The painting hung in a building that looked a little like the one in Hopper's painting. The Chrysler Museum was monolithic and gray, an Italianate-style structure facing the picturesque Hague Inlet of the Elizabeth River. From its huge atrium lobby with a skylight above it, huge sandstone stairs led up to the galleries.
The Chrysler grew from a female seminary dedicated to the support of art. The Museum set sail in 1971 when automobile heir and art collector Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. presented the city of Norfolk with his collection. John Russell in the New York Times wrote, "It would be difficult to spend time in the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., and not come away convinced that the most underrated American art collector of the past 50 years and more was the late Walter P. Chrysler, Jr." He added, "Any museum in the world would kill for these [works]" and the museum was "one of the pleasantest places in the United States to while away the day.
"People thought of him [Chrysler] as an accumulator [but] [A]mong the paintings of Edward Hopper, for instance, he chose one that is this critic's all-time favorite. It is a metropolitan scene in which well-kept and heavily becolumned New York house fronts bear down upon the observer like so many emblems of respectability. But, like a gifted storyteller, Hopper leaves us to guess at the identity, and the purpose, of the nunlike nanny in her bight blue uniform who hurries along with an inhabited pram in the lower left corner. Is she late for afternoon tea? Or is this a kidnap attempt, with a co-conspirator around the corner?"
Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., also a theater producer (including The Strong Are Lonely, whose title could describe Hopper's paintings and characters), was born 1909 in Iowa, but grew up on a Long Island estate with a view of the Manhattan skyline characterized by the landmark building named for his father. The older Chrysler said about art, "Son, remember that fundamentally they and all things like them must belong to everyone, and the best of them will become public property in museums throughout the country." Chrysler Junior said, "Collecting has always been in my blood." While a 14-year-old at prep school, he purchased his first painting--a Renoir watercolor nude. A dorm master considered the piece lewd and destroyed it.
I found out what she meant as I tried to navigate my way to the Chrysler Museum. The narrow streets were unevenly paved in slim red bricks, and I kept dead-ending into water.
An article titled "Edward Hopper, American Realist," asked rhetorically, "Did Hopper ever paint a child?" The answer would be "sort of." The Hopper here, New York Pavements, is notable for showing a nanny pushing a baby stroller, the only hint Hopper had of a baby.1,2 When Hopper posed for his friend Raphael Soyer, Soyer's wife brought in their one-year-old grandson. She said, "Say hello to Mr. Hopper," and Hopper jokingly replied, "He doesn't have to say it if he doesn't want to." Soyer wrote in his journal that there was "warmth and humor" in Hopper's gaze at the baby.
The perspective in New York Pavements is from above, as if the nanny were viewed from Hopper's top-floor New York studio. The sidewalk seems to tilt as if she's struggling uphill. Her red face rhymes with the pink of her hand and the blanket in the baby buggy. Her rich, royal blue outfit and headdress flap in the wind. She passes in front of a strongly rusticated gray slate apartment building with a four-pillared porch out front. At the base of the building, two street-level half windows of a garden apartment seem to spy on the scene.
Up walked a man whose balding head slung forward as if apologizing for his six-foot-three frame. The hair on the top of his head was shaved close, as was his beard, darkly outlining his skull. He wore oval glasses, a green collar-less shirt, jean shorts, a webbed leather belt, and sandals.
"I came here today just to see this painting," he answered, keeping his arms crossed over his chest. "If you asked me about anyone else, I wouldn't know a thing about it. I actually love his stuff. I've never seen this [Hopper painting] in a book or referred to. It's not one of his super famous; it's not New England Morning or New England Evening or whatever. Or certainly the one that you're wearing is pretty big. My partner always laughs at me. He whispers, 'his stuff is so lonely.' I don't know, there's something there. You get the feeling in his paintings that he accepts loneliness. It's not this tragic thing. It's sort of the way it is, or the way he sees the world. Although it's interesting when you read he claims, 'Well I wasn't really trying for that.' But it's so obvious. There's something sort of comforting in a weird way. Somebody told me once that the ones who like Hopper are melancholy, heady types. I'm not quite sure what to make of that because I actually like this stuff a lot."
When I asked about Hopper's relation to Norfolk, he hesitated. "That depends on what Norfolk you're talking about. This is the second most transient city in the United States, so a lot of people talk about there being a disjointed sense of community here. If you're from an old Norfolk family and you've lived here for 300 years (and those exist), they would say, 'There's a very strong rich sense of community here.' I've only been here seven years, and I feel I am integrated into the community. For this area, I'm almost considered local. So from my point I would say no, it's not. But I think a lot of people would say it is. Is that a nice vague answer for you?
"Norfolk," he continued, "is a generic city. You don't think of anything when you think of Norfolk. It is the most average place I've ever lived. My partner got a job here in '95. We came from the Twin Cities, Minneapolis, Minnesota."
"Have you two had difficulties?" I wondered.
"Actually," he glissandoed, "I'm the graduate assistant of multicultural student services. We live in sort of 'the neighborhood.' And I work at the university involved with liberal politics, go to the art museum, belong to a reformed Jewish synagogue. I'm in a sort of liberal microcosm. All our friends know, and if they don't know, they wouldn't care anyway. Some people would say, 'oh, there aren't too many gay people here.' I mean, you know, Joe Average would not be tapped into it. But it's everywhere by now."
1In the files was a letter from a patron saying, "This figure is NOT a nun, as you say. It is an English nanny or child's nurse. I am quite old enough to remember such sights. ... At least one of my age bracket friends noticed your error independent of me."
