Tucson Rising: So Hot it's Cool

Tucson Rising: So Hot it's Cool

Fran Gealer Dot's Diner
Fran Gealer Dot's Diner
So hot it's cool, so cool it's hot

Tucson has always been a fabulous place to see the classic Southwest: within the city limits are ranches, fields of saguaro cactus, even a Spanish colonial mission. Like Santa Fe, it has its celebrity fans-Todd Oldham scours its thrift shops, Janet Jackson and Barbra Streisand rejuvenate at its spas, Diane Keaton stocks her southern Arizona vacation house with art from its downtown galleries-but unlike in that other city, glitz has never taken over here. Tucson's authenticity has always been bolstered by a certain indigenous funkiness: now more than ever, locals are putting their own spin on what "Southwestern style" really means. Any way you look at it, the city is ready for its moment in the sun. inside...

Downtown Revival

"We're trying to change the face of downtown," says Paula Nedder, one of a clutch of young entrepreneurs who have set up shops on a scruffy block across from the Hotel Congress. With an eye for the trendy and modern, they have started to achieve their goal: to lure Tucsonans away from the malls and back to urbanity.

Inside her sassy new clothing boutique, Ultravivid (33 S. Fifth Ave.; 520/882-8740), the 28-year-old Nedder is busy tarting up a display (boot-cut green terry-cloth pants of her own creation, paired with a vintage wide-collar shirt) as she tells why she moved in downtown. "I loved what was going on down here," she says. "Especially Saturday nights. All the galleries and shops stay open late, and people fill the streets."

Ultravivid's customers ("the scooter mod kids," says Nedder) are a far cry from the ones browsing next door at Vikki (31 S. Fifth Ave.; 520/624-7363). There, owner David Sheflin, who named his furniture shop for the 1960's lounge singer Vikki Carr, caters to mod lovers with a larger wallet. He doesn't have a single piece of merchandise left from when he opened in March. Designed by Ty Ross, Barry Goldwater's grandson, Vikki is open Friday and Saturday only (and by special appointment, if you happen to be Kate Moss). Ross cloaked the windows in Mylar and draped a Frank Lloyd Wright rug rescued from the Arizona Biltmore hotel on the blue floor. Samba music bounces off the raw white walls and 30-foot ceiling. It's the perfect backdrop for Sheflin's selection of pieces by George Nelson, Knoll, and Eames.

Around the corner at Jet Set (320E. Congress St.; 520/884-5266), Brian McClain displays a humorous mix of records, junk (1960's Thermoses, $15- $20), and collectibles (white leather Eastern Airlines stewardess cap, $85). A visit to his shop feels like a trip into an older brother's 1970's wood-paneled basement bedroom.

The block's trailblazer, 26-year-old Eric Firestone, opened F. L. Wright (316 E. Congress St.; 520/622-3350) four years ago in a 1919 Arts and Crafts building. His specialty: 20th-century paintings and American Arts and Crafts furniture, mainly Mission. "When I was in college, I liked coming to this part of downtown," he says. "It used to be dangerous. But the Congress drew offbeat people, and I saw potential."

Firestone is curating a spring exhibit of early southern Arizona artists, including Maynard Dixon, who lived here for many years. "There were some real characters in the desert in the 1930's and 40's," he says, "and you know what?There still are today."

A Life's Work

Ettore "Ted" De Grazia, one of Tucson's artistic legends, believed Christmas should come every day. That explains why his adobe Gallery in the Sun (6300 N. Swan Rd.; 800/545-2185 or 520/299-9191), is bedecked with ornaments. Following the Yaqui myth that heaven is a place of many flowers, he also showered surfaces with pastel-painted daisies made of delicate tin. Though De Grazia died in 1982, his spirit infuses the foothills gallery, where floors are uneven ("just like life," he said) and his paintings of children adorn windowless walls ("Walls are for hanging pictures, nothing more"). His widow, Marion, still lives on the property; you can sometimes find her sitting by the fountain. The couple built the house and the adjoining, mural-covered open-air chapel in 1951, when there was no water or electricity in the area. Today fans wander the grounds with hushed reverence, lingering to take in such details as the floor embedded with cacti; De Grazia, naturally, called it his magic carpet.

