The Long And Short Of Tucson
This review is based on my nearly 18 years of residence and work in many parts of Tucson and one of its northern suburbs, Marana. My observations of the quality of life here are first-hand, and I have supplemented them with the latest verified statistical information available, superseding outdated figures provided by Best Places.
If you are thinking of visiting my city - and especially if you contemplate moving here - you have a great many necessary considerations to ponder. To help you, I sketch Tucson's natural surroundings and climate, some of its cultural resources and celebrations, the affordability of its housing and quality of its neighborhoods, and its transportation infrastructure and crime trends.
I also cover Tucson's job market, major employers, and how much you need at a minimum to live here, as well as the local economy and business environment, the city’s governance and media, and its people - how they drive, what they like to do and eat, their health, and how they view their hometown and each other.
There's much to read here, because this long review is not a simple and fact-free "I love it here, I hate it here" verdict. You may want to print it out, so that you can digest it in parts, rather than at one sitting in front of your computer. But stay the course either way, because the point of it is to give you the fullest picture possible from one long-time resident's admittedly limited perspective. I must say at the outset, however, that what I daily see and what I have experienced in my time here leads me to align with the overwhelming majority of reviewers on this website: my overall evaluation of Tucson is negative.
Before you come to Tucson, it's important that you distinguish between the city and its weather and geographic setting. Positive reviewers frequently extol the welcome warmth of Tucson in winter and its sunshine - the city averages 310 sunny days a year - as well as the Sonoran Desert and the mountains that surround the city and which in many places are lovely. They are very right to do so. But scarcely anyone favorably reviews the city itself.
Putting that aside for the moment, let’s start with Tucson’s advantages. The biggest is of course its geographic setting. The city lies in the unique Sonoran Desert, which extends into southern Arizona from the Mexican state of Sonora. Invasive and native mesquite and other native trees – chiefly ironwood and various species of palo verde and acacia – are fairly abundant, albeit few grow higher than 25 feet. Taller are the cottonwoods in the very few river and stream bottoms with flowing water, and palms which, with but one exception, are introduced species. There is also one naturally-occurring species of sycamore. Cacti are everywhere, in stunning variety and all sizes, from pin cushion scale to iconic multi-armed saguaros 40 or more feet tall. In spring this stony, spiny desert is brilliantly abloom with palo verde draped in veils of elfin lemon-yellow blossoms, and multitudes of cactus flowers in cream, yellow, hot pink, red, orange, and purple.
The flora provides a home for an amazing range of animals, birds, and insects. Bobcats and javelina (properly called collared peccaries – they are not wild pigs) are common in many suburban backyards. There are also coyotes and mountain lions, fox and deer, and black bears and coatis. (Google coatis; you will be surprised at what you see.) There are rattlesnakes, desert tortoises, and Gila monsters, too, and scorpions and tarantulas . . . roadrunners . . . hummingbirds . . . desert owls . . . quail . . . multiple species of bats. If you love wildlife, you’ll find Tucson’s environs are your Eden.
Immediately north and northeast of Tucson are the Santa Catalina Mountains. Their highest point – Mt. Lemmon – rises just shy of 9,200 feet. Its elevation makes Mt. Lemmon a “sky island,” so called because it harbors many plants and animals that cannot survive in the much hotter desert basin at the foot of the peak and which cuts them off from other mountain-bound populations elsewhere, as if on oceanic isles biologically and ecologically isolated by expanses of seawater. Driving to the top of Mt. Lemmon from Tucson’s general elevation of 2,400 to 2,600 feet is the equivalent of traveling from northern Mexico to southern British Colombia, Canada, and as you climb and average year-around temperatures fall, you eventually reach a summit covered with aspen, fir, and spruce. There is even a ski lift, serving 22 runs. Although it often snows moderately on Mt. Lemmon, in most years the ski area fails to accumulate a decent base, and if you want to schuss, you need to go to northern Arizona, to Flagstaff.
At the foot of the Santa Catalinas is Sabino Canyon, a favorite of Tucsonans who like to walk in nature. A creek there runs for much of the year, and hiking trails leading from the canyon and farther into the mountains will take you to a series of refreshing small pools and waterfalls.
Also nearby, but west of the city, are the Tucson Mountains, conical remnants of volcanoes. To the east are the humpbacked Rincon Mountains, and to the south are the rugged Santa Rita Mountains. These ranges all boast trails for hiking and horseback rides, and the Santa Ritas are home to Madera Canyon, a crease in the mountains filled with oak and juniper that hosts wild turkeys, 15 kinds of hummingbirds, and more than 250 other bird species, including colorful and sometimes rare migratory exotics from Central America. For good reason, Madera Canyon is renowned as the foremost bird watching site in the Southwest.
To educate yourself about the plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert, head to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a hybrid zoo-garden about 12 miles west of Tucson. You can also visit Tohono Chul Park, a botanical garden on the city’s northwest side, where nearly all the native vegetation is helpfully labelled, or stop at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, in midtown. The latter is rated by horticultural authorities as one of the best small botanical gardens in the country.
The last thing you would expect in a desert is a Japanese garden, but Tucson has one. A well-kept secret although only a block south of the Tucson Botanical Gardens, non-profit Yume Japanese Gardens of Tucson covers less than an acre, yet features five examples of classical Japanese landscape design, a large koi pond, and a replica traditional Japanese cottage, as well as a small museum of Japanese art and handicrafts and a gallery with rotating cultural exhibits. Tea ceremonies and classes in traditional Japanese popular arts such as flower arranging (Ikebana) and origami are on offer, as well. Yume is the only authentic Japanese garden in Arizona outside of Phoenix and the southernmost Japanese garden in the U.S.
Also inscribed in the city's cultural ledger are the Tucson Museum of Art and the Tucson Symphony, a chamber music group, theater, opera, ballet, and modern dance companies, girls’ and boys’ choruses, several art galleries of note (I especially like the Etherton Gallery, specializing in contemporary fine-art photography), and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. The Center was co-founded by Ansel Adams, the most famous modern photographer of the American West, and holds an important archive of his work. You can learn more about these organizations and many others at the website of the Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.visittucson.org).
The Bureau website furthermore details the festivals and other events held in Tucson throughout the year. There is, for example, the Tucson Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase in late January and early February, the largest exposition of its kind in the world. There is an annual rodeo, in late February, followed in early March by the Tucson Festival of Books at the University of Arizona; it is reputedly the third-largest annual literary event in the nation.
Likewise in March (and again in December) is the Fourth Avenue Street Fair, to which bands, street performers, and hundreds of vendors of arts and crafts attract throngs for three days running. October brings Tucson Meet Yourself, a two-day happening that is styled a "folklife festival," but which in the main consists of booths vending food consumed by the city's different ethnic groups. And on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, El Tour de Tucson takes place. Last year this bicycle rally lured 9,000 participants from all over Arizona and states as far away as Washington and Florida onto Tucson's city streets and suburban roads in timed and staged rides from one to 100 miles long.
