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New Life in the Old Pueblo

New Life in the Old Pueblo

Every culture who resided in Tucson left their mark on the town.

As Arizona’s oldest and still inhabited city, Tucson couples a somewhat milder desert climate, scenic mountains, and rich history with a vibrant, historic downtown area with arts, dining and activities.

The earliest residents lived there more than 4,000 years ago. If you trace the architecture left behind by the conquistadors, up from Mexico to Tucson, a rough timeline of the city’s development emerges, when Spaniards and Apaches fought for the land.

As early as 1691, Spanish Jesuit missionaries founded a mission in Tumacácori, near Nogales. Inexplicably, the Mission Revival at Tumacácori sits intact as it was, while time has reduced the fort in nearby Tubac, established almost 100 years later than Tumacácori, to its walls.

In 1775, General Hugo O’Conor rode into now Downtown Tucson, and founded the military presidio, Fort Tucson, once an 11-acre fort. In the eventual rubble, arose the city whose initial population of only 500 people grew to more than half a million, according to the last census.

Walk About

The further you follow the winding roads back into the Catalina Foothills to the north, a picture develops of early Tucson.

Its foothills and the neighboring Casas Adobes historic district, once a respite for horse ranchers in the mid-1940s, retains the charm of simpler days, even as a shopping and recreation destination.

The Casas Adobes Plaza looks eternal as it did in 1948, when the Mediterranean-influenced mall first opened. Meanwhile, various hiking and guided tours outside its walls mirror the tranquility and breeze those ranchers experienced way back then.

The populated valley below gives an indication of that time, as well. If you’re standing next to a historic building downtown, the ground beneath your feet is likely painted a thin line of turquoise. “The Turquoise Trail” twists and turns for two and a half miles through various landmarks, both past and present.

The local historic preservation foundation holds walking tours of the neighborhoods, whose architecture range from turn-of-the-century Spanish Revivals to present day Contemporary Moderns.

Even in the time of Social Distancing, curious souls can use an app called Vamonde for their own self-guided tour of the Turquoise Trail.

The app and pamphlets signify 20 restaurants, as well as 15 museums and galleries packed into this small dense area. The most notable restaurant was the Café Poca Cosa, which prior to the pandemic, ambitiously generated new Mexican cuisine twice daily, an endeavor warmly acknowledged in droves of culinary publications. Yet, these eateries are a microcosm of the many options that exist just beyond the downtown setting.

Follow the streetcar, named the Sun Link, connecting most of these landmarks and services, or follow the trail, where the rails don’t stalk. The great thing about downtown (and most of Tucson) is the combination of different eras within the same area.

The city consists of many rich flavors, both literal and figurative, which has been fostered through a mixture of stubbornness and determination. In 2016, Tucson was awarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as the only City of Gastronomy in the United States.

Patronage the Arts

It’s easy to gather that downtown Tucson appreciates history and culture, which even extends to their galleries. The independent Etherton Gallery showcases 20th Century’s photographers, from Edward Weston to Garry Winogrand, up to contemporary art photographer Ralph Gibson.

Several blocks south, another prestigious museum sits: Tucson’s own Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) displays the best of national and local culture; exhibitions in the past included personal knick-knacks by noted jeweler Alex Streeter and the self-reflective work of Alex Von Bergen.

Those aren’t the last options, a Center for Contemporary Photography and a campus Museum of Art are both situated on the University of Arizona campus.

A City in Amber

Most of the places mentioned are temporarily shuttered, or their services reduced, in lieu of the current global pandemic. But, if this event were weighed against the overall history of Tucson, it’s a mere pinpoint on a larger timeline.

The past and the future are inextricably linked with the city’s development, almost as a city of amber, and not simply a new thing replacing something old.

Tucson survived thousands of years of change and development and it’s sure to be a city of vast culture for the foreseeable future!

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 Issue of Defining Desert Living. Read the rest of the magazine here.