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.”
I reflect on how deeply I enjoy the ramshackle dispersion of the city and on the fact that I now know which Mexican handicrafts store to visit if I am ever in need of a six-foot ceramic pineapple from Michoacán. I think about a photo gallery I like as much for its location near a funky tattoo parlor as for its adventurous exhibitions, a diner in a movie-ready structure unaltered since the 1960s, and the thrift shops of which Tucson boasts more than it has hipster brunch spots.
I recall, too, the pleasures of ordering a heaping platter of huevos rancheros at my favorite hipster brunch spot, the Five Points Market, situated on an intersection whose other notable landmarks include a florist selling $1 roses and a used-car dealership with the motto “Ugly but Honest.”