The gathering that draws me most often and always moves me is the quintessential Tucson celebration that is the Día de los Muertos. On this “Day of the Dead” in early November, people parade through downtown after twilight in an All Souls Procession in remembrance of loved ones passed on. Many marchers and spectators - up to 40,000 people in recent years - reverently carry photos of their deceased relatives and wear makeup that transmutes their faces into spectral skulls, and costumes that transform them into ghoulish apparitions and netherworld demons. Drum corps, samba dancers, mariachis, and bagpipers puffing mournful tunes mingle with other participants hoisting wraith-like oversize papier-mâché puppets on poles and pulling small homemade floats with flower-bedecked altars and candle-lit shrines honoring the departed. Macabre? No. Rather call it humane: the crowd is fused in solidarity by shared loss and deathless, tender memory, lending this event an ineffable intimacy despite the massive turnout, and elevating it above all other civic occasions in Tucson as a window on the city's personality.
The region around Tucson is a mecca not only for nature lovers, but for astronomy buffs as well, with four major concentrations of observatories only a 60-minute to three-hour drive away.
Westward is Kitt Peak, where is perched the National Optical Astronomy Observatory with 24 optical, radio, and solar telescopes, more such equipment on one mountaintop than anywhere else in the world. To the south, outside Green Valley, is Mt. Hopkins and the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, which has unique instruments for gamma ray research, as well as more customary solar system and galactic astronomy. On Mt. Graham, near Safford to the east, is the second-largest joint optical telescope in the continental U.S., which uses two huge mirrors in an unusual binocular configuration. In the Santa Catalinas to the north is the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center, a premier asteroid-hunting complex operated by the University of Arizona. In Tucson itself, at the university, is a facility that casts, grinds, and polishes the world’s largest telescope mirrors, 17-ton behemoths 27.5 feet in diameter. You can tour all of these installations during the day, and join nighttime stargazing programs as well at Kitt Peak and the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center.
As you'd imagine, the natural setting of Tucson governs its climate. On this point, I have to gainsay the few reviewers who laud the weather here as paradisiacal. It can be so, but only from early December to mid-April; the rest of the year it is uncomfortably – even infernally – hot. (Re-read what I have written above about notable outdoor events in Tucson. Notice any held from April until October? LOL)
If you like more than the barest hint of seasonality in your year, you would be wise to think twice before moving to Tucson. Not for nothing did a local wag dub the city "The Baked Apple" as long ago as 1988. And in the nearly two decades that I have been here, the weather has been overheating earlier and earlier from year to year, the high temperatures have been rising more and more, and the maximums have been plateauing for longer and longer.
In 2017, for example, we reached 90 degrees on a daily basis by the third week in March, regularly surpassed 100 in late May, lingered above 110 daily in June (with a three-day stretch of 115, 116, and 115), and “cooled” back to 112 or so during monsoon rains from mid-July to late August. (Although now in its 13th consecutive year of drought - recently declared by the National Weather Service to be "extreme" - Tucson still receives an annual average of about 12 inches of rain, most of it in late summer thunderstorms and minor showers in late winter.) We were still topping 100 on Halloween, and on the day before Thanksgiving the high was 91. Last year was the 19th straight year of above-normal temperatures in Tucson and the hottest since record keeping began here in 1887.
January 2018 set another all-time record for warmth, and ornamental fruit trees began flowering at mid-month. The first 12 days of February saw maximums of 78 to 84 degrees. As I write, we have had an unusual two days of steady light rain, cooling things to the upper 50s, with a predicted return to the low 80s by the end of the first week in March. Thereafter we will be back on an inexorable climb to the insufferable: meteorologists expect that the average temperature this coming summer will surpass even the withering heat of last year.
I have lived in far northern climes and appreciate that no one likes to pass three, four, or even five months of the year confined to their house by winter snow and cold. But in Tucson – and naturally depending upon your personal tolerance for perspiring and your access to a pool – you will spend up to eight months shut up all day and well into the evening to escape the heat, and what you do not spend on gas or oil to warm a northern dwelling, you will spend and more on electricity to air condition your home here.
This is a good juncture at which to segue to housing in Tucson. Until recently, it could be justly said that housing costs were lower here than the national average and single-family and apartment homes and rental units were priced within the budget of many. Those days are rapidly passing, however.
The National Association of Home Builders reckons that 200,000 carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, and other craftspeople either changed occupations or departed Arizona during the Great Recession and that few have resumed their trades in the interval. This so seriously retarded residential construction around Tucson at the time and since that today demand for new housing here handily outstrips supply. Developments worth half a billion dollars are on the books, but a lingering deficit of skilled labor is slowing their construction, and until these communities come on line over the next 18 to 48 months, existing housing is set to fetch ever higher prices.
This of course has heartened owners who for years were underwater or nearly so on their investment. But it confronts newcomers with increasingly steep financial hurdles to buying a reasonably attractive home anywhere but in the suburbs. The limited inventory of homes for sale has pushed up prices in some areas of the city by more than 20 percent in the last year.
To give you an appreciation of what you might pay and where, I see listed today a tiny, two-bedroom adobe of tumble-down 1930s exterior in one of the seamier mid-town neighborhoods. The asking price? $213,000.
Or perhaps you wish a bungalow within four blocks of the Tucson Museum of Art in the very center of downtown. It is no bigger than the aforementioned adobe – only two bedrooms – and considerably older, dating from 1901. But as any realtor will tell you, location is all, and it will set you back $475,000.
These examples contributed to elevating the mid-February 2018 median listing price of homes in Tucson to $200,000, and to $229,900 in surrounding Pima County. With the cost of homeownership at such levels, rental units are feeling price pressures too, and desirable ones are in critically short supply. Citywide, rental apartment occupancy rates have reached 94 percent, an historic high.
Out-of-town investors purchased a significant portion of Tucson's rental home and apartment stock during the recession and continue their buying spree today. Lately they have been hiking rents by 10 percent to as much as 30 percent, often without making corresponding improvements to their properties. In regard to apartments, those that are still moderately priced date from the mid-70s to the mid-90s and are frequently badly in need of upgrades to their appliances, bathroom fixtures, roofing, pools, and clubhouses.
Because the portfolio of prospective new rental complexes is far smaller than that of single-family homes, renters who are not well-heeled are over a barrel. For the foreseeable future, they must pay whatever is demanded of them, no matter how dilapidated the apartments they have to select from and how little value they receive for their money.
As 2018 opened, market observers pegged the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Tucson at more than $800. That figure is skewed unrealistically and disproportionately low by the large fraction of units in such disrepair or in such dangerous neighborhoods that only the lowest rent can be asked for them, because people concerned for hygiene and their personal safety look askance at them. I was myself downsizing and in the hunt for new quarters at the turn of the year, and in a month-long quest I found that bare-bones studio units in the city's oldest buildings rent for $455 to $655.
At the lowest end of the rental spectrum, your Tucson apartment will not have a microwave, nor a dishwasher or a garbage disposal, nor a washer/dryer unit or a hook-up for one. It may be individually air conditioned, or perhaps your building may have only a rooftop unit that chills the air through evaporative cooling. Such a “swamp cooler” functions best when air temperatures and humidity are low. They are decidedly not so in Tucson’s monsoon season, from June 15 to September 15, rendering a swamp cooler almost completely ineffective during the muggiest and hottest months of the year.
(Incidentally, swamp coolers are found in many of the city's older rental homes, because landlords have deferred the expense of upgrading to modern but much costlier whole-house AC units. Rental rates for these homes are nonetheless set in part on the specious basis that they are “air conditioned.”)
