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.

"We don't flood our front yards," a friend of mine is fond of saying, and he's right. There's no flood irrigation in Tucson. He is equally proud that there are no freeways running through town; someone else points out that acerbic talk radio hasn't been able to take hold in Tucson because no one has a long enough commute.

In a lot of ways, Tucson's just an old hippie town, with life centered on the University of Arizona. Back when my parents were picking schools in Arizona, there really was no choice. UA was still technically the only university in the state. Sort of a reverse brain drain. And that — along with the stunted growth 'cause of the lack of water — is why the university is such a big part of Tucson life, even today.

But this is no Eugene, Oregon. It's still the Wild West, the land of gun shows and shootouts for the tourists at Old Tucson studios on the other side of Interstate 10.

Tucson has an extra-rich history of violence going back to its very beginning — with 24-hour casinos, an infamous plaza whipping post, and even a year's stint as the western HQ for the Confederate Army, writes state historian Marshall Trimble in his 1986 Roadside History of Arizona.

According to Trimble, in 1863 a "world-traveling journalist" wrote of his visit to Tucson, "If the world were searched over, I suppose there could not be found so degraded a set of villains as then formed in the principal society of Tucson. Every man went armed to the teeth, and street fights and bloody affrays were of daily occurrence."

Today, at the über-hip Hotel Congress downtown, a side hallway leading to the bathroom is lined with framed memorabilia and newspaper stories recounting the saga of John Dillinger, the infamous gangster who once set fire to a room in that very hotel.

For this year, anyway, Hotel Congress decided to eliminate the gun-related reenactment portion of Dillinger Days, a festival of sorts that took place this year on the third weekend of January. (A video from last year's event shows a startlingly real-looking gun battle — right in the middle of Congress Street.)

But a large gun show went on as scheduled, just days after the massacre at the Safeway. And Gabby Giffords may well have approved. Turns out, Tucson and its favorite daughter have a lot in common. She's an iconoclast — a Republican turned Democrat who pushes solar power and packs heat. She owns a Glock similar to Jared Loughner's, and she's been known to fire an assault weapon or two. She rides motorcycles without a helmet and got a Fulbright to study Mennonites in Mexico.

Giffords is quirky and smart and ambitious, and she will be forever defined by this tragedy, as will her hometown. She's a quick healer, at least so far, rising to the occasion along with the city. Standing on the lawn in front of the University Medical Center, amid the makeshift memorial catalogued by half a dozen satellite trucks still parked in front of the hospital a week and a half later, it was hard to imagine, quite frankly, a Phoenix politician who would evoke that much support from his or her community.

And last week she was off to a Houston hospital. Giffords' doctors warn that while her progress has been remarkable, her recovery will not be easy. Healing will take a long time. Ditto for her city. To borrow from Barbara Kingsolver's moving essay in a book of the same title, published in 1995, it's High Tide in Tucson.

But even in modern times, it's important to remember that Tucson is not the place we Phoenicians tend to imagine — the smaller, sweeter, hipper version of ourselves. True, the city has half a million residents to our more than 4.5 million. But the crime rate in Tucson is about the same as it is in metropolitan Phoenix, and before Jared Lee Loughner, there was already a list of gruesome, if less famous, modern-day crimes committed there.

The so-called "Pied Piper of Tucson," Charles Schmid Jr., was a serial killer who brought national attention to the city in the 1960s. In the early '70s, Louis Taylor was convicted of 28 counts of first-degree murder after setting fire to the Pioneer Hotel downtown.

Frank Jarvis Atwood, still on death row, made a name for himself (and Tucson) in the 1980s as one of the first in a string of infamous child killers. And the 1990s saw a huge surge in gang-related murders, mostly among Latinos.

Not everyone considers Tucson a sleepy, peaceful town. Not Barbara Kingsolver, who writes in her book of essays of making the switch from rural Kentucky to downtown Tucson with a painful jolt — a reminder that it's all relative:

In a city of half a million, I still really look at every face, anticipating recognition, because I grew up in a town where every face meant something to me. I have trouble remembering to lock the doors. Wariness of strangers I learned the hard way. When I was new to the city, I let a man into my house one hot afternoon because he seemed in dire need of a drink of water; when I turned from the kitchen sink I found sharpened steel shoved against my belly. And so I know, I know. But I cultivate suspicion with as much difficulty as I force tomatoes to grow in the drought-stricken hardpan of my strange backyard. No creek runs here, but I 'm still listening to secret tides, living as if I belonged to an earlier place: not Kentucky, necessarily, but a welcoming earth and a human family. A forest. A species.

