Longform

Branded: Can Tucson Ever Live It Down?

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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."

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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.