About The Funset Strip...

Pre-Interstate Phoenix highway map courtesy of the Bali-Hi Motor Hotel
Before the Interstate Highway System was begun in 1956, highways generally funneled through towns on city streets. Invariably along these routes, lodging and other businesses catering to travelers would proliferate. In The Valley of the Sun, highways 60, 70, 80, and 89 converged on east Van Buren Street. Imagine traffic from I-10, I-17, and Rt-60 being dumped onto one street today--that's a lot of people, and business! This part of town was sometimes referred to as the Funset Strip, partly due to the elaborate and overstated themes the hotels employed to appeal to fun-seeking travelers (and those locals looking for a change of scenery, or dinner in an exotic-themed restaurant), but also the entertainment and recreation opportunities existing nearby. During the heyday of the Funset Strip, east Van Buren was home to two golf courses, Papago Park, the Phoenix Zoo, a stadium, horse-riding stables, a drive-in movie theater, go-kart racing, an amusement park and concert venue (Legend City/Compton Terrace), dog racing, a wax museum, Star Theater (now Celebrity Theater), and countless taverns and nightclubs.
Hiway House, Van Buren at 32nd St.
In it's decline, after the Interstate Freeways were opened (diverting traffic from these colorful neon-lit motels), Van Buren Street became an urban corridor of cheap motel rooms with an incredibly active and open prostitution trade. Any night of the week, from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, you could drive Van Buren and see dozens of hookers flagging-down johns, bringing a somewhat different definition of "fun" to the Funset Strip.
Intersecting the newly opened I-17, the street going left to right in the center of this postcard is Van Buren.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, we lived in Scottsdale and on trips to downtown Phoenix we often drove down Van Buren in the big Oldsmobile Cutlass station wagon we had. It was always one of my favorite drives, and I would be looking out the window the entire time. There was just no other place in town like it: here were all these huge garish signs and women in high-heels and mini-skirts waving at cars, horns were honking and people were shouting. At night, the light from the large neon signs, one after another stretching into the distance, reminded me of a carnival or fair. Our quiet neighborhood had nothing like this. 

As we headed west, just past 40th Street I would always take note of the Samoan Village on the left and the high-roofed, Tiki-style buildings in front. As a child, I thought these roofs were giant straw-hats, and remember asking my mom why there were giant hats there, and she explained they were Polynesian roofs--I was still wonderstruck every time I saw them. Further west now, on the right-hand side, I remember my favorite big sign was that of the Tahiti Inn. It was one of the tallest, and it was immense! It looked like a giant green tree, which delighted me. Continuing on towards downtown, my favorite place of all to look at was the Kon Tiki. I just stared at that weird saddle-shaped roof and it was the strangest building I'd ever seen. There was a very low point in the roof facing the street where it looked like you could climb right up there in the saddle, and I wondered then if anyone had. I always wished my dad would drive slower past the Kon Tiki...

This blog is my attempt to preserve these fond memories and share them with others. It was a special place to me, and a special time: Phoenix has drastically changed since then. So join me, won't you, for a trip down Van Buren Street--and beyond!