Riding through the barrio on my beach cruiser is the best way to take in Tucson, at least my Tucson. Depending on whom you talk to or what city-data forum you read, there’s lots of folks who are gobsmacked that two seemingly intelligent, happenin’ people like Jamie and me would deliberately choose to move from Venice Beach – with its lovely beach and perfect greenhouse weather – to Tucson. There’s a lot of bitching about how small it is, how hot it gets, how boring things are. And Jamie and I are just amazed, because we don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Well, yes, it’s hot. But after two years of living here, I’m still fascinated by this place. Maybe having lived in BIG, IMPORTANT places like New York and Los Angeles gives us a better appreciation for smaller, kinder things. Like friendliness, space (oh my god, yes, space!), the stunning beauty of cacti blossoms in springtime, a landscape so different than anything else I’ve ever seen, and the sweet, sweet slow pace.
Tooling around Barrio Viejo, the oldest part of town just south of Congress Street, I can’t imagine how anyone could not fall under the spell I experience every day. Ah well, eye of the beholder and all that.
The buildings are mostly small – many so old and neglected they barely stay up against the wind – like crumbling Roman ruins. Many are painted brilliant Caribbean hues – which may be part of my attraction – as a Cuban-American i’m a total sucker for that style. Bright, deep blues, pinks, greens float past my bicycle. I love the more unlikely combinations of colors – like sun yellow and teal. And all vibrating against the anchoring terra cotta of the Spanish roof tiles. But more beautiful than that are the many stories told through murals and shrines and wrought iron art on every block.
The stories within the various murals that haunt the area forge aching bittersweet images of lives lived and lost – scenes of love, work, marriage, family and always death – inevitably taking a peek past the veil. The boundary is less defined here between the world of the flesh and the world of spirit – in our culture, it takes a certain kind of strength to embrace this intersection.
There are still many homes left of the old families – on balmy evenings you can see grandmother, mother, father and little granddaughter hanging outside their front doors on the tiny space left between the house and the street. I wonder what memories they could share of the changes they’ve seen around them in their lifetime. Now, they’re interspersed with more affluent neighbors – prices have skyrocketed with gentrification and many of the old crumbling adobes are being restored – usually faithful to the original designs. And for good reason – adobe construction is perfect for this environment. Walls at least a foot thick, made out of the surrounding sand, give good insulation – cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, etc. And small is smart – two story homes just mean astronomical energy bills to cool off the suffocating heats that rises upstairs.
Still there’s copious signs of progress in the old neighborhood that mesh well with the original architecture. The solar panels stick out a little funny – though this is the solar energy capital of the country and that’s the price to pay. But the rain barrels made of tin that swirl upwards underneath the gutter spouts look pretty cool.
Iron may be the most commonly used media outdoors in these here parts – because the sun will burn away practically anything else. The ironworks in my hood form intricate shapes and patterns – from flowered gates showing off multi-colored solar lights in their centers that glow softly after sunset – to funky, modernist bike rests in front of local businesses. So surprisingly fluid – I can’t imagine the heat needed to soften and make the ore flow and ripple like silk and then cool into something absolutely unyielding. It takes strength to survive in the Sonoran desert – but like the gorgeous blossoms of cactus of spring, strength in this part of the world is often beautiful. Form and function marry well here. Resilient strength with strange beauty. Which pretty much sums up Tucson itself.
I’ll sign off with just a couple of more pictures I took yesterday on the drive home from the CSA (which I hope to post about another time).
¡Hasta luego, amigos!