Phoenix—once a sleepy Sun Belt also-ran—is now a bustling mini-metropolis of some 1.6 million people. It’s the center of the sprawling Valley of the Sun, which, with 4.6 million people, has become the 12th-largest metropolitan area in the U.S. A revitalized Phoenix downtown, a new light-rail system that stretches across the Valley, and a rebounding economy after a crippling recession have created something that, if you squint a little, might be a new go-go era for both residents and tourists. Golf and resorts, sure, but also a bustling art scene, creative restaurateurs, and hopping nightlife. It’s all a lot of fun—at least, during those 8 months of the year when the average temperature is less than 100 degrees.
First settled in 1867, Phoenix was named capital of the Arizona Territory only a few years later, in 1889. Back then the Salt River, now a dry waterbed, was a real river, and the town began on the river’s north side, roughly where downtown is now. In 1912, when Arizona became a state—the last entrant into the Union before Alaska and Hawaii, in 1959—Phoenix remained the capital. A population boom after World War II transformed the Valley as the Sun Belt era dawned. Once air-conditioning became widely available (and a permanent water source was found from the Colorado River), Phoenix and its surrounding towns grew rapidly. Phoenix proper now stretches some 50 miles north to south, and the Valley is nearly that wide.
The still-growing East Valley includes the booming ’burbs of Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, and a few other towns, tucked away southeast of Phoenix. (Mesa is the state’s third-largest city, after Tucson, and is catching up fast.) Due east of Phoenix lies Scottsdale, which was first settled in 1888. (It was originally called Orangedale for its citrus groves.) Scottsdale was not officially incorporated until 1951, but during the Depression, it developed a reputation as a haven for artistic types, including the influential architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Today it’s a somewhat glitzy town—and the area’s wealthiest, after tiny, residential Paradise Valley—but still has an artsy vibe. Just south of Scottsdale, Tempe is home to large Arizona State University, descended from Arizona Territory’s first college, founded in 1885. ASU lived under a “party school” stigma for decades, but an ambitious new president plans to transform it into what is said will be the “New American University.” Stay tuned.