World Facts Index > United States > Tucson

Much like other Sunbelt cities, notably Phoenix, Tucson has experienced tremendous growth over the past twenty years, expanding from a mid-size Western town into a metropolitan area of more than 800,000 people, and counting. Most of the new development consists of rather non-descript tract homes and shopping plazas, hailed as signs of continuing economic boom times by some, cursed as environmental destruction by others, and the controversy rages. However you might perceive it, you will most likely first experience Tucson as an urban conglomerate of endless streets laid out in a neat grid system, with a lot of desert mixed in. In fact there are city blocks that still contain nothing but desert shrubs. While those desert lots might not appear particularly pretty to you, keep in mind that the great Sonoran Desert surrounding the city is one of its main attractions, something you will learn to appreciate when watching a desert sunset at Gates Pass. And while urban renewal 60s-style has taken its toll on the beauty of the Old Pueblo, as the city is sometimes affectionately called by its inhabitants, there are still architectural and historical treasures to be found here, if you only know where to look.

Downtown Tucson and the Historic District

Of all the neighborhoods in Tucson, downtown offers the most variety. Here, you will find century-old adobe homes, Victorian mansions, imposing government buildings, museums and affordable restaurants within easy walking distance of each other. The area is bounded by the Santa Cruz River on the west, Park Avenue on the east, on the north by St. Mary's Road, and 22nd Street on the south. It's a favorite destination for artists and art lovers, featuring numerous galleries and studios in and around the Old Town Artisans art marketplace, just a block north from the Tucson Museum of Art. Appropriately, Tucson's center is also where the city and county government resides, most prominently at the Tucson City Hall, the Main Library, and the Pima County Courthouse, sights that are all clustered around the Spanish core of the Old Pueblo at Presidio Park. A taste of more recent history awaits visitors at the old west style Congress Hotel, where mobster John Dillinger met his match in 1934. Downtown is also the site of the city's major performing arts events, with the Tucson Convention Center and the Temple of Music and Art providing the main venues for opera, symphony, and dance perfomances. True, the city still has a long way to go until complete revival of its once-decrepit downtown district, but progress is visible. There are even blueprints for an aquarium o be built in the near future.

Renewal has been quite successful in the Barrio Historico, the now-gentrified Hispanic historic quarter south of the Convention Center, where old Spanish-style homes have been largely restored to their original beauty. Take your time to explore this area on foot after leaving your car in one of the parking garages downtown; try the one across from the Main Library on Pennington Street.

South Tucson and the South Side

Bordering downtown Tucson on the south, there is a small municipality called South Tucson, now mostly inhabited by the Hispanic section of the population. For out-of-town visitors, its main attraction are the Mexican restaurants, which, although low profile and inexpensive, offer the best of South-of-the-border food in town. Places like Michas, Mi Nidito, and Su Casa might not offer the ultimate experience in service and decor, but when it comes to food quality, there are few others to match them.

Moving further to the south, the Hispanic influence deepens, intermingling with the Native American people living in and around the Tohono O'odham Reservation in Tucson's far southwest. Many visitors get at least a glimpse of this area going to and from Tucson International Airport, the Desert Diamond Casino on the reservation, or on the road to visit Mission San Xavier del Bac, a national landmark and by far the most attractive site on this side of town.

North-Central, and the Foothills

In Tucson, "north" generally means "north of Broadway," with Broadway Boulevard as the dividing line between north-south street numbers. Bounded on the north by the natural barriers of the Santa Catalina Mountains and Coronado National Forest, this area includes the University of Arizona campus with its many venues for science and art as well as the city's main business and shopping areas; the Tucson Mall and the Foothills Mall are considered by many to be the biggest and best of their kind. Since most of Tucson's social life takes place inside air-conditioned malls, at least during hot summer days, these are really the places to meet the locals. Further to the north, the land and the income level slowly rises all the way up to the tony Foothills residential district, which features beautiful homes with a view, surrounded by stately saguaro cacti and mesquite trees, outside the city limits, and well out of reach for Tucson's tax authorities. Here, well heeled residents stroll upscale shopping malls and adobe-style galleries looking for quality, while wintertime visitors relax after a game of golf at one of the posh resorts in the area, such as the Westin La Paloma, Westward Look or Loews Ventana Canyon Resort.

