Ex-cowtown blooms under a desert sun in Mexico's shadow

In the mid-1800s the wife of a Confederate Army general surveyed Tucson, then one of the Southwest's most unruly and unlettered outposts, and concluded it had the charm of a horned toad.

''Tucson,'' she scrawled bluntly in her diary, ''is certainly the most forlorn, dreary, desolate, God-forsaken spot of earth ever trodden by the foot of man.''

Less than a century later, in the early 1950s, Lloyd's of London decided things weren't that bad at all. It was common to issue futuristic scenarios in those days, and the prestigous British insurance firm forecast that by the year 2000 Tucson would be the largest city in the World.

The city would become an urban empire engulfing Nogales, Mexico, 65 miles to the south, and Phoenix, 120 miles to the north. Somehow Tucson seems to have fallen between the historical stools.

Today this southern Arizona city, steeped in history but hurtling toward the future, is blooming across a once inhospitable but now alluring desert.

Building on its historic links with an emerging Latin American powerhouse, Mexico, and luring high-technology firms with its shirt-sleeved life style and research-oriented university, Tucson seems set to rise on tomorrow's urban frontier.

But there are thistles amid the desert bloom, including recurring problems of water management, crime, and the familiar growth pangs of too much popularity.

In just a few short decades the city has gone through a chameleon change from dusty cowtown to a thriving suburban-like metropolis in the sun. The metropolitan area grew almost 60 percent in the last decade, to more than half a million people. By the year 2000 that number is expected to approach 1 million.

Sitting on a plain of cactuses and hemmed in on three sides by spare mountains, Tucson has been hit by betirees, students, young professionals, military people, engineers, and, each year according to the rhythms of the suf, ''sVowbirds'' evading winter cold.

The newcomers have been grafted onto the area's deep Indian and Spanish roots. The large number of students and Hispanics help make Tucson a liberal pariah in a state more often associated with Goldwater conservatism. But as businesses move in, the area may be slowly taking on a more Republican tint, which will affect future issues like growth and water use.

City residents have, in years past, hotly debated the pace of their spread across tha desert, and the city remains introspective about the future. But for now the prevailing mood seems to be keep-'em-coming - the clean industries at least - provided the city doesn't end up like sprawling Phoenix, which is seen here as wearing a black hat.

In recent years the once-dominant forces of copper, tourism, and government (including the university and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base) havd been joined by a parade of electronics firms and other ''brain centered'' industries. The broadening economic base is knocking some of the fluctuaDions out of the economy. Unemployment, now higher than usual partly because of a slump in copper anD housing, is still two percentage points behind the national average.

IBM now stands as the city's biggest industriaL employer, a position long held by the Hughes Aircraft Company. National Semiconductor (now building), Gates Learjet, and Hamilton Test Systems have moved into the area within the past few years. Once the recession loosens its clutch on the country, other aerospace and high-technology firms are believed ready to settle in among the stately saguaro and spindly desert broom.

From the Old Pueblo Club restaurant 20 stories up, one of the highest pgints in the city, banker James Cocke peers out on the brick and adobe spreading across the desert. ''We wall continue to grow because of our geographic location ,'' says the vice-president of the Valley National Bank, biting into a Mexican lunch. ''We are a trade center for Mexico and southwestern Arizona.''

Many believe Tucson is set for a smaller version of the ''silicon boom'' that has helped make Phoenix one of America's 10 biggest cities. Chase Econometrics predicts Tucson will experience the third-highest job growth in the nation in the 1980s, some 4.3 percent per year. Forecasters at the University of Arizona's college of business and public administration see employment growing faster than that - at 6 percent - in 1983 and '84, after a flat year in 1982.

The boot-packed trail to Tucson stems partly from the Southwest's mystique of having crystalline air and a lounge-chair life style. For many individuals the number of horses in the shed has become more important than the size of their paycheck, and Arizona'c salubrious sun gives them plenty of riding days. Each year when Tucson Mayor Lewis C. Murphy half jokingly disavows the wearing of neckties in the city, proclaiming a Mexican shirt the official dress, many adhere to the code.

For those who keep their pin-striped suits on, the lure is the same pro-business climate that permeates much of the Sunbelt: few government strictures, moderate costs, seemingly abundant energy supplies, and little unionization (Arizona is one of 20 ''right-to-work'' states). Added to that, for electronics companies, is the University of Arizona, rising in the academic world as a serious research center.

