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J U L Y 1 9 9 8
NTERSTATE 19 from Nogales to Tucson is a typical American four-lane highway, with luminous metallic signs and landscaped roadsides and without the mud puddles and trails of garbage that begin an inch from the road in Mexico. My bus passed through Green Valley, a high-income retirement community with Spanish archways and upscale mini-malls. Still fresh from Mexico, I gawked at the prosperity. I thought of the tens of millions of poor people just on the other side of the iron curtain thirty minutes to the south -- so much younger than the population on this side of the border. In Mexico 40 percent of the population is under fifteen, whereas in this part of Arizona the median age is thirty-three and rising. If the history of migration is a guide, borders like this one, not based on geographic barriers, may slow and interrupt great movements of humanity but ultimately will not stop them.
A pitiless gray cluster of sun-beaten escarpments -- the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north, the Tucson Mountains to the west, and the Rincon Mountains to the east -- announced Tucson. With a population of 465,000, Tucson is larger than Atlanta, Miami, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, or Cincinnati. Eighty-five percent of Arizonans live either in greater Tucson or in greater Phoenix. By the middle of the next century 98 percent of Arizonans will live in just four cities: Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Yuma. (Greater Tucson already has a population of 817,000.) The Arizona pattern suggests what is happening throughout the West, as small towns die and suburbs around big cities grow by an acre an hour. Despite its mythic grandeur, the West is actually the most urbanized part of the United States.
After the Second World War the "Sunbelt" phenomenon, made possible by the spread of air-conditioning, led to a land boom in Tucson. The city's population grew from 35,000 in 1940 to 212,000 in 1960. In the 1980s and 1990s, as the communications revolution took off, Tucson's warm and scenic desert location became especially appealing. The population, which grew by 26 percent in the 1970s, has risen by an additional 34 percent since, according to city officials. Many who live here do business with regional or even global clienteles -- in the Catalina foothills in north Tucson an elite conducts daily business electronically with other continents. Other newcomers are prosperous retirees with independent incomes. Thus the local economy has not kept pace with the population, and now there are two Tucsons. Aside from the University of Arizona -- somewhat of a social and economic island -- and boom-and-bust military-aircraft industries, little is here except low-paying service jobs and a millionaire elite that acquired its wealth by sitting on real estate rather than producing anything.
My bus entered a gridwork of dead space: mile upon yawning mile of strip malls with no edifice more than two stories high, each with a parking lot: Arby's Roast Beef, Yokohama Rice Bowl, Lube Pit, Jack in the Box, Denny's, Exxon, Discount Tire, Quik Mart, McDonald's, Whataburger, Foodmart, Dunkin' Donuts, Bank One, Taco Bell, and on and on. There was an ordered repetition: every few miles another Yokohama Rice Bowl, another Arby's and Bank One. What seemed an unending sameness was a series of interconnected shopping centers serving individual neighborhoods, often cookie-cutter subdivisions of single-level, cheaply framed Sheetrock houses: "three houses to an acre, ticky-tacky junk," according to a local planner.
I tried to remember the sequence of the bus's ninety-degree turns, but soon lost all sense of direction, since nothing seemed to change -- as if I were inside the circuitry of a computer chip. Later, when I picked up a rental car and looked briefly at a city map, I saw that except in the hilly northern suburbs, there were no winding streets to confuse me. The city is a military-style, 200-square-mile cantonment whose central thoroughfare -- named Speedway -- is a multi-lane highway. Tucson appeared truly futuristic, a deliberate pod -- a kind of self-enclosed, technologically sophisticated community that may well be more closely connected to similar ones in Asia than to neighboring towns. Partly because of the surrounding mountains and clean air, Tucson still evinces a Wild West quaintness. Nearby greater Phoenix is four times as large. Its growth faces no natural limits, and it has some of the dirtiest air in the nation.
What little there was to Tucson's downtown was near the bus station: a few empty streets with brick-fronted stores selling T-shirts, Native American and Indian-subcontinent fabrics, leather-and-chain apparel, some traditional clothes, and trite western-landscape paintings. Much of the merchandise had a faded hippie look. Some of the stores were closed, opening only on weekend nights, when the streets fill with students from the university, though they have little disposable income. Roy Drachman, who has lived in Tucson for all of his ninety years and has been one of the city's leading real-estate developers since the Second World War, told me that although he leads an active life, he hasn't been downtown in years. "There are no good restaurants or anything worthwhile, and I wouldn't feel safe there at night."