Alternatively, you can opt for a brand-spanking new flat with every modern convenience. Currently, in midtown, such an apartment with one bedroom will cost you $1,300 a month. That is to be sure a pittance if you are relocating here from New York or Los Angeles, but it's not likely that your coastal salary will migrate with you, and you will not see it even remotely approximated in Tucson.
Since 2014, private developers have built several student housing towers on the edges of the University of Arizona campus, and more are under construction. By siphoning at least some students from the housing market at large, these high-rises have to a degree helped to hold the line on the general competition for rentals. But the furnished apartments in them command rents double those of market-rate units. Rooms rent individually in multi-bedroom floorplans, starting at $670 per month in one representative tower, and a one-bedroom layout escalates to as much as $1,730, depending upon chosen upgrades. Twelve rental payments are required, although the school term lasts only nine months, and garage parking is another $115 monthly, per space.
Even at its most economical, such housing demands an outlay exceeding 80 percent of an Arizona undergraduate's annual in-state tuition. These high tariffs only further encourage the rise in rental rates elsewhere in Tucson, as landlords see that people can be compelled to pay sums that not long ago would have been rejected as larcenous.
Weighing where to live naturally entails consideration not only of the cost of housing, but of the environment at curbside as well, and at the extremes, Tucson has elite gated communities of scenic grandeur and neighborhoods of oppressively ruinous decay.
With sufficient wealth, you can homestead in what local realtors call the "Luxury Region" on the far north side of the city and just beyond. There you can soak in the infinity-edge pool of an architect-designed and expertly landscaped multimillion-dollar home with panoramic views in the foothills of the Santa Catalinas, situated among golf courses, deluxe resorts, exclusive health spas, and celebrity rehab centers. Should you however have more moths than money in your pocket, you may – at a lower physical and social elevation closer to the heart of the city – molder in a demolition-ready cottage of wood, brick, or adobe, your horizons restricted to an unkempt yard overgrown with weeds and untrimmed shrubbery.
Much of western and central mid-town Tucson is blemished with extensive swaths of just such woeful homes. If you are truly hard-pressed, you can in these areas rent a three-bedroom house contaminated throughout by mold and with a rotting and leaky roof for as little as $800 per month.
Intermixed with Tucson's permanent housing are mobile home parks, of which there are a staggering 170 within the city limits. The trailers in some parks are tidy; in most they are shabby; in a significant minority they are squalid.
The reassuring news is that middling neighborhoods are of course in the majority In Tucson. Although more worn and weary than the finest, they are better maintained than the bleakest. In their bounds, housing styles such as Craftsman Bungalow, Mid-Century Modern, and Spanish Colonial, Mission, Mediterranean, and Pueblo Revival predominate.
Concealed here and there in these unassuming districts are surprises: tiny clusters of homes of the freshest stylistic vintage - sheathed in naturally rusted corrugated metal panels, with daringly canted roofs, and patios shaded by colorful fabric mesh artfully stretched in swooping arcs. These pockets of contemporary urban cool seldom cover so much as half a block and are screened from their surroundings by high walls of adobe or cinder block. Only the most diligent exploration on foot reveals them.
Downtown, there is a recently multiplying sprinkling of trendy loft-type apartment buildings in a small but animated arts and entertainment district. Several neighborhoods in the vicinity of the University of Arizona just north of downtown are coveted for the reduced property taxes they are assessed as historic districts dating to the 1920s or earlier.
And on the near south side of downtown there still stand a few blocks of picturesque original, thick-walled adobe row houses. This is the Barrio Histórico or Barrio Viejo, the old core of Hispanic Tucson that was almost entirely bulldozed during urban renewal campaigns in the 1960s, "progress" that is now widely lamented. The area numbered Chinese and African-American as well as Hispanic residents, and the remnants of their neighborhood have been largely gentrified and reconstituted as costly professional offices and chic town houses. How chic? Actress Diane Keaton recently purchased one for $1.5 million.
Many displaced former owners of the Barrio Histórico migrated to South Tucson, a 1.2 square-mile, independently incorporated municipality fully surrounded by Tucson proper. It is a federally designated "colonia," a community within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border with such substandard, unsafe, and unsanitary housing that it qualifies for federal block grants. Of its approximately 5,700 inhabitants, 51 percent live below the federal poverty line.
For those with a taste for communal living, Tucson has three self-organizing co-housing communities. These combine town homes and condos with a common kitchen, a collective garden, and other shared facilities used on a closely collaborative basis. I live a five-minute walk from one, and find it quiet, attractive, and environmentally sensitive, with a pleasingly multi-generational mix of residents. Altogether, however, this trio of communes has only 112 units, which seldom become available and only rarely are publicly posted for sale or rent; rather, they are advertised by word of mouth, to the friends of current residents. In effect, admission to these enclaves of tight-knit mutual association is by invitation only.
Insofar as Tucson's suburbs are concerned, the newer ones consist chiefly of mass-produced tract homes of no distinctive design, sited cheek-by-jowl. Wood framed and with exteriors of stuccoed plywood, they are all in earth tones and tile-roofed. This sea of sameness laps at older subdivisions with roomier lots, undisturbed original desert vegetation, and homes of brick, block, or adobe, whose architecture runs the gamut from Ranch to Post-war Mission, Territorial, and Pueblo. Many have faux log beams called vigas projecting from the roof line, à la Mexican haciendas or Indian pueblo dwellings.
One element that unites these disparate residential sectors is the often abysmal quality of their streets. The Tucson Department of Transportation classifies 80 percent of the city’s residential streets and arterial roadways as in “poor” or “failed” condition. Generally that means that they are badly cracked or crumbling, and not a few are veritable mazes of pot holes of bone-jarring depth and diameter.
To be just, some boulevards remain in fairly good shape, benefiting from timely resealing, and there are currently several major widening projects underway, as well as other transportation improvements, such as installation of traffic signals and construction of sidewalks and bus pullouts. Nonetheless, regular upkeep of Tucson’s streets and byways has been neglected for decades, and many are now so far gone that they cannot be repaired at reasonable expense, but must be replaced entirely.
In May 2017 Tucson voters approved a bond issue to raise $20 million per year for five years to fund remedial roadwork. But that amounts to only $100 million in total, and transportation authorities say that $650 million is needed to upgrade residential streets alone. Throw in the roadways in surrounding Pima County that likewise desperately need reconditioning, and the bill ascends to $1 billion. Thus for years to come stopgap patches that themselves quickly deteriorate will have to continue to suffice to keep traffic moving. Meanwhile, no attention whatsoever can be given to restoring the disintegrating back alleyways in Tucson's central neighborhoods, the pavement of which has everywhere decayed almost to dirt, literally laying bare the derelict underside of the city's core.
Tucson lacks the inner city expressways that lace Phoenix. They have always been resisted by a populace that in unseemly reverse snobbery almost reflexively snipes at anything remotely connected with its more prosperous, sophisticated, and incontestably better-paved neighbor to the north. Imitating Phoenix with freeways is in particular feared as something that would denature Tucson - exposing its healthy body to a malignant neoplasm, as it were.
