People from Phoenix love to shit all over Tucson by saying things like “It’s dirty” and “the roads are terrible.”
(Disclaimer: I am an Arizona State University graduate. But I also have little regard for silly-ass tribalism. I also like Tucson more and more with every visit.)
While those who bash Tucson run their mouths, downtown Tucson gets steadily more interesting. I’m not ready to proclaim it “Portland in the Desert.”
But that day could come.
During my most-recent visit to Tucson (May 2014, as of this blog post), here’s what I did:
- I visited a museum that is literally a one-of-a-kind in the entire world. I didn’t visit the Pima Air Museum this time, but that’s also a better museum than anything in Phoenix. And yes, that includes the Musical Instrument Museum. That gives Tucson two museums that are better than anything the Phoenix area can offer.
- I walked … and saw interesting things. Yeah, Tucson is a sprawling desert city kind of like Phoenix. But it has more pockets of densely packed interesting stuff like art studios and independent restaurants than you’ll see in Phoenix. Scottsdale is by far the worst offender of useless space – you can walk for miles in that city without seeing anything interesting. And no, “Old Town” Scottsdale and its rubber tomahawk shops don’t count. Sadly, downtown Mesa currently out-cools downtown Scottsdale, and would comprehensively throttle its snooty neighbor to the north if it could convince businesses to stay open later.
My perception of Phoenix is that it erroneously believes everything has to be fancy and “high end” to be interesting and viable. It only embraces the funky and weird – like the 5th Street and Roosevelt area – under duress and as a last resort. Tucson mixes it up nicely, especially downtown and near the university.
It’s kind of funny to me, also, that Phoenix and its stepchildren position themselves as great places to shop. I scratch my head over this. I see the same old stuff here, with few alternatives. Let’s put it this way: A few years ago, I was in a band and looking for a new amp. I couldn’t find the one I wanted in Phoenix. I drove to Tucson and found it at one of the several independent music stores down there.Tucson also has Miller’s Surplus, which appeals to my love for surplus stores. Right now, it’s hard to find a decent surplus store in Phoenix.
And let’s talk food. Phoenix gets overlooked nationwide, and I absolutely hate listening to people from Chicago overrate its greasy, cheesy artery-clogging fare. And Tucson is no slouch, either. For the past few years, I haven’t considered a visit to Tucson complete without a visit to the Time Market. And during my last visit, my friend and former co-worker Will introduced me to 47 Scott and its accompanying speakeasy Scott & Co. We started out at the speakeasy, where I had a cocktail made with a whole egg and hoisin sauce … it came off a bit like an aggressive White Russian, which means “completely delicious.” I don’t always drink cocktails – but when I do, I prefer for them to be like that!
As for 47 Scott, we slid in just about 15 minutes before it closed and had a stuffed bell pepper, a burger of ridiculously high quality and a crusty bread & olive oil appetizer with some fresh mozzarella. And yeah, I made my ritual visit to the Time Market. I started off with a slice of pizza made with locally sourced lamb sausage, and took a few chocolate bars to go. Yeah, Tucson sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
Look, I can understand giving Tucson a hard time. It’s our neighbor to the south, and smaller, to boot. And I laugh every time someone calls the University of Arizona “Nogales Tech.” But I can’t honestly say much bad about Tucson. Phoenix is losing its edge over Tucson.
Here’s how I see it: Tucson has awesome mountain bike trails. It has caving. It has shopping, a viable art/music scene. Personality through independent businesses. Great scenery. It’s even a few degrees cooler. Phoenix offers a few more culinary options, sure. Employment might even be a wash. And the airports? Hell, every international trip I take requires a stop at LAX before I can get anywhere cool – so Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has little more than Tucson International Airport to offer.
So, can someone remind me why Phoenix is that much better than Tucson?
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