Branded: Can Tucson Ever Live It Down?

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"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.

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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.