"I can smell the flowers," our photographer, Jamie Peachey, says as we pull into the Safeway parking lot at Oracle and Ina roads on the northwest side of town. It's been 11 days since the shooting.

To be honest, all I can smell is chickens roasting in the deli, but closer to the makeshift memorial we catch a big, cloying whiff of scented candles burning.

A five-minute drive away, the Loughners' quiet street falls just short of middle-class — old trucks with mud flaps adorned with silhouettes of sexy girls and houses with falling-apart façades, a neighborhood in need of a homeowners association, someone quips. But this shopping center is really nice. Head the other direction from the Loughners' house, past the Safeway, and you're at Ventana Canyon, one of the fanciest resorts in town. The Loughners' neighborhood predates the fancy stuff by at least a decade or two.

The memorial is right in front of the store — and I mean right in front. You have to walk behind it to get to the sliding doors that lead into the Safeway. It's 8:30 in the morning and quiet. Chilly and sunny, as it was the day of the shooting. An NBC satellite truck hums in the parking lot, a few people walk in and out of the store, some with crumpled tissues in their hands, stopping to look at the hundreds of cards, stuffed animals, posters, candles, and bundles of flowers piled on the street, protected by metal traffic gates.

It's hard to imagine that anyone's coming here just to shop.

A pickup truck's pulled up alongside the memorial, and two men who appear to work for the shopping center start picking through the flowers, putting some in the back of the truck. At first, it looks as if they are removing the dead flowers, and I'm impressed, because none of these flowers looks even particularly wilted. What attention to detail. A woman walks up with a prayer candle and asks one of the men for a light; he leans over and lights the candle, and she places it with the others.

But, then, one of the men gathers an armload of cards and stuffed animals and dumps that in the truck, and it becomes clear that something else is going on. A woman walks out and tapes signs on the metal gates, directing people to leave their offerings on the corner, away from the store's entrance.

The shopping center maintenance worker walks over to the woman with the signs and asks, "Do I blow out the candles?"

It's obvious he's saying more than that.

She looks uncomfortable. "You know," she says, "Safeway has to get back to work."

Across town on Congress Street, the busiest part of Tucson is slowly building up to a lunchtime hustle. Downtown had its modern heyday in the late '80s and early '90s, and except for Hotel Congress, a lot of businesses have come and gone. Rio Nuevo, an ambitious revitalization project publicly funded to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, didn't leave much to show for itself, but there are lots of storefronts with "coming soon" signs, and everyone talks about how Janos, the city's most famous chef, has a new restaurant down the street and around the corner from Hotel Congress.

A couple of doors down from that is another local cultural mainstay, Etherton Gallery. Etherton's considered the best in town, and today the show doesn't disappoint. There are images by Joel-Peter Witkin — the famous New Mexico surrealist photographer and an Etherton favorite — but the real grabber is work by a photographer named Francois Robert.

The first image is enormous, a pistol pieced together with human bones, stark and alarming against a black backdrop. The series, called "Stop the Violence," includes several other shapes — a skull, a grenade, a fighter jet.

The show opened January 8.

Terry Etherton's eyes are red as he sits down in the back of his gallery to talk. Typically, the day of an opening reception is crazy-busy from morning to night, as he and his staff vacuum, buy wine, and get ready for a dinner party they throw for the artists. Someone heard about the shooting on the radio, and they all stood glued to the television for hours, Etherton says, unsure of what to do. Witkin was on a plane to Tucson. Would anyone show up at the gallery on a night like this one? Should they cancel the opening?

When he heard Gabby Giffords was alive, Etherton knew his show had to go on. And so it did. The gallery was mobbed. Between 200 and 300 people showed up, and even though the doors typically close at 10, people were still arriving at 10:30, Etherton recalls.

Around the corner at the Rialto Theater, someone set up an impromptu vigil. The night brought a much-needed sense of community, says Etherton. He has known Giffords and her family for years. He worked on her first congressional campaign, decorated her Washington, D.C. office when she won.

Everyone in Tucson, it seems, knows the congresswoman.

All the time you hear, "This is the biggest small town in America." Hang out here for any amount of time, and you believe it. That's not always a good thing. I know people who grew up in Tucson and couldn't wait to get out for that very reason, and city politics often are derided as a haven of good ol' boys with too-deep connections.

But more often, particularly at a time like this, it's heartwarming. People are talking about how John Roll — the top federal judge in the state, a guy who could get a private audience with a member of Congress at the drop of a hat — chose instead to drop by a constituent get-together to say hello and do a bit of business. That's how they roll in Tucson.

