Did You Know: Early Downtown Phoenix Streets Weren't Numbered

June 13, 2014

Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez - KJZZ News
Before the 1890s, Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix was named Centre.
Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez - KJZZ News
2nd Street was once named Maricopa.

City street names often tell a story about the history of a place. They're named after founders, famous natives, and even interesting things that make the area unique. So what about Phoenix?                   

In the late 1800s, the city consisted of just 320 acres of land. Today, that same area is from Van Buren Street to Harrison Street, and from 7th Street to 7th Avenue. But the north-south streets were not always numbered.

"The city is plotted in 1870, and it grows kind of slowly over the next two decades," said Philip VanderMeer, an ASU history professor. "Seventeen-hundred people by 1880, and little over 3,000 by 1890.”

VanderMeer stood on the corner of 2nd and Adams streets, and explained how the area looked back then.

“There was a mixture of Anglo immigrants, European immigrants, and immigrants from Mexico," he said. "It was about 50 percent Hispanic up to 1880."

But after that time, the professor said, city promoters tried to tout Phoenix as an "American" city "so they really looked to encourage more Anglo immigration.” 

And to do that, VanderMeer said, those city leaders thought they needed to modernize the area. New structures -- influenced by neoclassical and Victorian architectural styles -- were built. The locals, he said, also decided to modernize the street names.  

Like many cities across the country, Phoenix named some of its streets after early presidents. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, to name a few. Those streets run east-west.  Up until the 1890s, the city’s north-south streets were named after Native American tribes.

Starting from 7th Avenue and going east to 7thStreet, the names were: Yavapai, Hualpai, Cocopa, Yuma, Papago, Mohave, Cortes, Montezuma, Maricopa, Pima, Pinal, Aribiapa, Tonto and Apache.

VanderMeer said Central Avenue didn’t change much. It was originally spelled "Centre."  He added there were a lot of debates over the name changes at the time. Many said changing them was a way of removing the past and not honoring the pioneers.

“The proponents said that this was modern and it would make delivery of mail easier," he said. "Putting numbers seemed, in a simple stroke, to be creating a more modern image for the city.”

Since then, Phoenix north-south streets have been numbered.  As a matter of fact, they continue much further west by now and extend beyond the city's limits -- all the way to 595th Avenue. Going east the numbering system stops around 230th Street.