One of the city's better-kept secrets is how often you can find significant examples of mid-20th century architecture
“People tend to come to Tucson to figure something out,” Demion Clinco remarked one cool desert evening, beneath a sky so boundless it made all things seem possible. We were seated on the terrace of the 85-year-old Arizona Inn, drinking anachronistic cocktails. The cocktails produced an optimism of their own.
Pulling on his bourbon old-fashioned, Mr. Clinco, a native Tucsonan and former member of the state House of Representatives, added a fillip, “When they do, they tend to leave.” That I had come to Tucson to figure something out was evident. It remained to be seen precisely what. I arrived — as snowbirds have for much of the state’s recent history — fleeing a bitter and prolonged East Coast winter, a season during which the blackened mounds of ice blocking city streets and crosswalks, when they finally melted, left behind a tideline of crud. Somehow that trash felt metaphoric. The varied detritus of urban living also clusters in your psyche: small angers, embedded resentments, everyday slights, the guy looking cross-eyed at you on the E train. Like street trash, this stuff is hard to recycle; I needed, as we all occasionally do, to flee the bedeviling daily issues and light out.
Escape is what led me to Tucson, a fact unlikely to bring joy to the hearts of its civic boosters, who would perhaps prefer visitors to focus on the positive aspects of this midsize Southwestern city. I am, assuredly, mindful of those — aware that Tucson is well situated in a valley basin geologically lofted to an altitude (2,600 feet) that in my mind qualifies it as high desert; that its signal feature is a series of jagged mountain ranges enclosing its flanks like a palisade; that its extravagant skies, particularly at twilight, have a way of vaulting the spirits in a manner I have seldom experienced anyplace else besides Rome. Tucson is no Rome, however. It is a dusty outpost on the fringes of the Sonoran Desert, a cyclical boomtown that suffered badly in the financial crash of 2008 and that, even beforehand, had in many ways seen better days. It is a grid city of long avenues and abundant strip malls; a place whose largest employers are a university, the military, the government and a maker of missile systems. It is a mini-metropolis whose proximity to the Mexican border has resulted not only in a shadow economy but also some fairly stark racial and economic bifurcations. It is a blue dot in a red state, a college town whose seasonal population of students and retirees departs this month in a mass migration that leaves tumbleweed vacancies in its wake. It is also a city whose loopy retail landscape skews heavily toward yoga studios, thrift shops and vape stores. And one of the city’s better-kept secrets is how often these places occupy structures that could easily be counted among the more significant examples of mid-20th century architecture in the country. That is, if anyone were bothering to look. I had first taken note of this curiosity some years back when attending the annual American Gem Trade Association fair in Tucson. In reality one central fair and an agglomeration of 40 or so satellites, where dealers trade in the countless minerals of which the earth is formed (and also a certain amount of random space flotsam), the fair is the place to be if you are ever in the market for an eight-carat Mozambique ruby, a Brazilian rock crystal carved like a phallus or a fragment of a meteorite.
Increasingly, on what have become annual pilgrimages to the gem fair (including one in February) I’ve found myself straying from the parking lots crammed with geodes, beads and boulders, and venturing out to explore the local architectural treasures. Back home, whenever New York threatens to ruin my day, I follow my thoughts back to my random excursions around Tucson and to memories of its illimitable skies, dry, clear air and its abundant supply of wizened drifters right out of Richard Avedon’s “In the American West.”