Where is South Phoenix: An A-Ha Moment in an Oral History Interview

I’m one of the faculty founders of the South Phoenix Oral History Project. We were started in 2017 by a group of community college students who wanted to research the history of their own neighborhood. South Mountain Community College is located in a historically underserved community, and like similar urban settings across the American West with a history of segregation and poverty, South Phoenix also lacks a body of scholarship on the community itself. My students and I discovered, rather quickly, that though there was a rich and interesting history of this community – founded “south of the tracks” in 1887 (before Arizona was even a state) – no published history or scholarship existed. So, they launched the South Phoenix Oral History Project – a student led initiative to capture and preserve the history of South Phoenix. In four years, it has exploded. We host over 80 interviews, nearly 200 students have contributed in one way or another, and we are in the development stages of a physical and digital archive to host our local history documents at our campus library. It’s a pretty remarkable research project to come out of a community college, particularly one in an area that is usually ignored, disregarded, or otherwise stigmatized.

Now, like many of you, I love the interview stage. I was drawn to oral history both as a student and a teacher because I like people. I like talking to people, I love asking questions – maybe that makes me nosy. I don’t know. But overseeing the South Phoenix Oral History Project, training others to conduct oral histories, and sitting in with students and narrators over these last few years had been the greatest privilege of my career to this point. But, also like I imagine some of you have experienced, I also enjoy research and writing, though it doesn’t usually come as easily as spending an hour talking to someone about their lives. But do you ever find yourself basically sitting on hours of recorded interviews, knowing you have something special, but not quite sure how it fits? With over 200 recorded hours in our collection, we know for certain there is a book in the works (the first book on the history of South Phoenix), but what about those other moments from the interviews, great quotes, awesome anecdotes, themes and nuggets that surface from several conversations but don’t quite fit into the larger research agenda? The more oral histories you do, the more you’ll see this for yourself.

Well, it’s like one of my dissertation advisors told me when she wanted me to cut about 25 pages out of my book project that “didn’t fit.” “Maybe,” she said, “This is actually an article for a journal. Even if it doesn’t fit here, it can fit somewhere.”

I want to tell you a very recent story about how one such article project emerged from an oral history interview I just did this fall.

A few months ago, I heard from a man named Garry Walters. He told me he was South Phoenix. Born and raised. He couldn’t wait to be interviewed, so we set it up! I met Garry in the parking lot of our library and walked him to the recording studio, where he sat down with the comfort and confidence of a former college football star. Do you ever have a narrator who, from the moment they meet you, just begins spouting oral history gold before you even get the recording started? That was Garry. The moment he stepped out of his car, he was telling me allll about growing up on 7th Avenue and Magnolia, back when South Phoenix wasn’t Phoenix, it was the county. I was practically jogging to keep up with his quick gate while also attempting to make polite eye contact and at the same time digging through my bag trying to find my phone to get a back up audio recording going immediately. Luckily, we arrived at the studio and got Garry miked up. The interview began as if we simply hit “record” in the middle of a conversation already underway among friends.

Throughout his interview, Garry shared a ton of stories about growing up in South Phoenix, playing football at Phoenix College, and later attending Northern Arizona University. He told us that, for the most part, other than those years at NAU in Flagstaff, he lived, worked, and spent his entire life in South Phoenix.

As the interview drew to a close, I asked Garry if any of his family continued to live in South Phoenix. He said yes, but the family home is no longer on 7th and Magnolia. Now, Magnolia is a street directly north of the Salt River. Some stretches of the road have been renamed “Riverview.”

7th Avenue and Magnolia, just north of the Salt River

In talking about his family members living in South Phoenix, Garry began to verbally draw out the boundaries of South Phoenix, as he knew them. He said, “South Phoenix to me starts at 48th Street to the East, and ends at 19th Avenue to the West. And I guess it goes north from the South Mountains to the Salt River.”

South Phoenix to me starts at 48th Street to the East, and ends at 19th Avenue to the West. And I guess it goes north from the South Mountains to the Salt River

Garry Walters, 2021

I paused with a sly smile on my face. “But Garry,” I said with just a little bit of a twinkle, “You just said that the northern border of South Phoenix is the Salt River, right?” “Right,” he replied. “But, you told me you were South Phoenix – born and raised! But you grew up one block north of the Salt River on Magnolia!”

Garry burst out laughing and did one of those “Ah, you got me” kind of waves.

But that moment in the interview got me thinking. Where is South Phoenix and who decides? What do the boundaries we draw say about who lives “down there,” or “up here,” depending on which definitions we’re using? And why might someone say they do or don’t live in South Phoenix? Within weeks, we began combing through our interview metadata to find any moments when other narrators described or defined the geography of South Phoenix. And, you know how this goes… now I’m like a dog with a bone. I’m tenacious about it. We’re adding a question to our question bank, “Where is South Phoenix?” We’re obsessing over any article we can find – from fields like geography, social sciences, anthropology, and city planning. Where is South Phoenix? And who defines it? We even have a fantastic research intern from the OHMA program at Columbia University now helping us with this research. You met her today! Together, Ele and I are launching a survey to go out to South Phoenix residents and community members, asking them to define South Phoenix on their terms. Our goal is to submit the findings of our research to the Oral History Review, or the Public Historian by the end of next summer.

See, a little moment in any interview – whether you’re asking the questions, writing the transcript, or seeking useful quotes for your research – can spark any number of future initiatives that can be personally or professionally fulfilling for you, your students, or your organization.

Consider our mini-workshop on oral history and storytelling as a way to help you find those little moments and use them for your use. These these little stories can be ways to “hook” your audience into the content of your dynamic chapters, impactful lectures, persuasive grant applications, or meaningful conversations with your Vice President. This is good work we do. Let’s continue to put it out there!

Summer Cherland, PhD
October 13, 2021
Story told at Oral History Conference: “Oral History and Storytelling: Mini Workshop” with Liz Warren.

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