TUCSON – Please join my wife and me for one of our daily five-mile walks and litter pick-ups in the Tucson metropolis—or at least a recap of one of them.
At 3.5 mph, you can see and touch ample evidence of apathy, bad government and low standards—the factors that have kept the City of Tucson mired in a tragic poverty rate twice the national average and much of the rest of the metropolis not doing as well economically as other Sunbelt metropolises of similar size.
The particular walk began at 6:30 AM on Saturday, February 8. It was a walk in our neighborhood in the Foothills. Local myth has it that the Foothills is a ritzy part of town, but judging by conditions on the ground, it is not.
Over the years, we’ve also walked large swaths of the City of Tucson, other parts of the county, and many miles of the Loop bike/walk path. Those other areas are afflicted with the same governmental disease as the Foothills but are in more advanced stages of the disease because they are older and poorer.
Ironically, the walk began after I had read scholarly articles over my morning coffee by noted urban planners on what makes a locale prosperous and attractive to high-wage companies and the so-called creative class of workers. Of high importance are safe, clean and walkable neighborhoods, with roads in good condition and with such nearby amenities as nice parks, ballfields and community centers.
Anyway, we left our 2,200 sq. ft. house and walked down our nicely-paved street to the 6500 block of N. Kolb Rd., where the stark difference between the condition of our private street and a Pima County road became immediately apparent. A three-foot-long pothole is forming on Kolb at the entrance to our community.
Turning right, or south, on Kolb, we walked past a tarnished crucifix that someone had placed at the spot where a motorcyclist was killed a few years ago on the hilly, windy, two-lane road. If we had turned north instead of south, we would have passed the site where a speeding car had missed a curve, crossed into the approaching lane, took a big chunk out of a curb, and knocked over an immense saguaro cactus. And farther up Kolb, near where it begins to turn west and becomes Craycroft Rd., is a stretch of road with narrow, eroding shoulders, where cars have smashed into guard rails.
The shoulders have eroded so much in places that abandoned and broken white irrigation pipes stick out of the ground at odd angles, looking like bleached Wooly Mammoth bones at an archeological dig. No one from the county seems to notice or care.
This stretch of road is designated as a scenic county road, but you wouldn’t know it by the road’s condition. It is also the location of the entrance to the Loews Ventana Canon Resort, where tourists from around the country stay and form an impression of Tucson.
A lot of walkers, joggers, cyclists, and golfers in golf carts use the road, which has no sidewalks. Strangely, a bike lane runs north on Kolb, starting at the intersection with Sunrise but then abruptly ending in three-quarters of a mile, thus leaving cyclists to proceed beyond that point with no bike lane, causing them to ride dangerously close to traffic, on a shoulder littered with gravel and rocks, due to the street deteriorating and rarely being swept by the county, unlike streets in well-run locales that are swept every two weeks.
Yeah, a ritzy area alright.
Equally dangerous, we often see walkers with their backs to traffic, including mothers pushing baby strollers. When my wife and I walk along the road, we always face traffic and often step into the brush when we see distracted drivers heading toward us.
The speed limit is 35 mph, but it is common for cars to travel 50 mph, including in front of an elementary school. Judging by the volume of beer bottles, liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia along the road, some of the drivers are impaired.
In spite of these hazards, we have never seen the county sheriff conduct speed enforcement along the road. My repeated requests for such enforcement have gone unanswered by the sheriff’s department and the county board of supervisors. The former residents of East Berlin probably got better responses from their communist apparatchiks.
Back to our walk: After turning south on Kolb and heading toward Sunrise three-quarters of a mile away, we began to pick up the usual amounts of litter, including debris from a Jack in the Box, the nearest of which is 6.2 miles away. As is typical with litterers, some uncivilized jackass threw the items out of the car window one at a time instead of putting them in the bag they came in and crumpling the bag and then throwing the bag out the car window. We picked up separately a large plastic cup, the lid to the cup, a straw, sandwich wrappings, soiled napkins, and packets of ketchup, one of which was split open and left sticky goo on my fingers.
The wealthy part of the Ventana Canyon Community Association and golf course abuts the east side of Kolb, where there are many multi-million-dollar homes. To their credit, the board of directors for the association has a crew trim trees once a year that overhang the traffic lanes along the association’s long frontage.
Unfortunately, the board has turned down my request to send a worker on a golf cart down Kolb along the association’s frontage every day to pick up litter.
Having been on two HOA boards in metro Phoenix, including the large Scottsdale Ranch Community Association, which has thousands of residents, I was surprised by the answer, since keeping frontages clean is customary in communities in metro Phoenix. In fact, there are often agreements between HOAs and municipalities, requiring HOAs to maintain their frontages, including public rights-of-way and even medians, as is the case between the City of Scottsdale and the very large McCormick Ranch Community Association.
The Tucson culture is very different, and it shows.
Kolb also passes in front of a couple of condo developments and a nursing home, none of which keep their respective frontages clean. To that point, I had to write a letter to the manager of the nursing home, asking him to pick up a discarded white door that had remained for months on the ground in front of the facility, where it could be seen from the street.
On our walks, my wife and I pick up litter in front of the facility, which is part of a chain of nursing homes, and throw it into the facility’s dumpster, which, along with its concrete pad, is disgustingly filthy and surrounded by trash. It is not known if such poor standards extend inside the building, but the outside conditions are the opposite of the conditions at the nonprofit, religious-based nursing home in metro Phoenix where my mom lived for many years. That property was beautifully landscaped and kept in immaculate condition. I certainly wouldn’t entrust a loved one to anything less.
Kolb is deteriorating badly along this stretch. A large crack four inches wide and an inch or two deep is opening in the middle of the northbound and southbound lanes, extending three-quarters of a mile from Sunrise to Ventana Canyon Dr. I call it the county’s version of the San Andreas Fault.
