The Rise and Fall of the Atomic Era Architecture Called Googie

Searching for history, beauty, and my future on my desert city’s street of broken dreams.

By the time I recognized their gaudy beauty in 1995, the 1950s and ’60s motels along Van Buren Street had largely turned into rent-by-the-hour sex dens and the haunts of drug users. Those buildings that had ceased operation sat fenced and boarded up, colonized by squatters and pigeons, pending future demolition. In the thirty years since its heyday, Phoenix, Arizona’s “Motel Row” had degenerated from class to kitsch, and finally into one of my hometown’s most crime-ridden corridors, a parched vacation-land graveyard desiccating in the same desert sunlight that once drew its customers. I wanted to photograph the vernacular architecture before the ’dozers arrived: the funky fonts, Polynesian huts, upswept flying-to-the-moon roofs and signs that said “Coffee Shop” in baby blue. I’d already shot the fronts of maybe ten motels, both functioning and condemned, and had collected from local antique stores all the vintage postcards featuring their images. The time had come to venture inside. So I jumped the fence one morning at the condemned Newton’s Inn and Prime Rib.

I was cornered by the time I heard claws on the pool deck. I spun around from the boarded office window I was about to photograph and there it was: a Dalmatian crouched seven feet in front of me, ready to pounce. The dog inched closer, barking and growling and showing its teeth. It trapped me by what used to be the door to the front desk. Weathered boards covered the windows behind me. A cyan-and-orange row of rooms stretched to my right. In front of me the kidney-shaped pool, black water stiffening in the bottom, palm fronds and pigeon parts floating atop its skin. To escape, I’d have to hustle past the pool toward the gap in the brick fence where I’d entered — some sixty feet away — then cross the forty feet of naked dirt between it and the two fences I’d jumped. This dog would overtake me in the open. I imagined its jaws clamping on my ankles, lashing its head from side-to-side like a feeding crocodile while gnawing them to a grizzly pâté of bloody socks and tendons. I shifted to the right to put the pool between us. It scrambled to meet me on the other side, snarling.

Garbage littered the pool deck: gravel, cinder blocks, roofing material, beer bottles. I picked up the long metal base of what might have once been a stop sign. Banging it against the ground I yelled, “Go! Get out of here!” The dog crouched, barking louder. The thought of hurting an animal nauseated me, but if this one charged, was there a choice? Head down and snout out, its arched back echoed the shape of the sweeping roof at the neighboring Sun Dancer Hotel, a Googie parabola poised for launch.

Brittle chips of gunite flew as I pounded the rod over and over. Puffs of dust drifted between us. People once vacationed here, I thought. Families en route to California swam, sunbathed and digested big steak dinners while watching Ed Sullivan in their refrigerated rooms. Newton’s original yellow brochure said, “Modern as tomorrow… Yet based on a proven reputation for hospitality.”

When the dog made quick steps forward, I stomped my feet and stood my ground.

The forces that draw hobbyists to their favorite things are often inexplicable. Whether the hobby is golf, porcelain angels or chopper bicycles, why these and not something else? Even when I was twenty my interests were eclectic. Throughout childhood and adolescence I’d gone through what my parents accurately called phases. “Aaron’s going through another phase,” they’d say without a hint of disapproval. As a kindergartener I’d fixated on trains. Mom and Dad took me to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks in Flagstaff to search for rusty ties. They hung reproduction oil lamps in my room back in Phoenix, bought me a model electric train set to play with, conductor’s overalls to wear. Then it was Star Wars. Everything had to be Star Wars: toys, t-shirts, sleeping bag, sheets, shampoo, birthday cakes, Pez dispensers, silverware. Then I went gaga for GI Joe toys, then comic books, then anime, skateboarding, southern California beach culture, Vintage Hang Ten shirts culled from thrift stores, European beer, surf instrumental music, antique A&W root beer mugs, loose leaf tea. One year I wanted to replace my brown bedroom carpet with beach sand and sleep in a hammock between two fake palm trees; the next year that bedroom was decorated with Depeche Mode posters and bootleg vinyl. The world was new and fascinating. Everything held potential interest, yet my attention focused intensely on one thing at a time. Obsessions were how I processed information.

Sometime in 1995 I discovered architect Alan Hess’ book Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture. I found the title in the index of another book, or maybe I spotted it on a bookstore shelf. I can’t recall, but the effect was profound. It wed my eyes to the pastel majesty of the fifties and early-sixties, catalyzing a reaction as mysterious as the chemistry of pheromones yet as binding as marriage, a love affair that outlasted all future phases.

Googie was a bold, innovative style of commercial architecture born in post-WW II Los Angeles. Often called Coffee Shop Modern, sometimes Populuxe, Jet Age, Space Age and Doo-Wop, Googie can be traced to a coffee shop architect John Lautner designed in 1949. The shop was called Googie’s. It stood on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights, a dissenter in a sea of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. When Yale Professor Douglas Haskell was driving north on Crescent Heights with an architectural photographer in 1952, they came upon Lautner’s creation. “Stop the car!” Haskell yelled. “This is Googie architecture.” While Haskell was uneasy about what seemed its flamboyance, he did recognize the design’s uniqueness and acknowledged experimentation’s role in birthing new architectural forms. To him, Lautner’s coffee shop epitomized a new style, which he called “Googie architecture” in an article in House and Home magazine. No longer referring simply to the coffee shop but to Lautner’s pioneering work, the term Googie spread though architectural circles nationwide. So-called serious architects dismissed it as garish, using Googie as a slur for design excess, sloppy workmanship and lack of discipline. But others soon refined and reinterpreted Lautner’s concept, most notably the LA firm of Louis Armét and Eldon Davis. During the fifties and mid-sixties, Googie spread throughout California and the U.S., not only in coffee shops but bowling alleys, diners, motels, car washes and car dealerships.

While difficult to define, Googie was highly recognizable. Its landscapes were tropical and lush. Buildings frequently contained indoor gardens. Other architects later mixed in idealized Polynesian elements such as coconut palms, thatched huts and Tiki heads and torches. Buildings were composed of organic forms, highly abstracted, that seemed to defy gravity. Boomerang shapes infused every aspect of the design, from the roof to the corners, including Formica countertop decorations, steel beams and butterfly chairs. Amoebas were also popular motifs, found in logos, signage, pools’ shapes and menus, as were with the intertwined loops of the stylized atom. This was the Atomic Era, the Jet Age, later the Space Age. As scientists explored the inner space of the atom, astronauts explored outer space, and UFOs held America’s attention. Googie incorporated simplified visual elements from both space exploration and molecular science. Concrete dome-shaped buildings took the form of flying saucers. Others more subtly evoked the Martian cities and space stations then appearing in movies and on the covers of sci-fi books and magazines. Spiky starburst decorations resembled Sputnik. Twinkling asterisks looked like stars.

Another architectural signature was the parabolic, boomerang-shaped roof. These gave the impression of movement, suspended animation, a building preparing for takeoff. Sweeping roofs announced the building’s presence to approaching motorists from a great distance — a necessity since car travel had become a key component of commerce. The added room these roofs created accommodated large sheet glass windows in the front and sides of buildings. This broke down the barrier between inside and outside, allowed sunlight to pour into a bright, festive interior, and gave passing drivers a view of all the fun they could be having if they stopped in for a meal.

Part Jetson’s, part Disney Tomorrowland, Googie’s aim, as with most vernacular architecture, was to efficiently utilize roadside commercial locations while capturing consumers’ attention in a highly competitive marketplace. Unlike other designs, Googie embodied the era’s vision of a utopian future, the promise of atomic science, space exploration, a booming economy. It pointed the way to progress.

The Googie aesthetic appealed to my sensibility. The fonts. The cheeky allure of pink next to yellow next to powder blue. Red and white Terrazzo flooring infused with gold flecks and the gaudiness of flagcrete. It gripped my attention as vigorously as the face of a beautiful woman, yet it embodied what, in his song with that title, Thelonious Monk called an “ugly beauty.”

I had long been a sucker for the nostalgic. I went through a Medieval period as a kid, reading everything I could about knights and castles, followed by a WWII period filled with tanks, grenades and the Western Front. I watched Happy Days, Leave It To Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show and The Brady Bunch. Clichéd as it sounds, the fifties and early-sixties seemed so quaint, so contented. It was an impression my father confirmed. Dad called it “a wonderful time to live.” He described how girls on roller skates delivered burgers at the Phoenix carhops he and his buddies frequented. He talked about the now demolished drive-in theaters where they took dates. “There was something about reaching in to a sliding top cooler at a fruit stand and pulling out an ice cold bottle of Coke,” he said. “Everything seemed colder in those days.” My parents were kids then, entertaining big dreams like everyone else about the big houses, families and careers they’d have. Dad wanted to play boogie woogie piano in a country swing band like Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. Mom wanted to do social work or join the Peace Corps. I wanted to experience the Eisenhower Era’s culture. The post-war optimism. A world where everyone shimmied ’n shaked, did the hop, then the bop, then they swapped and did the stroll. A time when milk was still wholesome, bacon wasn’t bad for you, and root beer arrived in thick frosted mugs.

Once I saw the black and white photos in Hess’ book, these notions gripped me with an evangelical force. I fantasized about walking into a coffee shop, waving to the waitress and saying, “Hey Peggy, howya doin’. Cup of coffee when you get a minute,” and having her wink and say “Sure thing sugar” as I seated myself at the Formica counter between a guy in a checked fedora and a woman in cat eye glasses and a rhinestone cardigan. There, in view of a parking lot filled with finned cars, I would read the paper. I was twenty years old. I never read the paper, not even for school work. But planted in that shiny metal swiveling chair I would feed myself pieces of fried eggs and ham without taking my eyes off the newsprint.

This was the other part of Googie’s allure: I associated the aesthetic with my parents, and the older I got, the harder I clung to them against the ravaging current of time. Even though I wasn’t aware of it back when I was taking photos, I seemed to think that by experiencing old drive-ins and diners, I could experience my parents as they were at my age. I’m glad I never realized this back then, because it seems more delusional than romantic: thinking that the taste of a lime Ricky, or even knowing what one was, could facilitate such intimacy. Yet that’s exactly what I wanted.

The movie Short Cuts came out in 1993, Pulp Fiction and Reality Bites in 1994. When I watched them again sometime in ’95, I noticed certain scenes were set in Googie coffee shops. In Pulp Fiction, Travolta sits opposite Samuel L. Jackson in a pink vinyl booth and offers him bacon. “Pigs are filthy animals,” Jackson says. “I ain’t eat nothin’ that ain’t got enough sense to disregard its own feces.” I did some research. The shop was called the Hawthorne Grill, originally named Holly’s. Armét and Davis designed it. And it sent my mind racing: if these places were still open, my little dream was doable. I had to find them.

