazel the gorilla, and everyone we knew would “go visit ” Hazel and tell the statue how much she was missed.

I remember seeing a sky full of stars every night. Nowadays, we’re lucky if we can see a planet or two and the big dipper, despite the always-clear skies.

I hated growing up in Phoenix.

Entertainment was limited and sparse. The nearest mall was 30 miles away. There wasn’t a nearby theater until I was in high school. And, without freeways, it took an eternity to drive anywhere.

Today, I hate that Phoenix has grown.

I once welcomed the growth, but the addition of 3.5 million new neighbors is a bit overwhelming, not to mention the homes and business built to house and employee these new residents.

I feel nostalgia for the empty roads, the stench of manure, and the humdrum boring days when we had to create our own adventures. With time, a sense of sadness has grown, like a water balloon on the verge of bursting. It breaks my heart to see the town of my youth consumed by concrete, now hardly recognizable.

I miss the small-town feel, and I don’t think it’s something I can recover unless I follow in my grandparents’ footsteps and move myself and my family to another small town, and hope that the big city doesn’t follow me there.

26 thoughts on “The City The Grew Around Me

Add yours

  1. What a wonderful post!! Really! This got my mind racing and asking so many questions about urban growth and community etc etc. What changes you have seen in just your lifetime alone!!
    The ad was interesting with its implication that if you could afford a 180k house then you were sure to have servants!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! You make such a great point! Growing up, there was an immense sense of community, and that’s really faded and it’s harder than ever to forge new connections. Isn’t the ad interesting? It’s pretty crazy, actually…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are very welcome! Not only was the post interesting as a piece of experienced social history but it really made me think about all sorts of things!!! 🙂
        Yup. definitely an ad from another era! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. My goodness…your family’s got roots in Phoenix! I loved the history lessons and the images you shared. Hubster’s sister lived in the Phoenix area as a ‘snowbird’ from Anchorage for years and she’d over remark about the sprawl and changes. You’ve described all of that well, Erin. 💕

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s truly shocking how much it’s changed, entirely thanks to the advent of air conditioning! I think the change in my lifetime has been dramatic, but I’ll need to ask my parents about their experience sometime because the changes feel even more extreme for them.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I couldn’t agree more – I love small town community. It’s one of the main reasons I moved from the Atlanta area to Aiken, SC. The pace is slow, but there’s still plenty to do. It’s nothing to be on a walk a see a neighbor outside and we stop to to chat for a while. It’s not Mayberry, but pretty darn close 😄. Love the post – blessing to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s my hope to eventually get out of the city and find a nice and quiet small town, with slow pace and friendly neighbors you describe. My parents built their current home 30+ years ago and most of their neighbors are original owners, so it’s nice they’ve kept that sense of community. Blessings to you, as well, Lex!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. A lot of this resonates with me Erin. While I didn’t grow up in an area that has turned into a place the size of Phoenix (thankfully) I have watched a lot of changes over 63 years and many have had an impact I would never have imagined. The highway system divides the city in half and the urban sprawl just keeps taking land that was once all farms. I don’t have many reasons to go there now, even though it’s just one city away from where I live, but on occasion I venture through and then find even more change. Very sad- but I suspect it’s this way for so many.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, unfortunately, i think my experience is a more extreme example of what’s happening across the country. Phoenix has plenty of room to grow, so it has. But it seems that even older or landlocked cities are tearing down the old in favor of new buildings, highways, and skyscrapers. It’s all a bis disorienting.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s very nice to trace the history of the city that you grew up in – especially when you have access to archival photos of neighbourhoods and streets and highways that once seemed sparse and feel so dense now.

    I feel the same way about Toronto. I love the city but it’s just way too crowded and I avoid the downtown area and am happy in my suburban spread. Lol.

    Your grandma predating Arizona’s establishment is quite an interesting nugget!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The archival photos really are fascinating, and it’s wild to think those changes have occurred in my lifetime, and I can certainly relate to preferring the suburban spread over the crowded downtown areas! I suspect cities across the globe, even well-developed one, are experiencing the growth and gentrification to some degree. Whether it’s good or bad, I’m not sure, but it’s interesting to observe.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I lived in Tucson for a few years and we made a number of trips to Phoenix. Environmentally speaking, we found it quite puzzling why there were so many green lawns residentially and commercially. We scratched our heads wondering why the city hadn’t embraced Xeriscaping, and planting plants which did better in a desert environment!


  7. I visited Phoenix a long time ago and it was not the sprawling [mess of a?] city that it is today. I know that cities grow but it’s not always for the best or in the best ways. Interesting history lesson here.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. As one of the new 3.5 million people to the area, I especially enjoyed your history of Phoenix. I’m thankful to have the McDowell Preserve across the street! No new development will happen there.


  9. Great post, Erin. I really enjoyed learning about the Phoenix of old. I would have preferred the “old” world as well. The expansion is all built around cars rather than people.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I had a colleague whose family moved to Phoenix because of the spectacular air quality. She told me that as the years and decades passed she’s now suffering from the poor air quality that has emerged as a problem as Phoenix grew and the pollution got “trapped” in the valley, making Phoenix one of the most polluted cities in the US 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s absolutely true, EW! My grandfather retired in Phoenix in the early 60s because it had the cleanest air and was good for asthmatics. A few decades in, everyone has imported non-native plant species and there is tons of pollen. Plus, the emissions that have arisen from the expansion. Phoenix is surrounded by mountains, so the pollen and smog get caught in “the bowl” and with wind being rare, it just hangs in the air. I remember hearing 10-15 years ago that Phoenix had the *worst* air quality in the country, and I suspect that’s more true that ever.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I believe it! The smog is particularly bad today. We left this morning for the farmer’s market and the air reeks of cigarettes… no smokers, no fires, just pollution. Yuck! Thanks for linking the list–while CA does not surprise me, Alaska does a bit. Interesting!

        Liked by 1 person

  11. The husband of one of my friends worked at Motorola too. I’m sure Phoenix is wonderful city to visit, but I wouldn’t be able to handle the traffic. I couldn’t handle the traffic when we visited Tucson, and I wasn’t even driving. The rest of Arizona is amazing! Mike and I never get tired of visiting your beautiful state.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Too funny! I always wondered if it was just my family and friends, but everyone I’ve met who lived here in the ~1950-1970s worked or was associated with someone who worked there, so I think the chip factory was just large in relation to the population at the time.

      I feel similarly about Phoenix–it’s just become too much. The rest of the state is incredible, through! I’m sure you’re been all over, but some of my favorites you might check out, if you haven’t already, are Oak Creek Canyon (between Sedona and Flagstaff) and Greer (Sheep’s Crossing campsite in Sept. when the leaves change is amazing) and the Mogollon Rim. We also recently visited Poland Junction, just west of Mayer and south of Prescott, which was surprisingly nice with tons of history.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Esoterica Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: