Ever wonder what happened to Bob’s Big Boy or Valley National Bank? Did you grow up in a ranch home built by John F. Long?
Whether those names evoke a pang of nostalgia or a blank stare, you might want to take a stroll through "Desert Cities," an exhibit opening Saturday at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe.
For Arizonans who witnessed the advent of central air conditioning, the exhibit is a trip down memory lane. If you’re one of the 1.5 million people who moved to the Valley since 1990, "Desert Cities" is an educational experience. It captures the Valley’s transformation from a string of rural communities in 1946 to the urban oasis of today covering 1,760 square miles of desert.
"We’re trying to get an impression of the sort of dynamic growth and change this area has experienced," said exhibit designer and Tempe resident Leslie Roe. "This city didn’t just plop down onto the desert." Roe has spent the past two years putting the exhibit together with museum historians Mary Melcher and Jean Reynolds.
Visitors to the exhibit are greeted with the tongue-incheek words "But it’s a dry heat," words that have attracted thousands to the Valley.
In "Arizona Voices," families from Virginia, Oklahoma and other rural states explain why they chose to settle in the middle of a desert at the end of World War II — jobs and a fresh start.
Companies with lucrative defense contracts set up shop here in 1946. Land was cheap, and the construction of the Hoover Dam ensured the Valley would have a seemingly unlimited supply of a precious commodity — water.
These jobs vaulted Arizonans into the middle class. Homeownership was a possibility thanks to the GI Bill, which funded the Valley’s home-building drive in the 1950s. The exhibit features replicas of these homes, built in the California ranch style.
Planned communities were soon to follow. Developers such as John F. Long and Del Webb created the area’s first subdivisions in Maryvale and Sun City. Walk into a replica of these homes and catch a glimpse of John F. Long’s International Home Show, a commercial featuring actor Buster Keaton.
Proceed into the back yard and there’s the swimming pool, which quickly became a household fixture. By 1950, the middle class could afford one, and almost 200 were built that year.
But middle-class Arizonans lounging in backyard swimming pools weren’t isolated from the social upheaval of the 1960s. A replica of the state Capitol’s copper dome will draw visitors into an impressive history lesson.
"A lot of people think Arizona didn’t have social issues," said Roe, who moved to the Valley five years ago. "Well, that’s not an accurate perception of the truth. We may not have been high-profile in a national sense, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have social issues."
Redlining, the practice of keeping minorities from living in certain neighborhoods, was rampant. Farmworkers were striking for better wages, and the Chicano movement reached its crescendo. The exhibit features original footage of the farmworkers movement shot by KOOL-TV (then Channel 10) in 1968.
Transportation was another divisive issue. Residents fought the construction of the Papago Freeway in 1968, fearing it would lead to congestion. Builders bulldozed 1,700 homes to make room for it.
Fast forward to today, and the same issues are on the table: How to manage growth in a way that satisfies everyone’s needs. Curators hope visitors will learn from past mistakes.
"I think about my kids who are part of that second generation of natives and the impact this exhibit will have on the choices they make in the future," Roe said.