I’m not keen on the word ‘vision.’ It’s a word frequently used by politicians who don’t have one. I’m embarrassed to be using it here, but I can’t think of a better one. The word ‘plan’ is a good workmanlike alternative, but perhaps too workmanlike. It suggests a specific project in hand, an end agreed upon for which we need only specify the means; something like building a bookcase or providing for the orderly repair of a system of streets.
If I say I have a plan for my house, you understand one thing; if I say I have a vision of what my house will be you understand something different. My vision is more than a scheme for the mechanical arrangement of rooms and utilities, it suggests how it might fit with the world around it, and the sort of life I will live within it.
City planning that is not also informed by some less mechanical, some wider-reaching vision of what the city is, or is to become, plans for a body without a soul. A city not anchored by some vision of itself is nothing more than a developers’ town.
There was a time when thinking of ourselves as the Old Pueblo was enough to impose, on what we built and how we lived, a certain character and style of life that made Tucson distinctive. Our public buildings, like the old courthouse and the veterans’ hospital were built in an exaggerated Spanish Colonial style.
The interior decoration of our homes reflected the Southwest, Native American and Hispanic traditions. We wore boots and bolo ties, and gentlemen were excused by the mayor from wearing suit coats or jackets during the summer. Our sense of ourselves was that we were a vacation place, a dude ranch place, a place where Spanish was spoken as well as English, a place that was part of the cowboy west and its traditions.
As we grew in size we outgrew the Old Pueblo sense of who we were. Does rodeo week still express to ourselves and others what we are? I think not. Rodeo is still fun, but it used to be downtown, when there was a downtown, and it was somehow at the heart of things, a culturally defining event. Now it’s banished to the south side and many families use the rodeo week school holiday to take the kids to Disney Land.
Tucson needs a new sense of itself if it is not to be just another sprawling, boring builders’ town.
There’s plenty to build on, including the Spanish accented cowboy west of the Old Pueblo, and the deep cultural traditions and touching cultural pretension that would build a theater and then call it The Temple of Music and Art.
We have made a start in a small way by redefining ourselves, on the electronic billboards that welcome travelers arriving at the airport, as “Optics Valley.” Corny, derivative, commercial, but not bad. Beats “five dollar town” or “phone center central.”
If we’ve decided to be the center of a high tech, well-paid industry, attractive to an intelligent and well educated work force we’ve gone a long way toward redefining who we are.
But we should also aspire to become the artistic and creative center of the southwest. We invest money to bring businesses here, we should also invest money to attract, support, and encourage the arts. We should make Tucson a place where young artists and intellectuals want to come because it is a center of creative energy.
We could use more studio space, rehearsal space, and above all a well designed outdoor venue for all of the performing arts. We should build a regional art complex, with a mix of studios, apartments, theaters, and public patio gardens; built at public expense if need be, or with the same sort of tax benefits and subsidies that we offer manufacturers and failing hotel keepers.
Let’s invite young architects and designers of all sorts, too. Let’s start to think of ourselves as a place where all the crafts flourish and are supported; a place too proud of its intellectual and artistic traditions to be nothing more than a developers’ town.
The Greek city of Athens was the center of its world. Athens was a great business and commercial power as well a center of the artistic and intellectual life of its time. There is no reason why we should not aspire to become the Athens of The Southwest.
It could be a transforming vision… and it would make excellent economic sense.