With my native Phoenix a mere three hundred and seventy-five miles from Los Angeles, Googie had spilled easily into the city. Once I started searching, I found numerous examples: Christown Lanes bowling alley on 19th Avenue and Bethany Home Road; the Herman & Sons Pianos store on 20th Street and Camelback; a Methodist church behind Los Arcos Mall; a Tiki Dairy Queen on 70th Street and McDowell. There were scattered Googie car washes and car dealerships too, and a tall white building on Central Ave that resembled a giant punch card. But it was East Van Buren that housed the densest cluster.

Named after the eighth U.S. President, the street runs east and west through downtown Phoenix. City founder Jack Swilling built his farm between 32nd and 36th streets south of Van Buren in 1867. From those early days until the 1920s, it remained a quiet rural road on the northern edge of town connecting Phoenix to adjacent Mesa and Tempe. As the automobile grew in popularity, the road’s location made it such an important corridor that, after WWII, four highways converged on it: highways 60, 70, 80 and 89. People traveling between the East Coast and southern California, Sonora, Mexico and Alberta, Canada traversed Swilling’s old road.

During the twenties and thirties, locals built auto camps, huts and cottages to capitalize on the traffic. These places more closely resembled campgrounds than motels, bearing such names as Camp Phoenix, Camp Montezuma and Autopia. Camp Joy, one of the first, sat on 22nd Street in what was then the country beyond the city’s eastern boundary. “Rates $1.00 a Day and Up,” its postcard advertised. “Present this card to manager and he will do his best to please you.” As auto-travelers became more sophisticated, so did their demands, and the trend soon shifted from camps to autocourts, to hotels and motor hotels — later shortened to motels. Soon motels and their ilk stood side-by-side, one after the other, competing with each other and numerous souvenir stands for tourist dollars. Piano bars and dance halls popped up, then coffee shops, steak houses, even a boxing and wrestling arena. Signs lined the highways coming in to the Valley, announcing the bargains and services that awaited travelers.

Van Buren became known as Motel Row. “The Pyramid Motel,” one postcard said, located “in the heart of Motel Row.” Businesses advertised: Kitchenettes. Baby cribs. Telephone in each room. Singles, doubles, family suites. Texas length Queen size twin bed. Filtered and heated pool. Hi-fi, radio, free color TV. Hot water in winter, refrigeration in summer. Thermostatic heat. Panel ray heat. Steam heat. Central forced air heat. Electronic baseboard heat. Refrigerated cooling. Florescent lights. Private patios. Private sun deck. Shuffleboard. Putting green. Newsstand. Dining room, banquet room, cocktail lounge, excellent café. Wall to wall carpeting. Ceramic tile baths. Modern lobby. Coffee served at no charge. Car-ports. Near airport. Minutes from downtown. Bus stop at door. Spacious, beautifully landscaped grounds. Informal resort atmosphere. Designed with an accent on vacation luxury. All major credit cards honored.

By the mid-fifties, competition grew fierce. Pools and free breakfast became outdated weapons in the commercial arms race. To differentiate themselves from the pack, businesses erected bright Googie signage, sweeping boomerang lobby roofs and devised various gimmicks to lure customers. The Ramada Inn on 38th Street built a trolley on a track to shuttle guests to their rooms. Not to be outdone, the Hiway House on 32nd installed a miniature train for kids to ride. As in Las Vegas, Van Buren motels decked themselves in exotic themes to wow visitors. There were the Western themed motels like the Stagecoach and Frontier. There were the early Americana themed motels like the Log Cabin and Old faithful, the Arabian themed Bagdad, Caravan and Pyramid motels, and the Mexican themed Sombrero, El Rancho, Mission and Montezuma. Some upscale resort hotels left large areas relatively vacant in their center so they could build casinos in case the state legalized gambling; it never did. Googie fell out of fashion in the mid-sixties, replaced by less gaudy architectural styles, but new motels went up on Van Buren reflecting the Polynesian fad sweeping the nation: the Tropics, Tahiti, Cocanut Grove, Samoan Village and the crème de la crème, the grand Kon Tiki Hotel, where celebrities like James Brown stayed while passing through town. There were over 150 tourist lodges on east Van Buren between the mid-thirties and mid-sixties, making it arguably Phoenix’s best known and most traveled street. With its reputation for charm and class, citizens considered it the pride of the city, and Newton’s Prime Rib was one of the best restaurants.

During my seven years living out of state, I occasionally thought of Newton’s. Hearing the term “steak house” reminded me of it. An ugly bar in Oregon reminded me of it too — a tan box with a neon red Schlitz sign mounted on off-white flagcrete. For some reason, the tiki bar scene in Goodfellas also reminded me of it. Although Newton’s restaurant wasn’t Googie — no parabolic roof or starburst motifs — it exhibited all of the grand gaudiness of the era: grey cinder block walls traced with thick iron accents and light fixtures; a brightly colored interior and bright outdoor signage; and cylindrical metal lighting that hung outside, the matted surfaces of which were perforated with holes like those on a diner’s heat lamp. Newton’s was Atomic Era-meets-Excalibur. Sometimes I’d see old advertisements in print magazines — tinted photos of beehived women and men with skinny ties eating inside dim restaurants with red velvet walls — and I’d wonder: what state was the building in now? How much more decrepit, if it was even there at all? I Googled the name Newton’s but found no info. I vowed that the next time I visited family in Phoenix, I’d drive by and see. Then I forgot to when I made the trip home. When I got back to Oregon I told myself: next time. But I did mention the place to my parents while visiting them.

