The dust usually settles around Tucson this time of year. Wild spring winds diminish; snowbirds retreat to temperate regions; summer vacationers flee; university students join the exodus (or sink into a state of summer torpor); and our beloved burg settles in for a long, sleepy bake.
Not this year. Amid fallout from the grinding gears of construction and related political dustups, it seems there's more dust than ever.
Let's start with the streetcar. Excuse me—the modern streetcar, not to be confused with streetcars that were built a century ago under the same guiding principle of efficiently moving people around urban areas, but with far less cost and caterwauling. Back then, people appreciated public works, because public wisdom was not yet compromised by the hubris of a century of imperial wealth and gadgetry.
Under the guise of progress, those streetcars were systematically purchased and destroyed by automakers who understood that their stinky, slow, expensive, inefficient and unreliable gadgets could not compete with clean, cheap and efficient mass transit. Historical public memory being what it is—virtually obliterated by the frenetic demands and distractions of the present—few remember these basic streetcar truths and comprehend the need for a "modern" one.
But the streetcar squabble is nothing compared to the dustups that pit neighborhoods against the city and carpetbagging developers. Tucson Weekly readers are no doubt aware of the pitched battle over the Main Gate Urban Overlay District, a nifty little arrangement that allows 14-story student-fornication pens to replace historic homes and small businesses at the edge of the UA campus zone. It's the latest in a long tradition of destroying Tucson's heritage in the name of progress and profit.
Oh, I know, it's not so clear-cut as all that. I've heard arguments on both sides, ad nauseam. My downtown development friends say that density is the key, and you can't bitch about the streetcar or anything else that makes it work—even the ridiculously overblown wet dreams of wheeler-dealers from Chicago or California or wherever else they manufacture fake money for a living.
My neighborhood activist friends—who've been fucked by the powers-that-be so many times that they've taken to carrying condoms to City Council meetings—say that there is a fundamental matter of scale here, one that ensures profit for some, and misery for others. I sympathize, considering the history of such matters, including, most recently, a dastardly bait-and-switch by the city clerk, who handed the activists flawed petitions and then disqualified the same when they were returned filled with the signatures of thousands of citizens intent on shining the bright light of democracy on the matter.
All I know for sure is that my bicycle commute has turned into an obstacle course of chain link, heavy equipment and valley-fever vectors. I try hard to believe some good will come of it, but the underlying dynamics are dubious.
Overheard in a Congress Street coffee shop: Downtown pooh-bah presents bicycle advocate with a scheme to market downtown as a destination for bicyclists during the construction, in anticipation of a reduction in car traffic. Never mind that precious little has ever been done to make the downtown death trap safe for bicycles, or that the scheme ends when the construction ends—now's the moment of redemption!
Bicycle advocate looks out the window and patiently notes that construction fences have rendered many bike racks legally out of bounds for bicyclists to use. Such is the tragicomically limited perspective of those who live in a world defined by the auto industry, developers and the exigencies of "progress."
Allow me to redefine: Real progress would involve processes that prioritize people rather than money, and start with listening to people's concerns, rather than the pipe dreams of the profiting class.
Next door to my office is the Blue Moon Garden. Under the revolutionary guidance of Community Gardens of Tucson—an all-volunteer, nonprofit entity committed to people, and their need and desire to grow healthy, tasty food—a dusty, unused parking lot was transformed into a riot of squash, corn and tomatoes. There's also a beautiful ramada and native landscaping.
To be fair, I'll note that the city also supported this small miracle. And I'll say that the streetcar is even more necessary now than a century ago, and some amount of density is necessary to make it work. Nevertheless, massive concrete erections won't save us. But a civic ethic that honors the well-being of the people who live here just might.