This anxiety has roots in a strong strain of local chauvinism, whose most ardent exponents romanticize the city as the "Old Pueblo,” where the small-town charm and slower pace of yesteryear are claimed to somehow still persist. But that horse bolted the barn long ago, leaving behind only the buggy whip of nostalgia and the carriage of incomprehension. Tucson is now the 32nd-largest city in the U.S. and a full-fledged metropolitan conglomeration of 1,026,000 people, and paralleling it to the west is Interstate 10, eight lanes wide in places, which helps speed north-south traffic on the city's periphery, except at the height of the morning and evening rush hour.
There is no cross-town thoroughfare of equal dimensions. This means that traversing the full extent of the city's east-west span on surface streets can take as little as an hour and as much as 90 minutes. Traffic lights are nowhere synchronized, and for the most part you cannot get through more than one at a time before being stopped by the next. This unnecessarily increases drive times no matter in what direction you travel. Adding to the delay is thick traffic: Tucson ranks as the 21st worst congested city in the U.S.. All of which makes motoring through town an always stop-and-go and often excruciatingly tedious chore.
While on the subject of transportation, I must mention Tucson drivers, and oh, what a breed they are! Many of them have the unnerving habit of beginning a turn at a prudent speed, but slowing almost to a stop in mid-turn, as if in fear of rolling their car, before speeding up again. Nearly everyone accelerates to sail through yellow lights. In 2015, participating voters balloted two-to-one to remove red light cameras, and many people consider red lights only cautionary. In contradistinction to that behavior, however, uncommon numbers travel below the the posted speed limit between lights. Some drive so slowly that they appear to have nowhere in particular that they need to go and all day to get there. If you have a low tolerance for frustrating traffic, avoid Tucson.
It is also common for other drivers to pull out in front of you from a side street or a shopping plaza parking lot at the last second, rather than earlier, when there is a greater margin of safety. The use of turn signals is, fittingly enough, intermittent. Many drivers are seemingly firm in the belief that they would unduly alarm other motorists if they were to forecast their intention to abruptly veer from one lane to another or to slam on the brakes to turn a corner. And not infrequently, someone will indeed swerve across your path without signaling to turn left from the far right lane, as much as three lanes over. The best advice I can offer is to be unfailingly vigilant and to give other Tucson drivers (many of them uninsured) as wide a berth as possible.
That goes double for avoiding pedestrians. As harsh as it may sound, I find those in Tucson dumbfoundingly thick-headed. Scarcely a week passes but it brings news that another pedestrian has been struck and killed – or even three of them within 24 hours, as happened the day before I sat down to begin this review. Tucsonans habitually cross between lights and against traffic, even when they are as little as 10 feet from the safety of a crosswalk and a pedestrian-activated signal. They likewise routinely scamper across dimly-lighted streets after nightfall while dressed in dark clothes, and without carrying a flashlight. (As an aside, most residential streets in Tucson and its suburbs and many boulevards as well are unilluminated.) News accounts of pedestrian fatalities almost invariably mention that the drivers involved were not speeding, nor using their cell phones, nor impaired by alcohol or drugs, nor otherwise infringing traffic regulations. The kamikaze pedestrian is almost universally at fault.
In fairness, pedestrians elsewhere in the state seem to value their lives no more highly than those in Tucson, as the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety reveals: in 2017 Arizona had the highest rate of pedestrian deaths in the country, relative to population size. Locally, Tucson police this month launched a crackdown on jaywalkers, with $100 fines awaiting ticketed offenders.
Regarding more serious lawbreaking . . . .
Year after year, state and federal statisticians rank Tucson as the most unsafe urban area in Arizona, and by a wide margin. This always scandalizes the chief of police du jour, as well as the city manager and the seven-member city council (on which the mayor serves ex officio), and they all rush to each other’s defense and profess that things are improving. But the results are just as dismal the following year, and there is a glaring disconnect between how municipal leaders assess crime levels in the city and what residents experience on the street. As an instance, in 2017 the current mayor had his city-provided car hijacked from him at gunpoint in front of his home. His only public comment on the matter was to the effect that, because he wasn’t shot, crime in Tucson was not out of hand.
The mayor and the other sitting members of the city council save one are hardy perennials. The newcomer debuted last year, but there are no term limits, and one member has held office since 1995, another since 2007, two since 2009, one more since 2010, and the mayor since 2011. During their lengthy tenures these officials have presided over remarkable stability in extremely high local rates of property and violent crime. Annually over the past decade these have exceeded the national average by more than 100 percent. In seeking future renewal in office, Tucson’s governors have a ready-made platform on which to campaign: namely, that insofar as brisk criminal activity is concerned, their record in keeping a steady hand on the tiller is impeccable.
Property crime (burglary, larceny, theft, motor vehicle theft, arson, shoplifting, and vandalism) has long and greatly plagued all parts of the city, including the toniest neighborhoods. More than 32,000 property crimes were logged here in 2017, including over 2,000 car thefts - the mayor was not alone - and Tucson has the second-highest rate of property crime of any sizeable city in the southwestern U.S., trailing only Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Theft of car parts and accessories, bikes, laptops, mobile phones, power tools, patio furniture, and office, gardening, and sports equipment is routine. Rather more audacious was the dismantling last year at a business that I frequent of all of the establishment’s exterior security cameras. Ironically, the filched surveillance equipment had been installed because the business had earlier so often been victimized by - you guessed it - property crime.
No doubt the cameras made their way to a pawnshop, of which the city has large numbers. By law, Tucson pawnbrokers must electronically report all transactions to the police, so that suspicious pawn activities and patterns can be detected. But because of reporting delays and because citizen declarations of theft are not cross-checked with pawn records in real time, "felony pawners" can elude arrest for a good while as they repeatedly convert stolen goods into legal property.
Police officials attribute shoplifting and other opportunistic theft in large measure to the homeless, and ascribe most premeditated burglary to drug addicts. The homeless are attracted in profusion by the climate, in which they can sleep out of doors for much of the year, by lax enforcement of anti-vagrancy laws, and by churches and private agencies that provide them free meals, haircuts, and even dental care, in addition to sun hats, chilled bottled water, and "cooling rooms" in summer. Drug abusers for their part steal to finance their addictions.
Violent crime is usually laid at the door of gangs, which primarily operate in overwhelmingly (85 percent) Hispanic South Tucson. Less than 75 miles from Mexico, Tucson is a major clandestine transshipment point for the distribution of drugs smuggled across the border, and that brings with it sporadic drug and gang-related killings. No section of the city is immune to violent crime, however, and Tucson as a whole has the highest per capita rate of murders, manslaughter, rapes, armed robberies, and aggravated assaults in Arizona. It consistently maintains this unenviable leadership year in and year out, even as the number of violent crimes sometimes dips in absolute terms, depending upon the year examined.
The Tucson Police Department unceasingly urges residents to notify it of all crimes through an on-line reporting system. The data is compiled into maps of crime by type, location, and frequency, so that “hot spots” can be monitored. A “crime analyst” position is open on the police force at this moment precisely to study such phenomena, research intended to facilitate the temporary flooding of high-crime zones by extra patrols.