The West Side

Basically, "west" means that big chunk of Tucson which stretches from Oracle Road, the main north-south artery, and I-19 westward to the base of the Tucson Mountains and the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation. Bordered on the northwest by the ever-expanding residential and recreational retreat of Oro Valley (more golf courses here), this part of the city offers few visual attractions other than Tohono Chul Park, a very civilized, pleasant desert garden with an artsy touch. From there, it's a long drive west on Ina Road past sprawling urban development to Marana, a township which has successfully asserted its independence from Tucson. Since a 1997 law made it easier for municipalities to become independent, incorporation fever has hit Tucson's edges. Some suburban residents want to avoid city taxes, while others strive to save the rural nature of their homes from encroachment by the city, or both; in any case, the battle over incorporation or annexation is particularly intense in the northwest.

But remember that Tucson's main attraction is its scenic beauty. Once you're past I-10, the road starts snaking into the grandeur of Sahuaro National Park West, covered by entire forests of the giant cacti that gave the park its name, and the site of several ancient Indian petroglyphs. Don't miss the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the far side of the Tucson Mountains, and consider stopping at Old Tucson Studios for the sake of the kids.

The East Side

Bounded roughly on the west by Wilmot Road, the Rincon and Catalina Mountains on the east and north, and Interstate 10 on the south, expansion of this district is largely limited by state and federal lands. The most attractive natural feature in the northeast is certainly Sabino Canyon, the most accessible part of the Catalinas, teeming with tourists, trams, hikers, and joggers on weekends, but still retaining its serene beauty to this day. Nature lovers will also appreciate the vast expanses of Sahuaro National Park East, taking in the desert and mountain scenery while, hopefully, taking care not to disturb the rovings of the inhabitant scorpions and rattlesnakes. More civilized, man-made recreation is available Morris K. Udall Regional Park on the corner of Sabino Canyon and Tanque Verde Roads, with indoor and outdoor facilities for baseball, soccer, jogging, swimming and walking the dog. If that sounds like too much of an effort in the sizzling Tucson summer heat, flee to the desert oasis of Agua Caliente Park in the far northeast, and relax in the shade of palm trees next to pretty ponds.

Although building in the east has been mostly residential, there is no dearth of shopping and dining facilities here. In this category, Park Place stands out, a recently expanded mall on the corner of Broadway and Wilmot, now more upscale than ever, featuring all the big names in the retail business, and catering to East Side residents who, like their foothills counterparts, are also mostly Anglos, but, on the average, more middle class.

History of Tucson

In 1698, Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, on his way north from what is now Mexico to explore possible sites for building new missions, came across an Indian village called Shuk Shon. During the 70 years of Spanish colonial acquisition that followed his visit into the territory later known as Arizona, the place was renamed San Agustin del Tucson, with the hard "c" in the middle still pronounced. Both the saint's name and the "c" were later dropped by Anglo-Americans, with St. Augustine Cathedral downtown now the only surviving memory of the Spanish name.

When Father Kino arrived, people had already lived in the region for more than 2000 years. Anasazi, Mogollon, Hohokam, and O'odham tribes came and went in successive waves of immigration over the centuries. One of the favorite settlements lay at the base of a big hill of black volcanic rock, "Chuk Shon" (meaning, roughly, "village of the spring at the foot of the black mountain" in the O'odham language), an elevation now officially called Sentinel Peak, also nicknamed A Mountain for the large whitewashed letter (for University of Arizona) on its eastern side. In any case, it is one of the best lookout points, commanding a view of the entire Tucson basin.

A few miles further to the South, out of a nearby village named Bac, the Jesuits worked to convert the local Pima Indians to the Christian faith. Today, this is the location of Mission San Xavier del Bac, the "White Dove of the Desert," known for its beauty world-wide.

Though the colonialists from Europe were not exactly considered friends by the Indians of Bac, they seemed the lesser evil compared to the Apache raiders that moved into the Tucson valley, to the extent that the Pima and O'odham asked for Spanish military assistance against the Apaches. The Jesuits, who had to be considered inept in effectively defending the locals, were replaced with Franciscan priests who understood the strategic importance of Tucson. Finally, in 1775, an Irish mercenary in Spanish employ known as Don Hugo O'Connor, arrived to establish a presidio, or military fort here. Though nothing is now left of the structure, El Presidio Park downtown still marks the fort's original location.

Over time, the Apaches agreed to behave more peacefully, colonial New Spain gained independence from the Spanish crown, and the new Mexican government decided to discontinue the frontier mission system. As a consequence, the settlement at the foot of the black mountain gradually disintegrated, vanished into the ground, to be later temporarily used as a landfill. Today, a barren field remains bearing no traces of its long and eventful history.

