Longform

Branded: Can Tucson Ever Live It Down?

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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.

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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.