In Tucson's sprawling suburbs, recession has dimmed the American dream

Phil Rucker explores the economic and political climate shaping Arizona by looking at alleged shooter Jared Loughner's neighborhood.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 12:21 AM

TUCSON - North Soledad Avenue is wide and perfectly curved. The ranch houses along the street are set atop desert yards that require little maintenance: palm trees and prickly pear cactuses, gravel or stone or red pebbles.

This was the dream - a quiet and peaceful block tucked within the suburban sprawl of northwest Tucson. It drew working-class settlers over the past 15 years in search of a fresh start. A construction worker came because there were thousands of kitchens to remodel. An aircraft mechanic came for the sunshine. A nursing home worker came because everything was cheap - land, gas, groceries.

But now, recession-ravaged North Soledad - like the streets in so many other Arizona neighborhoods - is on the decline. Its asphalt is cracked. One man's three-tier plaster fountain has run dry. In another yard, an inflatable Santa sits, out of air.

This is street where Jared Loughner grew up. The 22-year-old high school dropout, accused in a shooting rampage that killed six people and left Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords critically injured, lived with his parents in the middle of the block.

Overgrown brush, cactuses and dwarf palm trees block the view from the house's front windows. An old white pickup and a rusted 1970s-era Chevy Nova sit in the driveway. Loughner's father rebuilds old cars.

The Loughner family's single-story home has become an international curiosity in the days since the shootings. Sheriff's deputies rushed to the house midday Monday after a television news crew apparently drove through a back alley to take pictures.

The news media have been omnipresent on the block, knocking on neighbors' doors and hoping for a glimpse of the suspect's parents, Randy and Amy Loughner. They broke their silence Tuesday afternoon, but only on paper, issuing a statement saying that they did not understand why the shooting happened and that they wish they could change the "heinous events."

Most of the houses on North Soledad have three bedrooms and were built in the 1970s or 1980s. Nearly half of the people who live here now moved in during the 2000s, according to an analysis of census data. In the area around the neighborhood, the median household income is $65,000; the median age, 35.

Roger Whithead arrived here in 1995. Tucson was an escape from Detroit, where he grew up and went to college, and from Colorado, where had had been living after that. He builds kitchens and bathrooms, and with Arizona's population swelling, there was plenty of work.

He didn't know most of his neighbors, but that didn't seem to matter much. "Socially, everyone keeps to themselves," said Whithead, 52. "I know the fella right here and over there, but that's about it."

Over the past decade, things started changing. People moved in from California and Oregon. Whithead was doing their kitchens, but he's a conservative and didn't like their liberal politics.

"We don't need to start that here - the bigger government, more welfare," Whithead said.

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