Thursday, June 22, 2006

Tucson - First Impressions

The Tucson area has been inhabited for an estimated 3000 years. The Hohokam Indians farmed the area when the Santa Cruz River fed it in the 1st century AD. After they inexplicably disappeared, the Akimel O’odham and Tohono O’odham settled there.
In 1692, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, the famed Italian priest who served as a missionary for the Spanish church, made the first of many visits to the site, which the native people named ‘Chukshon’ which roughly translated means ‘spring at the foot of the black mountains’.
Present day Tucson was founded on 20th August 1775 by Irishman Hugh O’Connor who served in the Spanish army. He established the legendary walled Presidio San Agustin del Tucson.
Spain’s claim to Tucson ended when Mexico gained independence in 1821. Tucson became part of the United States with the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 and remained so except for a brief period when Confederate soldiers seized the town during the Civil War.
It was once a rowdy frontier town but its reputation was changed by the “civilization” soon brought by train traveling city settlers.
In 1867 Tucson was named the capital of the Arizona Territory however the capital was moved north to Phoenix when Arizona became a state in 1912.

There is one word for Tucson……bleached!
Driving in from the airport the uniqueness of the desert environment is difficult to absorb. Tall and short cactus, sparse undergrowth and straggly trees seem to dominate a landscape that is basically sand and rock. Only after you are here for a while do you learn what a rich environment it really is.
With a population of 900,000, the city sits in the Santa Cruz River valley in the northern Sonoran Desert at an elevation of 730m between five rugged mountain ranges. The most dominant are the Santa Catalinas, just north of the city which rise to over 2750m so it’s quite a spectacular area to live in.
Downtown is a typical modern American city with skyscrapers and wide streets. The city fathers here have tried to improve the ambience of the city centre with parks and squares and “Old Tucson” has been well restored and maintained although sadly the Presidio no longer exists. Some of the older public buildings are quite significant architecturally, especially St. Augustine Cathedral and the Pima County Courthouse.

Suburban architecture ranges from shacks to pseudo adobe Mac mansions in walled enclaves. Lawns are the exception rather than the rule with cultivated desert being the landscape of choice. There is considerable use of gum trees in many gardens, parks and median strips. Because of this we have named one part of a major thoroughfare “homesick row”.

Tucson has around 350 days of sunshine a year with an average maximum temperature of 28C and a minimum of 13C. However it does heat up in summer where maximums are in the high 30’s and low 40’s most days. Humidity is extremely low. Rainfall averages 11 inches a year but for the last ten they have had below average falls. 50% of rainfall comes in the months of July and August during the ‘Mexican Monsoon’ season. This is when moist air from the south hits the heated eastern slopes of the mountains in the morning and rises to condense into clouds which break off in the afternoon to dump their moisture irregularly over the city. Falls can be brief but intense. Flooding, especially along the desert washes, basically dry creek beds that can turn into raging torrents after a downpour is prevalent. Drivers who find themselves caught in these washes are now forced to pay several hundred dollars to be rescued under the aptly named “Stupid Motorist Law’. The rule is to just sit and wait until the water recedes or find another route.
The city is expanding at a great rate with a huge amount of building going on in the Santa Catalina foothills. Water supply is an obvious problem. Most water is piped 400 miles uphill from the Central Arizona Plateau. Serious usage restrictions well known to Sydneysiders are in place.
Tucson is serviced by a large number of shopping malls and strips with all manner of supermarkets, restaurants, cafes and specialty shops. There seems to be, also, an inordinate number of movie theaters but every time we go they are always well attended. The good burgers of Tucson like their snacks at the movies. A mother with two kids in tow made their way to their seats the other day with a swimming pool sized cups of coke and a piled high truckload of popcorn. I waited for the other ten consumers to arrive. The never did! One chain of movie theatres offers a free refill for both coke and popcorn in these sized containers. No one can seem to successfully negotiate the theatre stairs with their booty however. There is always sea of popcorn on them. Maybe that’s where the refills come from.

Live theatre and music are also very popular and there are many art galleries and museums to visit. The University of Arizona has a huge campus which incorporates the main sporting stadium. Golf is a very popular sport and the courses with their green irrigated fairways in the desert setting are very spectacular. But how you play in the heat is a question. As usual the Native American tribes run a number of casinos.
Mexican television is something to behold. We have two channels here. My Spanish is non existent apart from “fill’er up” but flicking through these channels a few programs and World Cup matches have caught my attention. Female presenters are predominantly thin, heavily made up, with big hair who hang (and I mean HANG) out of really colorful dresses all with ragged hems. Males presenters are inevitably older, well rounded with moustaches and are really really jolly. Apart from soccer, the programming is taken up with quiz shows, soap operas, and light entertainment that features plaintive songs accompanied by guitars.
My favorite is a Mexican version of the Jerry Springer Show which is hosted by a tall blond scarecrow who seems to do nothing but scream out “Silencio!” to an obviously rabid audience made up mainly of matronly ladies with justifiable homicide on their minds. It seems that it is standard procedure for a new ‘guest’ entering the stage to physically attack one already sitting there only to be dragged off by two huge African American security guards (but only after some damage has been inflicted). I wish I knew who the criminals are and what their crimes were. But from the reaction of the obviously aggrieved on stage and the hostility of the audience, they must be bad!

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