Where to Stay

Arizona Inn 2200 E. Elm St.; 800/933-1093 or 520/325-1541, fax 520/881-5830; doubles from $115. However musty the lobby may be these days, the 86-room, pink stucco Arizona Inn still elicits awe. Its 14 acres of well-kept grounds are tucked into the center of town. Come for the 60-foot pool edged with cypress and lemon trees; stay for the serenity, the doves that wake you in the morning, and the scent of roses that fills the air.
El Presidio Bed & Breakfast Inn 297 N. Main Ave.; 800/349-6151 or 520/ 623-6151; doubles from $95. A restored Victorian adobe house that aims for Old Mexico-cobblestones, a garden, antiques-and nearly pulls it off. The four guest rooms surround a central courtyard. Breakfast may include delicious homemade salsa.
Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort 5601 N. Hacienda del Sol Rd.; 800/728-6514 or 520/299-1501, fax 520/299-5554; doubles from $120. Clark Gable called it "my little hacienda," and Hepburn and Tracy holed up in its two-bedroom casita. After falling into disrepair and closing, the Hacienda del Sol-built in 1929 as a girls' school-reopened last year. A $1.5 million renovation recaptured some of that Hollywood style: stuccoed fireplaces, fountains, courtyards. The Grill restaurant even has one of the city's top sommeliers. Best place to be: the cliffside pool as the sun sets over the mountains.
Hotel Congress 311 E. Congress St.; 800/722-8848 or 520/622-8848, fax 520/792-6366; doubles from $48. The name may say "hotel," but this is no place for sleeping: guests are given earplugs at check-in. Things haven't calmed down since John Dillinger was caught in one of the rooms in 1934. Tattooed locals and Euro-teens wander around in search of a party, or lounge on the staircase. The location is good, though, and rooms are straightforward, with big windows, black-and-white-tiled bathrooms, and neat clunky black dial phones.
Loews Ventana Canyon Resort 7000 N. Resort Dr.; 800/234-5117 or 520/299-2020, fax 520/299-6832; doubles from $175. Enveloped by the Santa Catalina Mountains and backed by a waterfall, the 371-room Loews is a serene spot where, paradoxically, there's plenty to do: visit the brand-new spa, hike, splash in the pools, or play golf on the resort's 36 holes. At night, check out the view from the opulent Ventana Room restaurant; downtown Tucson positively sparkles.
Miraval, Life in Balance 5000 E. Via Estancia Miraval, Catalina; 800/232-3969 or 520/825-4000, fax 520/792-5870; doubles from $700, including meals and one spa treatment per person. This ultra-exclusive spa is aptly-if a little oddly-named. When it comes to the age-old spa conundrum-"body or soul?"-Miraval aims to pamper both. The big lure, however, might just be that you can eat whatever you want.

Meanwhile ...

There's nothing hotter than being on the back of a horse, brushing past prickly pears in the Sonoran desert. And when I say hot, I don't mean groovy, happening, stylish. This is steamy, 104-degrees-at-7:30 a.m. hot. Call me a city slicker, but I couldn't wait to hit the pool at Tanque Verde Ranch (14301 E. Speedway Blvd.; 800/234-3833 or 520/296-6275, fax 520/721-9426; doubles $235-$380, including all meals and activities).

While the cowpoke life wasn't for me, I adored the ranch, founded in 1868 on 640 acres in the Rincon Mountain foothills. Jerry, the naturalist, was a trip. He dangled rattlesnakes from a stick, let tarantulas and black widows crawl across his palm, and took me fishing at Lake Gambusi. One night I even learned how to line dance and do the country swing. I had such a good time that when the cute wrangler, who looked like Brad Pitt, tried to persuade me to get back on the horse for my last day's sunrise ride, I half considered it. Well, half.

Where to Eat

Barrio Grill 135 S. Sixth Ave.; 520/629-0191; dinner for two $25. Six friends recently quit their jobs and banded together to open this spot saluting the chili pepper. Their compelling creations include the chicken and dried mango and papaya pasta with chipotle-Chardonnay cream.
Bison Witches Bar & Deli 326 N. Fourth Ave.; 520/740-1541. Good luck choosing one of the 23 sandwiches. Open wide: these babies are big.
Café Magritte 254 E. Congress St.; 520/884-8004; dinner for two $25. Downtown's café-with-an-attitude. Try the Sonoran tortellini with red-pepper cream sauce and feta while watching crowds mingle in front of the Congress Hotel.
Café Poca Cosa 88 E. Broadway Blvd., 520/622-6400, and 20 S. Scott Ave.; no phone; dinner for two $30. Susana D·vila's Mexican hole-in-the-wall Poca Cosa used to get so busy that people would eat sitting outside on the Scott Avenue curb, balancing the plates on their knees. At the newish Broadway location, funky waitresses wearing little black dresses and rhinestone eyeglasses present the blackboard menu at your table. The basil limeade is addictive.
The Dish 3200 E. Speedway Blvd.; 520/326-1714; dinner for two $50. Hidden at the back of the RumRunner wineshop, this small bistro and wine bar serves eclectic fare-corn-and-scallion custard with spinach pesto, anyone?
El Charro 311 N. Court Ave.; 520/ 622-1922; dinner for two $35. El Charro has three locations, but the El Presidio Historic District branch is Arizona's oldest family-run Mexican restaurant. Strips of lime- and garlic-marinated beef hang from the patio roof: it's dried in the sun for three days, then served with onions, tomatoes, and green chilies.
Firecracker 2990 N. Swan Rd.; 520/ 318-1118; dinner for two $40. A whirl through China, Japan, Thailand, and Mongolia that doesn't always produce treasures, but is certainly a hot ticket. With cheeky tropical decorative touches.
Janos 150 N. Main Ave.; 520/884-9426; dinner for two $80. Time is running out for Janos Wilder's restaurant in an 1865 adobe house at the Tucson Museum of Art. The museum is ending Wilder's lease next August. The jury's still out on where he'll move his French-Southwestern fusions (think gâteau of grilled wild mushrooms, with tomato pistou and vegetable flan). Some suspect it'll be a bank in a strip mall on the town's outskirts. Go now.

