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Not the Big Apple, but...

By Phil Leckman

Tuesday September 11, 2001

Talk about a crazy Labor Day -Thursday afternoon I took off from Phoenix to New York City for three whirlwind days in the Big Apple.

The reasons for my little jaunt aren't important - suffice to say they involve summer romances, promises to visit and disturbingly cheap plane tickets. But it was a good trip, a very good trip, and returning to Tucson's triple-digit heat and open skies has required something of an adjustment. Which is sort of what I want to write about.

But don't worry - I'm not going to slander Tucson here. Like most people who have lived in the Southwest for a long time, I've had my fill of disgruntled wannabe or expatriate urbanites who pick on the poor Old Pueblo for not having anything like subways, Lincoln Center or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After all, that's like comparing apples and, well, cactus fruit. New York is 10 times the size of Tucson. It's been a major center of urban culture for more than 200 years. So there's little to be served by judging a postwar commuter city like this one by the Big Apple's standards.

And Tucson has a lot going for it, really. Yesterday I took a break from work and rode my newly repaired bike up to A Mountain. It was a climb for an out-of-shape guy like me, but the slope of the hill provided some shade, and the doves and quail lurking among the saguaro and creosote bushes kept my mind off my labors. Once I finally reached the summit (well, almost reached the summit), the view more than made up for the sweat. In the foreground, the scene was framed by the stark desert landscapes of A Mountain and its fellow hills. In the distance rose the blue ridges of the cool Catalina Mountains. And somehow, even the dusty little city in the foreground, with its sad and abandoned downtown, seemed to take on some of that grandeur.

No, the Old Pueblo is not without its charms. The landscape surrounding Tucson has no parallel anywhere in the nation, and certainly not on the East Coast. Leave Tucson, and what do you find? Organ Pipe National Monument, Saguaro National Park, the Huachuca Mountains. Leave New York, and you're in New Jersey. Which is my pick? There's no question·

But there are a few lessons Tucson could learn from New York, all the same. Somehow, despite the hundreds of thousands of people here, the Old Pueblo hasn't figured out how to be a city. And while New York is a great role model, there are success stories much closer to home. For example, take our downtown (please). Even the remotest street corner in Brooklyn has more life than downtown Tucson. Heck, even half-abandoned ghost towns like Jerome or Bisbee or Silver City, N.M. are more vibrant that the depressing scene on Tucson's Congress or Pennington Street.

And Tucson businesses could stand to stay open longer, at least past 9 p.m. This doesn't necessarily mean New York's 24-hour soul food restaurants and all-night discos. Even Albuquerque, a much smaller city than Tucson, manages to stay awake to 11 or so - why is the dorm-dweller who ventures onto Sixth Street on a weeknight met with total desolation? Tucson businesses: Wake up! There are 35,000 students here, all dying for a decent 24-hour cup of coffee within walking distance of campus!

So I'm not suggesting that Tucson needs to stack up to NYC. That just isn't going to happen - the two cities exist in different worlds, for different purposes. Remaking Tucson in New York's image wouldn't work, any more than stocking Central Park with saguaros and javelinas would. But geez - we should be at least as livable as similar cities like Albuquerque or Santa Fe, shouldn't we?

I don't need a new Lincoln Center on Tucson's Broadway, across from Del Taco. But is a good late-night cup of coffee somewhere on Fourth Avenue too much to ask?


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