The three of us were standing around their kitchen that day. Like many longtime Phoenicians, both my parents had eaten at Newton’s. During my days photographing Van Buren, I didn’t tell them about jumping the fence to enter the property, but when I mentioned Newton’s in passing, Mom said, “Oh yeah, that used to be the place to eat in town. Everyone went there, all the city’s bigwigs and chief muckety-mucks.” Back in its heyday, the general consensus was that there were two places for great steaks in Phoenix: Durant’s on Central Avenue (where patrons entered through the back door and kitchen), and Newton’s. Mom pointed to Dad and said, “He used to go there on business all the time.”

In the corner of the kitchen, leaning against the counter, Dad smiled. “Business was an excuse to eat,” he said. “Prime rib. I loved their prime rib.” Dad’s eyes grew distant as he described his meal: the thick red meat marbled with fat; the rich sour cream horseradish sauce; baked potato on the side.

I said, “Well what did the interior look like?” Neither Mom nor Dad could remember details, only that it was garish.

“But the food,” Dad said, nodding his head. “Phenomenal.” He crossed his arms across his chest and stared into the distance.

Mom looked at him in his culinary rapture, then looked at me with her brows scrunched. She said, “Whatever happened to that place?”

During the sixties, increasing numbers of travelers began flying rather driving. Cheap desert and a demand for housing pushed the burgeoning population into Phoenix’s edges, transferring business from downtown to the burbs. The more chic, affluent districts of the newly decentralized metropolis migrated northward, leaving once classy downtown joints like Newton’s and Durant’s wanting for business. It was a pattern repeating itself across the United States. The new interstates delivered the lethal blows.

First the Feds built I-17 in 1969. Faster, more modern, it featured its own set of services. And as in so many cities, as the interstate siphoned away traffic, the old commercial strip fell into disrepair. Fewer vacationers rented rooms. Few stopped for dinner or recharged at coffee shops. They didn’t even drive the road. The Caravan Inn once touted its Oasis restaurant as “one of Phoenix’s most popular dining places.” By the time the Feds finished their piecemeal construction of Phoenix’s I-10 in the eighties, the Oasis no longer existed. Approximately twenty functioning motels remained, and Phoenix’s version of the Vegas Strip, our Great White Way, had become what the locals called the Boulevard of Blowjobs.

Desperate for customers, motels installed mirrored ceilings, waterbeds and closed-circuit pornography. Signs advertised adult movies and hourly rates. A few places featured Magic Fingers vibrating beds. In turn, innkeepers facilitated the street’s transformation from nationally renowned vacation destination to locally feared red light district. Crime rates soared.

On the street and in police blotters, Van Buren became known as VB, and related news stories centered largely on drug deals, robbery, murder and prostitution. As a kid, it was the butt of all my friends’ and my drug jokes. “Let’s go score some crack on VB,” we’d say, or, “Hey, I saw your mom the other night. She was strutting VB.” The name seemed close to VD for a reason.

When I discovered the street’s architectural splendors, the Sun Dancer was closed. The Kon Tiki was closed. The Tropics Motor Hotel’s coffee shop no longer served coffee or had functioning doors. Same with the cafes at the Sands and Desert Rose. Newton’s Inn and its prime rib restaurant had been condemned for four years.

Friends I told this to asked me, “Who cares?” I played Esquivel’s “Mucha Muchacha” on my stereo and wondered how they couldn’t recognize the grandeur of gaudiness. They also failed to appreciate Esquivel’s space age lounge music, so eventually I quit discussing Googie and explored the street alone.

Although this might sound like a line from a B-movie, in the Atomic Era, nuclear energy was touted as the future source of the entire world’s power. Many scientists, boosters and business people said that one day, not only would automobiles be atomic, but also appliances, medicine, weapons, food preservation techniques, and the entire urban grid. Fanciful as it sounds to our modern ears, back then, nuclear applications seemed limitless, and the American public was enthralled. Thirty-five million people watched the live television broadcast of the 1952 atomic test at Yucca Flat, Nevada. Just as that mushroom cloud had lifted into the heavens, so too would the imagined luxuries and conveniences awaiting the average citizen. People actually believed that large nuclear power stations would soon make electricity so abundant that it would be too cheap to meter. They believed that nuclear energy would do for civilization what coal and oil could never do, and that history would recognize this period as a milestone in human technological and cultural development on par with the first smelting of bronze and the Industrial Revolution.

Like the music on the radio, people were jazzed. Ford Motor Company unveiled its nuclear concept car in 1958. Named the Nucleon, it included a small nuclear reactor in the vehicle’s rear in place of the traditional internal combustion engine. Two booms suspended a power capsule which held the radioactive core. Depending on the size of the core, Ford said cars such as the Nucleon would be capable of traveling some 5,000 miles without recharging. Once the core expired, owners would just take it to a conveniently located charging station, which designers imagined would eventually take the place of gas pumps.

