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March 16, 2009


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I went to UofA back in the early 70s. Tucson was close to magical then: downtown was thriving, the university dominated the city geographically and intellectually, and best of all: the nearby mountains and desert were unmarred by Phoenix-scale development.

I knew it would change and that it would break my heart. Today, Tucson is feels as listless as central Phoenix. There are still great things here and there. On the other hand, downtown died. The funky retail streets around the university are mostly gone the way of Mill Avenue (or gone completely). The city's schizophrenia about growth made major streets function like freeways but without that level of efficiency.

The city's 70s-era slow-growth movement unwisely ceded the battle by freezing Tucson's boundaries, thus allowing unchecked autocentric sprawl north of the city. Tucson's greens were never going to win. The pro-growthers - people like car-dealer Jim Click and land speculator Don Diamond - knew that power proceeds from wealth and easily vanquished the ragtag slow-growth forces.

Still, it was no small accomplishment keeping freeways from devastating the city. The price they paid - traffic congestion and street widening - was an inevitable consequence of wanting conflicting things: Tucson's basic suburban template but without the alienating kind of growth they saw in Phoenix.

Today, Tucson looks and feels like a suburb of Phoenix. The attrition of downtown power players, as in Phoenix, accounts for the feeling that there's no longer any galvanizing center here. Sprawl itself is not just the physical manifestation of decentralization, it's an actual consequence of it as well.

There's always going to be a film-like narrative that youth tells itself about lost edens. I'm as guilty as anyone in believing those stories. Certainly, there was this elegiac sense about the place even back in the 70s. Edward Abbey said it was doomed, even as he enjoyed Tucson's honky-tonks. Then there's the wonderful Tucson poet Richard Shelton who captured the mood in his Requiem for Sonora. Here are the last lines:

I am older and uglier
and full of the knowledge
that I do not belong to beauty
and beauty does not belong to me
I have learned to accept
whatever men choose to give me
or whatever they choose to withhold
but oh my desert
yours is the only death I cannot bear

You went to Portland's and failed to walk across the street to meet me? Shame on you.

Very incisive post. Thanks.

Just today I saw Channel 5's talented reporter Morgan Loew interviewed on CNN's morning show. He provided an overview of Phoenix's economic straits. The CNN anchor asked him at the close of the piece what would signal a rebound. Loew's response: The removal of so many foreclosed homes from the sales inventory and a resurgence of housing starts. Loew is a smart, resourceful and often counterintuitive journalist. But the groupthink -- that the state's growth industry IS GROWTH -- is ingrained and persistent. We have such a long ways to go.

And I agree: Tucson has a soul. Phoenix has an addiction.

Another downtown Phoenix suggestion: Open up Union Station and bring the trains back.

Damn. I was at the festival and did not know you were there. I felt bad about it and then finally gleaned from the festival's awful (AZ Daily Star-provided) unnavigatible website that you had been on at the same time as the one author that I had gone there to see -- Elmore Leonard. They did a poor job of promoting the festival and a worse job of scheduling.

I was signing at the booth right across from Leonard.

I lived in Tucson from 2001-08, and I loved the Sun Tran bus system. It had its flaws, but it really worked, and I had fewer stories of unreliable buses than my peers in the Phoenix metro area. I just think...If they could do so much with the support they have, how amazing could transit in Tucson be if the public really got behind it?

And yes, the lack of a train between Tucson and Phoenix is absurd.

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