Unfortunately, and as the police union points out, although the department is authorized to employ 992 sworn officers, in third-quarter 2017 it had but 813, and because some were sick, on vacation, or assigned to desk duty or other tasks, only 314 were available to respond to calls in a jurisdiction encompassing almost 240 square miles and 550,000 people. Thus far in 2018, commissioned personnel staffing has dropped even further, to below 800.
Approval has been gained recently to hire another 100 experienced officers, but not until 2019. In the interim, pay boosts are under discussion to stem the departure of the force's current veterans to other cities. (In 2017, the salary of all officers averaged $50,060; 142 earned more than $100,000 in 2016, receiving special pay for overtime, vehicle allowances, sick-leave buybacks, and other considerations.) Money for raises would be found by hiring fewer raw recruits, thereby saving on their year-long training, which costs about $100,000 per officer.
As things now stand, the chronically shorthanded department is on the horns of a dilemma: when it deploys special task forces against concentrated outbreaks of car theft, convenience store holdups, or gang-related or other violence, there are that many fewer officers and detectives on hand to conduct routine community policing and to investigate lesser but still grave crimes.
In point of fact, officers are told to "prioritize" their response to emergency citizen calls. Acting on an episode of domestic violence in progress that poses the risk of immediate physical harm to the victim takes precedence over answering a simultaneous plea to repel a home invasion by an unarmed burglar, for example, and the latter crime may not be investigated until two days or more after it has occurred.
Such tardiness is the subject of common complaint among Tucsonans, and because it allows a criminal's trail to grow cold and lowers the likelihood that a malefactor will be caught, many people feel it is a waste of time to alert the police when they have been victimized. Thus there is good reason to believe that the incidence of crime in Tucson is even greater than statistics suggest.
I do not know if my own crime encounters are typical of Tucsonans at large; only a citywide survey could confirm or disprove it. But in my years here – and while living in some of the safest neighborhoods – I have experienced eight burglaries or thefts, six acts of vandalism, and three aggravated assaults. The most recent assault occurred on a morning following New Year’s Eve celebrations, when two still-drunken teenagers pursued me along a sidewalk in their car and rode me down, hurling beer bottles at me for good measure as they raced off.
Fortunately I was not so badly injured that I could not immediately phone the police. When they arrived and after I had described my assailants and their vehicle in detail, one officer said they could do nothing to find or prosecute them because, “we have bigger fish to fry than chasing after petty criminals we can't catch.” And indeed, I never heard more from the police about the incident.
I have always wondered if my attackers went on to hunt other people later that morning, while the police were telling me they were powerless to act. Most crimes in all cities go unpunished. But Tucsonans in particular may legitimately doubt whether, if they report any but the most heinous crime, a prompt and serious effort can be made to identify and arrest the offender.
Local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are not required to report crimes in their jurisdictions to the FBI, nor the numbers of crimes that they solve, the so-called "clearance rate." The preliminary semi-annual FBI Uniform Crime Report for January-June 2017 (the full-year report will not be available until later in 2018) provides no data on crimes committed or solved in Tucson, nor does the 2016 annual record; presumably no information was submitted.
The Tucson Police Department does not make its clearance rate public locally, either, but figures were reported to the FBI in 2013 and several prior years. They show that, excepting homicide, the department solved less than one half - and in most crime categories, less than one third - as many cases as the national average.
In the absence of contrary data, there is no cause to think that this pattern does not still prevail, and the explanation for it may lie in several factors. That the police force is understrength is surely one. The constant extra workload for officers that this implies and its likely demotivating effect may be another. Also contributing may be insufficient public education to encourage people to place ownership information on their property so that it can be more easily traced if stolen, and to closely observe the criminals who accost them, enabling the victims of violent crime to provide solid descriptive leads for the police to pursue. All I can say for certain is that of my 17 cases, only one was cleared – because I caught and held the offender until the police arrived.
Tucson’s population is 45 percent non-Hispanic white and 42 percent Hispanic (almost entirely from Mexico and Central America), with the remainder distributed across African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders. Bedeviled as they all may be by crime, the greater threat to the peace of mind of most is economic insecurity.
Poverty in Tucson is deep and endemic. Today, nearly 28 percent of its people live below the federal poverty threshold of $24,858 in annual income for a family of four. (This overall rate excludes the 51 percent living in poverty in South Tucson, cited earlier.) That is higher than in Phoenix and well above the average for U.S. cities of similar size. Even allowing for the ultra-affluent in the north-side foothills, median personal income in Tucson perennially lags all other areas of the state except the chronically depressed Navajo Nation in Arizona’s northeast and the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona.
Tucson is precariously undiversified in large employers and markedly cyclical in its business activity. This has left it to always play second fiddle economically to Phoenix. It is true that Tucson reaps several billions a year in tourism dollars. But revenues from industry, trade, and commerce are much scantier, and there is only one major manufacturer (Raytheon Missile Systems) in the area.
The leading Tucson employers are: state, county, and city government, with 19,500 employees; the University of Arizona (15,000); private, non-profit, and university hospitals and medical centers (12,800); Raytheon (10,700); school districts (10,500); Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (9,000); and Walmart (7,500). Only top university administrators, coaches, and tenured professors obtain handsome incomes, as do some Raytheon managers and engineers and a few governmental executives and employees. Some smaller number yet of hospital executives and doctors and nurses also earn well.
Together, these organizations employ some 85,000 people. The great majority of the other 375,000 people also reported to be employed in Tucson and Pima County in January 2018 work for minimum wages and meager or no benefits in bottom-rung hospitality, food service, retail, call center, construction, and landscaping jobs and in relatively low-paying service occupations such as bank clerking, bookkeeping and tax preparation, dry cleaning, hair styling, pool maintenance, house cleaning, pet grooming, cable TV installation, pest control, and management of rental properties and storage units. Well-paid skilled tradespeople are not numerous, as anyone in Tucson who has tried to get a balky garage door, plumbing leak, or broken air conditioner repaired on short notice will testify.
Meanwhile, public school teachers in Tucson are notoriously underpaid, as they are everywhere in Arizona. Adjusted for the local cost of living, federal figures show elementary teachers in Arizona rank 50th in earnings nationally and high school teachers 49th; with reason, 46 percent of new teachers leave the classroom in three years. Arizona started the current school year with 1,300 vacancies, and in the first month thereafter 500 more teachers left the profession or the state. Adding insult to injury, Tucson teachers and their colleagues in other cities must also pay for some portion of classroom supplies out of their own pocket.
What earnings you can expect if you take any particular employment here is something of an imponderable, depending as it does upon the availability of and the demand for qualified labor in your field, upon your professional, trade, or job skills, upon your education and work experience, and yes, upon your age, gender, and ethnicity, although the latter factors are not legally permitted to weigh in the balance. But what can in some measure be determined beforehand is how much income you will require to meet the basic needs of a working family in Tucson.
The latest data concerning this that I know to refer you to is in The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Arizona 2012, published by the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona. While not now current, its figures for a variety of family sizes in all Arizona counties can serve as a starting point for your own calculations in today’s circumstances. (You can find the report at www.womengiving.org and www.selfsufficiencystandard.org.)
Consulting the report for Tucson and Pima County in 2012, we see that two adults both employed 40 hours per week and with one preschooler and one school-age child needed $53,928 in annual income to cover the family's most elementary expenses.
