- 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
Due east were Bear and Sabino Canyons, parallel rifts sliced into the flank of the 9,157-foot Santa Catalina range. Sabino has a paved road that’s ideal for scenic jogging, a creek that trickles or rages depending on the season’s whim, and a history of close calls. In 1937 the Army Corps of Engineers approved a plan to wall off the canyon with a 250-foot-high dam to make a recreational lake, but local government, mired in the Depression, couldn’t come up with its share of the cost. Instead the WPA paved a sightseers’ road that corkscrewed four miles into the canyon. Happily, the U.S. Forest Service closed it to private traffic in 1978. Tucson wasn’t born with an environmental conscience, and its dawning has taken a lot of political gnashing. But is any city different? Even if belatedly, Tucson has realized how much it has to lose.
Bear Canyon, lacking pavement, remains a pristine jewel. In the spring, melting snow from the Santa Catalinas becomes a seven-tiered cascade at the head of the canyon. It’s a bear to get there—you wade across a swift, icy creek seven times each way—but the reward is a waterfall gushing past ranks of saguaro cacti, the plunges forming a contrapuntal chamber symphony of several liquid instruments, each with its distinct timbre and melody.
Critters rule these canyons. In my years of casual hiking, I encountered coyotes, bobcats, mule deer, great blue herons, Gila monsters, assorted species of rattlesnakes (harmless unless you’re hiking too casually), and toothy wild peccaries called javelinas. Frequently, this wildlife, teased by Tucson’s proximity, interacts. One time a midtown homeowner awoke to frantic barking at 5:00 A.M. ; his dog had treed a black bear in his yard. Officials recognized the bear. It had been removed from one mountain range, where it had been pestering campers, to another on the far side of the city. Like a human exile, it was just trying to get home.
Because of the extravagance of the natural setting, and the potential for conflict with it of so many sorts, Tucson has inspired a remarkable community of environmental advocates and writers, among them Joseph Wood Krutch, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Charles Bowden, Barbara Kingsolver, and Alison Hawthorne Deming. Bowden once wrote, more in fascination than fatalism, “Here the land always makes promises of aching beauty and the people always fail the land.” Observing the process has created a rich literature—and, I sometimes think, mitigated the failures.
I moved to Tucson in 1973, for a job, foolishly. That is the worst reason to go there; the local truism “You get your pay in sunshine” has held for as long as anyone can remember. People with hard-core career ambitions—unless they’re tenured faculty at the University of Arizona, easily the best gig in town—soon scurry off to Phoenix or Los Angeles. I didn’t want to go to either of those places, but I had a hard time coming to terms with Tucson too. There was too much sunshine. The city didn’t seem to have great ambitions for itself; its most beautiful and distinctive building was also its oldest: San Xavier del Bac, dating from 1797. People weren’t coming to Tucson to build great neighborhoods or great institutions; they were coming to enjoy the environment and be left alone.
Sheer growth was and is Tucson’s main industry. In 1970 the metropolitan population was roughly 322,000; in 2000 it’s 834,000. When this many people funnel so fast into a fragile desert valley, ungodly things happen. Scores of housing developments are strewn carelessly across the land. Urban sprawl leaks even outside the natural boundaries of the mountains. And, worst of all, pretentious houses ratchet their way up the mountainsides.
When it finally came time for me to leave, nearly a quarter-century later (a career move for my wife), I felt as though I were ripping off a piece of my body. I had become one with the place. I had shed my career ambitions; now I just wanted to hike in the desert and mountains and, as a byproduct, maybe write a little more perceptively about them. I had come to appreciate Tucson exactly as it was, not curse it for failing the land.
There had been a turning point for me that, oddly, involved the ugliest street in America. That was Speedway, the 23-mile east-west road that tumbles out of the Tucson Mountains, becomes a six-lane feeder trough for sprawl, and eventually peters out among the grassy ranches at the foot of the Rincon Mountains. In 1970 Life magazine published a spread on America’s blighted streets, leading with a two-page photo of Speedway, compressed by a 1000mm lens into a ghastly jungle of car lots, drive-ins, and billboards. Life said Mayor Jim Corbett had called it the ugliest street in America, which Corbett later denied. No matter, Speedway was plenty ugly. We natives knew that, and we took a kind of perverse pride in showing it off to visitors.