The Ronstadt house on Sixth Avenue in Tucson.
Early in the 20th century, Phoenix surpassed Tucson in population and never looked back. The old joke: Tucson hates Phoenix and Phoenix doesn't pay any attention to Tucson, which makes the Old Pueblo hate Phoenix even more. I don't claim to be a Tucson expert, but a reader new to the city asked to learn more. So what follows is a Phoenician's idiosyncratic take on Arizona's second city.
Tucson is much older than Phoenix, having been founded by the Spanish (led by an Irishman in the pay of the Spanish crown) in 1775, a tenuous foothold in Apache country. It was a part of Mexico until the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 (otherwise, the border would have been as close as Goodyear — how'd that sit with the white-right Midwesterners?). Thus, Tucson always wore its Hispanic side with ease and pride. Tucson got the first main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad in the late 1880s and for decades was the most populous city in the territory and young state. It was also a bastion of the Democratic Party, long after the state as a whole turned Republican. This was Mo Udall, Dennis DeConcini and Raul Castro country.
Growing up as a child of the Cold War, I knew Tucson would be a first-strike target in a "counterforce" nuclear exchange, because of the Titan II missile silos that surrounded the city. My first visits were on the train. My mother and I would board the remains of the once-grand Imperial, now a mail train with one coach, at Union Station, and travel south. We would spend the day in downtown Tucson and take the still crack Sunset Limited back home that evening. Early memories: The Santa Catalinas towered over the city in a way no mountains did Phoenix. Tucson was dry, a desert city, so different from the (then) lush oasis of Phoenix. Downtown was busy and vibrant, but no more so than Phoenix. I wasn't impressed.
It got me thinking about the proposition that if any Arizona city would have turned into something like Portland, it should have been Tucson. It had The University, environmentalists, anti-growth forces and an educated citizenry. Thinking about when I lived in Denver, which was a successful urban city with progressive values, standing as counterpoint to the state's other large city, Colorado Springs, which is white-right national headquarters. Tucson still delivers (mostly) reliable Democratic majorities, and statewide elections are still decided in Pima County. Otherwise, it has spectacularly failed its potential and, despite its pretensions ("we're not Phoenix") is another sign of "one flavor" Arizona. The trains are long gone and I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson offers The Ugliest Drive in America. Linda Ronstadt tried to come home to Tucson around the time I returned to Phoenix — she left in disgust at the reactionary politics.
Raised as I was, I can't help one off-beat conclusion: Phoenix had water and Tucson didn't — and in the desert, water is supreme power. Tucson depended on groundwater until completion of the Central Arizona Project. So in addition to its residents' ambivalence about growth, it was shackled by lack of water. This only allowed Phoenix to add people and shortsighted, conservative political power. A Tucson with water (and thus power) might have gained the economic heft to pursue another course. Maybe, maybe not.
Among the more conventional answers: Tucson had its own provincialism, a special kind of Arizona complacency; it grew during the age of autos, cheap gas, tract housing and the general American antipathy for cities; newcomers wanted to pretend they were in wide open High Chaparral spaces rather than be part of a healthy city; the UofA suffered savage budget cuts in the 1980s, just when it was seen as the next University of Texas, a onetime football mill that leaped to greatness; Tucson never developed the corporate or technological base that could have funded urban solutions and attracted enough progressive, talented young people. Too many of its progressives and Democrats are the kind Jim Kunstler lampoons, rallying for the environment and then getting in their SUVs to drive out to their exurban McMansions. By the 2000s, the big business leader was a car dealer. The mayor was a Republican. An ambitious downtown redo kept spinning its wheels. Promising startups and a few big defense plants were never enough to support a large base of high-paid jobs and high-octane competitiveness. Despite its refusal to build freeways, metro Tucson had generated vast sprawl, including the monstrous profaning of the desert around Marana and Oro Valley. Like Phoenix, it had attracted all too many retirees and others who just wanted to be left alone and never gave a daily drive of 100 miles a second thought.
Downtown, with the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Tucson retains much magic. The Sonoran Desert is at its most beautiful here at the higher elevation. Those neighborhoods close to downtown hold great potential, as does the land along the (finally) approved upgraded streetcar line between downtown and the UofA. Unlike Phoenix, the city of Tucson didn't tear down so much of its older building stock, including downtown, so blight is not so widespread. The university remains a strongpoint, despite the Legislature. The ubiquitous Hispanic culture is a great asset and the city's history is rich. Until the Republicans get going, it still has passenger rail service. One could live a relatively sustainable life in the center city, if one could stand what has been done to the once-enchanting desert all around. Still, the poverty rate is well above and the median household income well below even the state's dismal average, so the city holds a large underclass. And with the Kooks in charge in Phoenix, Tucson will be lucky just to hold its own. It's about the same size as Portland, but what a different outcome.
Learn more about Phoenix in the 101 archive.