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Branded: Can Tucson Ever Live It Down?

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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.

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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.