243 Tempe, AZ: House by a Road

Another house by a road here was the Petersen House on Southern Avenue, the only two-story Victorian still standing in Tempe. It was built in 1892 by Niels Petersen, a Danish immigrant, as a wedding present for his second wife.

My stocky, fast-talking tour guide Tim had short, rumpled blond hair and wore shorts and a white Honeywell T-shirt. Tim said, "Back then [when this house was built], people came west to get rich. The government was giving away land. Before they built the dam, the river flowed year-around. It wasn't that hot or dry. There were a lot more of these houses down here. But they got bulldozed out because people needed room. The reason this house got saved actually is it passed down the line, and they left it to the Oddfellows. They gave it to the city of Tempe. I guess they figured better that than to bulldoze it. It's sort of a landmark now."

Tim told me that I should talk to his boss, Josh, who would know much more about Tempe. I expected an ornery, gray-haired buzzard. Instead, Joshua was about 30, with sad blue eyes and randy hair that flared out around the base of his neck. He wore a green Tempe City T-shirt, jeans, brown shoes, and a large silver wristwatch.

"Yeah," he laughed in answer to my question. "The way the houses and neighborhoods are built here always struck me as being very isolated. Their master plan was, 'wall it in.' And the focal point of the house is behind the house rather than the front."

Joshua related that the plat of homes right behind this house was put in on the Petersen's old farm and only had three entrances. The people there were so unhappy about living there that they tried to get everyone to agree to sell their homes and close down the neighborhood. But a couple of people didn't agree. So everyone was stuck in their houses by a road.

"I grew up in a small town in northern Idaho," Josh continued, "sort of a real typical All-American town: Moscow. [He pronounced it with a long O.] When I moved here, it made a big impression on me how everybody has a big wall around their house. I thought that was weird," he squinted. "I thought it was very, very weird. I think it's easy for people here to not know their neighbors, not know who lives around them."

"Tempe," Josh deplored, "was sort of a classic small town up until then. As you go further downtown, around ASU, the older part of town, you'll see small neighborhoods that make more sense to me. Other communities have all grown in the same way, and Tempe is now completely boxed in.
There's other cities on all sides. It seems like the focus everywhere is now on the edges rather than on the core. The town keeps pushing further and further away. Further from a sense of community. It will be interesting to see how Tempe continues to grow now because there's no place to grow but up.

"They're master-planning the downtown area now to be an integrated living, working, and shopping space. They're trying to move back away from isolation and back to some more integrated, non-suburban way of living. It's so funny that this way of living that we used to have now they're selling back to the American public. 'You can have it, but for a half million dollars.'"

"Tempe is not for everybody," Josh concluded. "But it really appeals to me for some reason. I really like it here. But, yeah, there is a sense of isolation."

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