Docent of Downtown
There’s no such thing as a typical day running a tour company. “It all depends on the season,” says Phoenix native, history enthusiast and former Arizona State University program manager Jill Johnson, who spearheaded the first (and, so far, only) city tour company in Downtown Phoenix. Inspired by the mythical bird for which Phoenix is named, Johnson’s Phoenix Rising Tour Company opened in the fall of 2016. She wanted to address a nagging thought: “There’s no one telling our story here.” Now there is – daily. Phoenix Rising offers walking, bike and trolley tours highlighting Downtown’s history, art and culture. Tours appeal to both tourists and locals who may not be aware of Phoenix history. Johnson and her enthusiastic guides (six new hires) also offer private tours by bus. In its inaugural year, Phoenix Rising (phxtours.com) gave 50 sold-out tours, entertaining an average group of 15 per tour, and served 1,115 guests, some from as far away as New Zealand.
Your phone rings nonstop from November to April. How do you explain your success?
It’s not us. It’s the city. Phoenix has a long history, and people don’t realize that. They don’t know about the Hohokam coming here in 400 A.D. Downtown Phoenix is the heartbeat of the Valley. In 1867, this is where it all began. It’s seen its rises and falls. And now it’s resurging again… I’m not surprised people want to learn more about it.
Downtown Phoenix Ambassadors provide helmets and headphones for your bike tours. You partner with Dunn Transportation, Grid Bike Share and local coffee shops. Tell us about these collaborations.
I follow the philosophy, “No man is an island.” It would be impossible without collaboration to operate a tour company. Visit Phoenix and Downtown Phoenix Inc. really do a great job of helping to promote us, especially since we don’t have a brick-and-mortar office that you can stop in at. So, I am open to all ideas. I want to always be changing, growing and adapting. One of our latest collaborations is with Phoenix Ghost Tours.
You take guests to the warehouse district, Roosevelt Row, Grand Avenue and beyond. What is one of the oldest sites on your tours?
There are only 50 structures Downtown that still stand from 1880s Phoenix. The Plaza Boarding House is one of them. It dates back to 1885. It has served a number of functions over the years, but it’s now a sports bar called Majerle’s.
What’s one of the newest sites?
People are fascinated by Janet Echelman’s public art piece, “Her Secret is Patience.” Installed in 2009 at Civic Space Park, this monumental sculpture represents monsoon clouds. But I look at this piece as a symbol of revitalization and reinvestment.
Tell me about something cool that’s happening in Downtown right now.
In Phoenix, there’s a cyclical nature. We see a lot of things come back again. One example involves the Wurth House on Roosevelt Row. The 1911 red brick house was built by a man from Kentucky named Felix Wurth. He came to Phoenix in 1910. One hundred years later, his historic house was scheduled for demolition to make way for new high-rise buildings. Then Alex Wurth, a newcomer also from Kentucky, found out about it. He had no idea it was his great-great uncle’s house. He contacted Kimber Lanning, founder of Local First Arizona, who spearheaded a campaign to save the house. She’s turning it into a welcome center. Alex, who works at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix, has helped her raise the funds to do that.
How often do you hear “I didn’t know we had that!” from locals?
I hear it on every tour. It’s fun for me. But it also reminds me that people aren’t really connected to their Downtown. So, for me, it’s cool to show them the hidden treasures… I hope our tours encourage them to revisit Downtown and explore it on their own, with a little more knowledge.