Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How Tucson Shapes the Frame for the United States -- a series looking back

Note: As part of an analysis of Spokane and environs reflecting a certain commonality in how the West – and the Southwest in particular – has “boomed” as a conflagration of settlements as diverse as Boulder, Santa Fe, Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and so on – Treading Lightly series writer Paul K. Haeder will look at how sustainable and unsustainable practices are shaping what has been commonly called the American West -- “all that land west of the hundredth meridian and east of the Pacific shore." This appeared in the Pacific Northwest Weekly Inlanderfour years ago.

Part One – You Can’t Go Home Again (and just slough it all off)

Not Enough Monkey-wrenching – How John Wesley Powell predicted the floundering fools of the Air Conditioned WestBy Paul K. Haeder

The almost old adage, “you can’t go home again,” strikes me like a monsoonal flashflood as I fly into Phoenix to change planes to make my sand-jump into Tucson to fix and pack up my ailing mother’s townhouse.

Mine is beginning to become the classic American return home: a nighttime fall, fractured pelvis and wrist. Alone, a 78-year-old woman not ready to give up her sprawling home.

At 15,000 feet I look down at the orgasmic addiction to backyard pools, Sonora Desert-chomping sprawl, and black and silver arteries clogged with shiny new SUVs and cars. All those metastasizing stucco developments and gargantuan retail spaces pummeling in gory fashion the unique but dwindling ecosystem of a robust desert.

The idea of delusional planning (or lack thereof) bubbles up as I study the endless tendrils of Colorado River-sapping canals of the Central Arizona Project feeding non-native trees and shrubs and the obscene green turf of golf courses abutting each other in desert that sees less rain in a year than Seattle sees in a month.

Then the light bulb goes off: “Duh, this is a place whose environment is literally being altered by the ever-expanding service-economy families who organize themselves on the land with their car-trips and consumerism as their central ethos.”

I probably thought this thought in a bit more randy fashion, but it wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen this coming – I had been a journalist and activist since my first-year in college at the University of Arizona and later as a professional living throughout the Southwest.

But right then and there was this combination of space and time influencing me, and the altered five-year orbit away from here. Five years away from the influences of Mexico, Indians and Central America, to this new home in the Inland Northwest.

This hypersensitivity to seeing how the desert colonies are doomed in the Jared Diamond sense (his award-winning book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, comes to mind) was being generated in part by the past five years grappling with the profundity of our own issues of a stressed Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie aquifer, the mainlining developers and politicos who see the infinite caravans of newcomers as all positive for Spokane, and the battle lines drawn between those who think endless growth and habitat destruction is a good urban and rural plan against those concerned citizens groups, academics and activists who would rather practice growth management and environmental stewardship in preparing for a more sustainable existence.

I begin to see the ghosts of Hopi and Navajo medicine men and Mexican peasants and laborers. And hear the screams of Spanish empire seekers and their cross-bearing leaders in their lust for silver, gold, slaves and converts. And remember the history courses detailing all the boom and bust mentality of the “new” Adam seeking revival and reclamation in the American West.

Here I am, landing in Phoenix readying myself for Tucson, my home town, seeing Joan Didion’s endlessly funny nose jobs driving Cadillac convertibles and listening to Sinatra on their way to one-arm bandits and poker tables. I’m dodging the battalions of RV-ers and boat-loving desert rats on their way to skin cancer-inducing weekends on artificial lakes, and I’m wondering: Nothing changes? It only gets worse?

I drift back to 1975 and the endless lines of mint condition pick-up trucks waiting to get into car wash bays, to now, at this present where endless lines of SUVs queue up at the grand openings of new Hooters of Krispy Kremes. In a millisecond I am between my world as a newspaperman in 1980 covering mind-numbing planning and zoning meetings in Bisbee and Wilcox, Arizona, and now in the present, reading the formerly enlightened Tucson morning newspaper with its lukewarm stories detailing today’s nasty land grabbers and cookie-cutter home builders whining to their paid-for county commissioners and city council members about water restrictions.