In 1963, the California state and federal governments proposed detonating small nuclear explosives to cut a section of I-40 through southern California’s Bristol Mountains. As unsafe as that sounds now, the idea was one of many proposed by Project Plowshare, a scientific organization investigating civilian applications of atomic energy. Part of the U.S.’s larger Peaceful Nuclear Explosions program, or PNE, one of the group’s principal selling points was nuclear technology’s low-cost compared to conventional construction methods. A 1964 Time article recorded Plowshare scientists at a Livermore, California laboratory expounding on nuclear devises’ potential use in canal-digging, specifically in widening the Panama Canal and cutting a new Isthmian channel through Nicaragua along what was nicknamed the Pan-Atomic Canal. “Ploughshare men,” the article reported, “are sure that if modern, ‘clean’ explosives are used, the radioactivity that escapes will be of little significance.”

Nuclear medicine remains an active branch of medicine. Companies still irradiate food to preserve it. But, like the Nucleon, the idea of nuclear commercial engineering died on the drawing table, and by the late seventies, atomic energy had assumed a more sinister reputation. Nuclear weapons proliferation increased public fear of cataclysmic war. In 1979, one of Three Mile Island’s reactors suffered a partial meltdown, making it the worst civilian nuclear accident in U.S. history. Chernobyl’s reactor exploded in 1986. Both of these incidents effectively crippled the nuclear power industry and extinguished the last rosy embers of the Atomic Era’s consuming optimism. The audacious names, the heroic plans, the frequent use of the term “modern” — it all sounds so over-the-top now, like the world temporarily went nuts. But maybe it’s no different than our world now. Maybe a nuclear utopia is no more outlandish than the modern idea that fast internet connections and shared information will somehow improve all human life, giving voice to the voiceless, eradicating ignorance, and erasing humanity’s religious and political divisiveness so that people across the world all see that we’re far more alike than we are different. Every age has its grand delusions, and every era, like every person, is defined as much by its accomplishments as by its fantasies, the ones we dream and the ones we fail to achieve. As we age, our own dreams wither and our vision of all possible futures narrows. If we live in the same place long enough, the streets we drive, the buildings we pass, will bear the markings of our lives, and sometimes carry painful reminders of our youth, our thwarted ambitions, and people who have died, along with the condemned husks of our former selves. Maybe that’s just the cynic in me talking, the hardened aging realist who has seen the street of dystopian dreams, the place where the future once imagined now lays in ruin, because the future finally arrived.

In the Phoenix New Times article “Tough Row to Ho,” reporter Susy Buchanan accompanied police on a 2004 roundup of Van Buren prostitutes. In a group of handcuffed sex workers, one named “The Troll” sobbed beside a blonde, giving the cops a story about wanting to straighten up her life, pleading with them that, if they’d just let her go, she’d return to school in Colorado and become a beautician. The blonde eyeballed her disapprovingly and said, “You a ho! It ain’t never gonna be straightened up. Once a ho, always a ho. Get used to it.”

East VB was such a fertile dump that sex workers from cities across the county traveled there to work. Just as it had in its days as a resort destination, it had earned a local and national reputation. On a typical night in the 1990s, a driver could spot twenty to fifty girls, women and men dressed as women pacing the cracked sidewalks. Black, white, heavy, thin, all the clichés were true: they wore short skirts, high heels, big hair, gaudy makeup and tight, low-cut tops that revealed deep cleavage and fatty midriffs. While most were middle-aged, some of the women cops arrested were in their sixties and seventies, old enough to have vacationed there with their parents as children.

In people’s minds, the street came to symbolize the boundary between the “safe” and the “dangerous,” meaning the white and non-white, the privileged and non-privileged, sides of town. And most people I knew knew to stay away from it. Except for one excursion.

Three friends and I once drove there on a Friday night during our senior year of high school. We were bored. It was late. We’d been drinking. Someone suggested we “yell at the hookers.” Friend 1 found the idea amusing. Friend 2 found it titillating. Being a reliable risk-taker who had yet to develop a more inclusive sense of empathy, the prospect of a dangerous adventure thrilled me. The lackadaisical Friend 3 went along for the ride.

It might have taken ten minutes to drive from Friend 1’s affluent north Phoenix neighborhood. There, as one car in a series of slow cruisers, we drifted past figures shuffling in front of the neon signs. Men slouched at bus stops waiting for customers, not buses. Women stood beside payphones engaged in pretend conversations. We started yelling out the windows. “What’s up honey?” “Looking for a good time?” I knew it was cruel. We were mocking the unfortunate. It makes me cringe to think how a bunch of us white kids thought this was exciting: the danger, the grime, the empowering knowing that we’d sleep that night on the safe side of town. Knowing it didn’t change my behavior, but every day these women faced actual danger and survived in a culture that perpetually demeaned and repressed them. Whenever some stranger grunted on top of them, whenever they got arrested on Van Buren, they faced the fact of their limited means and thwarted aspirations, sacrificing part of the youthful visions of their future selves in order to make a living. These women probably grew up wanting to do something rewarding or different with their lives. Now they were here, enduring the added insult of high school boys’ callous curiosity.

For some reason, Friend 1 stopped his Bronco beside a tall woman in a miniskirt. The gray spandex terminated along the seam of her butt cheeks. She leaned toward the passenger window and said something about a ride. Then she climbed into the back seat and scooted between me and Friend 2.

“Who’s going first?” she said. She looked at me, then at #2. Friend 3 wouldn’t turn around. The smell of cigarette smoke and perfume filled the car. I caught #1’s terrified eyes in the rearview.

#2 said he’d go and the rest of us said no thanks, we’d changed our mind and will let you out right here. “Oh no,” the woman said. “My time is precious. You think you can go wasting it with this shit?” We apologized in whiney voices and told her we’d drop her off wherever she wanted. When I turned to check her out, I noticed the bony cheeks, pronounced Adam’s apple and thin over-treated hair. She was, at some point, a guy.

