Re-imagining Surprise: the evolution of a twenty-first century boomburb, 1938-2010

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At the turn of the twenty-first century, the population of Surprise Arizona exploded, increasing from 31,000 to 100,000 in just eight years. Developers filled acres of former cotton fields and

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the population of Surprise Arizona exploded, increasing from 31,000 to 100,000 in just eight years. Developers filled acres of former cotton fields and citrus groves with walled neighborhoods of stucco and tile-roofed homes surrounded by palm trees and oleander bushes. Priced for middle-class families and retirees, this planned and standardized landscape stood in stark contrast to that of the town's first decades when dirt roads served migrant farm labor families living in makeshift homes with outdoor privies. This study explores how a community with an identity based on farm labor and networks of kinship and friendship evolved into an icon of the twenty-first century housing boom. This analysis relies on evidence from multiple sources. A community history initiative, the Surprise History Project, produced photographs, documents, and oral histories. City records, newspaper accounts, county documents, and census reports offer further insight into the external and internal factors that shaped and reshaped the meaning of community in Surprise. A socially and politically constructed concept, community identity evolves in response to the intricate interplay of contingencies, external forces, and the actions and decisions of civic leaders and residents. In the case of Surprise, this complex mix of factors also set the foundation for its emergence as a twenty-first century boomburb. The rapid expansion of the Phoenix metropolitan area, the emergence of age-restricted communities, and federal programs reset the social, economic, and political algorithms of the community. Internally, changing demographics, racial and ethnic diversity, and an ever-expanding population produced differing and continuously evolving ideas about community identity, a matter of intense importance to many. For seven decades, Surprise residents with competing ideas about place came into conflict. Concurrently, these individuals participated in official and vernacular events, activities, and celebrations. These gatherings, which evolved as the town grew and changed, also shaped community identity. While attending the Fourth of July festivities or debating city leaders' decisions at town council meetings, Surprise residents defined and redefined their community.