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On Place

Tucson and the Santa Catalina Mountains from Tumamoc Hill. Photo: Aengus Anderson

Tucson and the Santa Catalina Mountains from Tumamoc Hill. Photo: Aengus Anderson


Adobe rowhouses huddle along narrow streets, smeared with colorful stucco like sunscreen against the relentless light. And stucco, like sunscreen, is in a state of constant failure, ever in need of another application. Over the years, layers of plaster accrete and, upon each of them, multiple layers of paint. Lead. Oil. Latex. If you pulled a chunk of plaster off one of these old houses, you could look at its cross section and read it like tree rings, the layers extending back to mud, back to the beginning of Tucson.

Reading the layers, sifting through history, finding the creators of tomorrow's history—that is what I will be doing with Tucsonense. What is the essence of Tucson and Southern Arizona? What, and who, makes it unique? To discover this, I'll talk to people who have made Tucson what it is, in ways both obvious and subtle. I'll dive into the archives, which is as close as you can get to interviewing the dead. I'll look for buildings and traditions that don't exist anywhere else—and people who couldn't.

I'm awkwardly aware that I don't know what Tucson is, let alone what it was. A dilapidated Spanish fort? A suburban developer's play pen? An entry point for a new life in the United States? A hub for optics research? Or should it be defined by the environmental geography: mountains, arroyos, or the most frost resistant columnar cacti you'll find in North America? From my small experience, the more you start trying to define what a place is, the more it slips away from you. A friend of mine who used to work as an ontologist at Google once told me that, the closer you look, the more your categories fall apart. Everything becomes an edge case.

There are two extremes of thinking about place and both are silly, but it's worth laying them out here. If you're obsessed with detail, if everything is an edge case, then things can only be represented by themselves. Want to understand a city? Meet everyone. See everything—and die before you've drawn a thousandth part of your 1:1 map. Alternately, if you're the reductive type, the human experience in one place is the same as everywhere else. People still enjoy sharing meals, falling in and out of love, finding God and then bickering over which one they've found. Specifics are pointless, the reductionists say, look at bigger processes.

Both of those extremes make some amount of rational sense, but they feel intuitively wrong. It doesn't take a genius to know that places are real, even when they have similarities. There's a feeling you get in the middle of New Orleans which is totally alien from the feeling you get in Boston. But there are also a lot of spaces that aren't actually places—or perhaps that's unfair. There is one vast, insipid, contemporary place with thousands of instantiations. If you've ever been to a big box store, a hastily built suburban neighborhood, or an airport you know what I mean. Crossing the threshold into that place, it's like you're suddenly everywhere and nowhere. That place is the embodiment of the worst facet of globalization, a homogenizing force that is the enemy of real places everywhere. I find that place fascinating and repulsive—it will be forever lurking in the background of this project, but it is the opposite of what Tucsonense is about.

Tucsonense is about Tucson, which isn't just a name applied to a collection of hastily-constructed buildings and underemployed people. It's a thing unto itself, a mysterious emergent property that grows out of certain people and structures and desert like a mind rising out of the electrochemical soup of a brain. Tucson is a place that has remained a place, despite a century of abuse by city leaders, businessmen, and residents intent upon modernizing the city into placeless conformity.

I don't know where to find Tucson, but I have some starting points. And I trust that it's possible to discover something of a place's essence without understanding its totality. Maybe that's naive. Maybe naivety is what you need to get things done.