- 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
By the early 1990s the city was working earnestly to improve Speedway’s landscaping, so I spent a week on the street with a photographer to produce a documentary for Arizona Highways magazine before its character got polished up too much. What we found amazed us. We met a Hispanic couple who had lived on Speedway for 50 years, starting out with a tent, four children, and the belief that “God will provide.” We sat in a toy-sized church with a congregation of some two dozen black Baptists and listened to their minister sing an hourlong sermon. We hung out with a bunch of balding car nuts who gathered ritually at Coach’s Deli every Friday night to talk camshaft profiles and distant memories. “I used to race Speedway, not cruise it,” said one, dripping contempt for the Gen- Xers parading their souped-up stereos. We checked out a production of Mozart’s Così fan Tutte , staged by university music students to raise money for their new performance hall. Speedway actually had more character than almost any other city’s vibrant, glittering downtown. It was Tucson’s downtown, tipped over on a side and stretched out to the horizon, a monument to cheap desert land and even cheaper gas.
And to human dreams. If the mountains are Tucson’s soul, then those dreams are its heart, enacted in countless small ways every day. This is, and has always been, a place where you can invent yourself, where nobody gives a whit where you came from or who your ancestors were. It cares little for convention or formality, and if it is unlikely to throw dollars at you, it is always happy to applaud your accomplishments. And living in this remarkable intersection of nature and civilization is itself a constant inspiration. Daily one sees environmental battles being fought, mistakes being made, humans muddling and struggling to reach an accommodation with something much greater than themselves, and, frequently enough, a coyote trotting through a dry arroyo in a midtown neighborhood, looking for a pet to eat. As Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Every day, Tucson affirms it.