Central, PHX: South Mountain To The Salt River
On the southern end of Central Avenue is an entrance to South Mountain Park. The road continues for a little while into the park, but for our purposes, this is the southern-most part of Central. The park itself is more than 16,000 acres, one of the biggest municipal parks in the country.
Norma Munoz has lived in South Phoenix for almost 50 years. For the past 30, she’s lived in the same house right on Central, about two miles north of the park’s entrance.
"It's a beautiful mountain and, in the springtime, the wildflowers start to bloom and we, who are from here, take drives on a Sunday just to see the wildflowers because they’re beautiful," she said. "They just cover the mountain."
Munoz, who also serves on the Roosevelt School District Governing Board, said South Phoenix still gets a bad rap, which she says is undeserved.
"People don’t come over to South Phoenix unless they have to," Munoz said. "You know, still with a stigma."
The stretch of Central where Munoz lives is more commercial than residential. There’s a car wash right across the street from her house.
Some residents would like to see more development, but it has to be the right kind.
"I don’t have anything against McDonald's or Jack In the Box," said Tommy Espinoza. "But, we have plenty of those."
Espinoza is the president and CEO of Raza Development Fund, which finances community development projects across the country, mostly in Latino and low-income neighborhoods. We met at Ranch Market on Central and Southern, which is a lively grocery store.
"So, I think what you’ll see is a new wave of restaurants and services that presently don’t exist," he said. "That’ll just elevate the whole economy in South Phoenix."
Espinoza expects that to happen, especially along the planned light rail extension down Central to Baseline. And, he’s not alone.
"I think that South Phoenix could open up to the rest of the city as a very special place with the metro," said Norma Munoz.
Munoz acknowledges that will inevitably change the neighborhood, but is confident its culture will stay strong. She believes the light rail will help connect South Phoenix with the rest of the Valley. That would give residents a way to get to jobs, schools and attractions outside the neighborhood. And give non-residents an easy way to see what South Central is all about.
"I think there’s good in it, but there’s also — we gotta be cautious," said Victor Vidales, who has lived in South Phoenix for most of his life. "That it can destroy what’s existed there for decades in a matter of a few years."
Vidales owns Remax New Heights Realty on Central, a little south of Southern.
"We don’t have, in this community, some of the institutional-type of businesses here," he said. "Where there’s a lot of mom and pops here on South Central, and light rail construction can put those companies out of business permanently. So, being a small business myself and having a frontage right on Central Avenue, I do have a little bit of concern about that."
Vidales, though, also sees opportunity in empty lots along Central. He’d like to see more retail, restaurants and health care in the neighborhood, saying it’d be nice to be able to keep residents’ money in the area. But he and others know it will be a challenge to both provide opportunities for new businesses and entrepreneurs, while at the same time not putting the existing mom and pops that currently line the street out of business.
Vidales also said it’s essential to bring in and keep young talent. And that includes his own family.
"One of the things I told my daughter is that ‘Yeah, I’ll pay for your education and I’ll invest in you, but you need to at least spend four years after you graduate college and come serve the community,’ because the community needs you," he said.
And Vidales is optimistic about other Millennials with long-standing family ties to the area helping its transformation.
Adrian Ruiz is the executive director for Espiritu Community Development, a K-12 charter school operator in South Phoenix. He is 28 and grew up in South Phoenix. After leaving for a few years, he came back. And he said he’s not the only one.
Ruiz, though, said change has to be gradual and points out that when people come into an area and don’t talk to those who are already there, long-time residents can feel left out.
"There are things that are of value, of importance to a community, that have been long-standing here and to make sure those are not neglected," he said. "Because once you do that, what you’re saying is that those values are not important."
One of the values many residents of South Central take note of is diversity. Ethnic and cultural diversity, yes, but also economic diversity.
Norma Munoz said there are a lot of beautiful homes in the area, but many are behind gates.
"And this is bothersome because people come, they go to work, they get back into their little gated area and they don’t ever really get to know the people — the people and the community," she said.
Munoz said that affects the community’s economy, if those residents don’t eat and shop in South Phoenix.
But new development in the neighborhood isn’t just more buildings and pavement.
Another southern section of Central is bracketed by big swaths of natural open space. On the south end, of course, there’s South Mountain. And on the north end, the Rio Salado or Salt River and Audubon Arizona, which are part of Phoenix’s 600-acre Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area.
Cathy Wise is Audubon Arizona’s education director and said it used to be a lot different.
"A lot of the South Phoenix residents remember what it looked like," she said. "They remember it being a dump. And now they drive over the bridge every day to work and back home and they’re seeing the landscape transformed."
Wise said it can be difficult to maintain the natural habitat, given the proximity to downtown and with all the planes flying overhead, but there's also a benefit.
"Because also it provides that good example of we can co-exist, and it works out," she said. "There are times when we wish it was a little quieter."
Quiet is something that could be in short supply along South Central over the next several years, with all the development planned, both along the light rail and elsewhere.
Tommy Espinoza has high hopes for the area.
"When I’m in New York, I enjoy going to Chinatown or to Little Italy and to all those parts of the community that lend itself to the cultural richness of all the diversity of groups," he said.
Espinoza thinks Phoenix could be that kind of area for Phoenix.
"It will become that, it will become the new Phoenix," he said.
He predicts South Phoenix will become a center of culture and that more people will see it as a vibrant community. After all, he said, everyone wants to live by a mountain.
As our trip up Central continues, we’ll look at the section between the Salt River and McDowell. And to hear more from some of the people who live and work along Central, see photos from the entire stretch of the road, check out maps of the neighborhoods and much more, go to kjzzcentral.tumblr.com.