While the village at the foot of Sentinel Peak slowly disappeared, a new Mexican village slowly grew up around the Spanish presidio, nicknamed the Old Pueblo, an endearing term still used for the city. After the Gadsden Purchase of 1854 following the Mexican-American War, which gave a large part of Sonoran territory to the United States, the village quickly became a new American frontier town, even serving as capital of the Arizona Territory from 1867 to 1877. Now, cattle ranchers moved into the valley, and mining companies began prospecting the mountains for copper and gold. But the real boom came with the arrival of the railroad in 1880, allowing goods and raw materials to be transported at drastically reduced costs.

The railroad brought wealthy entrepreneurs and investors that undermined the influence of the dominant Mexican business community. It also afforded more convenient access to Tucson for Anglo brides, and by the end of the 19th century, Latinos found themselves outnumbered by whites. Although Tucson has drawn many outstanding citizens from its Mexican-American community, with immigration from South of the border now gradually shifting the balance back in its favor, Anglo-Americans continue to have greater public influence to this day.

As Easterners considered Mexican housing primitive, they began replacing the mud-brick adobe buildings with imported brick and lumber first, concrete and steel later, thus drastically changing the look of Tucson. With Anglos pushing into formerly Mexican-American territory, many of the old adobes fell into disrepair and were eventually bulldozed into oblivion. Today, with the adobe style being the rage, many Tucsonans wish that those "primitive" but cool and practical houses were still standing. Luckily, some of the original adobes have been preserved in the Barrio Historico district south of downtown. The uneasy relationship between pioneers, Indians, and Mexicans is well documented both at the Arizona Historical Society and the Fort Lowell Museum, while people interested in the more distant past of Arizona and its original inhabitants will find a wealth of material at the Arizona State Museum. Mexican culture is celebrated during the annual Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and the local Tohono O'odham and Yaqui people keep their traditions alive in the Wa:k Powwwow and Yaqui Easter Lenten Ceremony.

Another ethnic group that made a significant impact on Tucson's economic growth were the Chinese. In the 1870s, the Southern Pacific Railroad started recruiting Chinese men as a cheap and reliable labor force to do the backbreaking work of extending the railroad across the desert. When the job was done, some of the Chinese laborers returned home, but many were hired by local mining companies to work the copper mines. After decades of mutual mistrust and prejudice, their descendants are now well integrated into Tucson's ethnic mix, and proudly present their rich cultural heritage at the Asian Lunar New Year Celebration.

With the discovery of silver and copper deposits at the nearby towns of Tombstone and Bisbee, minerals became the dominant industry in Southern Arizona until copper prices took a nosedive in the 1970s. Many mines were closed at the time, but the effects of decades of strip mining, both in its economically beneficial and environmentally damaging aspects, can still be viewed at the Asarco Mineral Discovery Center.

When the mining business went into a slump, aerospace and aircraft industries moved in to pick up the slack, a development extensively documented at the Pima Air and Space Museum. Since the founding of the University of Arizona in 1891, Tucson has gradually shed its image as a rugged Western town filled with cowboys, miners, and hard-dinking gamblers and replaced it with the marks of intellectual and technological activity. Due to the presence of the university, the city is now home to several hi-tech companies. It is also one of the world centers of astronomy, as certified by the presence of nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Health-seeking tuberculosis patients have been flocking to the dry climate of Tucson ever since the railroad made the harsh desert more accessible to more fragile individuals, and over the past few decades, the city has become the center of a booming health industry. Every year, thousands of visitors from the northern regions, mostly senior citizens, come to stay and enjoy the mild winter sun of Southern Arizona, thus securing the financial health for the numerous spas, resorts, real estate agencies, and Southwestern souvenir shops in the region.

Today, one of the main issues confronting Tucson, just as Arizona's present capital Phoenix and many other cities in the west , is how to deal with urban sprawl. Since the 1950s, city development has run out of control, spawning tacky strip malls along Tucson's street grid and nondescript tract homes at the outskirts, while parts of the old barrio downtown were leveled to make room for 60s-and 70s-style highrises and concrete structures such as the Tucson Convention Center. In recent years, however, Tucsonans have learned to consider their architectural and ethnic heritage as more of an asset helping to attract tourists and conventioners to their city. By the early 1990s, what remained of the barrio had been restored, and the depressed downtown revived with some success by the Tucson Arts District. Still, the controversy over urban development continues, and for the foreseeable future, the diverging demands of job security, population growth, water conservation, environmental protection, and esthetics promise to dominate the political agenda in the Old Pueblo.

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