Meet Phoenix’s First Official Historian
For the first time in its history, Phoenix has tapped someone to promote and share stories of the city’s past. Steve Schumacher has been appointed as the Mayor’s Office official historian. During his one-year term, Schumacher says he intends to educate and celebrate Phoenix history, starting with Super Bowl visitors, but centering on schoolchildren. “We are focused on prioritizing inclusion and diversity as both the foundation of our past and the momentum of our future,” Schumacher says. “We believe that educating our schoolchildren about the compelling history of our city will give them a greater appreciation for it when they become adults.” Schumacher shared a bit of his history and that of the city with us.
Q&A With Steve Schumacher
What sparked your interest in Phoenix history?
I have always been interested in history, especially being in locations where significant history has occurred. About 10 years ago, on one of those 118-degree days we all dread, I asked myself the question we all ask during the summer: “Why did people come here in the first place, especially without air conditioning?!” I started researching the beginnings of Phoenix and discovered just how fascinating it is. I have been totally engrossed in it ever since.
How did that interest lead you to this opportunity?
As I was researching the beginnings of Phoenix, I discovered that, as a city, we haven’t done a very good job of honoring our history and heritage. I decided that I was going to try to change that. I wrote a couple papers on Phoenix history, sent them out to people who seemed to be historians in the Valley, spoke to the mayor and City Council about the importance of showcasing our civic memory, and Mayor Kate Gallego, who is a historian at heart, has given me the opportunity to work with her and make a difference.
There will be tens of thousands of people coming to Phoenix for the Super Bowl in February. How will you be connecting people to the history of the area?
Mayor Gallego is truly a visionary. Earlier this year, she told me that she wanted to use the Super Bowl as a vehicle to showcase our city and its history. We have been working on identifying some historic locations in or near downtown for visitors and residents to experience during the weeks prior to the Super Bowl. Various departments in the city, along with affiliated organizations, will be working to make those historic locations a “must-see” for everyone.
What else do you hope to accomplish in your time as Phoenix’s first historian?
Along with showcasing our city and its history during the Super Bowl, I am working to educate more Phoenicians about the unique history we all share. My hope is that we can give our school kids a greater appreciation for how Phoenix began, how it has has progressed to become the fifth largest city in the U.S. and how our diverse population has contributed in big ways to Phoenix reaching that stature. In addition, I am focusing on creating a culture where we celebrate the early Hohokam pioneers who taught us how to irrigate the fertile land and become prosperous.
You encouraged the creation of this role. Why is a role like this important?
This role is important for several reasons. One, it signifies the commitment that Mayor Gallego has to honoring the history and heritage of our city. She has picked up the baton that has been idle for decades. Second, this allows for a central point of contact for showcasing our history through social media and other outlets. This role is responsible for increasing the amount of history we are aware of, and disseminating that history to our citizens.
For many years, Phoenix has had the reputation that it did not care about its history and heritage. Mayor Gallego has taken a giant step toward changing that perception by creating my position. We are focused on prioritizing inclusion and diversity as both the foundation of our past and the momentum of our future. We believe that educating our schoolchildren about the compelling history of our city will give them a greater appreciation for it when they become adults.
Is there an era of Phoenix history that you find to be particularly instructive for the moment we’re in now?
I think this current time we are in is fairly similar to the hyper-growth period we were in during the decade of the 1950s. We have been growing and expanding, bringing in business and increasing population for years now. In the ’50s, our population was booming also, with large aerospace and electronics firms providing added employment in the Valley. Our city leaders are much better equipped to handle that growth now than the city leaders of the ’50s. Diversity at all governmental levels has allowed us to have a much broader perspective on how to make our growth robust.
Can you share a lesser known or surprising “Phoenix Phun Phact” with readers?
My favorite fact is that what we know as Phoenix today was actually the fourth choice of anglo pioneers. If their first choice had worked out, Phoenix would be where Tempe is currently.
For other history buffs, what other resources would you recommend to help people get to know the history of Phoenix?
There are so many sources of information about the history of Phoenix. A few that I would recommend are:
- Podcasts: Valley 101 podcast by The Arizona Republic and History Adventuring podcast by Brad Hall
- Vintage Phoenix on Facebook
- Experiences: Pueblo Grande Museum Archaeological Park, Heritage Square, Arizona Capitol Museum, Arizona Heritage Center, Pioneer and Military Memorial Park, Arizona Room at Burton Barr Central Library
- Books: “Phoenix: The History of a Southwestern Metropolis” by Bradford Luckingham, “Vanishing Phoenix” by Robert A. “Melikian, Early Phoenix” by Kathleen Garcia and “A Brief History of Phoenix” by Jon Talton
- The City of Phoenix website, and more specifically, the Historic Preservation Office