Signs: A Sense of Place

In Situ
As Biosphere students we are transients, moving into the outer reaches of Tucson, Arizona, and moving on out after a mere five months. While adjusting to our new environment, we have learned about the natural forces that have synergistically created this place. Tectonic compression and extensions have created the mountain ranges that cradle the basin that is now Tucson. The vegetation indicates this area as an "Apacherian mixed shrub savanna,"1 on the edge of the Sonoran Desert. The indigenous Tohono O'Odham people, now on the San Xavier Reservation, used to range freely over land on which the Baboquivari Peak was visible. Yet, what do the mountains, the vegetation, and the indigenous past contribute to the city of Tucson today? What is Tucson-from what does it originate and into what is it developing? More importantly, how are we to comprehend Tucson?

The City Speaks...
Although Tucson is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States, it has changed dramatically during the twentieth century. From 1950 to 1990, the population of Tucson alone increased ten times.2 In the last ten years, the population has doubled. Tucson and its suburbs now have over 800,000 inhabitants.3 The rapid growth has brought about a landscape of national businesses with their mass-marketed logos, distinguishable in any other American city, contrasted with local images of mountains, saguaros, and a "desert oasis."

Driving around Tucson, we see a human-made landscape: buildings with painted facades, flashy neon signs, and three-dimensional structures that function as a sign. While many of these signs are luring business identifiers and promoters, others are legally official, such as the familiar highway speed limit signs. Examined together, these images form a background for our collective existence in which history and identity play out. "No true secrets are lurking in the landscape, but only undisclosed evidence, waiting for us."4 These images simultaneously represent reality and perpetuate myths, helping to create a sense of place in Tucson.

To create a sense of place, only we can interpret these secret patterns and render them meaningful for ourselves. Our role is that of the drive-by tourist. As transient inhabitants, we are permanent tourists. Moreover, we are part of the vehicular travel culture. Driving for the sheer pleasure of driving has prevailed, especially since the Federal Highway Act of 1956 legislated for a national interstate system of 41,000 miles of four-lane highways. Novels like Jack Kerouac's On the Road and movies like Thelma and Louise reinforce our cultural propensity towards getting into the car and liberating some carbon. Naturally, then, we are attracted to the "other-directed" roadside architecture, for which the primary goal is to attract the highway-cruising consumer.5

Thus, we follow our attention spans into "epitome districts,"6 relatively small spaces with a high ratio of multi-valent symbols. These spaces encompass buildings, boundaries, shrines, and even empty spaces devoid of apparent human use. As much as they contribute to Tucson's identity, it is the ostentatiously ornamental signs that captivated us.

...Through the Medium of Signs
Signs--awning signs, attached signs, freeway signs, banners, billboards, projecting signs, et cetera--are identity markers for a city, indices of ways of life. They advertise, direct, and provide information. The sprawled Tucson Metropolitan enclave emphasizes its horizontal spaces instead of height. Signs reflect this trend, because there is a sign height ordinance. The aesthetic closely correlates with the importance of personal vehicle travel. Signs in Tucson cater to the motor vehicle--they are too tall for the pedestrian and are made to be seen from the road.

Additionally, signs are the public surface of the city. Although part of Tucson's essence may hide within private, domestic spaces, we have little access to such places. In any case, private spaces rarely engage drive-by tourists such as us.

Authority of law asserts its spatial dominance in speed limits, traffic lights, and regulations. The Adopt-a-Highway program injects the personal into the public by announcing individual stakes to highway miles. Many other signs, like welcome mats to the area, emphasize the desert environs of Tucson by word and image. By incorporating the saguaro cactus and hot suns, signs validate their businesses' belonging to Tucson's desert. Other signs indiscreetly flaunt an anti-desert attitude, showcasing palm trees and water. Like any other southwestern city, Tucson capitalizes on tourism with its "strip" of gaudy motel signs. Murals, much like signs, pictorially define Tucson's self-image. Advertising images evoke "The West" with cowboys roaming a grand frontier. Signs evolve into object-structures, getting more attention with a third dimension.

Some signs we documented at first encounter; others we returned to repeatedly to capture its essence. Using two cameras simultaneously, we photographed both in black and white and color film. When we deemed that color significantly adds to a photograph's character, we used it. The themes have fluid boundaries. Some signs pertain to more than one category. Indeed, all categories are just extensions of the greater theme of Tucson's identity. Therefore, the relationships are not linear within themes but web-like between themes. Nevertheless, the categories are not arbitrary; we organize the signs in the way we thought most illuminating.

Future Considerations
Out of our personal interests and perspectives, we responded to Tucson's public works of signage. Any other person may react differently. We cannot be held responsible for any disagreements of opinion that may occur.

We created this website in the spirit of a quote: "It is quite likely that you will produce documentation, the record of unique insights, never before available for that particular place. Do not keep it to yourself. This is pioneering stuff."7

We came, we saw, we documented. These signs demonstrate the way Tucson chooses to present to the public. Tucson, as a city, may not have independent agency, but its disparate constituencies constantly adjust the landscape to fit their needs of expressions. Thus, our documentation is only a collection of snapshots in time. As circumstances change, signs, too, will change. Our website documents a landscape of constant transition, advancing towards a future history.

1 Burgess, Tony. "Desert Grassland, Mixed Shrub Savanna, Shrub Steppe, or Semidesert Scrub?: The Dilemma of Coexisting Growth Forms." In The Desert Grassland, ed. M. McClaran and T.R.V. Devender, 29-67. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1995.
2 Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. "Tucson's History." 1997.
3 The Public Purpose. "US Cities Ranked by Population 1850, 1900, 1950, and 1996." 1999.
4 Clay, Grady. Close-up: How to Read the American City. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973.
5 Jackson, John Brinckerhoff. "Other-directed Houses." In Landscapes, ed. Ervin H. Zube, 55-72. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1995.
6 Clay, Grady. Close-up: How to Read the American City. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973.
7 Clay, Grady. Real Places: An Unconventional Guide to America's Generic Landscape. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Further Readings
Anderson, Warren H. Vanishing Roadside America. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1981.
Brouws, Jeff. Highway: America's Endless Dream. New York: Stewart Tabori & Chang, 1997.
Constantine, Mildred and Egbert Jacobson. Sign Language For Buildings and Landscape. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corp., 1961.
Jackson, John Brinckerhoff. Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.
Mack, Kathy. American Neon. New York: Universe Books, 1976.

Thank you:
- Tony Burgess and Rod Mondt for their guidance and patience during this project
- Jim Sell for giving us tips to signs and some history of the area
- Amy Perry for lending us her car
- Peter J. Schuette for being the lookout, bodyguard, driver, and sometimes equipment carrier
- Everyone who suggested signs to us