Still, Terry Etherton wants out. He came here 30 years ago from San Francisco, taking a big chance based on two things: the cost of living was cheap and the Center for Creative Photography offered a foothold for starting a photography-centric gallery. The gamble was wise, he's done well, and he says he won't leave, but in the next breath, he says he's strongly considering it. Then vows to stay.

Etherton says he intends to fight for gun control, starting with opposing a bill before the Legislature that would allow guns on college campuses. He knows that if he's going to have a chance, he's got to act now, while people are fired up, to rally his fellow Tucsonans to pressure their legislators.

"That doesn't last forever, that kind of feeling," he says.

The year Herb Stratford's family moved to Arizona, a blizzard caved in the roof of their home in Chicago. There was no love lost for the snow, but Stratford had a heck of an adjustment, attending high school in Phoenix, then moving to Tucson to get degrees in art at UA.

"Don't get shot by an Indian with an arrow. Are you going to live in a covered wagon?" his grade-school compatriots on the North Shore teased. But now Stratford's as invested in Tucson as anyone. He and his family are the third owners of a 1907 home, and he cut his teeth in historic preservation by working to restore the 1930 Fox Theater on Congress Street. Stratford recalls breaking into the Fox in the '80s to take photographs. When he went back a decade later, dozens of homeless people were squatting there. Eventually, a $14 million restoration was completed.

These days, he bills himself as "the arts and culture guy," appearing on local television, writing a column for Inside Tucson Business. He's an artist, too — makes remarkable shadow boxes, a derivation of his time doing installation work — but as he readily admits, you can't make a living doing that. So, instead, he focuses on Tucson, along with his consulting.

Like Terry Etherton, for Stratford, the massacre hits too close to home.

"It touched so many people because of how it spiders out," he says. And as for the future?

"We're so defined by tourism . . . There's going to be some scar tissue," he acknowledges. But Stratford thinks Tucson is a big enough city to rise above. He travels a lot for work, and it used to be that he'd have to tell people he was from "Tucson, Arizona." Now, he says, "I just say Tucson."

Jackson Boelts is a little more concerned. Boelts is a professor of visual communication at the University of Arizona. (And one of Herb Stratford's professors. See? Small town.) He moved here more than 30 years ago from Denver by way of Omaha.

"I love the quality of light," he says. He's a painter, as well as a graphic designer. And he loves the diversity. "The richness of cultures here hasn't homogenized," he says, "but you can taste all of them."

One thing Boelts teaches his design students is how to help an entity — usually a company — form a brand that represents its identity.

"The Tucson brand has just been shocked," he says. "It went from golden, quiet Tukson. Now you talk to someone, they know exactly where [Tucson] is, exactly where [the tragedy] happened."

How do you fix that? Boelts looks sad. Really, he says, you can't.

"Good identity, good design, and good strategy can help the brand, but it can't build it."

Consider the Exxon Valdez, he says.

Boelts works in watercolors, and even before January 8, he was busy with a body of work he calls the "Shield Series," about the different faces we show people in different circumstances. He was initially inspired by a run-in with a student, he says, and after the shooting, he made another painting, which he pulls up on his computer for us to see.

I can't do it justice with words; you'll have to look at the images in the slideshow accompanying this story online to fully appreciate it. The background is Tucson-sky-blue, the ground green and brown, the sky interrupted by a big white cloud that's been screwed with, somehow — debris strewn through it, "interrupting its flow," Boelts says.

We leave Boelts and head north a few blocks to the University Medical Center. After the Safeway, we made a quick stop at Gabby Giffords' office to see the offerings there, but this is by far the largest memorial, and one we've been told is best viewed at dusk.

About a half-dozen satellite trucks line the entrance to UMC, and reporters do live shots in harsh spotlights as the day's light fades and candles begin to glow. The truck for KGUN — the local television station that made so many national stories ("Can you believe the city actually has a station called GUN?!") is here. So is the now-famous man who stands in the middle of the lawn, playing the violin each evening.

In the past week and a half, this has become a nightly ritual for Tucsonans, and dozens of people, mostly families, pour onto the lawn, walking what looks like a labyrinth, a trail of tearful remembrances of the six who died, but mostly good wishes for Gabby. A friend from her campaign told me earlier that he'd spent the afternoon picking up teddy bears, so they can be donated to needy kids, but the rest is carefully left intact. This kind of thing doesn't impede business at a hospital.

The whole memorial must cover close to an acre, and it's too hard to imagine what they'll do with all of it now that she's left for Houston, or what these people will do without her here.

So will Tucson forever be branded by Jared Lee Loughner?

Tom Miller argues that JFK haunts Dallas to this day.

