The Daily Agenda for Tuesday, August 30
August 30th, 2011
I don’t have anything on the calendar for today. Instead, I’ll point you to a story that appeared in Tucson’s local paper last Friday. The Arizona Daily Star reported on the local angle of the William’s Institute’s latest study of the gayest cities in America, as measured according to the number of same-sex households counted by the U.S. Census in 2010. The top city in Arizona by that measure was not Phoenix, nor Tucson nor Flagstaff, nor Sedona. The gay friendliest city in Arizona is tiny Bisbee (pop. 6,000). According to the Williams Institute, 20.9 for every 1,000 households there was made up of same-sex couples:
So why Bisbee?
“It’s kind of a little bit of a liberal spot in a conservative oasis,” said Kathy Sowden. She and her partner, Deborah Grier, own and operate Finders Keepers, an antique and jewelry shop on Main Street in Old Bisbee.
“I’m always surprised to see a Republican bumper sticker here,” she said.
The couple, who moved to Arizona six years ago from California, also said there’s a kind of live-and-let-live attitude in the community. Sowden said part of that is strictly economics.
“It’s a lot of people trying to make a living in a small tourist town,” she said. “A lot of times the mutual goal kind of erases any cultural differences, especially now with the economy the way it is.”
Bisbee is only ninety miles from Tucson, a distance which counts as “local” in the Southwest. And so whenever we have out of town guests, we always figure out how to make a trip to Bisbee for an afternoon. It’s one of my favorite places to hang out in Arizona on the weekends.
Bisbee began life as a very wild and rough copper mining camp in 1880. The “streets,” such as they were, were haphazard and were better suited for drainage down Tombstone Canyon in the craggy Mule Mountains than they were for traffic. Over the next few years, simple miners’ cabins and businesses eventually replaced the tents, paved streets replaced the muddy paths, and something resembling law and order finally, over the course of twenty years or so, replaced the prostitution, gambling and gunfights in Bisbee’s many saloons along Brewery Gulch. Bisbee’s reputation was never as bad as it’s northern neighbor Tombstone though, and so in 1929, the citizens of Cochise County voted to move the county seat 23 miles to the south and place it in a brand new art deco courthouse north of downtown. The Copper Queen Hotel provided first class lodgings for businessmen and tourists, and the Copper Queen Hospital provided medical care for Bisbee’s denizens.
Prohibition calmed things down considerably, but the mines kept the town busy. But the switch from subterranean mining to one massive open pit meant the loss of thousands of jobs. But by 1975, even the Lavender Pit Mine was no longer economically viable, and the Phelps Dodge Corporation shut it down for good. That decision very nearly spelled the end of the town. It looked like Bisbee was about to become yet another of the many ghost towns tucked into the mountains in the southwest.
But just housing prices collapsed, hippie refugees and artists quickly discovered that they could afford to purchase a tiny minor’s cabin for the price of the grocery tab. By the 1980’s Bisbee became known for the live-and-let-live attitudes these new residents brought to the community. By the 1990’s hip retirees discovered that they could afford to indulge their passions for glass art and painting while living off of their Social Security checks whether they ever sold anything or not. And by the turn of the millennium, gay couples looking to flee the ghettos of L.A. and San Francisco found Bisbee to be a more affordable, less pretentious, friendlier, and much more walkable retirement destination than Palm Springs. (In fact, because much of Bisbee is built on the sides of the canyons, many homes can’t be reached by car; thousands of concrete stairs over several dozen stairways serve as replacements for streets and sidewalks.)
Bisbee (unofficial motto: “Keep Bisbee freaky”) is home to several fine restaurants, coffee roasters, dive bars, art galleries and antique stores (at least one of which, based on my experience, is generous with “family” discounts). It is also home to the stately and restored Copper Queen Hotel, along with several other historic hotels and B&B’s. If you want to stay somewhere funkier, you can book a night in a restored 1950s’ travel trailer at the Shade Dell. And if you happen to be there in mid-June, you can check out Bisbee’s Gay Pride celebration, complete with a lingerie pub crawl, a drag race and bull run up Brewery Gulch, and a Miners and Madames Street Dance. In 2007, Out magazine listed it among the top five rural Pride events in the country. Or you can come in mid-October for Great Bisbee Stair Climb, which is a run up one of Bisbee’s 1,000-step staircases.
If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. PLEASE, don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).