Tucson is an oasis culture located in the desert along the Rillito and Santa Cruz Rivers -- shallow, dry washes that fill with gushing brown water after a heavy rain. It is a city of nomads, both rich and poor, in which much of the population struggles at subsistence level. "Tucson is generally a minimum-wage town," Charles Bowden, who has written nine books about the Southwest, told me. "It has the American equivalent of a maquiladora economy."
It is said that many of the people who live in Tucson have come here just to be left alone. Involvement in local politics is abysmal, with a voter turnout of 25 to 30 percent in off-year elections -- one of the lowest in the United States. Relatively few people are on the streets. There are few sidewalks, and almost no taxis. It is a city of beepers, car phones, and private security systems. The impression of many people here is that the local business elite is disappearing as an increasing number of Tucson's retail outlets give way to chain stores. The crime index is the ninth highest among large U.S. cities, after Tampa, Miami, St. Louis, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Newark, Baltimore, and Kansas City. There is almost no urban planning.
"In many neighborhoods people don't stay long enough to build community ties," Tom Sheridan, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, told me. "It is a Sunbelt phenomenon of people in transit. Still, neighborhood associations are more vibrant in Tucson than in Phoenix, where seven out of ten newcomers leave sooner or later." The West is the most mobile region in the nation (followed by the South), with a fifth of all households having moved in the previous year. In Tucson almost 30 percent of households have lived in their homes less than fifteen months, about 60 percent less than five years.
"Since 1980 there has been a real decline in community life," Molly McKasson, a Tucson city councilwoman, told me. "Despite the massive growth and development of the 1980s, the median household income here declined by eight percent, the unemployment rate rose by twenty-eight percent, the number of people living in poverty increased by sixty-eight percent, and we are close to being a renter economy: almost fifty percent of people here rent rather than own their homes."
The median household income in Tucson is $21,748, whereas it was $26,655 in 1970 (in the same dollars). The median income for a single woman with children is $14,595. More than a third of Tucson households earn less than $15,000. "Do you realize how low these numbers are?" McKasson asked me. "These women can't afford day care; their kids are left alone during the day. And these are the people above poverty! All the stress indicators are up. There is an increase in transiency, in single motherhood, in renters, in child abuse, in juvenile crime." Most of McKasson's figures are slightly below the national average. The social crisis affects the black, white, and Mexican communities to similar degrees.
The Southwest is full of such oases: low-wage, one-story encampments containing a high proportion of drifters and broken families. The drug-arrest rate is higher in the West than anywhere else in the country.
HEREAS north Tucson is mainly white, Tucson's "South Side" is mainly Mexican (with both legal and illegal immigrants), and crime-ridden. Arturo Carillo Strong, a retired Tucson policeman and federal undercover agent, gave me a tour of the South Side one morning. (Strong recently died.)
"Over there," Strong said, pointing to some stately brick ranch houses with iron fences, "you see your drug money at work. Just look at that fancy wrought-iron fence -- you know it was paid for by drugs by the amount of wrought iron in the construction." Strong's tour began in Barrio Centro and continued into Barrio Hollywood and El Rio. I was struck by the sterility of the South Side. Nothing indicated that this was a dangerous area in which most of Tucson's seventy-five known gangs operate. When Strong told me about the drive-by shootings and the crack houses, I was truly surprised: I saw well-maintained tract houses with metal or asphalt roofs and white-painted brick; some even had gardens of bougainvillea and oleander, despite the arid desert soil. The only hints of working-class poverty were old pickups and the occasional sagging clothesline. "The parents or the grandparents are okay, but some of the kids are bad," Strong explained. "The grandparents tend the garden and make repairs -- that's why it looks nice."
We passed a lovely landscaped park with cypress trees. "It's full of drug dealers at night," Strong said. "They have whistlers -- guys who hang out at the corner and whistle if they see someone strange approaching."
In another park Strong pointed to some homeless people. "The police provide a number of one-way bus tickets to these people, to get them to San Diego, where they will be San Diego's problem. The police and social-service departments do that sort of thing. Forget solutions -- just keep criminal activity at a reasonable level in your jurisdiction."
We passed through a section of town where restored adobe houses were undergoing gentrification by yuppies. I noticed a handmade sign: WE NEED AFFORDABLE HOUSING -- NOT $1,800-A-MONTH RENTS. IF YOU PEOPLE WANT NEW YORK-STYLE LOFTS, WHY DON'T YOU MOVE TO NEW YORK?
I saw evidence of class resentment, violence, and a social vacuum. Yet Strong's cynicism did not persuade me that Tucson was in danger. I knew that for the prosperous inhabitants of the Catalina foothills, where I was staying, the South Side simply did not exist.
