Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

December 12, 2004.

Tucson, AZ: A pretty normal place, all in all

For sure, Tucson is not the weird capital of the world. It’s a modest, fairly manageable city, albeit American style. I swung through two weekends in a row, staying at Catalina State Park, nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains fifteen miles north of the center of town. The park is a lovely place, full of woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and ravens, coyotes yipping in the night, and small washes that unexpectedly filled with water after a few very warm days that melted the snow on the mountains. I had a long chat one morning with a fellow Vanagon fulltimer, a man with the unlikely name of Tom

Collins. He had taken a six-month break from work fifteen years ago, and had never been able to bring himself to return. As we sat at the picnic table by his very cluttered van, a perky roadrunner ran back and forth through his campsite, almost blending into the ground behind him.

Like most western cities, downtown Tucson is small and kind of empty. There are a few new high-rise buildings, green squares where homeless people wait on park benches, many parking lots, and a big convention center. On the southern edge of downtown is a new “Mexican” development called The Barrio, which was a feast for the eyes. It’s a mixed-use development filling a large city block, with a multi-story parking garage across the street. It’s a jumble of shops, offices, restaurants, apartments, a health club, a movie theater, and landscaped open space. In attempt to make it somehow Mexican, every façade is painted a lovely shade of turquoise, magenta, pumpkin, goldenrod, violet, or tomato red. Predictably, a real Mexican barrio was bulldozed in part to build this imitation barrio, and I’m sure many people find it absurd, but I loved the colors in the slanting afternoon light.

South of it, what’s left of the old Mexican neighborhood is now a historic district, being renovated with a conscious effort to keep its original color. I doubt that they will be able to keep the original residents, though; renovated adobe houses next to downtown surely are now too expensive for the people who built them. I’m glad to see the renovation, and I’d love to live there.

But I wonder if there is any way for cities to thrive without pushing all of the poorest residents out of the nicest places and creating totally artificial, stage-set versions of what used to be there. When neighborhoods really are ethnic, middle and upper-class folks shy away, referring to them as bad and dangerous places, where the poor immigrants live. But when the richer folks decide to move in, the ethnic character becomes the mainstay of the local charm – so long as the ethnic people for whom this was life, not charm, are no longer there.

Outside of downtown, Tucson is like many western cities, sprawling out into the desert. Within five miles or so of downtown, the city is laid out on a large grid that makes it easy to get around. At first it all seemed uniform, but I quickly began to identify my own landmarks and to know where “my” kind of places were to be found. The University of Arizona is close to downtown, and I went to a fascinating photo exhibit there one Sunday afternoon. Near the university is the Fourth Street stretch, where the Food Conspiracy Coop is to be found, and where there was a truly amazing street festival one weekend. Further out, I landed on a splendid bookstore,

as big and as organized and trendy as a Borders, but all used books. And free wifi, too. That was a serendipitous find. I spent a good bit of time there, though not much money – I sold more books than I bought, and ended up giving away scrip entitling me to buy more there. Around the corner from Bookmans is a fine coffee house called Raging Sage, where I also spent a lot of time. And down the road from there is a sandwich place that bakes bread worth driving across town from. I felt I’d found my pocket in Tucson, near the corner of Campbell and Grant.

The city is growing fast to the north, spilling around Catalina State Park and up the sides of the mountains. Rush hour traffic up Oracle Road to the park was a nightmare, inching for miles past shopping malls, restaurants, low-rise offices, housing developments, and gas stations. East of Oracle, luxurious new malls were going up, to meet the shopping needs of the people buying the lavish homes spreading among the cactus. At night, the sparkling lights of the city spreading across the valley were beautiful, but in the daytime it just looked like miles of sprawl in the desert haze.

To the west, development hasn’t happened quite as fast. I had lunch with a friend who lives on the western side of town. She has a modest older house on five acres of land. She’s not part of a “development,” so the land around her place looks as it always did; dirt roads, scrubby bushes, cactus, and a few houses sprinkled here and there with pickups or battered cars in front. It doesn’t look like someone’s idea of a country estate, with cactus carefully flanking formal entrance gates, finely paved roads sweeping in careful curves from home to home, Porsches and SUVs hidden in the garages, and high-tech security systems everywhere in evidence. In my friend’s neighborhood folks are fighting to protect themselves from the developers. They have managed to get one square mile plot preserved as open space, but thirty new houses are slated to go up on a nearby ridge.

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