The Booming Fifties
Bob Graham, Motley Design Group
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, theBali 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
A typical example of the repurposing building
that is revitalizing Historic Grand Avenue.
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.