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. Thus my observations of the quality of life here are first-hand, and I have supplemented them with the latest statistical information available.
I sketch the city's natural surroundings and climate, some of its cultural resources and celebrations, the quality and affordability of its housing, its transportation infrastructure and crime trends. I also cover its economy, job opportunities, and business environment, its governance and media, and its people - what they like to do and eat, their health, how they drive, and how they view their hometown.
The point is to give you the fullest picture possible from one person's admittedly limited perspective. I must say up front, however, that what I daily see and what I have experienced in my time here leads me to coincide with the overwhelming majority of reviewers on this website: my overall evaluation of Tucson is negative.
If you are considering a visit or a move to Tucson, it's important that you distinguish between the city and its weather and geographic setting. Positive reviewers uniformly extol the welcome warmth of Tucson in winter and its sunshine - it's just about the sunniest place in the U.S. - as well as the Sonoran Desert and 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 mesquite and native trees – 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 native species of sycamore. Cacti are everywhere, in stunning variety and all sizes, from pin cushion scale to iconic multi-armed saguaros 50 or more feet tall. In spring this stony, spiny desert is colorfully abloom with multitudes of cactus flowers.
The flora provides a home for an amazing range of animals, birds, and insects. Bobcats and javelina (also called collared peccaries – they are not wild pigs) are common in many suburban backyards. There are also coyotes and mountain lions, fox and deer, black bears and coatis (Google it, lol), rattlesnakes, desert tortoises, and Gila monsters, scorpions and tarantulas, roadrunners, hummingbirds, desert owls, quail, multiple species of bats . . . if you love nature, Tucson’s environs are the place for you.
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, nearly a dozen species of hummingbirds, and migratory birds galore, many of them colorful exotics from Central America. Madera Canyon is the foremost birdwatching 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 and Mineral Show in late January and early February, the largest 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 book 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 for astronomy buffs, with four major concentrations of observatories only a 90-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 – up to 27 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)
My impression is that the people who sing the praises of Tucson’s warmth in winter are chiefly snowbird refugees from northern states. More power to them, but the truth is that if you like more than the barest hint of seasonality in your year, Tucson is not where you want to live. 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 are 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 an eight-day stretch above 115), and “cooled” back to 112 or so during the 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 the form of 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 hottest in Tucson 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.
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, 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 home, you will spend and more on electricity to air condition your home here.
This is a good point 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.
Although home builders are now scrambling to catch up, residential construction around Tucson was so seriously retarded by the Great Recession and so many carpenters and construction laborers departed Arizona that a decade later demand today handily outstrips supply. Developments worth half a billion dollars are on the books, but 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.
As an illustration, 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.
With the cost of homeownership at such levels in Tucson, rental units are accordingly feeling price pressures, too, and desirable ones are in critically short supply. Speculators purchased a significant portion of Tucson's rental home and apartment stock during the recession and have lately been hiking rents by 10 percent to as much as 30 percent, 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 often badly in need of upgrades, from replacement appliances and bathroom fixtures to better-insulated windows.
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.
At the turn of 2018, studio rents in the oldest buildings in Tucson proper ranged from $455 to $655 per month. On the lower end of that spectrum, you will not have a microwave, nor a dishwasher or a garbage disposal, nor a washer/dryer unit or a hook-up for one. Your apartment 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.
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.
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 may luxuriate in the infinity-edge pool of an architect-designed and expertly landscaped million-dollar-plus home with panoramic views in the foothills of the Santa Catalinas, situated among golf courses, deluxe resorts, and exclusive health spas. 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 falling-apart 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 housing. Intermixed with it 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. And concealed here and there in these districts are tiny clusters of homes of the freshest vintage: sheathed in naturally rusted corrugated metal panels, with daringly canted roofs, and patios shaded by 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 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, the old core of Hispanic Tucson that was almost entirely bulldozed during urban redevelopment in the 1960s, "progress" that is now widely lamented. The remnants have been largely gentrified and reconstituted as chic town homes and costly professional offices.
The displaced former owners of the Barrio Histórico migrated to South Tucson, a 1.2 square-mile, independently incorporated municipality fully surrounded by Tucson proper. All but bankrupt, 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 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 and all in earth tones and with tile roofs. 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. By latest estimate (2016), 85 percent of Tucson’s residential streets and arterial roadways are in “poor” or “extremely poor” 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 major roadways remain in fairly good shape, benefiting from timely resealing, and there are currently several widening projects underway. Nonetheless, regular upkeep of the region'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. There is, however, little money for that - transportation authorities estimate the price tag would exceed $1 billion - and stopgap patches that themselves quickly deteriorate must suffice. Meanwhile, no attention whatsoever is given to restoring the disintegrating back alleyways in Tucson's central neighborhoods, the pavement of which has everywhere decayed almost to dirt, betraying 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 partisans romanticize the city as the "Old Pueblo,” where the small-town charm of yesteryear still persists. But that horse bolted the barn long ago. Tucson is now the 32nd-largest city in the U.S. and a full-fledged metropolitan conglomeration of more than one million 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 and 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, and many people consider red lights only cautionary. In contradiction to that behavior, however, uncommon numbers travel below 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 minute, rather than earlier, when there is a greater margin of safety. Turn signals are little used, most drivers 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 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 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, the members of the city council, and the mayor du jour, 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 mayor had his city-provided car hijacked from him at gunpoint in front of his home. His only comment on the matter was to the effect that, because he wasn’t shot, crime in Tucson was not out of hand.
