It’s May, and we’ve just broken the 100-degree mark in the Old Pueblo.
Our cement- and asphalt-laden streets and sidewalks won’t cool off for at least four months, and in the presumed absence of our once glorious “monsoon,” the riverbanks of the Rillito and Santa Cruz will remain barren and dry throughout the summer.
Upon returning to Tucson five years ago, I came to realize that our beautiful summer storms, known as “chubascos,” had all but disappeared.
In my absence, the blades of developers constantly eroded the desert as the octopus of Tucson grew in all directions: north, south, east and west.
Very little summer rain fell here for the first two years after I returned. “Where are they?” I asked, and the answer seemed to be that the rains were driven away by cement and asphalt, as had happened in the Gomorrah to our north, Phoenix.
In my previous incarnation in Tucson, I had always lived downtown.
As I returned in the midst of the real estate boom of 2004, I was surprised at the high cost of housing in the urban core.
However, I saw little improvement downtown to justify such exorbitant home prices.
Armory Park and “Barrio Historico” were still without even one grocery store; the streets were devoid of people; and businesses on Congress Street were boarded up.
The hopes for downtown redevelopment were being marketed in the form of a vague concept called “Rio Nuevo,” a euphemism, I imagined, for some kind of rebirth that would transform our downtown.
Alas, five years later I realize Rio Nuevo is thus far a dead-end street on the other side of a nonexistent Rainbow Bridge to Nowhere.
As the Santa Cruz is dried up and full of litter, Rio Nuevo would better be called Rio Seco (Dry River).
If we renamed Rio Nuevo to Rio Seco, we would understand that our desert is precious, and that it – and its people – must be protected.
Now buzzwords and concepts such as “sustainability” and “green jobs” are thrown around like wet dish towels in the kitchen of our collective mind, but what do these terms mean?
Sure rainwater harvesting is a good idea, but where is the rain?
Golf courses, resorts and roads continue to flourish while the water table sinks. Yet we call this “progress.”
We build border fences to keep out persons who are referred to as “illegals,” yet we historically have relied on such people to dig our trenches, mortar our bricks, harvest our crops and clean our toilets.
The border of our collective mind, which separates “illegals” from the rest of us, prevents us from seeing the future that could be.
Rather than accepting the reality of Rio Seco, we continue to wallow in the delusion of Rio Nuevo.
Rather than stopping expansive development in its tracks, we maintain that we can sustain life while perpetually bulldozing the desert.
Meanwhile, as state, county and city dollars shrink, our social safety net is vanishing.
Services for our most vulnerable – children, victims of abuse and domestic violence, the elderly, the mentally ill and the homeless – disappear daily as agency after agency must come to grips with reality and lay off workers.
In our desert, social Darwinism has met John Wayne: It is the “survival of the fittest” at the OK Corral.
Presumed “illegals” are told to “Go back to Mexico,” and the un- and underemployed are supposed to “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
By action or inaction, the mantra of our “leaders” in local and state government is: “Government cannot protect you; protect yourself!”
Yet how can we expect the homeless, persons with serious mental illness, survivors/victims of domestic violence, the elderly, children who live below the poverty line, and single mothers struggling to make ends meet in a depressed economy to “make it” without help?
Seemingly, no public funds are available for social programs, but no one is seriously talking about how much money we waste – on the state, county and city levels, on locking up people for relatively low-level crimes.
In the jails and prisons of our collective mind, no one discusses concepts such as “smart policing” and “community corrections.”
Studies have repeatedly shown that police patrols are ineffective in deterring and preventing crime, yet we continue to throw good money after bad.
We do business the way it’s always been done because that is what we are told to do.
There is no creative thinking in public safety land, where jails, prisons and law enforcement are budgetary “sacred cows.”
In the borders of our collective mind, rather than making better use of jail and prison space, we simply assume more is needed.
It is time to take care of people in our midst, to “just say no” to developers, to eliminate “corporate welfare” and to turn off the spigot of endless public dollars designated for nonessential law enforcement services and the unnecessary incarceration of nonviolent offenders.
It is time to create innovative programs that can save taxpayers’ money and serve the needy.
It is time to cut the fat from bloated bureaucracies while stabilizing the humanitarian core of government.
Embrace the concept of Rio Seco, and cast off the delusion of Rio Nuevo!
Michael C. Elsner, Ph.D., teaches sociology and criminology/criminal justice for Northern Arizona University-Tucson and is a principal research specialist with the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health.