These expenses were for: rent and utilities; full-time day care for the preschooler and before- and after-school minding for the older child; home-cooked meals; a car and its gas, upkeep, and insurance, or fare for public transportation (if available) to and from work and for one weekly shopping trip; employer-sponsored health insurance (if provided) and out-of-pocket medical costs; federal and state income tax, payroll taxes, and state and local sales taxes; and miscellaneous items such as clothing, shoes, diapers, paper and cleaning products, household and personal items, and a landline telephone.
Excluded were: after-school programs and extracurricular programs for teenagers; babysitting outside the parents’ hours of work; cable TV, Internet, and cell phone service; take-out, fast-food, and restaurant meals and drinks; non-essential travel, such as for vacation; savings for emergencies and discretionary purchases; health savings accounts, gym memberships, and individual health insurance; and all recreation, repayment of credit card, bank, and student loan debt, gifts, pets, and education or training for any purpose.
This makes for an extremely austere life on a treadmill without relief. You sleep, eat, work, and little else, in a never-ending round and with no prospect of material improvement in your situation, short of begging money for an Arizona state lottery ticket and miraculously hitting the jackpot. In 2012, if you and your spouse earned less than the minimum of $53,928 needed to support yourselves and your two children by working one job apiece, you either worked additional jobs or further culled your budget. Or you relied upon the generosity of friends and relatives or sought public assistance to cover the shortfall. In 2018, many Tucsonans do all these things to make ends meet.
At the end of January 2018, unemployment in Tucson stood at 4.7 percent. That is up 0.7 percent from October 2017, but down from much higher levels in the depths of the Great Recession. It is not, however, as low as elsewhere in Arizona nor as low as the national average. In fact, as the rest of Arizona's larger cities and towns belatedly began to recover from their recessionary swoon and gained jobs in 2016-2017, state economic researchers reported that Tucson lost 3,400 positions. They have latterly reversed themselves, however, saying that revised figures to be released in March 2018 will show that Tucson employment actually rose over the period, by 4,500 jobs.
The discrepancy between -3,400 and +4,500 should alert you to the murkiness about true levels of job loss and creation in Tucson. One is almost forced to fall back on anecdote for a sense of what may be really happening. So here are two items: It was recently front-page news that Home Depot, with five stores in the metro area, plans to hire 500 temporary, part-time employees to handle increased spring customer traffic in its garden department. On the other hand, one of the few manufacturers of any size besides Raytheon – aviation systems maker Rockwell-Collins – has announced that it will close its Tucson plant later in 2018 and eliminate 400 positions, dozens of which pay $78,000 to $128,000 annually.
As between the temporary gain of part-time positions at Home Depot and the permanent loss of high-paying slots at Rockwell-Collins, the judgment of a local newspaper columnist that job growth in Tucson is currently “ok” may strike you as comforting – or wobbly. I tend toward the latter view, inasmuch as the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity predicts that employment in Tucson and Pima County will rise at a pace less than two-thirds of the statewide average between now and 2020, with the addition of only 13,000 new jobs. The largest number of these are expected to open in construction, and thus will be subject as always to vanishing overnight when the boom-and-bust cycle typical of the building industry in Tucson and Arizona corkscrews into its next nosedive.
Two more mundane, but nonetheless graphic, anecdotal indicators of the area’s overall low levels of personal income and economic vibrancy are that pay-day loan companies and auto title lenders are numerous beyond counting, and used-tire shops are faced with such financially straitened customers that they must resort to offering to rent them tires and rims by the week, day, or even as little as the hour.
The anemia of the local economy apart from tourism is further underscored by the telling fact that few graduates of the University of Arizona (with 43,000 students this semester) remain in Tucson to pursue careers. Then there is the matter of Tucson's high number of shuttered businesses, large and small. Emblematic of this, the city has three indoor shopping malls, but at the northernmost (Foothills Mall), 60 percent of the stores stand empty. That is all the more surprising as this mall is in the most prosperous zip code of the three. Dishearteningly, it can take one, two, three or even more years for new tenants to replace defunct businesses, wherever they expire. In the interval, the vacant premises all too often deteriorate into lasting eyesores.
Sotto voce, owners of everyday enterprises that are the backbone of Tucson's economy frequently accuse elected and appointed officials of adopting an anti-business attitude toward them, while trying to lure to town nationally known out-of-state companies with tax relief and other preferment not accorded local firms.
In the most notable recent example of this disparity, Tucson’s prime governmental mover in downtown development – a “Multipurpose Facilities District” called Rio Nuevo – last year extended generous incentives to heavy equipment maker Caterpillar Inc. In return for a $43-million loan package repayable over 25 years that calls for Rio Nuevo to build and lease to Caterpillar a regional hub for its Surface Mining & Technology Division, the corporation pledged to transfer to Tucson or to create over the next five years 600 engineering, product development, and support positions. The deal also includes an eight-year property tax abatement, and a reported $4 million in state relocation aid.
While the successful wooing of Caterpillar is a coup, it lends weight to the argument of some that outsiders can all too easily turn Tucson's head as the city fails to nurture its own. Further evidence of a bias against organic growth is seen in the substantial number of lots in Tucson that are unbuilt or forsaken – neither for sale or lease – and which dot all areas of the city and depress the value of surrounding properties. Many of these plots are 50,000 square feet (a little over an acre) in size, or even several times larger. Infill residential development seems ideal for these spaces and the current shortage of rental housing may spur interest in it, but inducements such as waivers of performance guarantees and relaxation of permitting and planning requirements to promote such projects are reserved almost exclusively to ventures in the downtown area. The city simply leapfrogs over other zones, pursuing instead the expansion of its boundaries to the east to annex adjacent and already-existing taxable businesses, residential properties, and semi-rural landholdings.
The driving force behind the thirst for annexation is that a portion of certain taxes paid by residents to the state of Arizona, such as state income tax and state sales tax, are given back to local cities to pay for services such as police, fire, parks and recreation, and transportation. These payments are calculated based on population within each city. Hence the greater the population of Tucson, the more of these funds it captures.
This unfortunately has unleashed unmitigated sprawl, and combined with laissez-faire zoning, it encourages crazy quilt property use in Tucson and neighboring jurisdictions. Typifying this is a representative district in which a golf course abuts a gravel pit and a motel, a mobile home park neighbors half-million-dollar horse properties, and an elementary school borders a strip mall containing a storefront church, a dentist's office, a dog grooming parlor, a breakfast cafe, and an installation of baseball batting cages.
On a somewhat brighter note, consider the food scene here. In 2015 UNESCO declared Tucson the only “World City of Gastronomy” in the U.S. This accolade set tourism boosters beaming, and was awarded in part because the city’s cookery is ostensibly extraordinarily wide-ranging in origin and breadth.
In actuality, and to the degree that food here is diverse at all, it is because of Tucson's proximity to northern Mexico, with its tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, quesadillas, burritos, chimichangas, and stuffed green chilies. And lest we forget, there is also the locally celebrated “Sonoran hot dog.” Served on a bun, the latter is an ordinary hot dog, but smothered with pinto beans and roasted chilies and onions, and topped with chopped tomato and a lavish slathering of mayo and various condiments. It is incredibly messy but fun to eat, at least the first time you try it.