We entered a section of town composed of tire shops, auto-transmission stores, and Mexican restaurants. "Tire shops have traditionally been fronts for drug deals, or for laundering illegal cash," Strong said. "Arrest all the drug dealers and the retail economy of Tucson's South Side goes bust." The clumsy architecture and the graffiti made me feel that I was back in northern Mexico -- a perception that strengthened when Strong and I entered El Indio restaurant, a local hangout, formerly a beauty salon. Here Strong introduced me to Alex Villa, a "semi-retired" local gang leader.
Villa said that he was semi-retired because his younger brother had taken over the leadership of the gang. "But two rival gangs still want my head as a trophy on the wall." Villa weighed nearly 300 pounds, I thought. His head was completely shaved, and he had a black goatee. His sunglasses rested on a bulge at the back of his neck, making him look as if he had two faces. Around his neck was a gold necklace with a pendant of Jesus Christ the Fisherman of Souls. "Who else is going to keep me alive?" Villa said when I commented on it.
"What's a gang?" I asked him.
Villa stared at me, very hard. After a moment of silence he said, "A gang enforces order from chaos. A gang is about pride and respect, while mafias are all about business. Only if a gang achieves a certain level of organization can it become a mafia. In Tucson, gangs are more territorial than ethnic. For instance, there are often some blacks and whites in Mexican gangs. Black-dominated gangs tend to be more fluid, though, with less loyalty and more 'flippers.' The Phoenix gangs are allied with the [Los Angeles-based] Crips and Bloods, while the gangs here are independent of -- yet still influenced by -- the L.A. gangs.
"The schools have made things worse. In high school, in the Mexican areas we were taught about Latino history and pride, while the blacks were taught about black history and pride. What the teachers never emphasized was respect for each other's cultures, or how to think like an American. My sophomore year blacks and Mexicans had a full-fledged riot."
"What about your old gang?"
"It's a subcell of what had been a larger gang." Villa went on, talking about gang "empires" and "territories," including one controlled by Yaqui Indians -- "tough little guys whose territory was surrounded, yet they were able to hold off other groups."
"You don't talk like you look," I remarked. Villa again stared at me hard, and then said, "You cannot believe how easy it is to be trapped by your surroundings, how the world beyond the South Side of Tucson is not real. When I was in criminal court, I listened -- really, for the first time -- to how educated people speak. That's when I realized how dumb I sounded. Thanks for the compliment. I'm still working on myself."
Villa told me that he reads often in libraries. "I've learned to start sentences without saying 'You know.'" He had arrived on time for our lunch -- but for gang members it is a matter of pride to arrive late, to let the other fellow wait. I suspected that he was truly retired.
Villa had served a total of sixteen months, in a juvenile prison and in what he called an adult facility, for assault and battery. "In the adult facility I learned how to hot-wire cars, get through home alarm systems, and make silencers," he said. He told me about "night crawlers" -- gang lookouts who flash Bic cigarette lighters to indicate Tucson street corners where cocaine is for sale. I was also told by people in the area that cops are protected by gang members if "they let a certain amount of crime happen."
Villa is a third-generation Mexican-American, born December 30, 1969. "I was a tax deduction," he joked. His now deceased father was a roofer, his mother a medical assistant. "Because of my size, I was a natural leader in junior high school. Gangs are the most copycat of subcultures. It used to be zoot suits; now it's tattoos. When I was thirteen, I got a tattoo" -- he pulled up his T-shirt and showed me a big tattoo, which read CHICANO -- "so the other kids had to get a tattoo also." Villa continued, broadening the picture. "If you chicken out when it comes to committing a murder, all your friends from your entire life in the neighborhood will reject you -- it's like excommunication. Tell me, what law or punishment could be worse than that, especially since none of the hard-core gang members expect to live beyond twenty-one?"
According to Alex Villa, the real Mexican-U.S. border runs between south and north Tucson. "The South Side is the Old World. In the Old World if a car passed by floating on air, people would fear it, then worship it. In the New World they would dissect it to see how it works. In the Old World, even with the worst poverty, there is an extended family which provides stability. But in the New World, if there is no economy, there is no culture either, no family, nothing to hold people together. Just look at the poor whites and blacks. For South Side Mexicans to go into north Tucson for work is a death march. They hate north Tucson and envy it at the same time. South Side Mexicans have no idea of gradually accumulating wealth. What they know from their own experience is 'If I could only sell a bunch of keys [kilos of cocaine], I could move to north Tucson.' To think in terms of education and hard work as a way into north Tucson is, in fact, to buy into America. I know almost nobody in south Tucson who has bought into America."