Someone started arguing with her, and soon our overlapping chatter reached a furious pitch: we aren’t paying, we don’t want anything, no something for nothing, get out, please get out now.

She said, “I got a pistol in my purse, honey, so don’t you sass me.”

Adrenalin flooded my insignificant body. Her right thigh pressed against mine. I looked at her purse. It sat on her lap. I wondered, was she bluffing? Who would she shoot first: us in back or them in the front? I kept my eyes on her long veiny hands. If she reached for that purse, I vowed to grab her wrists and wrestle it from her. Instead of a struggle, someone said okay and handed her some bills. We pulled into a side street where she lifted her towering frame from the seat, leaning so far over that her square ass passed inches from my face before it slipped into the night.

We deserved much worse. Her time was precious. And you can’t go around treating people like that. My parents had taught me better, yet driving away from Van Buren that night, my friends and I didn’t discuss our failure to respect these women’s humanity. Instead, we laughed about the incident because, terrifying as it was, it made us feel like survivors, tough and triumphantly returning from this imagined battlefield. Like most teenagers, we loathed our hometown for its asphyxiating boredom, and we refused to see ourselves as anything more than victims of tedium, searching for excitement. This is why discovering Googie on Van Buren years later felt like a revelation: finally there was something interesting to do in Phoenix.

Like most twenty-somethings, I wanted nothing more than to escape to some place cool like San Francisco or San Diego. Googie transformed Van Buren from the skuzziest to the most interesting place in town, which transformed Phoenix into someplace bearable. Granted, VB offered none of the innovative eateries captured in Hess’ book — no Coffee Dan’s to photograph, no bright, verdant interiors like Pann’s or Ship’s. But in Phoenix, looking at the burned out skeletons of vacation destinations seemed better than getting stoned at a friend’s house, watching TV or going to the mall, which were my usual entertainment options. I imagined a local newspaper headline: “Kid Finds Something Interesting in Capital’s Most Notorious Crime Zone.”

So I’d park, and men in baggy uniform pants and white tees would change direction to walk toward my car. “What’s up man?” they’d say. If I passed them while driving at my slow investigative pace, they’d spot me peering and think I was interested in them rather than the motels behind them. They’d say, “Whadyou need?” I’d shake my head, say, “No thanks man, I’m good.”

When I came back with the camera, I photographed the buildings from the sidewalk. Stepping from my car felt dangerous. The whole act felt invasive. It attracted attention. People watched me from motel windows and the steps of nearby trailers. I kept a two-inch knife in my pocket, but the sidewalk offered the red light’s main form of protection: exposure. Cars whizzed past. Sometimes pedestrians: a teen in a wife-beater with a tattooed neck; a grown man riding a child’s BMX. I’d nod. A few nodded back. Eye contact seemed bold enough to double as a warning: I see you, so don’t mess with me. Some people eyeballed my 35mm. It was my grandpa’s. Mom had given it to me when he passed away that summer.

Other locals greeted the camera with suspicion. They peered from behind curtains, crouched smoking on porches and squinting at me. Since I wasn’t there to make a purchase, I assumed they thought I was a NARC or some unwelcome source of trouble. When one East Indian man stepped from a motel office and into the frame, he waved me off. “No photo, no photo,” he said. I apologized, explaining I was interested only in the architecture. He shook his head and yelled louder, but the sidewalk was public property, so there was nothing he could do about it.

A skinny shirtless man once leaned out of his unit at the Arizona Motel. “Whata’you up to?” he said. His body was a tangle of sinewy muscle, skin pulled taught across stomach, arms and neck. A large mattress set on the side of his wall beside a few wooden boards. I told him I was photographing the architecture. When he asked if I was with the paper, I said no, and he said he was a scrapper. Not like a fighter, he explained. He owned a pickup and kept regular routes collecting any spare parts or metal he could sell to a dealer. “You want to see something worth takin’ pictures of,” he said, “man, scrapping is it.” Still convinced I was a reporter, he offered to let me ride with him for an article he said I should write. His life intrigued me. I told him I might take him up on that later.

If motel units’ doors were open I could sometimes see into the rooms. Usually an unmade bed was the most visible detail, the corner of a mattress exposed below ruffled sheets. Other times people sat on the bed’s edge, staring at a TV. Like the prostitutes, these residents were someone’s children. At some point they had recognized how luck determines one’s chances in childhood, and the way circumstance unwittingly narrows one’s options in adulthood, squashing our innocence as we accept the fact that some of our dreams are either no longer feasible, or require too much effort to work for. I recognized this, too, but I’d benefited the other way. When I told the scrapper that I might take him up on his offer, I meant it. I wish I’d meant it more. Now that I see how empty buildings are without people, it’s too late to tell their stories. But back then I didn’t come for the people. I came for Googie, and I favored the details.

If I snuck inside the old kitchens, I wondered, would I find plates bearing the Tropics Motor Hotel logo? Would there be a box of old Hyatt Chalet matchbooks under the reservation desk? A dusty stack of Newton’s brochures in a storage closet? I coveted what I could use: glasses imprinted with the Old Faithful Inn logo. Sun Dancer Hotel mugs, silverware, stationary, pens.

