Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bisbee - A rare village

After a long day of ghost-towning along the Mexican border, we set our sights on Bisbee Arizona, the biggest dot on the map for miles in any direction. Rumor had it, it was once the most happening place between El Paso and San Francisco. We drove into the town--or so we thought--and began searching for the town built into a hill that a tipster had told us about. As the sun began to set, we were hopelessly lost amongst a smattering of early 20th century small town developments. We found refuge at a hotel along the Mexican border. The next morning, we headed for Old Bisbee, allegedly the place we were looking for but had missed the night before.The first place we came to, pictured above, wasn't Bisbee at all but a nearby suburb known as Lowell (to historians). Lowell had hit some hard times. A food co-op and a breakfast place were the only places still open on the main drag, outside of that, well...

It turns out the town of Lowell had been eaten by a pit mine. A mining town suffers a percarious existence.Continuing down the highway, we finally found Old Bisbee. It didn't take long before we realized this town was a special place. It bore little semblance to the "small town-big suburb" monotony seen across the US. Instead, it felt like a big city. We spent the next couple days trying to figure out what sort of conditions spawned such a place.Bisbee was established in the 1880s on a massive copper deposit along an incredibly narrow winding valley. The mines were successful and soon silver and gold were discovered. Though the mines ceased operation in the 1970s, there is speculation that recent mineral prices could cause the operation to reopen. Later in the 1970s, the village had hit rock bottom. The mining company was unable to find any local takers for the Copper Queen Hotel (which now commands upwards of $200 a night) but a pair of enterprising artists and actor John Wayne caught wind of the place and realized it's inherent worth. Real estate prices rivaled modern day Detroit and Old Bisbee became something of an artists colony, who, in their later years began attracting tourists.Many remark that Bisbee looks more like a small European village than the frontier town that it is. The are no wide roads. Many houses are not accessible from the street. People stroll up and down the valley walls on sets of stairs. The few cars on the streets move at a snails pace, often ignoring the "one way" signs that exist on almost every road. Some roads are incredibly narrow, and the walkways that stretch into the hills are narrower still.Somehow, this little town built a different fate for itself than the scores of deserted communities that surround it. The Bisbee difference, if you will, is scarcity of space. At one point, 20,000 people filled this little corner of the valley. Scores of saloons lined Brewers Gulch on the rowdy side of town. Churches and the county courthouse occupied the wealthy side of town. Miners made enough from working in the mine to put up humble domiciles, many of which are occupied to this day. Few owned cars and the city was not laid out with them, or even wagons in mind.Bisbee was, and continues to be incredibly walkable. Looking at a road map, the city seems like a pain to navigate. But on foot, there are no shortages of short-cuts, walk-throughs and stairways to get to any destination. The lack of abundant space requires that the small space that does exist be used very efficiently.We visited several establishments that could have been no more than 60 square feet in size. Everywhere art mingled with history in a way that is both refreshing and respectful.For all its buildings--seemingly stacked on top of each other--Bisbee remains remarkably empty. Vacant lots and decaying buildings lay scattered throughout the city. Somehow though, the city in no way looks blighted. Each empty lot looks more like an opportunity than a blight.This is a village that seems to understand that positive change is not defined by growth. New projects are rarely bigger, or better buildings. More often, they are art projects or retrofits of existing buildings. We found at least a dozen small independent hotels in the city and it seemed that even the smallest infrastructure project require a healthy dose of free spirit.I left Bisbee with the notion that one of the most important factors for the growth of a healthy city is scarcity of space. This is a difficult proposition. In Bisbee, the scarcity was provided by steep valley walls. These same walls that helped create such positive space ultimately limited the growth of the city. How then does a city create a movable boundary? Is the legal urban growth boundary that Portland uses the answer? And how can a city keep real estate prices low enough to accommodate every economic condition?In coming days and weeks, I'll try to answer some of these questions. As the grand tour of the nation (at least the west coast) comes to a close, Hannah and I are returning to Detroit. The focus of this blog, and the commentary contained herein, will turn its focus to that perplexing city.

1 comment:

  1. Bisbee looks fantastic! I love the urban form, but where are all the people?