"You can't have a tragedy greater than killing the president," he observes, although he admits that when he re-released his 2001 book, Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink, last year, the decision was made to rename the book because there was concern that not enough people remembered who Ruby was. (The new title is Revenge of the Saguaro: Offbeat Travels Through America's Southwest.)

Miller is an expert on the region, one with a rather dry wit.

The mark of January 8 on the town he's called home for 42 years?

"I think the biggest impact is that now America knows how to spell it," he says of Tucson. Then he gets more serious.

"It's obviously too early to tell, but it would seem that it's not something that can be shaken off. The odd thing is that if something like this was going to happen, you would think it would happen north of the Gila River."

If the Gadsden Purchase hadn't gone through, Miller muses, Tucson would be in Mexico. The differences between Arizona's principal cities aren't lost on him. Phoenix is Goldwater Country, he says (and I'd add McCain in there, too), while Tucson is the land of Mo Udall and César Chávez.

Udall — arguably the most famous politician to come out of Tucson before, now, Gabby Giffords — was a rare breed, not only for Arizona but for Congress, where he represented for 30 years a district that largely included Tucson. He believed it was possible to disagree without being disagreeable. He used humor to get his (typically) liberal point across. Udall makes Giffords look conservative. In fact, she is the more conservative of the area's congresspeople; redistricting ensured Raul Grijalva a liberal spot but gave Giffords the electoral fight of her life last fall — a race more emblematic of Phoenix-area politics. (As is the local Tea Party's decision to try to recall Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik.)

Miller marvels at Giffords' ubiquity, quipping he's pretty sure he's the only person in town who's never met her.

So does she personify Tucson? I ask him.

Sadly, he answers, "She does now."

Joel Garreau, Lincoln Professor of Law, Culture and Values at ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, has only recently come to Tucson (and is still just in Arizona part time), but from his East Coast (D.C., to be exact) perspective, he argues that Tucson is pretty well known, perhaps enough to overcome the tragedy, eventually.

"I'd be surprised if the majority of the American people really had never heard of Tucson before," he says, particularly since it's a tourist destination. And, he adds, people remember Tucson from old Westerns.

But that association with the Wild West might be the very thing that does make "Tucson Tragedy " stick hard to the city, argues Elaine Lewinnek, who specializes in cultural geography, among other things, as an assistant professor of American studies at California State University, Fullerton.

"The media, they have to brand something," she says, "And they do often brand things by place . . . Columbine — it just meant a flower before it meant a high school massacre."

Lewinnek has noticed that many recent tragedies known geographically have taken place in the West: Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine. She doesn't think that's by accident.

"I think it's part of the whole myth of the West . . . This place where people take justice into their own hands," she says, adding that the notion is compounded by Tucson's lack of baggage and, therefore, limited prior associations.

So what do we call this tragedy?

It couldn't be the "Attempted Assassination of Gabrielle Giffords," she says, because no one knew immediately that this was the case.

She adds, "Safeway advertises in so many newspapers" — so it couldn't be the Safeway Shooting.

"Then you think that Arizona politics have been so much in the news," Lewinnek continues. "I think the media response to the shooting was to immediately talk about the media's own role in the shooting."

We can't call it "The Crazy Boy Who Didn't Get Enough Services Incident," she concludes, although we both agree that maybe we should.

And so it will simply be Tucson.

Of all the coverage I've read and watched about the shootings — and there's been a lot — the one piece that struck me most is a letter Suzi Hileman wrote the day after the president spoke in Tucson. She's the woman who brought her young neighbor, Christina-Taylor Green, out on a sunny Saturday to see their congresswoman.

In a piece published January 18 in the Arizona Daily Star, Hileman describes touring the labyrinth of a memorial outside University Medical Center, of hearing that man play the violin and seeing the cards, posters, candles and flowers left for her and the other victims. Moved, she wrote her own love letter to her city, which ends:

I am out there, but I am not alone. You are out there with me, Tucsonans. You, with your teary eyes and your outstretched arms and your healing grace. We are in this together. A madman tried to turn our desert town into a slaughterhouse, and we just won't let it happen. No way.

This is our melting pot, our cultural stew, our place to be ourselves under the warmest sun and atop the driest earth. We have the Catalinas, the Santa Ritas, and Pusch Ridge, and we have each other. As Dr. King, President Obama, and many of the signs we read last night said, we must choose hope over fear, civility over anger. Sharing the evening with you, exchanging hugs and smiles and tentative outpourings of emotion, I knew, once again, that Bill and I have chosen absolutely the right place to be just now.

I love you, Tucson, just as much as you love me.


Suzi Hileman

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 amy-silverman.com.