For Night Owls Every band from No Doubt to Keanu Reeves's Dog Star has stopped by the always hot Club Congress (311 E. Congress St.; 520/


622-8848), in the Hotel Congress. Monday night brings the Funkin' Disco party. It bills itself as a video shop, but the highlight of the Pink Motel (3226 E. Speedway Blvd.; 520/318-3500) is its 1950's-style Java Juke Joint café, with the town's best jukebox.
Tuesdays swing with Kings of Pleasure, a band that plays at the lava-lamped and leopard-wallpapered Shelter Cocktail Lounge (4155 E. Grant Rd.; 520/326-1345). Your choice, window or aisle, at the kitschy new Airport Lounge (20 E. Pennington St.; 520/882-0400).
Saturdays sizzle at Toma! (311 N. Court Ave.; 520/622-1922). Sip a margarita while lingering by the sombrero fountain.

Missions Accomplished

As the Spanish spread Catholicism throughout Arizona in the 17th and 18th centuries, they blanketed the desert with missions. Two of the most evocative are a short drive from Tucson. Nicknamed White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier del Bac Mission (1950 W. San Xavier Rd.; 520/294-2624) is usually jammed with sightseers, so the best time to go is 8 a.m., before it officially opens. Driving south from the city, you'll see San Xavier in the distance, rising like the Taj Mahal from the flatness.

A few workers may be scurrying about, finishing up the $2 million, six-year renovation spearheaded by a joint team from New York City's Guggenheim Museum and from Italy and Turkey (some of the techniques used to restore the Sistine Chapel's paintings were applied here). The inside of the church is unbelievable: gleaming statues and up to 60-foot-high walls covered with murals. It's cool and quiet, save for the whispered prayers of a worshiper or two. In the tiny mortuary chapel next to the church, hundreds of colorful saint candles burn. Two of the area's early missionaries are buried under the chapel's stone floor.

An hour south of San Xavier del Bac, Tumacacori Mission (1891 E. Frontage Rd., Tumacacori; 520/398-2341) lends itself better to long, introspective visits. That is, if you can find it: even though it's right off the highway, Tumacacori is tough to spot.

Outside the adobe mission, birds flit through the tree-shaded courtyard. Inside, chants echo through the otherwise silent chapel and paper flowers peek from the nave.

Wonder Walls

Nothing shows Tucson's Latin American heritage more than the city's Diego Rivera-inspired murals. The trend started in the 1950's and 60's, when several local banks commissioned artists to paint their interiors; 20 years later, artists took to the streets; in the 1980's, the city began to offer financial support. Tucson now has more than 150 murals. Keep an eye out for . . .
Nuestros RaÌces Humanas and Nuestra Futura by David Tineo and Antonio Pazos (Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave.). The evolution of Latino culture, depicted in the city's most famous installation.
Share the Bounty by the Tucson Arts Brigade (400 N. Fourth Ave.). The agricultural process, from planting to harvest.
Homage to Tucson by Lydia D'Amico (300 N. Fourth Ave.). Food and women, representing rural and urban Tucson.
A Show of Hands by Eddie Dominguez (Martin Luther King Jr. Apartment Building, 1 N. Fifth Ave.). Created by the artist and 500 schoolchildren.
The Thinkers by Eleanor Kohloss (Fourth Ave. and Sixth St.). After interviewing passers-by, the artist painted them with thought bubbles over their heads.
Cats by Monika Rossa (36 E. Congress St.). Huge felines playing in the desert.
Truly Nolen by Jamie Metz (3620 N. Speedway Blvd.). Chosen as readers' favorite mural in last year's Tucson Weekly best-of-the-city poll. A display of bright yellow cars, sunflowers, and bees, on-of all things-the offices of a pest-control company.


