Tooling down Speedway

During the nearly 40 years that I've been in Tucson, I have lived in seven separate locations, all of them between Speedway and Broadway. The farthest west was on the other side of Stone; the farthest east was where I live now, near Rincon High. I can't explain this territoriality. I didn't think about it. It just happened.

These days I work in Oro Valley, so I only get to prowl my strip of Tucson on the weekends. On Sunday mornings I spin and do yoga downtown—at O2 Modern Fitness (fantastic)—and I get there by zooming west on a nearly deserted Broadway, rarely hitting a light. It's fun to be out and about downtown these days—the place is obviously (finally) thriving, with dog walkers and bikers and stroller-pushers and yoga-mat bearers threading their way through the now-easing streetcar construction.

Coming back, I have errands on Speedway, and as a longtime former denizen, I like to keep an eye on the UA. So I pop up Euclid—I love the neighborhoods west of the U where I lived years ago—and turn east.

The most striking thing going on at the U is the new luxury high-rise student housing at Park and Speedway.

I don't think isolating students in vertical ghettos is necessarily a bad thing—as opposed to sprinkling them through otherwise quiet neighborhoods—but the "luxury" component of the project is, to my mind, shocking. There's an analysis of what colleges and universities are about that goes like this: Universities are actually real-estate development consortiums with a uniquely predatory financing method—extracting arbitrarily huge amounts of borrowed money from thoughtless, optimistic young people in return for a piece of paper that allows them to find the kind of job they will need to service their education debt. For decades.

Student debt has become a serious bubble that's distorting the economy—remember what the last bubble did?—and messing up people's lives in a fairly onerous way. I have friends who are well into their 30s who work hard, live hand to mouth and are not even close to paying off the debt they racked up in college. This is a fairly new phenomenon—it used to be only law and med students who emerged from school with the burden of debt that's now common—and we do not yet know where it will take us.

So. That luxury student housing tower with the state-of-the-art gyms, quartz countertops and flat-screen TVs? A well-upholstered trap for silly 18-year-olds who'll be paying for those amenities 20 years from now. The UA ought to be ashamed of itself.

Farther east on Speedway, past the ever-burgeoning brick grandeur of campus, things quickly get checkered. Fascinations Superstore sits next to the janitor supply place, and Feast is across the street from the Bashful Bandit. Then you hit Country Club, where the famous Ugliest Street in America photo was taken in 1970. It looks a lot better now—widening, a sign code, and some mesquites and palo verdes have made a big difference. In fact, there's a hip, prosperous section along there where Casa Video, Whole Foods, Gadabout, the Loft, Zia Records and a clump of yoga studios are located. Speedway looks pretty good for a while.

And then it slips back into scruffy character, with a hardscrabble mix of resale shops, auto supply stores, check-cashing joints, fast food establishments and pawn-pawn-pawn. I count eight pawn/coin/we-buy-gold places between Alvernon and Craycroft, one of which seems to be called We Buy Gold. (Someone else seems to have noticed the proliferation—the other day there was an A-frame in front of Baum's Sporting Goods that read, "We don't buy gold.")

And what's up with the sign of one of the newest places, USA Pawn and Jewelry, near Rosemont? It's the largest and ugliest plastic pole sign I have ever seen, extending right out over the sidewalk to end flush with the curb. Is this remotely legal?

Just for fun, I looked up the city of Tucson's sign code, and as far as I can tell the sign is completely against the rules. (Of course the code is full of language about "exceptions." Maybe there's an exception for signs that look like they were designed in Powerpoint by a fourth-grader. Those can hang out into the street.)

All I want to know is, who got paid off?

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