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Tucson used to have an identity; now it has an identity crisis

When I first came here to go to college, a battle for Tucson's soul was raging between the "Let's grow like Phoenix" crowd and the "Let's stay Tucson" enthusiasts.

With people leaving the Rust Belt for the Sun Belt, a certain amount of growth was inevitable, but surely Tucsonans would never go the Phoenix route of growth at all costs, and growth for growth's sake. Phoenix was like a painted hussy, standing on a desert street corner. Tucson had character, personality and a strong sense of community. The phrase "proud Tucsonan" was redundant.

There's no way of pinpointing when it happened, but at some point within recent decades, Tucson became less of a state of mind and more of a "place," a Balkanized collection of neighborhoods run by petty people who engage in petty arguments over issues that are sometimes petty, and sometimes not. It's as though every point of discussion became a philosophical battle between the pack of all-out growthers and the no-growth-at-all clique. There was no middle ground, for to concede a point was not just a sign of weakness, but an abandonment of high principle.

After a while, both sides had dug their heels in so deeply that the very concept of compromise went away. The vehicle of Tucson was being driven with one foot pressing the accelerator all the way to the floor, and the other stomping on the brake for all it was worth. Any motion at all came when the brakers, out of sheer exhaustion, eased off a bit—and then just for a moment. Mostly, however, the stalemate just burned out the engine and wore down the brakes.

The worst thing about it is that Tucson has seen huge growth in recent years, and yet is almost certainly worse off for not having planned for it. In 1970, Tucson was the 53rd-largest city in America. Today, it's No. 32. The city at No. 33, Atlanta, has teams in the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball. Tucson, with its Pushme-Pullyou, suck-up political sensibilities, couldn't even hold on to a minor-league baseball team. In fact, Tucson is larger than more than 40 percent of the cities that have NFL teams. What would be the odds that an NFL team would want to relocate to this schizophrenic place? Or that any industry would want to come here, for that matter?

(Meanwhile, the whore up the highway, Phoenix, went from being the 99th-largest city in the U.S. in 1950 to the fifth-largest now. Say what you will—and I would never want to live there—but it has never suffered from a lack of confidence or a split vision as to what it wants to be.)

For the first time in all my years here, the thought has crept into my head as to whether Tucson's best years are behind us. I sincerely don't believe that Tucson is destined to go downhill from here, but the fact that I could even formulate that thought is troubling.

An article in the July 1 issue of this publication probably had something to do with it. The article ("Too Many Meetings?") is indicative of what plagues our community. A few years ago, a majority of us decided that there was a need for long-term traffic planning, so we voted to establish and fund the Regional Transportation Authority. It certainly hasn't been perfect, but neither has it been reactionary, like much of what goes on around here.

The RTA has two projects on 22nd Street, both badly needed to help with the traffic flow along the east-west artery. As with all major traffic-improvement projects (and the attendant disruptions caused by construction), public meetings are held to explain what will be done, how long it will take and what the final outcome will be. These meetings are generally sparsely attended and rarely contentious.

However, the head of the RTA, Gary Hayes, believes that some self-proclaimed community activists are using the meetings to derail the process. The meetings cost money—to pay for attending consultants, to advertise the meetings, etc. These costs are generally passed along to the RTA, but Hayes wants hard limits placed on those "soft" costs.

And so we have a handful of people with the power to monkey-wrench a multi-million-dollar project. Do these neighborhood preservationists have a point? Maybe. With more than twice as many people living here as there were a quarter-century ago, do we need to improve 22nd Street? Absolutely.

Using past growth to rationalize further unchecked growth is irrational. Denying that growth has taken place is not a sound course of action, either. I'd like our "leaders" to develop the ability to look past their own self-interests, to be able to see beyond the edge of their yards and do what is in the best interest of the vast majority of people.

I hate sprawl. I hate the thought of subdivisions leapfrogging out into the desert. But I've also had it with people who only pull their heads out of the sand long enough to shout, "No!" We need more people who love Tucson, and not just their neighborhood.

I don't want Tucson to be Phoenix, but I sure wouldn't mind it if Tucson were to become Tucson again.

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