For a guide to murals in the city, published in 1994 but still a valuable resource, call the Tucson/Pima Arts Council; 520/624-0595.

A Ghost-Town Drive

Imagine the archetypal ghost town: tumbleweeds rolling down dirt streets past burned-out saloons and the half-crumbled walls of an old jail. You certainly don't expect women in flouncy skirts and trampy makeup, men duded up in holsters and cowboy hats, and regularly scheduled gunfights. But that's what you get in Tombstone, Arizona's most famous ghost town. "The town too tough to die," it's called, though these days it's more touristed than tough. The smartest way to avoid the throngs is to take a 90-mile drive along the Ghost Town Trail, which branches off Route 80 at Tombstone. While you won't get the theme-park experience, you will see genuine ruins of three old mining towns backed by green and umber Arizona desert.

As you make your way down the precarious dirt-and-rock road, you might contemplate turning back. Don't. Follow the makeshift signs for John & Sandy's Rattlesnake Crafts (Gleeson Rd.; 520/ 642-9207), possibly the weirdest shop ever. In 1979, owners John and Sandy Weber quit their jobs in Rockford, Illinois, hoping to leave civilization behind; they succeeded so well that they're rarely even at the boutique they opened in their RV. If you want to buy any of the Webers' wares-everything from wallets to earrings to night-lights, all made from their only neighbors, rattlesnakes-just drop some cash in the wooden mailbox.

Next stop is a copper-mining town built in 1900 and once home to 500 people. A mottled wood marker with gleeson scrawled across it tells you you're there. The wind whistles through the shell of the burned-out jail. Next door is a surprisingly intact old saloon that looks as if Mae West will come swinging through at any moment. Suddenly you notice the red dirt coating your car-it's been forever since the last paved road. One look at the graveyard's thin, weathered headstones, so old you can't even read the names, will convince you it's time to move on.

A bit down the road, you'll start seeing green street signs (the kind they have back home) that say ghost town trail-an oddly modern sight. The next town, Courtland, is a pile of concrete taken over by saguaro cacti. Situated on the edge of the Dragoon Mountains, it boomed at the turn of the century only to hit ghost-town status in 1942.

A handful of people still live on the outskirts of Pearce, at the end of the trail; in the former downtown you can see the well-preserved remains of the post office and general store. Don't leave without paying your respects to Abraham Lincoln's bodyguard (not exactly a position you'd want on your résumé), who is buried in the cemetery.

Happy Trailers

In L.A. Confidential, Kim Basinger's character can't wait to move back to her Arizona hometown and open a dress shop. "The girls in Bisbee could use some style," she says. Wrong! The citizens of this artist's town two hours south of Tucson have style to burn. Cases in point: antiques dealers Ed Smith and Rita Personett, who recently opened the Shady Dell, a hotel of souped-up Airstream-style trailers on the outskirts of town.

I pulled up to the place in the middle of a massive downpour, and the gloomy weather made the row of six stainless-steel trailers look sad. Suddenly the sky cleared; everything turned cheerful in the late-afternoon light. I noticed a tail-finned Chrysler parked next to Dot's Diner (Dot is also the hotel manager). I could just picture my grandparents staying here in the 1950's, hanging out with the other couples on the Adirondack-style chairs. Guests have been known to gather at sunset and drink martinis.

Dot gave me a tour. Ed had hand-restored each of the gems, filling them with vintage housewares. The living room in the 1951 Spartan Royal Mansion looked like an I Love Lucy set. Next to the kidney-shaped coffee table was a rolling bar equipped with cocktail shakers and swizzle sticks. In the kitchenette, a fat-boy cookie jar sidled up to the old Frigidaire as if he were looking for something to eat.

August is not the ideal month to visit Arizona, so there was no one else staying at the Shady Dell that night (the trailers do have air conditioning, though). Dot told me to take my pick, but it was tough. If I'd been on my honeymoon, I would've gone for the 1949 Airstream, which had plastic flamingos and a white picket fence out front. The interior was all silver and pink, with a sweet sterling silver tea set and a hand-embroidered coverlet.

I opened the door to the 1950 Spartanette Tandem and knew it was for me: green-and-white linoleum floors, old issues of Arizona Highways on the blond-wood side table. The deciding factor was the black-and-white television, which came with a VCR hidden in the closet. Clucking cactus wrens woke me at 6:30. I didn't mind in the least and rolled into the diner for a $1.99 plate of biscuits and gravy. Good thing the coffee was strong: I had stayed up half the night watching Flash Gordon, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Blob. Wasn't that Steve McQueen dreamy?


Shady Dell RV Park & Campground
1 Douglas Rd., Bisbee;520/432-4858; doubles from $25.

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