THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
Cities and Culture

We will focus on the three largest cities in the desert area of the American Southwest, and talk about the culture of each.

PHOENIX

How in the heck does an area that regularly records high temperatures in excess of 110 degrees become the fifth largest metropolis in the United States? Let's look at the history of Phoenix.

The city was officially recognized on May 4, 1868, but it wasn't until Arizona became a state in 1912 that Phoenix came of age. No longer a farming community, it began to develop into a small metropolis. In 1920, there was just under 30,000 residents; by 1930, there was nearly 50,000 people. Two pipelines were built, one of which carries Verde River water to this day.

World War II marked another change; Phoenix morphed into an industrial city, helped by the training centers located at Luke Field, Williams Field, Falcon Field, and Hyder, just west of Phoenix. Thousands of men were trained there, and once the war was over they brought their families with them to stay. Big industry moved to the Phoenix area, and over 100,000 residents called the city home by 1950. Then something happened that would change everything for Phoenix: air conditioning. 

The city itself covers nearly 470 square miles today, and the metro population is over four million; it is expected to pass Houston for fourth place within the decade. Phoenix is the corporate and industrial leader of the southwest, but it has not forgotten its past, maintaining their reputation of friendliness and responsible government. 25 years ago, Phoenix won the 1993 Carl Bertelsmann Prize, an international competition  recognizing the best-run city government in the world.

Cool attraction you haven't heard of: The Heard Museum, devoted to the art and culture of the Indian peoples of the Southwest. Visit if you have a chance. You're welcome. 

LAS VEGAS

The heat in Las Vegas is worse than Phoenix, but the winters are cooler too, owing to rain shadow effects from the Sierra Nevada range. Las Vegas is more arid than any city its size or larger in the United States, Hence, the temperature fluctuates more than Phoenix.

It wasn't until 1905 that Las Vegas was founded, and later that year the railroad from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City chose the small town as it's refueling point. It continued to grow until 1931 when gambling was legalized, and things exploded.

At the same time, Hoover Dam was being built (courtesy of the WPA), and the hydroelectric power still helps Las Vegas and all those billions of lights shine brightly. The casino businesses were run by the Mafia for the most part. Guess who helped put it to an end? Howard Hughes, the famed richest man in the world at that time. He became a recluse in Las Vegas at the Desert Inn, and in order to keep his privacy, he bought the hotel - and many others, helping to put the Mafia out of the casino business.

Here's another interesting but true fact. Racism was rampant in the 1960's in Vegas, primarily at the mob hotels. Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack (Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr.) were ruling the entertainment business there. One night, Frank Sinatra discovered that another good friend, Nat King Cole, couldn't eat at their dinner table because he was black. Sinatra was infuriated, and began to use his influence to end the segregation on the famed Las Vegas Strip. Finally, he threatened to cancel his shows at the Sands Hotel because Sammy couldn't stay there after they performed. It started the ball rolling, and by the end of the decade, the segregation was over. Watch the short two minute video featuring Frank Sinatra, Jr. regarding the effect his father had on eliminating segregation in Vegas.

The city might be bigger than it is today, had it not been hit so hard by the Great Recession of 2008. However, Las Vegas has since recovered, and is one of the top tourist destinations in the World.

Did you know that you can ski on Mount Charleston, just a mere 45 minutes away from the Vegas Strip?

TUCSON

It's my birthplace, so I'm a bit biased. But Tucson is different than Phoenix and Las Vegas for many reasons. It's much higher in elevation, is surrounded by four mountain ranges (Catalina, Rincon, Tucson, Santa Rita), and has a different vibe, almost a carefree, hippie type mentality. It's also home to Saguaro National Monument, which are the cacti that best represents the desert southwest (and is used as the background on this website). You can ski on Mount Lemmon in the Catalinas during the winter. 

For what it's worth, Tucson and Phoenix hate each other. Their universities (Tucson is home to the University of Arizona; Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, hosts Arizona State University). When Steve Kerr, the former NBA player and current coach of the Golden State Warriors) played for Arizona his freshman year, his dad, who was the president of the Lebanon University in Beirut, was assassinated. Fast-forward to Kerr's senior season, and a game Arizona had at ASU. The student section held up signs making fun of his father, and chanted 'Where's your dad?" over and over. It was ugly. Oh, Kerr went six for six from three point range - in the first half - en route to an annihilation by Arizona.  Hard to believe; here's an article describing the taunts. 

Steve Kerr Gets an Apology

The hate is real.