Longform

Branded: Can Tucson Ever Live It Down?

Editor's note: This story has been edited from its original version.


There's a 20th casualty from January 8 — a city shot full of holes.

Columbine, Waco, Oklahoma City. All places defined, in the collective consciousness, anyway, by violent acts. And now Tucson.

It's true that we don't think of JFK every time someone mentions Dallas, and you can talk about New York City — finally — without conjuring 9/11. No one ever called it the Manhattan Tragedy. But Tucson's much smaller. And for many, Jared Lee Loughner's killing spree is and will be the first association with the southern Arizona city, the first time they've heard the name pronounced out loud.

This tragedy's going to stick to Tucson, even though technically, the Safeway where it happened isn't even in its city limits. Already, the media's short-handed it to Tucson. Soon, it'll be a verb: "Tucsoned."

Almost immediately, we knew that Loughner's wasn't a political statement, that he has no close ties to Tea Partiers or Nazis or nativists. But the shots he fired reverberated across the country as symbols nonetheless, and marked Arizona as ground zero for the division and discontent so many Americans feel.

And the truth is that the target was about a hundred miles off. Yes, Tucson has a handful of Tea Party Patriots; in fact, they came close to defeating Congresswoman Gabby Giffords last November. But metropolitan Phoenix is the home of the spiteful, the land of Tent City and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Senate Bill 1070 and Russell Pearce — and a governor who champions it all.

Just last October, a think tank at Arizona State University called the Center for the Future of Arizona released poll data showing that civic engagement is far higher in Tucson than Phoenix. In Tucson, more people vote, more families eat dinner together, more neighbors exchange favors.

There's still lots to love about Phoenix, my hometown, but really, if any place deserves to be the poster city — accidental or otherwise — for hate, it's Phoenix. From up here, I can't help but think one thing:

Tucson took our bullet.


"Oh, all right, fine, go to Tucson," my editor said when I asked to write this, to get it in the paper before the paint dries on the words Tucson Tragedy. "But I don't want a love letter."

Gulp. I have a romanticized Tucson in the most literal sense. My parents met and fell in love at the University of Arizona in the early 1960s. I have this image of the two of them running in slow motion across the bright green lawn on campus in front of Old Main — she in a shift dress, her blond hair in a bubble 'do; he in thick-framed black glasses and a crew cut — embracing as the theme to "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" plays in the background, just like in the movie Grease.

Growing up in Phoenix, I heard a lot of stories about Tucson. In my head, it was glamorous, sort of a junior Miami Beach with lots of silk-scarved grandmas playing mahjong around the pool, a retirement community for at least one of America's most famous crime families. And my father's fraternity at UA, Delta Chi, was the model for National Lampoon's Animal House!

In reality, I think my parents' first date was at a somewhat rundown tiki bar on Speedway Boulevard, home to a lot of car dealerships and tire shops. My mother and her friends really did dig through mobster Joe Bonanno's trash when they were kids — but they never found anything more exciting than banana peels. And last week, I learned that just about every fraternity in America claimed to be the model for Animal House.

But, still, I love Tucson. I love it in the only way you can love a city you've never lived in. At various times, I've almost moved there. I worked in D.C. for two members of Congress from Tucson. Some of my best friends are from Tucson.

The coffee places are cuter, the Mexican food's better, there's more appreciation for historic preservation than in Phoenix. People paint buildings in bright colors and turn wrought-iron fences into art. The bike paths are wider. The mountains are greener, the air's actually cooler, and the stars shine just a little bit brighter in Tucson, thanks to light ordinances that protect the view for nearby Kitt Peak Observatory.

In the 1800s, white men settled the spot and took up with Mexican women ('til the railroad finally reached town in 1880, bringing a more varied supply), and people say that's why there's more appreciation for diversity in Tucson, along with the fact that unlike Phoenix, it's technically a border town — about 60 miles from Mexico.

Until the Central Arizona Project brought a steady stream of water in 1993, Tucson was the largest city in the country to rely entirely on pumping groundwater, which explains the ubiquity of desert landscaping — a contrast with Phoenix, where Midwesterners brought big thirsty trees and grassy lawns along with them, taking advantage of all that dam water from the Salt River.

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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 amy-silverman.com.