I considered bringing a set of screwdrivers and a battery-powered drill to steal the signs but feared getting caught. Even though I thought of it more as an architectural salvage operation, cops would disagree. If not me, though, who would save them? Phoenix didn’t have a Mid-Century Modern preservation league back then. Unlike golf and sun-tanning, Googie didn’t rouse sufficient local interest. Bulldozers kept busy clearing the way for new buildings. Without me, I knew the signs, fixtures and décor would end up in a landfill, more scrap to be melted down for material. This stuff belonged in a museum. But to rescue it, I’d have to come at night when the illicit economy thrived.

To avoid the dangers of peak hours, I only explored in the morning: 8, 9, 10am. Even then cops drove by. It wasn’t a crime to walk with a camera, but somehow it felt like it. Because it required such fruitless and intense explanation, I never told friends about my explorations. I never even told my parents. What would they say? They wouldn’t confiscate my car keys, but they would likely lecture me on the dangers of my interests. When I went to Newton’s that morning, I was scheduled to be in a college class. No one knew where I was. If something happened, I hoped someone would piece the story together.

Jumping Newton’s fence was easy. I parked my truck on a side street. On the Inn’s more secluded west side, a cinderblock wall abutted a chain link fence topped with unruly spirals of razor wire, creating a double, back-to-back fortification.

I pulled myself up the cinderblock, found a gap in the barbs wide enough to place my feet then jumped. A forty foot dirt lot separated the street from the property. I leaned through a gap in the motel wall to study the wild garden of untended plants. It was silent, appeared empty. In case the homeless had encamped there, I walked softly atop the gravel. Raising my 35mm to my eye made me nervous, as if by lending one of my senses I forfeited the others. I hung the camera around my neck and listened for voices, breathing, shuffling feet. When fantasies rot, they smell like anything else: hot garbage cans, algal water.

Palm trees loaded with brown fronds rustled in the breeze. Pigeons flapped from the roof. I tiptoed across a patch of what was once the central lawn — four years worth of brittle die-off and blooms of Bermuda. A pair of blackened jeans laid matted to the ground, splayed as if their owner had fallen and evaporated in the very shape they held.

In 1966 at the neighboring Travelodge, a robber once carved out the manager’s eye to prove how serious he was when he demanded money. In 1974, a thief shot another manager there; he later died at St Luke’s Hospital down the street.

I scanned the lot again, checking and rechecking. Icy fingers seemed to keep tickling my back. Occasionally the hiss of a passing car blew by on Van Buren, but tattered tarps blocked all views through the fence to the outside world. And that silence — it was more still than other mornings.

Amid a stand of derelict palms sat a dented white trailer. The dark arm of its tow hitch stood propped on cinder blocks. Aluminum foil covered its windows. Slowly I crept past it to the southern row of rooms. Pigeon shit splattered the walkway. Instead of boards, curtains covered the windows. When I tugged on the knobs, the doors didn’t budge. I was simultaneously disappointed and relieved.

One room’s door was open. I stopped and heard no movement. The silence emboldened me, so I pushed the door further to peer inside. It appeared lived-in. Mismatched blankets were heaped atop the bed. A small nightstand stood by a leather belt amid scattered tins of cat food that I hoped people hadn’t eaten. And beer cans everywhere, littering the orangish-brown carpet. I wanted a photo. I’d been too nervous to snap any. But fearing the occupant might be inside, I eased the door partially closed and stepped quickly across the lot. That was when the Dalmatian came galloping.

I pulled my socks as far up my calves as they’d go, as if cotton could protect me from canines, and I kept my eyes on the dog as I bent down. When I stomped my feet he retreated slightly. When I charged a few steps forward, he stood his ground. So I kept my back straight, waved my arms and yelled. Nothing happened. He stood there growling. I stood there yelling. We could have stood there forever. Finally I started throwing garbage at him. Cardboard. Beer bottles. Rock after rock. When he backed deeper into the yard I did what my body demanded and what my mind told me not to do. I ran.

Gripping the long metal base of the sign I’d picked up, I sprinted across the pool deck. Sprinted past the row of rooms, sprinted and knew how stupid I was for doing it. If guard dogs were like cougars, running would only trigger its predatory response.

At the building’s end I slipped through the fence. I kept expecting to feel teeth latch onto my ankle, to hear the sound of scrambling paws. I twirled and jogged backwards, looking for the dog, but he wasn’t there. I dropped the pole. Climbed the fence. Slipped between the barbed wire and snagged my shirt, shorts and forearm on the dusty razors. As I lifted myself onto the cinder block, the Dalmatian stepped through the hole and started at me from across the lot. He just stared.

For thirteen years I wished I’d snapped a few good photos, but in my haste, I hadn’t taken a single one.

When I moved back to Phoenix in June, 2007, one of the first things I did was drive to VB. A lot had changed in the seven years I’d lived away. Used car lot replaced countless motel properties. Naked dirt stood in place of others. Some, like the old Arizona Palms, offered deals to airport travelers: “Two for $35.99,” the sign said. “Daily • Weekly • Kitchenettes • Pool.” Most had transformed into inexpensive apartments and transitional living facilities. Like the upscale Sands Hotel on 33rd, which became the United Methodist Outreach Ministry’s New Day Center, the largest family homeless shelter in Phoenix.

In April, 2007, the city’s last three motels to offer hourly rates ceded their “Sexually Oriented Business” licenses, meaning no more hourly rates, no more signs advertising adult movies. The Log Cabin, the Classic Inn and the Copa Motel, which, in an interesting twist, had been demolished the previous month — all three stood on VB. Police had built a case after a year-long investigation, and the City concluded what seemed obvious to all: that they were linked with prostitution.

