5 things to do in Phoenix before they disappear

Phoenix is a rapidly expanding, burgeoning and bursting city. Development is so rapid in downtown that the cityscape seems to change overnight. Progress is inevitable and historic preservation is enviable, yet the balance between the two always seems to remain elusive. Phoenix has had a rather dismal track record of historic preservation. The desire to continually grow and expand was not tempered with a concurrent concern for historic preservation. In some cases, entire blocks of original structures were leveled in a day, with the lots remaining empty for years, in anticipation of future development. There are many nationally registered historic structures in Phoenix, most of them offering tours. There are also several business that have been continually operating in Phoenix, many have been around for several years. These businesses have been around so long, in fact, that it is almost expected that they will always be there. They are iconic and symbolic. They are part of the landscape. I always make a point to visit these establishments because they represent a part of Phoenix and the country itself that is beginning to disappear. They represent a method of consumerism that we as a society no longer pursue. A style of décor that is no longer de rigueur. A form of entertainment that was once the norm, but has now become niche. Here are five things to do in Phoenix before these icons of Americana vanish forever.

The Glendale 9 Drive-In
Driving past the Scottsdale 6 drive-in every night, and glancing into the void just to the west of the 101 freeway, one would see movie screens illuminating the darkness, offering a tiny teaser of the movie that was playing. The welcome sight provided a brief respite and a glimpse of humanity. The Scottsdale 6 is closed now, and the dark empty space it once illuminated seems so lonely. The Drive-in is simply a vanishing slice of Americana; we just don’t go to the drive-in anymore, we no longer watch movies this way. The drive-ins are vanishing all across America and now, only one remains open in Phoenix: The Glendale 9. With 9 screens playing there is a movie for everyone. But there is more going on at the Glendale 9 then catching a movie for $6.50, as the drive-in fills with carloads of families, friends and film fans all looking for a place to get outside and be around other people. The area takes on a block party atmosphere with children playing, and moviegoers having dinner in their cars. Most of the patrons are oblivious to the screen; they can certainly say they saw the movie, but most are there for the atmosphere, as the screens fill with light while the crimson Arizona sky melts into a deep blue and eventually darkness.

Bill Johnson’s Big Apple
This iconic eatery on Van Buren street has been serving big ‘ol breakfasts, lunch and dinners to Arizonans since 1956, and the Johnson family assures everyone that they are here to stay. Just pulling into the parking lot and seeing the enormous neon sign out front, complete with a glaring steer and the words “Let’s Eat” fills anyone with nostalgia for the golden age Phoenix; when ‘Cowboys’ were the sixth ‘C’ of Arizona commerce and people flocked to the state to enjoy the experience of living the western life. The restaurant, complete with all of its kitschy, rustic splendor has been a symbol of resiliency and longevity in Phoenix throughout some of the harshest adversity. As Van Buren filled with motels in the 1960’s, some offering fine dining right there at the motel, it seemed the family steakhouse all alone on the corner of 35th and Van Buren would become absorbed and eventually annihilated in all of the progress. Most of the motels are gone now, but Bill Johnsons remains. Into the 90’s, just naming the street it was on elicited jokes and knowing giggles, as the reputation of the once thriving Van Buren street and the area itself fell into disrepair. Still, the restaurant remained. Stepping into the gaudy and goofy interior today, one still can’t help feeling a tinge of concern for the Phoenix landmark, as the old buildings around the restaurant are demolished daily, and massive developments sweep over the entire block. Set aside one morning to spend at Bill Johnsons, even if the western style, family eatery isn’t your thing. Say howdy to the western garbed, pistol packin’ waitress and get your original AZ grub on. There’s history displayed on the walls and whispering within the walls; in every booth and at every table. While the new Phoenix bustles and booms just outside, take a moment to remember what it was like in Phoenix, as modern living and western life melded into an odd and easy union of Formica and farmers, silicon and sidewinders, saguaros and satellites.

Phoenix Park ‘N Swap
The Park ‘N Swap webpage prominently states “Park ‘N Swap Is Not Closing,” providing a necessary reassurance in light of all of the other regular swap-meets that have closed recently. Again, it is the method of consumerism that is fading, not the venue. Covering 50 acres on the corner of Washington and 40th street, the Phoenix Park ‘n Swap has been operating regularly in the same place since the 1960’s. Just to the south, the empty Phoenix Greyhound Park looms in the distance; closed and empty after over 50 years of operation. As the light rail whizzes past and Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport encroaches ever closer, the trampling of progress and development seems to thunder through the canopied shopping plaza. 2 bucks gets you through the gate, where you can easily spend an entire day just looking around. Low-rider oldies blast from one booth while at another, shoppers pick through tables covered in tools. The aesthetic and style of shopping has remained the same for many years, while the items and displays seem to change constantly. Get there super early on Saturday morning for the items being sold out of truckbeds, and spend the rest of the day beneath the misters with the regulars. Venture up one row of vendors and down the next; enjoy the view of downtown, appreciating the throng of visitors in this giant parking lot, as the city slowly surrounds the shoppers.

Phoenix Police Museum
Not only is the Phoenix Police Museum NOT going to close, it just celebrated its grand reopening in its new location at the original, newly renovated city hall. So why mention this attraction with such urgency? After seeing all of the other Phoenix/Arizona history museums close unexpectedly. Phoenix history is getting harder and harder to find. You really have to work for it now; it is being developed, incorporated, replaced and erased. The massive Arizona Mining Museum near the state capitol has been closed since May of 2011, with plans to reopen in November 2012 as the “Arizona Experience Museum.” The proposed new attraction is slated to celebrate the “5 C’s of Arizona.” For now, the building remains closed. The Phoenix Museum of History has been closed and shuttered since June of 2009, the archives and artifacts unavailable to anybody desiring to learn the fascinating history of the City of Phoenix. At the enormous Burton-Barr library, the Arizona Room proudly dominated the north side of the fourth floor, where researchers would pour through the priceless collections in quiet and comfortable expanse. Now, the entire collection is squeezed into a tiny, second floor corner of the library. With the current track record of Phoenix history collections, the apprehension that followed the closing of the Phoenix Police Museum was not unwarranted, and it was to great relief when it reopened at its new location at 17 South 2nd Avenue. Go to a history museum, any one of them; be it the Hall of Flame or the Tempe History Museum. See the archives and touch the history of the city, before it is packed away in boxes, the windows shuttered and the padlocked door sadly stating that the museum is closed, indefinitely.

Explore downtown
Go downtown, deep downtown, to the fenced off, boarded up relics of the past. The empty brick and mortar sentinels silently clinging to the city’s history while somberly awaiting their imminent demise. Many of the old buildings are not listed on any historic register or guidebook. Often, it is up to you to discover their history. See them while you can. Photograph and remember them while they still stand. Preserve the once majestic and domineering edifices as they become dwarfed and eventually annihilated in the shadow of progress.