"What about the war against drugs?" I asked.
"There's no sign of it in south Tucson. Coke and heroin are on the rise, weed's the staple diet. I see more guys with exotic cars and beepers, whispering on cellular phones while the cops do nothing. Maybe the only way to cut the power of the gangs is to legalize drugs -- at least marijuana. Then the gangs would have much less money to buy guns."
UCSON'S crime-plagued South Side is composed of the "working poor." Official poverty levels are meaningless. In fact, from a fifth to a quarter of all Americans depend on incomes that cannot realistically provide for the basic necessities; and white males make up the largest group of employed heads of households living in or near poverty -- a fact that partly explains the resurgence of militias. Bruce and Corinna Chadwick, who live in Tucson's South Side in a predominantly black and Mexican area, are members of the part of the white population that can be counted among the working poor. Bruce is a supervisor in an automobile-parts store, Corinna a store cashier. Neither finished high school. In their late twenties, with three children, they have a combined gross income of $35,000 a year. Although that is higher than the Tucson household average of $21,748, the Chadwicks are barely managing to tread water economically.
I pulled my car up to the Chadwicks' tract house with its bare-dirt yard, enclosed by a fence and protected by a loud buzzer and two guard dogs. Bruce came to greet me. I noticed that a black-iron-grille door had been installed over the original one. Inside I saw a spotlessly clean, frugal house, with flowers stuck in a plastic 7-Eleven cup on the kitchen table. Bruce and Corinna were both heavyset. Bruce had dark hair, a neat moustache, and wire-rimmed glasses; Corinna had long red hair and red fingernails. They were sipping Cokes. It was mid-morning, and their three children were at school -- a magnet school in a better neighborhood, where Corinna had managed to enroll them. "I attended school in this neighborhood, and I don't want my kids exposed to the same things I was," she said. Bruce and Corinna are intelligent people who made, economically speaking, a mistake: they married before finishing high school and quickly had children.
To get this house, built by Habitat for Humanity and valued at $48,000, the Chadwicks had to invest several hundred "sweat-equity hours" building other Habitat houses, go through a battery of long interviews and a credit check, and provide a $600 down payment. "It's taken me eight years," Bruce said, "to get a job that is somewhat decent. I'm not stupid, but I'm not the smartest guy in the world, and this house is a big step up from where we lived before."
Bruce and Corinna spent six years in a mobile-home park near the Tucson airport before moving here. "What was the mobile-home park like?" I asked.
They smiled knowingly. Bruce said, "It was a real interesting experience, I can tell you. By the time we left, all of the people living there when we moved in had gone." Corinna added, "We saw the place gradually change, and always for the worse. The place was full of children without guidance."
Here are some of the stories Bruce and Corinna told me about the trailer park:
A child tried repeatedly to stab one of the Chadwicks' children with a screwdriver. Corinna phoned the police, who told her that they "could do nothing because the perpetrator was under age." Nevertheless, the police lectured the mother of the offending child. "It went in one ear and out the other," Bruce said.
Another child was left alone in the driver's seat of a truck with the engine on. The child shifted gears and rammed a trailer.
One night Corinna saw a group of men with automatic rifles outside a neighbor's trailer. One of them said, "Okay, guys, let's hit it." They then assaulted the trailer. The men were undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents. At night Bruce and Corinna frequently saw helicopters shining spotlights on one or another of the trailers. "There was a lot of drug activity," Bruce explained.
A next-door neighbor, six months behind in the rent, rigged the wiring system to blow up his trailer. His attempt failed. After he was evicted, an electrician discovered the plot in the course of an inspection.
"The insides of many of these trailers were unspeakable," Bruce told me. "The park was full of people who were constantly drunk and dirty. There were single men with sons and girlfriends -- few real families. There were single moms on welfare even though their men lived with them -- a lot of welfare scams, yes. And there were always the loud arguments. I'll never forget the night that a man and a woman screamed at each other until dawn, when they started breaking windows. Once a neighbor became so drunk that he crawled up into a fetal position. The police took him away and he had to have his stomach pumped."
Bruce thought that the social dysfunction he had described could have been reduced by government aid. Corinna shook her head no and said, "A lot of people we've encountered can't be helped."
The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.
Robert D. Kaplan is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His article in this issue will appear, in somewhat different form, in his new book, An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future, to be published by Random House in late summer.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; Travels Into America's Future; Volume 282, No. 1; pages 47 - 68.