Arizona officially became a state in 1912, but before that three other flags flew over the territory: Spanish, Mexican, and Confederate. By the 1850s the Butterfield Stage Line
was expanded to Tucson, bringing adventurers, a few settlers, and more than a smattering of outlaws. The arrival of the railroad in 1880 began another spurt of growth, as did the construction of the University of Arizona
in 1891. Tucson expanded once more World War I and again during World War II with the opening of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base
and the influx of local aeronautical industries. Today many transplants come from California and colder climes because of the lower housing costs, cleaner environment, and spectacular scenery.
Because of the myriad billboards and ubiquitous strip malls Speedway Boulevard in Tucson, Arizona was once dubbed the "ugliest street in America" by Life Magazine. Speedway Boulevard begins in desert. Or, depending on your outlook, it ends in mid air. On the westernmost edge is Gates Pass in the Tucson Mountains mostly comprised of extinct volcanoes where the Hohokam Indians first settled in the fertile farming area at in 100 AD. Driving east the road snakes through the sprawling city of plate glass high rises; and residential megadevelopments, drops to the valley floor, passes 200-year-old tin topped barrio style homes and the University of Arizona. It winds through a never ending conglomeration strip malls, apartment complexes and residential neighborhoods until, miles and miles later, it finds nearly open desert once again. Speedway Boulevard ends; like much of Southwestern history will eventually, in a golf course.
Speedway's history began about a century ago, one can almost create a time line originating in 1903 from the foothills of the Rincon Mountains to Gates Pass. A local physician H. W. Fenner first appeared on a dusty horizon in 1900 wheeze banging along in a 1900 Locomobile Steamer which wasn't much more that a tiny engine mounted on a buckboard wagon. With a cheerful tip the hat at astonished admirers, Dr. Fenner throughly enjoyed every bit of motoring through the dirt streets of downtown Tucson. By 1905, Fenner was the first in the Arizona Territory to get a driver's licence while other well to do Tucsonans had imported their own "horseless carriages" from back east. These drivers wanted a place to push their roadsters to the reckless limit of 15 miles per hour, while "Old Doc" Fenner, all of forty years old by now, was contented to chug along at a snail's pace. The local constables made it clear to the daredevil drivers that downtown was no place for them but paid little attention as they zipped along the many graded dirt roads leading away from the downtown area to points east and west. Soon one such road earned the honorary moniker of Speedway. Stone Avenue at the time was the north to south dividing line in downtown Tucson; three miles east the city limits ended at Country Club Avenue. Over the decades the geographic center has slowly crept ten miles east from Stone to Wilmont.
My arrival was several years after the 1970 issue of Life magazine called Speedway "the ugliest street in America." Though it was and is still talked about today. Their offering proof was a photograph of the then four lane road from the knoll just west of Alvernon Way to Country Club. Above the picture a headline proclaimed: "Look down, look down that loathsome road," the photograph was a sea of signs. Above it all loomed a billboard of a smiling woman. Taken with a telephoto lens, the photo of Speedway gave the appearance that it was all in a half mile's worth of strip mall, car lots and billboards. What was really in the picture was in the space of a mere block. Even though not long ago, the city council passed a no-cruising ordinance "cruising Speedway," still happens as many of the generation of southern Arizona's future elect to take their low riders, pickup trucks, muscle cars, and hotrod Hondas up and down the city's main drag, waiting for something, anything, to happen. It has for all intents and purposes become a right of passsage even a family tradition for many. Many dates took me cruising Speedway on a Saturday night after the movies. Sometimes it was after The Rocky Horror Picture Show show at The Loft to some country swing (Ack! no disco!) at the Bum Steer or the Wildcat House on Stone Avenue, to just hanging out till the sun peeked over the Rincons, with friends in the dirt lot behind the Bob's Big Boy on Speedway and Alvernon. That was when kids settled the score with a fair fist fight instead of gangs and guns, so it's understandable why there has been a crackdown on cruising. It was there I learned Presley had died over car radio of a fire-engine red Plymouth Duster. There are those who would say that Life magazine had a point, and I am one of them, treasonous though it may sound. With deregulation, bill boards sprang up everywhere as an affront to the desert. Much of what happens today along this avenue too, is a slap in the face of civilization: murders and robberies, ethnic hatreds and domestic violence.
Today driving down Speedway can be its own sweet form of torture. The city has made some improvements to the corridor recently by landscaping with a gallery of cortia, agave, fountaingrass, and other desert plants. I'm convinced it's the most frequently expanded street in America. Thanks to the amount of time I have wasted stuck on Speedway at yet another construction site, I can dutifully recite many of the restaurants worth visiting that are within fuming distance. That is to say it's amazing what you can discover. Abandon your car in traffic, wander off and find something to eat. It's not like traffic is going to get going again any time soon. Speedway Boulevard has become entrenched as a part the history of the Old Pueblo, and gazing down Speedway one can behold a century of it in the blink of an eye.
To Get There: Take Interstate 10 to Tucson and exit at Speedway Boulevard. Heading west will take you into the Tucson Mountains and Gates Pass where the road changes its name, but keep going to see the Saguaro National Park, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Old Tucson Movie Studio. Eastward will take you though the downtown metropolis past the historical arts district all the way to the Rincon Mountains.
Tucson's Speedway Boulevard
The ugliest street in America? :