A Sense of Yuma

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 Wednesday, 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, LA 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 zip 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 past the RV set to the hipsters who study travel magazines and 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 Columbia, 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, their 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 of the stores, bars, and restaurants mentioned in the two-page spread, and also took in the sights at the hotel Sunset recommended, 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 this weekend's 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 in 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 chiken 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 that were full of pinch-pot bake ware and glaze-heavy mugs. We later wished we would have grabbed a stein before heading to the artist co-op that was so enthusiastically touted 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 United States 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 the I-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, plus 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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at