Property crime (burglary, larceny, theft, motor vehicle theft, arson, shoplifting, and vandalism) has long and greatly plagued all parts of the city, including the priciest 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, and garden furniture 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 were fenced at a pawnshop, of which the city has large numbers and at which the provenance of goods is none too diligently checked.
Police officials attribute the majority of shoplifting and other opportunistic theft to the homeless and 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, unenviable leadership that it consistently maintains year in and year out, even as the number of violent crimes has fallen in absolute terms.
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 more than 225 square miles and 550,000 people. Thus far in 2018, commissioned personnel staffing has dropped even further, to below 800. So chronically shorthanded is the department, it 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" which incidents they will respond to. Acting on an episode of domestic violence in progress that poses the risk of immediate physical harm to the victim takes precedence over responding to a simultaneous call to repel a home invasion by an unarmed burglar, for example, and the latter crime may not be investigated for two days or more after it has occurred.
Tucson’s population is 45% non-Hispanic white and 42% Hispanic (almost entirely from Mexico and Central America), with the remainder distributed across African-Americans, Native Americans, and Asians. 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 for a family of four, higher than in Phoenix and well above the average for U.S. cities of similar size. (This overall rate excludes the 51 percent living in poverty in South Tucson, mentioned earlier.) Even allowing for the super-affluent in the northside 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 top five employers are the University of Arizona and Raytheon, each with around 11,000 employees, city and county government (about 8,000 employees), Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (also about 8,000 employees), and Walmart (around 6,500 employees). Only a minority of the university employees and some Raytheon engineers and a few city and county employees obtain incomes that can be considered handsome. Some smaller number yet of doctors and nurses earn well in area hospitals and clinics.
Together, the leading five employers provide fewer than 50,000 jobs, in a metropolitan area of 1.1 million people. This leaves the great majority of employable people to 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 can tell you. Meanwhile, public school elementary and secondary-level teachers are notoriously underpaid (Arizona ranks 47th out of 50 states in teacher salaries), and teachers must routinely pay for some portion of classroom supplies out of their own pocket. And tellingly, few graduates of the University of Arizona (with some 42,000 students this semester) remain in Tucson to pursue careers.
Unemployment in Tucson stands for the moment at 4.3 percent. That is down from much higher levels in the depths of the Great Recession, but not 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 recovered 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.
Two more mundane, but nonetheless graphic, indicators of the area’s generally low level 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 relative anemia of the local economy apart from tourism is further underscored by 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) closed stores far outnumber those few still open. 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 empty premises all too often deteriorate into lasting eyesores.
Sotto voce, owners of everyday enterprises that are the backbone of Tucson's economy universally complain that elected and appointed officials here are anti-business and leave them by the wayside while trying to lure to town nationally known out-of-state companies with tax relief and other preferment not accorded small and middling local firms.
This bias against organic growth is also evidenced by the substantial number of unbuilt or abandoned lots of up to 50,000 square feet that dot all areas of the city and depress the value of surrounding properties. Infill commercial and residential development would seem ideal for such spaces and could create much-needed jobs and spur neighborhood rejuvenation, but inducements such as relaxation of planning requirements and property tax abatement to promote such improvement projects are reserved almost exclusively to ventures to redevelop the downtown core. The city simply leapfrogs over other zones, pursuing instead the expansion of its boundaries to the east to annex already-existing taxable businesses, residential properties, and semi-rural landholdings.
This policy has unleashed unmitigated sprawl, and combined with laissez-faire zoning, it encourages crazy quilt property use. 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, an urgent care clinic, a Mexican restaurant, 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 recognition set tourism boosters beaming, and was awarded because there is ostensibly a cosmopolitan diversity in local food offerings. Upon closer examination, however, you find that what variety there is here in food is largely limited to Mexican dishes, mainly tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, quesadillas, burritos, chimichangas, stuffed green chilies, and 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.