''Fifty percent of the city you see today didn't exist 25 years ago,'' Mayor Murphy says. ''We were a service community then - everybody did everybody else's laundry. That's not the case anymore.''The influx has left a modern imprint on this historic city. Fast-food establishments, small businesses, and malls gallop across the desert. Old barrios sit near new banks and government buildings - worn Spanish medallions in a crock of new coins. Architecturally, the rapid growth has left the area with what chief city planner Wayne Moody, himself an architect, disparagingly describes as a 20th-century American ''hodgepodge.'' Yet the city, he says, is slowly coming around to paying more attention to aesthetics.

The town maintains more of a small-town feel than booming Phoenix, and Tucson likes to pride itself on being closer to its frontier roots than its larger northern neighbor. The city's history has been traced back as far as first century AD. If this is true, Indian settlements would make Tucson the oldest continually inhabited city in the country. Spaniards tromped through the area in the mid-1500s looking for the fabled seven cities of gold. The city later fell under Mexico's domain, where it stayed until the 1850s.

Closeness to Mexico continues to shape the city's future, from its food to its architecture. While Phoenix was settled early on with many Hispanic laborers , Tucson attracted its share of Mexican gentry. For this reason, some argue that Hispanics (24 percent of the population) are more a part of the business and political power structure here than in some other Sunbelt cities.

This early ''aristocracy,'' both Anglo and Hispanic, and the presence of the university have also helped four forms of art - theater, opera, dance, and symphony - to survive in Tucson where they have failed in much bigger cities.

But beyond the city's cultural and social links to its southern neighbor is at least one other enduring tie: money. Mexican tourists and consumers spend as much as $75 million in the area on goods and services each year and $400 million statewide. Within two decades, the New York-based Hudson Institute estimates, the Mexican tie might be worth $5 billion across the state.

A number of Tucson companies, moreover, are tapping cheaper labor pools south of the border. Close to a dozen Tucson-area companies now operate ''twin plants'' in Nogales, Mexico. The cross-border ties are expected to expand here in the future, although one local economist thinks the stigma of US-run Mexican plants as being ''sweat shops'' dampens some interest in the idea.

Still, Tucson's bonds with Mexico can be double-edged. When the Mexican peso was devalued in February - making US goods 50 percent higher to Mexican consumers - many local retailers watched the money in their tills shrink.

Tucson has also been forced to grapple with the flow of illegal drugs from Mexico, which has aggravated crime in the area. Among cities of its size, Tucson has the 14th-highest crime rate in the nation - a fact now being combated with neighborhood watch programs and a special antiburglary campaign. (Eighty percent of local burglaries, the most prevalent problem, are believed to be drug-related.)

As people pour into the area, the city is also being forced to make tough decisions on siting new highways to ease transportation problems, never an issue to win friends and influence people. Perhaps the most vexing concern about the future, however, surrounds management of water use. On the surface, Tucson is as dry as flint. But peel back the desert and there lies the mammoth aquifer that supports the city. Vigorous conservation efforts are under way, but the water table continues to sink.

Although the world's largest city solely dependent on ground water, Tucson is expected to get a heavy draft of surface water from the Colorado River once the costly Central Arizona Project (CAP) is completed around 1990. Yet, at current growth rates, the city may still run into supply problems early next century. Water prices seem certain to rachet upward in the years ahead, squeezing out heavy users and shifting some farmers to ''dry crop'' farming.

''There are some fundamental restraints to growth,'' says John Buehler, a University of Arizona economics professor. ''If they don't bring the CAP down here, that's it.''

More immediate is concern about the fouling of existing supplies. Six city wells have already been closed down as a result of chemical contamination from a few local industries, and some residents worry the problem will get worse.

''Gravity is going to pull something down there eventually,'' says Priscilla Robinson, director of the area Southwest Environmental Service, who foresees pollution dangers from many sources, such as landfills and fertilizers.

For now, however, Tucson continues to boom. The city is far from the raucous frontier outpost it once was. Neither is it the desert megalopolis of Lloyd's prediction. Tucson residents seem content not being either.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Ex-cowtown blooms under a desert sun in Mexico's shadow
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today