The street was changing. Local groups unveiled plans to revitalize Van Buren by encouraging local business to open shop. As downtown gentrification crept east of Central Avenue along Motel Row, new attitudes came with it. The street fell within Phoenix Mayor Gordon’s “Opportunity Corridor,” a name he coined for an area filled with vacant lots, industrial sites and other under-utilized properties. It was ripe for redevelopment, what some commercial brokers called an emerging market. Redevelopment had long been waiting for a catalyst to ignite it here. That catalyst arrived in 2008 in the form of the city’s new light rail system, which travels down Washington Street, a quarter mile below VB.

Before the economic slump, Van Buren redevelopment had already started. In 2006, the 178-unit Escala Central City apartments began construction on the empty Phoenix Drive-In property, the Valley’s first drive-in movie theater. Escala was the first new housing project on east Van Buren in countless years, and some predicted it would be the first of many to come.

Once the motels surrendered their licenses, violent crime fell nearly forty-eight percent, and prostitution arrests decreased by more than seventy-one percent. In 2006, there were 203 prostitution arrests in the area around Van Buren and 24th. Between February 2006 and February 2007, cops made only eight prostitution arrests. And not a single homicide was reported in 2007; the previous year there were five.

I know, I know, I could hear my dad saying: “Things change — cities, people, fashion. Nothing to get sad about.” I studied ecology in college, so I understand that we live in a dynamic world, that we need to adapt, because if we’re not changing we’re dying. Curbing crime meant East Van Buren’s hard-working residents might soon enjoy a safer, more agreeable neighborhood with streets they could walk on, and new business to patronize. It also meant many of the lower income residents would get priced out. This was the start of the area’s gentrification cycle, and that and the erasing of history made me wistful. Unlike hourly rates at the Log Cabin, nostalgia turned out not to be a passing fancy.

I drove west on VB, through the decreasing addresses toward downtown. In the bright sunlight, ancient images raced through my mind: the Dalmatian, the barbed wire, Newton’s weedy lay out. Familiar buildings flashed on the roadside: the city’s first Denny’s, the drug-dealer Circle K, an old liquor store with a neon sign. Finally, I thought, I get see Newton’s again, and this time I was going to capture it on film. My heart thumped in anticipation. My fingers drummed the steering wheel, but as I sped up VB, I saw an increasing number of vacant lots, and my fingers drummed less from excitement than fear. Where motels once stood, there was now bare dirt, and weedy squares littered with beer cans and broken glass. Dry bent palm trees and partial cement foundations broke their desolate monotony, and a deep part of me knew what I would find at 917 East.

Expecting what I found on 9th Street didn’t make it any less wrenching. Newton’s was gone. My camera lay on the passenger seat, and in the Inn’s place stood Camden Copper Square, a high-end, two-story, gated condo complex. Trimmed palm trees decorated the property, standing sentry along the black metal fence and tan, stucco walls. The copper-colored letters on the sign called it “An Apartment Community.” I knew what it was: the new face of redevelopment, designed to attract the young executives and well-to-dos who’d started frequenting the bars and restaurants popping up throughout downtown as part of the city’s coordinated revitalization project — “infill” and “mixed-used” urban planners call it, “gentrification” to others.

I turned into the Camden on what was still labeled 9th. A callbox hung from a stucco island dividing incoming and outgoing traffic. When the man in front of me waved an ID before a sensor, an automated security gate entrance opened and his white Acura slipped inside. Rather than follow my natural impulse to sneak in, I turned into the adjacent visitor lot. What was there to see? These kinds of condos were a dime-a-dozen in Phoenix. They’d surrounded me my whole life.

I parked in a narrow space by the front office. Two white teenage girls sprinted down the sidewalk laughing, trying to make the light. In the park across the street, Hispanic kids in red shorts and tank tops kicked soccer balls back and forth. Three young urbanites in tight black jeans strutted toward Central Avenue and some vision of a downtown night life beyond, maybe a bar, maybe a tour of the galleries in the nearby arts district.

The Hyatt Chalet Motel across the street, renamed the 7 Motel and fenced for as long as I could remember, was gone too. It was now a dirt lot. Something upscale would soon stand there — a sushi restaurant, a wine bar with polished concrete floors and exposed duct work. The Googie starburst, asterisk, sputnik — whatever name you assign that signature ornamentation for what looks like a fizzing sparkler — were, as Hess described, a symbol of “energy caught in the act of explosive release, like a coruscating diamond.” Yet Van Buren’s energetic vernacular decayed so quickly that it seems never to have existed. Wildwood, New Jersey of all places has the Doo Wop Preservation League, a 501(c)3 nonprofit founded in 1997 to preserve and increase awareness of the area’s Googie architecture. LA has the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Modern Committee. Since 1984, they’ve saved priceless Googie structures like Ship’s coffee shop, Pann’s and the Wich Stand. Phoenix lacked any comparable mobilization.

I locked the car and walked across the street. I had always told myself that I’d sneak into the 7 Motel to photograph it from the inside. I never did. After the dog cornered me, I quit visiting VB all together, yet I kept telling myself I’d try again next weekend, next month, sometime soon. At least with my camera, I could have fixed local preservationists’ error by filling the historical gap. I was ideally positioned to document it. Now here I was, another thirty-something carrying childhood regrets, a man in a lot staring at a new condo building, trying to stare the past back to life.

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.

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