You’ll observe, however, that all the aforementioned food originates in one Mexican state, neighboring Sonora. So the diversity is more apparent than real. With the conspicuous exception of stylish Café Poca Cosa in the heart of downtown and its menu that changes twice daily, you'll seek in vain for other and more flavorful 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 haute cuisine restaurant with white linen and one bistro. There are numerous Japanese restaurants, but only two offer sushi that would qualify as even average on the Ginza in Tokyo (where I have eaten often). There is not a single German restaurant, and eastern European food is found at only one restaurant with a salmagundi of Hungarian goulash, Polish sausage, and Russian pierogi. Pizza and pasta are available everywhere, but while there are several upscale, not to say posh, Italian establishments, northern Italian food is unknown in Tucson. Chinese restaurants abound, yet nearly all operate as buffets, where quantity reigns over quality. There is a smattering of Thai and Indian eateries, at which the same principle applies. There are but two independent Greek restaurants (as opposed to the Opa! chain). Only one restaurant each represents Spain, Korea, Peru, and Ethiopia. Middle Eastern food is limited to clichéd hummus, falafel, and kebabs. Nowhere will you find Persian, Scandinavian, or Indonesian food.
For steak, there are swank Fleming’s, Sullivan's, and Bob's Steak and Chop House, all in the affluent foothills and noted as much for their hauteur and lofty dinner tabs as for their gourmet cuts. Without high-falutin' airs are three cowboy steak houses: Lil’ Abner’s, El Corral, and Pinnacle Peak. The last-named is at Traildust Town, an attraction for tenderfoot tourists.
More inventive menus are to be found in the outposts of a locally founded restaurant empire that is spreading across Arizona and into neighboring states, headed by restaurateur Sam Fox. (Google him.) His “concepts” include North, Wildflower, Blanco, Zinburger, and Culinary Dropout. The food ranges from 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 represented, 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 here 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 prominently 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 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. They often appear doleful and distracted; the impression they give is that they are in pain, or perhaps stoned. 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.
Also everywhere to be seen is an astoundingly large percentage of “aged elderly” – people older than 80. Retirees have always flocked to Tucson for its sunshine and (until recently) lower cost of living. But in the years since I arrived, the citizenry has grayed noticeably and grown manifestly more infirm. 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.
Although most apparent when the influx of seniors 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.
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. Unfortunately, the local media are lackluster as well.
In the field of print, Tucson supported two daily newspapers until 2009. Now it has only the Arizona Daily Star. There is also an alternative publication, the Tucson Weekly. Both have been shrinking in staff and coverage at an accelerating pace in recent years.
It is not unknown for the Star to run to as few as 26 pages on a weekday, even including advertising and the sports section. Shortly before Thanksgiving 2017, 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.
The bulk of the Star's standing features, such as food, financial, personal, automotive, and health columns, are not original, but extracted from other papers. Similarly, and almost without exception, it mines the Associated Press for its national and international reporting. The 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.
As editors and reporters at the Star age and retire, they are not replaced. Thus the paper no longer has anyone assigned to the science and technology beat, nor a book reviewer, 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, 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 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.
To be fair, even as they dwindle in number the editors, reporters, photographers, and editorial cartoonist of the Star individually notch first, second, and third place honors 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 student high school publications.
Most days the Star does not publish an editorial, and while it occasionally surprises with an investigative piece or series, it is news itself when it actually breaks news. It is further symptomatic of the paper's 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, and whatever else may be happening in Tucson, in Arizona, or in the world, the "front page" of the website almost invariably leads with a story on university athletics.
The free Tucson Weekly, for its part, has cut its page count by nearly 20% in the last two years. While it makes a half-hearted stab at unconventional social commentary and arts and cultural criticism (mostly reviews of local and visiting bands and vocalists and theatrical productions), its true raison d'être is to serve as an advertising vehicle for marijuana dispensaries, topless clubs, psychics and practitioners of New Age medicine, and providers of sexual services thinly disguised as massage therapy.
Half a dozen lesser fortnightly and monthly periodicals (some of them national franchises that provide a template for locally generated stories) cover health and wellness, dining, and leisure and sightseeing activities around Tucson. In keeping with their marginal editorial quality, they are distributed for free by their publishers at coffee shops and libraries, and at supermarkets in racks also holding the stores' throwaway shopping fliers. A cut above these are glossy Tucson Lifestyle Magazine and BizTucson, which aim at the well-to-do and the business segment of the market. They dare to charge subscription fees.
Electronic media in Tucson present an equally dispiriting picture. Arizona Public Media, the combined PBS TV and NPR radio affiliate, produces less than four hours per week of locally-sourced programs. And as in most U.S. cities these days, commercial broadcasters in Tucson are little more than sports and weather reporting agencies, and newscasts especially 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 such a lengthy critique, so extended 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 review, you conclude that Tucson appeals as a place to briefly visit but not, on the whole, in which to live, you have caught my drift.
I treasure the virtually inexhaustible natural attractions here and the very few cooler months, the splendor of the full moon springing bright and beaming over the ridgelines of the Santa Catalinas, and the stimulating freshness of the scent of creosote bushes after a storm has dampened the desert. But beyond that, I must sadly say that for me the words that best characterize Tucson itself are lethargy, mediocrity, and decline. And so, after almost two decades here, I am finally moving away in 2019.