- Historic Sites
A city where the desert is everywhere, where sprawl into magnificent desolation is the main industry, whose oldest building is still its most beautiful, whose surrounding mountains are its soul: Lawrence W. Cheek explains why American Heritage’s Great American Place Award for the year 2000 goes to…
October 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 6
President Grant called the massacre “purely murder” and threatened Arizona with martial law if the killers were not brought to trial. More than a hundred were indicted and tried in Tucson, where a jury of their peers deliberated for 19 minutes and voted for acquittal. “The terrible truth,” writes the Arizona historian Thomas E. Sheridan, was that the nineteenth-century Southwest was “a land where the old order had collapsed and a new order had not yet been created. The result was a political vacuum where the worst instincts often ruled.”
No other city in North America has been blessed with such a dramatic yet prickly natural environment.
Paradoxically, an element of racial cooperation was shaping Tucson’s character in those territorial years. Spanish- and Englishspeakers lived among each other, fought Apaches together, forged business partnerships, and married. A Mexican middle class was firmly rooted, exemplified by Federico Ronstadt, who arrived from Mexico in 1882 and established a successful coachbuilding business and a community orchestra. Unlike in other Southwestern cities, the patrón-peón hierarchy never became firmly entrenched in Tucson. As the University of Arizona anthropologist James Officer once explained it, “How were you going to tell a Ronstadt that his kid can’t go to your school?” That could mean Linda Ronstadt, Federico’s granddaughter, who began her singing career in Tucson coffeehouses.
Tucsonans of Anglo background have long romanticized Hispanic culture, although they may not reach too deeply into it. Mexican food enjoys the status of a religion; I’ve engaged in heated arguments over which restaurant offers the best green chile enchiladas (for the record, Mi Nidito does). Latino and Anglo families alike mark summer’s end by making green corn tamales, an all-day affair of insane complication. The city’s twentieth-century architecture consists of waves of Hispanic revivalism: Mission Revival through 1915, Spanish Colonial Revival to the 1930s, a Taco Deco style that saw every strip shopping center in the 1970s encrusted with arches and bell towers, and, in the 1990s, a Mexican architectural color palette of startling yellows, pinks, purples, and greens.
Yet this apparent embrace of Hispanic culture may be largely superficial; in the quarter-century I lived in the city I saw some disturbing signs. In 1981 a Mexican delegation presented Tucson with a bronze equestrian statue of Pancho Villa and thus ignited a decade of controversy. A local anthropologist started an annual one-man protest, pounding 19 white crosses into the grass beside the statue to commemorate Americans killed by Villa. Hispanics then began turning out to protest his protest. “This was all our land,” one told reporters. “Your people stole it.” True in part, although this land has been changing title since Hohokam times, and probably before.
Four mountain ranges cradle Tucson, the tallest raking the sky at 9,453 feet, and it is impossible to overestimate the effect they have on the city’s character, psychology, and sometimes current events. I once asked Les Wallach, an architect and longtime Tucsonan, how he would describe the city’s soul. “It’s like a strange form of animal,” he said after a moment’s thought. “Its soul is its skeleton, and that skeleton is on the outside—the mountains.”
No one who has survived four seasons in Tucson would say climate isn’t a great part of its character, and the mountains have much to do with that. June is the cruel month: 110 degrees every day (or so the natives claim; in fact, the average June high is only 98.5), a cloudless sky bleached almost bone white, the heat exerting a palpable pressure on the body.
But July brings a shift in the prevailing winds, starting the two-month-long monsoon, when the mountains ambush the muggy summer breath of the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of California to manufacture spectacular thunderstorms. The writer Edward Abbey once described the monsoon thunderclouds as “anvil-headed giants with glints of lightning in their depths.” He might have added, “and malice in their hearts.” As much as Tucson cherishes (and needs) the storms, they can make tragedy. In the summer of 1947, a monsoon-spiked flood took out a 30-foot bridge over a minor arroyo and laid down a sheet of water over the flat desert surrounding the wash, concealing the bridge’s demise. One by one, cars rolled like lemmings into the arroyo and were swept away. Eleven people died before the police were able to stop traffic.
Propped against the sky in each cardinal direction, the mountains compel Tucson to interact with its environment. The big rocks are too dramatic to ignore. For years I happily avoided writing every morning by hiking in any of several mountain canyons I could reach within half an hour’s walk from my front door.