By the county’s own admission, 90% of its streets, including streets in residential neighborhoods, are in poor or failed condition. Its latest plan to repair streets after decades of deferred maintenance is way too little, way too late. Streets will be deteriorating faster than the new plan will be fixing them.
The county does not pick up litter along Kolb (or Craycroft) north of Sunrise, but it does have two sections that can be adopted under the Adopt-a-Road program. Unfortunately, adopters are required to pick up litter only twice a year, which is woefully inadequate. Moreover, unlike Maricopa County, it doesn’t advertise the program or track statistics on its effectiveness. And although political messages are not allowed on the Adopt-a-Road signs, a teacher union official adopted one of the sections and was allowed to have this message put on the sign: “In memory of the teacher strike.”
When my wife and I got to the intersection of Kolb and Sunrise, a large cardboard box and other debris were in the intersection. Also, four illegal, professionally-printed plastic advertising signs had been placed near the intersection in the right-of-way. The county doesn’t remove such signs as a matter of course, but I’ve worked with county personnel in removing illegal signs over the years at this intersection and at the intersection of Sunrise and Craycroft. On average, inconsiderate jerks place four signs per week at the two intersections, for a combined total of over 200 per year.
A shout-out: The lower-level county employees are good people who try to do their best in spite of working for a county government that does its worst.
If we had proceeded on Kolb for a couple of miles south of Sunrise, we would have gone by a Rural Metro fire station. Ugly plywood has covered the entrance to one of the garage stalls for a year, looking like a scene out of Detroit. In other locales in Arizona, fire stations are attractive and a source of community pride.
Yeah, a ritzy area alright.
We threw the cardboard box in a dumpster at the shopping center on the southwest corner of Kolb and Sunrise, where Basha’s is the anchor tenant, and where a popular restaurant, a Tucson institution, is located. The center’s parking lot is often badly littered, and the restaurant’s two dumpsters at the grimy rear of the restaurant are absolutely disgusting. The restaurant throws unbagged garbage into one of the dumpsters and doesn’t close the lid. The stench in the summer heat is overwhelming, and the garbage attracts ravens, flies and rats. Flies attack diners on the restaurant’s patio and inside the building when the sliding windows/doors are open in nice weather. There’s no telling what the kitchen looks like.
It’s amazing that neither this restaurant nor many other Tucson restaurants have the kind of dumpsters that are specially designed for food waste—dumpsters with self-sealing, airtight doors. The county health department seems to be missing in action.
We stopped eating at the restaurant, because we don’t like flies with our food. Instead, we tend to eat at restaurants in poor sections of the city, where parking lots are cleaner, the garbage doesn’t stink, and flies aren’t on the menu.
After throwing out the cardboard box, we proceeded west on Sunrise, walking from Kolb to Otono, or about a half mile. We passed major sources of litter: a CVS drugstore, a Dominos Pizza, and a Speedway gas station/convenience store. The Speedway keeps its property in fairly good condition, but the CVS isn’t as good, and the Dominos stinks. None of them adopt a road, and judging by the litter along their frontages, they don’t pick up the debris that their customers throw out along the public right-of way. Instead, they leave it for two schlemiels to pick up. That would be my wife and me.
By the time we reached Otono, we had filled a second bag with trash. At Otono, we turned right, or north. This is the entrance to a development that was built decades ago and includes hundreds of homes, many of which are large and expensive. The development’s name is etched on a cement monument at the entrance. The monument resembles a monument that had been buried in volcanic ash in Pompei, Italy, as it doesn’t seem to have been painted or maintained in many years. A four-foot tall stump of a palm tree sits in front of the monument, where a palm had apparently died and been cut down, but without being cut to ground level. A half-dead agave plant is next to the palm stump, along with broken landscape lighting. It’s as ugly as the Meadowlands of New Jersey, but with a dead palm stump sticking out of the ground instead of a dead Mafioso.
In keeping with street conditions in most of the Foothills, Otono is a badly-deteriorated street, and so are the neighborhood streets that branch off from it. A comparison could be made to streets in Mexico, but that would be unfair to Mexico.
Of course, people are free to live as they want and not as an interloper wants. However, the point is that if residents don’t care about the appearance of the entrance to their neighborhood and their streets, they probably won’t care about the appearance of the rest of the county or city.
Continuing on Otono, we finally reached Wilmot, and from there we entered a well-maintained family neighborhood that is part of an HOA and within walking distance of the elementary school that fronts Kolb near our house. Homes, yards and streets are in good condition, which explains why a house recently went on the market there and sold in one week, despite an absence of nearby parks, ballfields and community centers. (The nearest park is five miles away and has rundown playing fields, shabby restrooms, and scores of homeless people.) In spite of these drawbacks, the family neighborhood is popular, because it is unusually well-maintained for metro Tucson.
We walked through the neighborhood, through the next-door school grounds, and returned home, completing a five-mile circle.
I’ve gone full-circle in another way. I started a group over a year ago with the mission of reducing Tucson’s poverty by increasing the metropolis’s prosperity. My efforts included writing several policy papers on why government services and conditions in the county and city were so pitiful and what could be done about it.
I eventually disbanded the group after concluding that a lack of facts and analyses isn’t the problem in metro Tucson. The problem is culture—of county and city residents becoming accustomed over the decades to low standards and bad government. Since changing culture is way beyond my abilities, all I could do was to retreat to my oasis and try to keep the surrounding neighborhood free of litter.
You’re welcome to join us on one of our walks. You’ll learn more about political science, human behavior and urban planning from the conditions along the way than you would learn if you were to obtain a PhD in these subjects at the University of Arizona.