Where does the soul of a city lie? Does it lie in its residents? Its Architecture? Its Parks?
Following the first few decades of its postwar boom, many residents felt Phoenix lacked a distinct sense of urban soul, describing the growing metropolis as “a collection of neighborhoods in search of a city,” an issue which grew more apparent as more people flocked to the Valley. As residents and city officials began to ponder where the heart and soul of the city and its community would lie, an unlikely result emerged: a grand parkspace in the Downtown region akin to New York City’s Central Park, born from an unlikely and seemingly unrelated source: traffic.
Hance Park was the byproduct of the creation of the Papago Freeway and the fractured community that came as a result of the Freeway’s construction. As Phoenix grew in population into the 1950s through the 1970s, traffic grew to be a major issue in the metropolis. Cars lined Phoenix’s streets and roads were backed up for miles; a venture across the city could take up to an hour in better traffic conditions. As conditions worsened, more plans arose for a freeway to be built through the heart of Phoenix to relieve congestion, which would become the Papago Freeway.
While the Freeway was meant to ease tension on surface roads, its creation only heated up tension within the city. The Freeway was planned to be built along existing neighborhoods in the heart of Downtown Phoenix, which would need to be demolished and their residents displaced. The Freeway’s planned construction path required the demolition of over 1,000 established homes and relocation of 3,000 residents. The Freeway also split Downtown Phoenix into two sections: North and South, which was already separated in terms of race due to housing discrimination protocols during the 1950s and 60s. Meant to bring Phoenix together, the Freeway seemingly served to divide the city further.
Alongside the Freeway, Hance Park (originally named Deck Park) was decided to be built atop its surface. The purpose of the park was multifunctional. Not only would the Park provide functionality to the layer of concrete keeping the underground freeway system in place, it would also provide new community grounds. Original plans for the Park included an amphitheatre, a community arts center, and multiple areas for children and adults alike to relax, creating a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of inner-city life, whilst providing a space for artistic and cultural endeavors to flourish. Centered in the heart of Downtown, the Park was positioned to become the heart and soul of Phoenix’s urban jungle. In conjunction with the nearby arts and cultural district, the Park was in a prime location to serve as a space for the community to come together and share ideas, art and fun. Hopeful of the Park’s future and communal outreach, many supporters of the park began drawing comparisons to New York City’s Central Park. The Park also served as a way to heal the metaphorical scars afflicted by the Phoenix community caused by the Freeway’s construction, replacing the demolished neighborhoods with a new vibrant park space meant to build and foster a new sense of community.
The Papago Freeway officially opened in August 1990, and its accompanying Park began construction shortly after in January 1991. After construction began, the then-named Deck Park was honorably and posthumously named after former Phoenix mayor Maragret T. Hance, the city’s first female mayor, and former chairwoman of the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board. The renaming of the Park, similarly to the creation of the Park itself, quickly became the center of controversy, as Mayor Hance was a prominent voice in the creation of the Freeway and displacement of the residents in the path of its construction.
Hance Park officially opened in April 1992 to much celebration, but to an equal amount of dismay and uncertainty of the Park’s future. While the city had high hopes for the Park, it did little to capture the hearts and attention of the desert-city dwellers. The space remained primarily empty during its first few years, devoid of life and excitement. Within the next decade, the City of Phoenix began construction on various projects on park grounds meant to expand and bring life to the Park. Built within park grounds were the Burton Barr Central Library, Community Arts Center, Japanese Friendship Garden (Ro Ho En), and the Irish Cultural Center. Both the Friendship Garden and Cultural Center were products of joint efforts between the City of Phoenix and its Sister Cities (Himeji, Japan and Ennis, Ireland) to establish connections between the two distant regions and promote a mutual understanding of international support.
With the changes to the Park’s surroundings came a new symbolic image for the Park itself as the heart of the metropolis. The city hoped that by building businesses that housed arts and culture on park grounds, it would give the Park, and the Downtown area itself, a new image as a vibrant, artistic and modern metropolis of international decree (akin to New York or Los Angeles). Hance Park soon after formatted itself as an unofficial celebratory host site of the Phoenix Sister Cities initiative, commemorating Phoenix’s relationship with its Sister Cities. Besides the Garden and Cultural Center, the Park also serves as the home of a golden statue of two pandas (titled Maternal Love) gifted by the city of Chengdu, China - Phoenix’s fourth Sister City - symbolizing the connection and mutual friendship between the two cities, a statue that remains to date. Also on Park grounds existed a collection of the different flags of each country of Phoenix’s various Sister Cities, though currently down for the Park's reconstruction.
While the centers around the Park garnered new attention and excitement, the Park itself did not, and remained stagnant in a similar status of limbo as it had remained in during its first few years of existence. Serving primarily as a temporary event space and the grounds of a widening population of people experiencing homelessness, the Park was not yet the center of urban sprawl and the heart of Phoenix’s urban identity it was imagined to be in its inception. The coming of the 2010s brought new changes to Hance Park, with the founding of the non-profit Hance Park Conservancy, which was tasked with maintaining and facilitating the Park’s expansion in accordance with the city’s developing plans for the space.
Plans regarding the new face and symbolic image of the Park remained in a consistent buffer zone of deliberation and reformation, due to cost concerns and conflicting ideas of the park’s aesthetic. After the Parks and Recreation Board passed the original reformation plan for the Park in 2014, and made adjustments in 2016, the City of Phoenix finally revealed an updated $100 million Hance Park Revitalization Plan in 2019, paving the way for the Park’s anticipated and tribulated extension. Broken into phases, the revitalization plan mapped out the expansion of the park grounds with the creation of a cafe space, playground, community garden and amphitheater stage meant to entice visitors and finally harbor Phoenix’s urban cultural identity.
The first phase of construction began and was completed during 2020, with the addition of a playground and fountain area named Fiesta Bowl PLAY at Hance Park, marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Fiesta Bowl. The next phases of construction are currently being prepared for implementation, for which updates are provided by the city. The Park’s overall construction remains unslated for a proper date of completion. Only time will tell if the Park will grow into the true heart of Downtown Phoenix’s growing and increasingly-diverse urban community as it was planned to be thirty years ago.