Grand Avenue Heritage
Bob Graham, Motley Design Group
Phoenix’s strange diagonal boulevard
Long-time residents and newcomers alike have a fascination for Grand Avenue, the diagonal street that slashes across the map of Phoenix. The drive into downtown Phoenix from Surprise, Peoria, or Glendale along Grand seems like the industrial back door of the city until you hit the six-point intersection at 19th Avenue and McDowell Road, where it transforms to a quirky mixture of old storefronts, motels, houses, and vacant lots that is unlike any other. You have entered Lower Grand or Historic Grand Avenue as it has come to be known, an area that in the last twenty years has evolved into the next big thing in downtown revitalization and the focus of latter-day urban pioneers.
Historic Grand Avenue has been continuously developing and changing since before the establishment of Phoenix in 1872, and these layers of history may be more evident here than in any other place in the Valley. Here you can get a sense of Phoenix’s rural roots, the boosterism that transformed Phoenix from farms to a gigantic real estate venture, the evolution of the city from walkable neighborhoods to autocentric suburbs, and the decay and rebirth of the central city.
W. J. Murphy and the
Roots of Grand Avenue
Phoenix has always been dominated by people making their livings from land development deals. In the early days, those fish were big but the pond was small. The biggest of all was William John “WJ” Murphy, who was a party to many key companies and organizations, most tracing back to his establishment of the Arizona Improvement Company.
Murphy was a man who saw the big picture: desert plus water equals farms, which draw residents, who build homes and businesses, all of which need land. The AIC, led by Murphy, not only bought and sold land, but also as a private business invested in the kind of infrastructure
William John Murphy
Follow this link to a Google Map showing the history of various buildings on Grand Ave
and institutions that we associate with government: canals, streets, railroads, water systems, landscape, and streetcars. These improvements made settlement possible, and in turn, increased the value of everyone’s landholdings.
When Murphy, an earthwork contractor, came to Arizona to work on the transcontinental railroad, Phoenix was a small hamlet of farmsteads making use of recycled Hohokam canals for irrigation. The topography of the Salt River Valley allowed for potential reclamation of vast areas, far beyond the capabilities of prehistoric natives, and a group of investors came together in 1883 to build a canal as far uphill has they could manage: the Arizona Canal. Murphy’s grading company was in the territory, and had the capacity to perform on such a large contract. Further, Murphy was so convinced by the concept that he was willing to forego payment until the job was half done. Taking much of his payment in company stock, he emerged from the experience in 1886 as majority owner of the largest irrigation system in Arizona, as well as owner or controller of significant land holdings.