This journey back -- to a place where I started cutting my teeth on understanding the enormity of expanse and the power of desiccation and adaptive plants like 2,000-year-old ironwood and where I learned how to respect Mohave rattlers and scorpions -- also revives some of the endless sanity I keep reading inside the pages of writers who have known the West and the consequences of over-inhabiting it with the wrong people, wrong attitudes, and wrong lifestyles.

I winnow back to Wallace Stegner, and his constant drumbeat invoking the idea that the West – any place for that matter – is a place of diasporas and transplantations. Whether we are conceived and birthed in a place or if we stumble upon it, we need to make a deep connection to it as both a landscape and place of community, and it can be made a lasting place only through a “slow accrual, like a coral reef,” of meaningful and climate- and land-based decisions.

Thomas Wolfe’s character, George Webber, in that 1934 novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, found it necessary to eradicate his roots in order for “a man to win his ultimate freedom and not be plunged back into savagery and perish utterly from earth.”

I’m not big on dappling off roots or ignoring heritage and origins and the nuances of how time lived and time remembered can shape one’s undreamed of future.

But the fact is that the entire project that is the American West is a glittering mess of botox narcissism and evangelical myopia, where the warnings about growing too big in all the wrong places -- and with too much dependence on water and consumerism -- have been scoffed at by citizens, lawmakers and corporations inhabiting such places as Scottsdale and Las Vegas, or Sun City, Arizona, and St. George, Utah.

Almost everything wrong with unchecked development or that arrogance against nature humanity has displayed over the course of civilization hits me in the face as the jet plows through the late-June inversion and supercharged air of the greater Phoenix metropolis.

The heat island effect of another 20 unnatural degrees, added to the thermometer caused by Phoenix’s affinity for endless pavement and concrete barriers, unfortunately is drawing a slew of heat-seeking retirees and budding families into the 125-degree motorway hell.

Habla Espanol: Getting it Built

The very idea that Spokane is part of the west and is enshrined in the Sunbelt mentality may seem like a stretch, but given our longitude and latitude, we are part of the chunk of real estate west of the 100th Meridian and east of the Pacific coastal zone that receives less than 20 inches of rainfall a year.

Billings, Flagstaff, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, and Spokane have more in common with Tucson, Albuquerque, Denver, and El Paso than any town east of the Mississippi.

In many ways, Spokane is a microcosm of things about to become dislodged, broken, and auctioned off that are now challenging the very existence of the “west.” In Spokane, we have milder and milder winters and warmer nighttime temperatures, creating havoc with drainages and water in general, as well as with growing seasons and invasive species. Hell, we can simply study 90-year-old photos of Spokane in December and January and see the regular snowfalls of old were a lot deeper than what we have now.

We have water problems – depletion and pollution. We are part of the swath of geology that is affected by a decades-long Western drought. We have the tension of immigration – more Hispanics are in-migrating and setting down roots in Washington. Each month we have more and more residents from California – the epitome of the West of the Perception and the West of Reality – moving to the Inland Northwest, bringing with them money, xenophobia and out-of-whack consumer habits.

While the Sunbelt is a continuous escalator of older folk coming into it, the Inland Northwest’s demographics belie a similar pattern with additional close-to-retirement-age folk coming in and settling down. Healthcare and medical facilities are two huge challenges that have to be met here and throughout the west.

Near Nature, Near Perfect is a funny jingo Spokane hawks as pseudo pop philosophy; however, in towns throughout Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and California, the same sort of PR campaigns have unfolded. These, in turn, are pitting the needs of the Home Depot and Walmart loving suburban dweller against the very ecosystems that supposedly draw the transplants out here to begin with.

Tucson – where I went to high school and where the seeds of my life as a writer, journalist and activist were germinated -- is so much like Spokane in many ways. The Sonoran Desert and our dry Ponderosa forest have comparisons: both are lush and severely beautiful with little moisture for their respective ecosystems.

Like Spokane, Tucson has various university-based groups and neighborhood action committees fighting to stop the bulldozer and street-paver from fracturing yet more habitat that is home to both the big and small species. We have our moose and elk problem; Tucson has its coyote and cougar problem.