As tasty as the aforementioned food is, it can grow monotonous. With the conspicuous exceptions of pan-Latin American Contigo at the Westin La Paloma Resort in the foothills and stylish Cafe Poca Cosa in the heart of downtown, you'll seek in vain for other and more flavorful Mexican regional fare, such as red snapper baked in a salsa of tomatoes, onions, and peppers as in Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico, slow-roasted pork based on Yucatán's heritage of Mayan cookery, Tampico's spicy club-style steak, or mole sauces from Oaxaca.
As far as French food goes, the city supports only one bistro and one haute cuisine restaurant with white linen. There are numerous Japanese restaurants, but none hew to authenticity enough to refrain from adulterating their sushi rolls with jalapeño peppers. There is not a single German restaurant, and eastern European food is found at only one Bosnian cafe and another with a salmagundi of Hungarian goulash, Polish sausage, and Russian pierogi.
Pizza and spaghetti are available everywhere, but while there are several posh Italian establishments, the polenta soup, fondue, hard sausages, and other cucina typical of northern Italy are unknown in Tucson. Of China’s eight major culinary traditions, Szechuan cuisine can be had at but one restaurant and cafe. On the other hand, Cantonese dishes abound, in Americanized buffets at which quantity reigns over quality. Operating on the same principle is a smattering of Vietnamese, Thai, and Indian eateries.
There are but two Greek restaurants, and only one each represents Korea, Peru, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Tucson's sole Spanish restaurant has been closed for the past 10 months, as its owners have struggled to win city approval of architectural changes and construction permits for needed renovations. In an example of the anti-business stance that small and middling local entrepreneurs say they encounter in dealing with Tucson officialdom, mentioned earlier in this review, the proprietors now say that the approvals will be further delayed, until early summer of this year.
Levantine and other Middle Eastern food is limited to clichéd hummus, falafel, gyros, shawarma, feta burgers, and kebabs. Of North African fare, the genuine article is absent. Nowhere will you find Persian, Scandinavian, or Indonesian food. And a much-heralded restaurant proffering the fry bread of southern Arizona tribes and such re-imagined Native American dishes as prickly pear glazed spare ribs opened and closed the very year that our city was singled out for distinction by the gourmands of UNESCO. In truth, culinary cosmopolitanism in Tucson is more apparent than real.
For steak, there are swank Fleming’s, Sullivan's, and Bob's Steak and Chop House, all in the gilded foothills and noted as much for their hauteur and lofty dinner tabs as for their gourmet cuts. Without high-falutin' airs are four cowboy steakhouses: Cody's Beef 'n Beans, Li'l Abner’s, El Corral, and Pinnacle Peak. The last-named is at Traildust Town, an Old West attraction for tenderfoot tourists.
Also beckoning are the outposts of a locally founded restaurant empire that is spreading across Arizona, into neighboring states, and as distant as Georgia and Maryland, headed by restaurateur Sam Fox. His “concepts” include North Italia, Blanco Tacos + Tequila, Zinburger, Wildflower, and Culinary Dropout. The food ranges from southern Italian at North and "reinterpreted" Mexican at Blanco, to gourmet burgers at Zinburger and “new American" fare elsewhere.
Small drive-thru Mexican restaurants sell indifferent fish tacos, ceviche, and shrimp baskets made from previously frozen product. Oddly, although Tucson is only a 75-minute flight from the Pacific coast and an eight- to 10-hour drive by refrigerated truck from San Diego and Los Angeles, the city has only a single restaurant that highlights fresh fish and shellfish, prepared in a discriminating fashion: Kingfisher, which for 24 years has had wild salmon and trout, cod cakes, calamari, scallops, clams, and mussels on its menu, and which operates an oyster bar. It is also one of but two restaurants in the entire city open until midnight.
Thus far a sampling of independent restaurants - hugely outnumbered, of course, by fast-food, casual, and “fast casual” chains. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panda Express, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Applebee's, IHOP, and every other mass-market canteen that you can name is here, catering to the vast majority of Tucsonans who prefer their food served quickly, cheaply, and in quantities often exceeding healthful.
Speaking of health, this is the moment to address the physical well-being of Tucsonans. Many people walk, hike, run, cycle, and work out on a regular basis, and the city is chock-a-block with gyms and health clubs. These activities and establishments keep a fair number of folk slim, trim, and fit – but most Tucsonans are not. Admittedly, in a 2017 survey 80 percent said they considered themselves to be of a healthy weight. But self-delusion to the contrary, one does not need a degree in public health to see immediately that the average resident, young or old and of whatever ethnicity, is full-bellied. Few people stride – many more waddle – and the frequency of morbid obesity is visibly and alarmingly high.
One also soon notices a striking number of men of employable age wandering the streets of certain commercial sections of midtown at working hours. I say “wandering” and not “walking” because these unfortunates can only shuffle, limp, and shamble, stoop-shouldered and with heads bowed. Not panhandlers, they often appear doleful and distracted; the impression they give is that they are in pain, or perhaps disoriented by medication. Clearly they are suffering. Other people of an age to be in robust health appear everywhere on crutches, in wheelchairs and scooters, hobbling with canes, and clinging to walkers. Diabetic amputees are not at all rare.
Since I arrived in Tucson in 2000, its citizenry has grayed noticeably and grown manifestly more infirm. From 2010 to 2015 alone, adults over 65 in the city and Pima County increased by 21 percent, and everywhere to be seen now is an astoundingly large number of the “late elderly” – people older than 75. An even more aged population segment is also rapidly growing here, as part of a statewide trend: the Arizona Department of Health Services forecasts that by 2020, the number of Arizonans over age 85 (the "oldest old") will have increased by 102 percent in less than a decade. Tucson's share will have risen in part simply because people are living longer, but as well because more and more already quite senior retirees are moving here.
I am 66 myself and have white hair, but I am fortunately in good health, hold myself erect, and still move about with purpose and a firm step. Yet when I attend a symphony concert, go to a movie not intended for children, browse a bookstore, shop at a supermarket, visit a museum, or sit in a restaurant, I am surrounded by frail greybeards considerably older than I. Particularly when Tucson is flooded with geriatric snowbirds, it can seem as if everyone is depressingly enfeebled and far advanced in physical decrepitude.
Should you wonder, I harbor no animus toward retirees or the elderly. That would be callous, and absurd in my case especially, as I am so much nearer my demise than my birth. My four closest friends are respectively aged 78, 79, 82, and 84. Nor do I think it a moral failing for anyone young or old to be ill or debilitated; two of my friends battle cancer, and they are not beset with it because they are bad people. And as the days of our age mount, all of us wish for more youthful vigor in our city, as an indispensable element in promoting the common good.
Although most apparent when the influx of the silver-haired is at its winter peak, throughout the year there is little mixing of young and old in Tucson. Notwithstanding the intermingling at certain citywide celebrations and at the university's football and basketball games, there prevails a perturbing sense of a divided community, as self-segregation by age promotes an isolating and mutual remoteness. Young singles generally keep to the university precincts and a few downtown clubs, bars, and musical venues; young families are seen almost solely in the suburbs. Retirees, too, overwhelmingly prefer their own company.
