Tucson: How Will the Southern Arizona Community Be Remembered After a Shooting Rampage that Riveted the Nation?
A mention of Columbine evokes images of two teenage gunman shooting up a school full of terrified classmates. Waco? The public mind recalls the infamous standoff and siege, the flames that ripped through a compound and the more than 80 people who died.
Will the same be true of Tucson? For people across the country who have no other reference to the southern Arizona community, will they always recall the shooting rampage that law enforcement officials believe was staged in an attempt to assassinate Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords?
Tucson Councilwoman Karin Uhlich hopes not.
"Tucson is a community that chooses courage over cowardice and kindness over cruelty," Uhlich tells New Times. "That basic essence of who we are as a people we will not be changed, only strengthened."
The truth about Tucson, one of the largest cities in Arizona with an estimated 590,000 residents, is that it is as culturally diverse as it is politically diverse.
The city boasts a colorful heritage that dates back to the Hohokam people. The city has an appreciation for the arts and a college basketball powerhouse in the Arizona Wildcats, a team that has been led by NBA players like Mike Bibby, Richard Jefferson, Gilbert Arenas, and Steve Kerr.
It is home to Old Tucson Studios, a movie set built in 1939 that has long served as the backdrop for many popular western movies that helped catapult actors into stardom.
Paul McCartney has an 80-acre ranch near Tucson, and his late wife Linda, attended U of A and took a photography course at a Tucson art center. She once said, "Arizona opened up my eyes to the wonder of light and color," according to the American Chronicle.
The University of Arizona gives the city a liberal college-town flavor that blends with a more right-of-center Wild West mentality as you move outside the city. And, as growth gave way to a sea of red-tile roof tops, residents saw a more conservative breed of politics shift the city.
"Tucson and the metro area have grown rapidly in the last 40 years, with many migrants coming from other parts of the country, including many retirees from the Midwest," Celestino Fernandez tells New Times.
Fernandez, director of Undergraduate Studies at U of A's Department of Sociology, has lived in Tucson for 35 years. He says that as with the rest of the country, and particularly Arizona, the political divide in Tucson has become deeper and broader.
"Politicians from this area tended to be more in the center than they are now, although compared to other areas in Arizona where the political divide is even wider, they still seem to be in the center," he says.
Fernandez also believes that most of the people who live in Tucson enjoy the quality of life, the easy-going atmosphere and sense of togetherness. But he has seen that change, too, over the years.
"Most were not born and raised here. They have come for various reasons, and because of the quality of life here, they have chosen to stay," he says. "It's also true that some mean-spirited folks, most of them in Maricopa County, have hijacked the state, and Tucson has felt the serious consequences."
Almost 40 percent of the population is Latino, mostly of Mexican decent. And Tucson's close proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border adds another layer of complexity to life and politics in the city.
Gabrielle Giffords once described her district, which includes Tucson and stretches to the Mexican border, as having a good political balance. At that time, during a March 2010 interview with MSNBC, she was speaking about an attack at her Tucson office prompted by her yes vote on national healthcare reform.
Giffords told MSNBC the political rhetoric was pouring into her office via calls and slur-filled e-mails. At that time, she called for political and community leaders to say, "We can't stand for this."
But it's more likely that Jared Loughner's January 8 shooting rampage was fueled by his mental instability rather than Arizona's intense and divisive political climate.
Giffords represents Arizona's 8th Congressional District, which covers the communities of Sierra Vista, Wilcox and is home to the Coronado National Forest and Tombstone. The district leans slightly Republican -- about 43 percent of voters in her district are Republicans, about 38 percent are Democrats. Independents make up about 6 percent, and another 11 percent claim no political party affiliation.
Political watchers say Giffords' likable personality and moderate politics got her re-elected, despite the national trend that booted many Democrats from their seats. And her popularity makes the assassination attempt seems even more bizarre.
As Tucson residents continue to mourn and comfort each other, community leaders hope that their city is not seared in the public's mind as nothing more than the home of an extremely disturbed 22-year-old man who snuffed the lives of six people and injured 13 others.
"I think that is a community with strength, where the caring and beauty of people is really shining through," Councilwoman Uhlich said. "I really hope that is what comes to the forefront of people's minds" when they think about Tucson.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.