For both western cities, the issue centers around encroachment – more land is being developed for people with the bucks. What once was a sane greenbelt policy is disintegrating into a building frenzy up into the foothills of the Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountains.

Like a wildfire, droves of people enter natural areas and expect the wildness to be tame . . . or be gone altogether.

The dichotomies, inequities and ironies come flooding at me during as each day of my three weeks in Arizona unfolds. While I wait for my 78-year-old mother to go through rehab sessions at a well-apportioned and fancy medical complex – one that looks like a dude ranch or Santa Fe spa resort -- I hike the expanse of the gated skilled, semi-skilled and independent-living facilities that dot the canyons at the foot of the Catalinas.

I used to hike and camp here with my fellow biology students. Once wild and rough territory with black bears, javelina, rattlesnakes, kit foxes and an array of insects, reptiles and flora found only in this part of the world, the foothills are now overdeveloped with multi-million dollar homes set on 2- and 5-acre acre plots.

Four- and five-star restaurants abound. Jack Nicholas-designed golf courses spread out through gullies and arroyos. All of it is reached by high speed four- and six-lane roads.

These doctors and software developers are living their 4,000-square-foot dreams away from the valley where almost a million people make up the Tucson metroplex.
They wallow in their Taos-inspired architecture and drip irrigation systems for native drought-resistant plants.

Near the exercise pool at one of the dozens of retirement-slash-medical assisted facilities, where 20 gray-haired residents are learning aqua-aerobics and deep breathing exercises, I am standing at a table with a newspaper fluttering in the convection breeze -- the morning daily, The Arizona Daily Star.

Once a cool middle-sized newspaper, referred to in the old days by Barry Goldwater reactionaries as the Arizona Red Star, it’s a shade or two on the conservative side. Shades of our very own Spokesman Review.

I’m listening to the gray-haired seniors counting out pool exercises while reading copy in my old newspaper, the crux of which could have been torn from the pages of our Spokane daily:

 One neighborhood is fighting against Walmart while another is petitioning for a box store to be built (not Walmart) in their neighborhood for those low-wage jobs.

 People rail against Mexicans, not even acknowledging their region’s Mexican and Spanish roots.

 There’s copy about the racist border watchers – the Minutemen, some of whom are from Washington and Oregon – who “patrol” along the US-Mexico border.

 A story about water barrels for illegal crossers being turned into Swiss cheese with 30.30s.

 Complaints about unchecked growth, and then right underneath that letter to the editor, two harangues against “those environmentalists who want to take away our rights to trap vermin, to drive our four-wheel drives in useless desert and tell us what kind of plants we should have in our yards.”

 Historic preservationists fighting the City and progressive developers against constructing a seven-story new urbanism-styled multi-use building downtown (know as the Old Pueblo) because it doesn’t fit with the single-story adobe architecture of old (when Tucson had 5,000 residents).

Just like Spokane, Tucson and Phoenix have their battlefields strewn with the lost causes of controlling growth, designing new urban city cores, conserving water, and creating alternatives to the endless single-occupancy car trips made nine or ten times a day by each person.

Here I am reading these anti-immigrant stories from wire services and local reporters while listening to construction hammers, saws and cement mixers, all manned by workers from Jalisco, Oaxaca, and so on.

I listen to what some of those old ladies and men “working out” in the azure of the Olympic-sized pool have to say: “We need those nice Spanish girls to change our sheets, cook our food, and do their TLC magic on our aging bodies.”

I’m standing in an area that was once open, wild, and undeveloped; once full of mule deer, tortoises, raptors, Mexican free-tail bats, black racers and California king snakes. But, all I can see are sleek SUVs and low-slung faux adobe homes. Service workers tending to pools. Mexicans building walls and tending to landscaping.

I’m thinking about Spokane, its future, this entire Inland Northwest’s future as the price of crude ratchets up, as more dissatisfied Californians and Arizonans head north for affordable second homes and all these lakes.

Yeah, Tucson and Spokane, sister cities. It all makes sense to me right there at the edge of the egg-frying blacktop where lizards wait for catastrophe to bring them home again.

..............................................End of Part One...................................

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