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Yuma: "It City" or Armpit?

Editor's note: A March 11 post on our culture blog, Jackalope Ranch, got so much attention in Yuma — a front page story in the Yuma Daily Sun, airtime on the NBC television affiliate, talk of a billboard in downtown Phoenix — we decided to share it this week in print. To see a slideshow from the trip, go to phxculture.com.

There is only one reason to drive all the way to Yuma — and we can't tell you much about it. It's a junk store at 315 Main Street that shares a cash register with the shop next door. The store has no signage and no business card, and after our visit, just one Brownie camera for sale. We scored the other one for $5. It's a great spot, filled with rusty campaign buttons, vintage glassware, and funky antique furniture that made us wish we had more trunk space. And it didn't even smell like old people, like most of the junk stores on Main Street in Yuma.

To be honest, the scent of old people is everywhere in this city, crammed so far down in the southwest part of the state that it's practically in Mexico or California, but not in a good way. Not unless you are 80-plus, participate in Main Street's Golden Roadrunners Dance Center, and own a gigantic RV, plenty of which we watched navigate the sad, wide streets of Yuma all day.

That's hardly the picture painted recently by the likes of Sunset Magazine and other media, both local and national (see the AZ Highways, L.A. Times, and Chicago Tribune coverage). Suddenly, inexplicably, Yuma is the "it city," instead of the armpit we've known only from the comfort of our air-conditioned car as we'd zipped past it, to and from San Diego. The local paper, the Yuma Daily Sun, even wrote an entire article earlier this month about all the positive press Yuma has gotten lately.

We maintain that Yuma is a pit stop, not a destination. But Sunset's March issue would have you think otherwise, and in anticipation of this weekend's Lettuce Days, the city is embracing the attention and trying to appeal beyond the RV set to the hipsters who study travel magazines and newspaper articles.

Anyone who's tried to navigate a city using a travel article knows the potential pitfalls. (Try following Thomas Kohnstamm's Lonely Planet guide to Colombia, which he later admitted to updating from his desk in San Francisco.) And if you've written one, you know all the tricks: Focus on just a few highlights; don't mention the empty lots or the fact that while that restaurant serves excellent tamales, its chips have a reputation for always being stale. Make sure you have a really good photographer along.

In other words, rub the stone a bit. We get that. But after reading Sunset's homage to Yuma, we had a feeling there was some turd-polishing going on. We headed southwest to investigate.

We visited almost all the stores, bars, and restaurants mentioned in the two-page spread, and also took in the sights at the hotel recommended by Sunset, the Coronado Best Western, and a new park.

Our advice: Stay home. Yuma hosts an annual arts festival, which hopefully brings in a few more "inspirations" than we saw in gift-shop windows. And the lettuce event they're talking about might be all that, and you might even get a kick out of visiting the territorial prison (the city's typical claim to fame and inspiration for the local high school's mascot, the criminal) but Yuma was not. In fact, a better sense of the older (and much cooler) city can probably be gathered by that one Hollywood Western with that one hot actor — made in 2007.

Let's begin with the food. The special at Lutes Casino (which has not, sadly, been a casino for quite some time) was a combination described by Sunset as "equal parts cheeseburger, hot dog, and awesomeness."

For us, it was like eating in the school cafeteria — two days in a row. The sandwich was tiny, the slice of American cheese (!) was only half-melted, and there is no way someone actually tasted that meat and described it as "awesome." Awful is more like it. The fries tasted like the freezer, and the live piano in the background only accentuated the dusty décor — a hodgepodge of odd pinups, ratty taxidermy, and a Lutes piñata. What was needed, more than George Carlin's coin-phrased "sense of Yuma," was a Clorox wipe and a bit of natural light (you'll believe us after you see our Yuma slideshow).

Unsatisfied, we drove around town in search of the River City Grill, another Sunset recommendation. When we finally found it (we don't think this is a neighborhood Sunset's readers would want to venture into after dark, or even in the light) the place was manicured and cute enough, by Yuma standards. The food — described in the magazine as "eclectic with the spices" — was edible. But barely worth driving a few blocks, let alone a few hundred miles. The River Wrap, the "owner's favorite," was huge and well plated, but bland. And the promised curry flavor in the chicken dish we ordered was just okay. Blame the place's clean, yet very Pier One, atmosphere for its reputation as the city's "cool" restaurant.

Past a quirky German deli aptly called Das Bratwurst Haus, we found the not-so-special arts and pottery galleries Sunset recommended, which were full of pinch-pot bake ware and glaze-heavy mugs. We later wished we'd grabbed a stein before heading to the artist co-op touted so enthusiastically that it was embarrassing. At least it occupies a retail space on the vacancy-ridden Main Street.

In fact, the only line we saw extending past a front door was outside of the Mexican consulate. And the only businesses with full parking lots were law firms (one even took over the historic U.S. Postal Service building). We yearned for downtown Mesa.

Sunset raved about a new park built on the old town dump, but to be honest, we'd rather let our kids run up and down the aisles of the Target just off Interstate 10, given the deserted slums we had to navigate to finally find the park. It's a nice amenity for locals; but again, definitely not a destination.

Now, if someone would rehab the Hotel del Sol on Third Street, just a couple blocks off Main, that would be something special. The place, built in the 1920s in a Spanish Colonial Revival style, looks like it put Tucson's Hotel Congress to shame back in the day. It's been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it's also boarded up and abandoned, leaving the Best Western as pretty much the only choice for lodging. Even if Bob Hope did slumber there once upon a time, we never will. We couldn't get past the green pool.

We returned home dusty and hungry, with a Brownie camera. And we did a little research and learned that last August, Sunset ran a piece similar to the one on Yuma. This one was all about the charms of Sierra Vista.

Fool us once.


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