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

By Philip Rucker
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.

Stephen Woods, the aircraft mechanic, has been out of a job for a year. "I had so much hope when I moved here, but it's down now," he said. "It's difficult to live here nowadays."

At the end of the block, Shauna Quintero and her utility-inspector husband are raising a young family. Quintero, 29, calls herself a conservative independent and said she is concerned about what's happening 80 miles south at the Mexican border.

Quintero said her neighborhood, like her state, is divided politically. "You have your yeses and you have your nos . . . and there's no gray in between," she said, holding her daughter, Lola, 1.

The recession of 2008 brought Arizona a blitz of bad news: layoffs and foreclosures, more layoffs and more foreclosures. Suddenly, life for people across this sprawling city seemed like it might not be sustainable.

Whithead stopped vacationing in the Virgin Islands. Woods drew unemployment benefits. The Quinteros downsized.

"We're not obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses anymore," Shauna Quintero said. "Arizona was big into that - buying more, living bigger - and we participated in all of that. Now our lives are smaller."

Tom Zoellner, a writer and fifth-generation Arizonan who is a close friend of Giffords's, said this state represented "a certain manifestation of the American dream - a place to move that's clean and bright and free of prior associations. . . .

"You have, in a sense, a comfortable fantasy."

But, added Zoellner, who has lived here off and on since 2003: "The relentless growth in housing and in real estate helped cover the rocks under the river. It papered over the kind of hard reality that we've been avoiding here for many years."

That reality is a place where people have few, if any, ties to one another. Tucson is divided by boulevards stretching six or eight lanes wide and extending 15 or more miles into the horizon. The subdivisions here are often separated by concrete walls.

"There's a society of perpetual newcomers, where it's been very, very difficult to create any kind of community cohesion," said Thomas Sheridan, a state historian and University of Arizona anthropology professor.

Giffords tried to use her office to create a stronger sense of community. It is telling that she held her "Congress On Your Corner" event outside a Safeway.

"There may be no more iconic public square in Tucson than a strip mall on a major street," Zoellner said.

Five miles west of the crime scene, Whithead has been living off savings for the better part of a year, since the home design firm he worked at closed. He does odd jobs here and there, but ever since the banks tightened up lending, fewer people can score a $50,000 check to remodel their kitchens.

"Now, they come in with just what they've saved to replace a cabinet," Whithead said, standing in his front yard near the palo verde tree that he said will bloom this spring into "a big yellow ball."

He hasn't given up on Arizona. As he walked back into his house, he passed his white pickup. On the rear windshield is a sticker: "Capture the Dream."

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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