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Exhibit explores Phoenix history through stories, science

Picnicking along the banks of the Salt River
August 31, 2012

Once upon a time, the Salt River flowed through southern Phoenix. Open canals lined with shady cottonwood trees carried water to farms. Families picnicked on the riverbank, caught fish and swam in the refreshing water.

It’s not like that anymore.

The area’s historic Hispanic and African American neighborhoods have changed dramatically over the past century. A new exhibit, “Environmental Memories of South Central Phoenix,” explores how and why those changes occurred.

The exhibit is co-sponsored by Arizona State University (ASU) and the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation (PRC), a non-profit community development organization dedicated to revitalizing neighborhoods. It will be on display at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center from Sept. 6, 2012 to Jan. 31, 2013.  

The exhibit uses historic black-and-white photographs to vividly demonstrate how local industries have evolved from farms and Chinese laundries in the early 1900s to the brick yards and auto repair shops of today. Personal interviews with residents whose families have lived in the area for generations are paired with scientific data to help explain how urbanization and industrialization have affected the local community. Visitors will see a replica of a 1920s home and learn how lower-income Phoenicians kept cool in the summertime.

“These are some of the most historic neighborhoods in Phoenix,” says Katelyn Parady, graduate student in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the exhibit’s project manager. “The people there have a cultural and environmental history that’s very vibrant and strong – and different from other parts of the city. The purpose of the exhibit is to get researchers and residents thinking together about how that history can help us respond to today’s environmental problems, like pollution and climate change.”

Wendoly Abrego, the PRC’s sustainable communities coordinator, says PRC is excited to co-sponsor the exhibit because it provides a history of the area that residents may not know, and also because it addresses environmental issues that may impact their health. Parady conducted ethnographic research with residents in South Central Phoenix as part of a larger study on urban vulnerability to climate change. The study examines the urban heat island in Phoenix and its relationship to land cover, human health and the demographic characteristics of neighborhoods.

“This exhibit is a fine example of community engagement that complements traditional graduate study," says School of Human Evolution and Social Change sociologist Sharon Harlan, the lead researcher on the urban vulnerability study. "Katelyn and other graduate students in our environmental social science doctoral program have done an outstanding job of working with the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation and residents to support and promote this community’s vision of itself. The community-university partnership enriches our research on environmental health and will help create authentic solutions for the climate challenges that lie ahead.”

The exhibit was made possible by the School of Human Evolution and Social Change's museum studies program. Victoria Sargent, an ASU master's student pursuing a certificate in the museum program, designed the exhibit and led the exhibition team.

George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center was a segregated high school for African American students from 1926-1954. It became a museum and cultural center in 1996 when alumni purchased the land from the school.

“The exhibit provides an opportunity for us to showcase the history of the community and bring awareness to the facility and the story of that timeframe,” says Princess Crump, executive director of the Carver Museum.

Exhibit dates: Sept. 6-Jan. 31
Admission: Donations welcomed
Location: George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, 415 E. Grant St., Phoenix, AZ 85004
Hours: noon-5 p.m., Monday-Friday, and by appointment
More information: visit or email

There will be an opening reception at 5:30 p.m., Sept. 6. The reception is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served and children are welcome.

This exhibit is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Numbers GEO-0816168 Urban Vulnerability to Climate Change and DGE-0504248 IGERT in Urban Ecology.

Jodi Guyot,
School of Human Evolution and Social Change