A closer look shows that Tucson’s retirees are not a monolithic tribe, however. There are fracture lines among them. The majority have moved to the area from out of state, and a growing share live in suburban age-restricted communities and luxury second homes, forming a parallel population that forges no meaningful civic connection to the city. Native-born retirees - generally still in-city residents and frequently much poorer than their peers from other parts - complain of the newcomers and in particular of the snowbirds among them that they are "resident tourists," who show no solidarity with life-long and year-around Tucsonans and make no personal investment in resolving the city's pressing negative quality-of-life issues, from which they feel themselves at a remove. And indeed, perhaps because they are free of the need to struggle in the local housing and job markets and are insulated in other ways against Tucson's rougher edges by their greater wealth and can return north at will to escape the region's most torrid months, snowbird retirees are precisely the people most likely to declare that life in Tucson is congenial and the city is charming.
Given all the limitations of Tucson that I have so far mentioned, you would think that there is fertile ground here for a crusading newspaper, magazine, or broadcaster to hammer away at the urgent need to revivify the city and remedy its shortcomings by building on its positive possibilities. Alas, we lack such a champion among our local media.
In the field of print, Tucson supported two daily newspapers until 2009. Now it has only the Arizona Daily Star. While not yet approaching the point of disappearance too, it has been shrinking in staff and content at an accelerating pace in recent years.
It is not unknown for the Star to run to as few as 22 pages on a weekday, even including advertising and the sports section. Shortly before Thanksgiving 2017, and in an incongruously self-congratulatory tone, the paper's publisher directly addressed readers with the admonition not to miss the imminent appearance of the fattest issue of the year - not suddenly thick with bonus reportage, but with Black Friday ads.
As the Star has lost heft, its audited circulation has progressively slumped. The broadsheet printed 96,682 copies daily in 2012, but in 2017 the count was down to 49,915 – a drop of 52 percent. In the same period, the Sunday press run fell 65 percent.
Most days the Star no longer publishes an editorial, and it has ceased almost entirely to produce its own regular standing features, such as automotive, financial, food, health, and personal advice columns, syndicating them instead from other sources. The dearth of original material extends to local news also: a recent weekday print edition carried only three staff-written stories not about sports.
The Star similarly mines the Associated Press for all its national and international reporting. There is nothing unusual in that. But this domestic and world news is often published laggardly, sometimes as much as three days after it first appears on the AP wire. The news consumer seeking timely information will simply visit APnews.com and read the stories while they are fresh, and for free.
Accompanying the circulation decline have been repeated layoffs in all the Star's departments, from production to advertising. The newsroom has not been exempt, and the ranks of copy editors, photographers, graphic designers, editors, and reporters have all been thinned in turn. As a rule, the survivors are not replaced as they age and retire.
The paper has shed its feature writers and now has no book reviewer, nor anyone assigned to the science and technology beat, and there is but one full-time non-sports columnist and one dedicated metro reporter. No one covers City Hall on a regular basis, and lacking a statehouse reporter of its own in Phoenix, the Star simply reprints a limited selection of articles from the AP state wire and a capitol news service. Inasmuch as no Star journalist applies an on-the-spot eye to state governmental, legislative, and political developments, these articles which are written so broadly that they can serve for indiscriminate distribution to newspapers all across Arizona lack the local context that readers in Tucson need to interpret the significance for their community of proceedings at the state level.
It is further symptomatic of the paper's deepening lassitude that many of the stories in its on-line edition linger there for days, growing increasingly stale until finally succeeded by new entries. No other category of information receives as many regular updates as the performance of the University of Arizona's sports teams.
Acknowledgement is properly due the dwindling journalists at the Star, who continue amidst adversity to individually notch first, second, and third place honors from the Arizona Press Club and in the annual contests of the Arizona Newspapers Association (ANA). Yet the paper itself has not won the ANA Newspaper of the Year award for well more than a decade, against competitors that include small rural dailies and high school and college publications. (The student papers will compete separately from professional newspapers beginning this year.) The contrast today with what the Star once was could not be sharper, or sadder: in 1981, it collected a Pulitzer Prize for its probe of fraud in the University of Arizona’s athletic program.
In addition to the Star, a baker’s dozen of weekly, fortnightly, and monthly newsprint periodicals (some of them national franchises that provide a template for locally generated stories) cover dining, health and wellness, and entertainment and leisure activities around Tucson. Their publishers distribute them for free at coffee shops, book stores, and libraries, and at supermarkets beside racks holding the stores' throwaway shopping fliers, which surpass some of these publications for editorial quality.
Chief among the free, lesser print media is the Tucson Weekly, an “alternative” newspaper. It runs social and political commentary that aspires to be iconoclastic, but is generally so only in tone - provocative name-calling is a specialty - but seldom in substance. Markedly shrinking page count in the last two years has bitten deeply into the space available for its more constructive counter-cultural criticism of films, local theater, area and visiting bands and vocalists, musical album releases, and the painterly arts. The Weekly remains afloat principally on advertising revenue from marijuana dispensaries, topless clubs, practitioners of New Age medicine, and providers of sexual services thinly disguised as massage therapy.
A cut above are BizTucson and Tucson Lifestyle Magazine, glossies that aim at the local business community and the well-to-do. Their production values are of a high standard, but in outlook and editorial content they diverge in no fundamental way from the boosterism and consumerism that characterize similar magazines in other cities. They dare to charge subscription fees.
Electronic media in Tucson present an equally dispiriting picture.
The producers and reporters of Arizona Public Media (AZPM), the University of Arizona's combined PBS television and NPR radio affiliate, receive more awards than at any other southern Arizona broadcaster, and more than any other public broadcaster in the region. But although broadcasting 24 hours a day, AZPM airs only a frustratingly minimal two hours per week of original programming devoted to local and state affairs.
Commercial broadcasters in Tucson are if anything even more disappointing. As in most U.S. cities these days, they are little more than sports and weather reporting agencies, and their TV newscasts are more often than not a mere recital of entries on the day's police blotter. A "special in-depth investigative report” - even on so complex and vital a topic as local opioid addiction - can reliably be counted on to wrap up in less than four minutes.
Thanks for persevering in reading my magnum opus, so lengthy because its purpose was to dive beneath the mere surface of Tucson. I hope it has provided you useful facts and insights.
If, after reading this critique, you conclude that Tucson appeals as a city to briefly visit but not, on the whole, in which to live, you have caught my drift.
I am not happy to represent this viewpoint. Tucson is far from the worst place in which you could choose to reside. But the odds against it becoming the best are insurmountable, and compounded because the city’s greatest handicaps - decayed streets and roads, persistently high crime, broad and entrenched poverty, and a structurally weak, low-wage economy with underutilized productive potential – have proven enduringly resistant to amelioration. The reasons for this are many and complex. I think it fair to say that complacency, inertia, and too little self-examination are among them.
I treasure my city's numberless regional natural attractions and few cooler months, the splendor of the full moon springing bright and beaming above the ridgelines of the Santa Catalinas, and the crisp freshness of the scent of creosote bushes after a storm has dampened the desert.
But I am an idealist, and I suffer the vulnerability of all idealists: when I see so much to be done, but left undone, it pains me deeply. Tucson is very hard on idealists. And so, after nearly two decades here, I am moving away in 2019.