2One psychology journal published an article that proposed that "Hopper used his art as a projection of his wish for reunion with the mother." Of New York Pavements, that author posited, "If nun = sister, the painting might represent … his older sister, Marion." Hopper thought psychological interpretations showed more about the interpreter's tendencies, and this is a classic example. The painting does not show a nun; it shows a British nanny.
I ducked into Prince Books and Café in a nice old Hopperesque building. I asked my question of a female worker, fortyish, tanned, and wearing shorts, a black T-shirt, and chunk-heeled sandals.
"It is a tough call," she wavered about whether people in Norfolk were isolated. She talked slowly and formally, holding her hands together at her waist and nodding a lot, bouncing the brunette bangs above her green eyes ringed in dark eye shadow. "At night maybe not. But during the day, yes, like when you're in business mode. But at night when you're out and about, you're a little more into what's going on. I think of North Granby and Waterside, where it's a crowd going out and looking for fun, looking to meet people. Actually, in the past about year, they revitalized all the restaurants and homes and things like that. It's become not so desolate. Before, it was homeless or military tourists. Now you actually see people. Not just people, but people coming here to enjoy the area.
"We moved here from Fredericksburg," she explained. "I was getting married, my ex-husband was going to Old Dominion, and we had families from here. It's a good area. It's big without being too big. You've got places like the Chrysler and lots of good venues to see shows and places to go."
Then she frowned, "Between the ragged water's edge and the railroad tracks, it's hard to get anywhere without being cut off. In a way, just getting from one place to another, you're isolated in Norfolk."
Stepping away from the harbor, I pounded the pavement of the Cannonball Trail, Norfolk's walk highlighting the city's history. The Native American Scicoaks who lived here were wiped out by Chief Powhatan's tribe from the west as a preventive measure because one of his advisors had prophesied that they would be destroyed by strangers from the east. Later, of course, the colonists came from the east to fulfill the vision.
In 1610, Hampton Roads was named to honor the Earl of Southampton, Treasurer of the Virginia Company in London. Fifty acres of land were bought in 1682 for "tenn pounds of tobasco and caske" and became the town of Norfolk. On New Year's Day, 1776, English ships opened fire on the town, burning many of the buildings to the ground. A British cannonball (the source of this trail's name) remains in the wall of St. Paul's Church, the only building spared by retreating Colonial troops who razed the town so that the British might not occupy it. In 1855, the steamer Ben Franklin arrived in Hampton Roads with Yellow Fever on board. About one-third of Norfolk's inhabitants died, and half the population fled. The history of Norfolk seems one of desertion and return, like a ship.
By 1894, its modern identity was sealed. The New York Towne Topics nominated Norfolk as the "wickedest city in the United States." The New York Voice seconded the nomination. The city had 240 liquor dealers, 81 brothels, and 35 gambling shops. World War II doubled Norfolk's population, and, in 1940, the U.S. Housing Authority administrator called a Norfolk hotel-apartment "the worst slum he had seen anywhere in the U.S."
By 1998, it had been voted the South's #1 big city to live in by Money magazine. From 50 acres of land and a population of 1, Norfolk had grown to nearly 40,000 acres and a population of 225,700, a financial and insurance center. It was big enough to have an Arena Football League Team which was named (coincidentally enough) "The Nighthawks."
The street corner sculpture series here had the motif of mermaids, including one called "The Jewel of Norfolk."
Norfolk, Virginia: New York Pavements
Eugene was thin, with a drooping nose above a tiny close-trimmed mustache. He wore oval shades with tortoise shell rims, and his shirt collar was opened to show graying chest hair in which nested a gold chain. On his balding head, he wore a plastic jungle helmet. As he answered, he held his long fingers interlocked or pounded his palms on the wooden arms of his director chair.
"Why would we be isolated?" he responded to my question, "To put it the other way around, I would say if you're isolated, it's your fault. Right down here at the waterside is a very active place. Friday and Saturday nights you can't walk down here it's so crowded with people. The Navy community, which is the largest community here, takes care of its own. This is the largest natural harbor in the world."
"I've seen a lot of changes. I'm one of the few who grew up here. A lot of this area was all woods, just like so much of America. When I was a kid, the drive from Norfolk to Virginia Beach was just a little two-lane road, and you didn't arrive there in fifteen, twenty minutes. It was an all-day thing. I remember my mother making fried chicken and coleslaw and potato salad, putting it in a box with a checkered tablecloth, and we would drive down. And when you got to Virginia Beach, they had two big pavilions with picnic tables. You could go up there and put your basket of food down on the table, walk two blocks away to the water, swim for a couple of hours, and come back, and that table was yours. Nobody had taken it, nobody used it, and your food was all there. So that's a big change.
"My father came here in 1903. 1903, what was here in America? My father had a grocery store. Those were the days when you had a corner grocery that took care of you. You could get credit, that sort of thing. Then the supermarkets started coming along and took all the small men out of business.
"Then we moved to Ghent," he continued. "This was one of the big sections. However, in the fifties I would say, it went down dramatically: the white suburban exodus. Schools closed down. Problems with civil rights. At one time, you took your life in your hands if you would walk through it. And it has come back now. They have million-dollar homes there."
"Now let me ask a question, sir" he said, turning the tables. "You know the history about the museum? That was called the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, a very small little local place, very undistinguished. Walter Chrysler wanted to give his collection to Newport, Rhode Island. Newport, Rhode Island, said he had too many fakes. He was married to a Norfolk girl, Jean Outland. So he asked Norfolk if they wanted the collection, and they renamed the museum the Chrysler Museum. As a result of that, we probably have one of the nicest small museums in the country, certainly east of the Mississippi. We have the largest collection of Tiffany glass on public display anywhere in the country. Now my opinion is that it's true he had some fakes and had some that were not of quality. However, it's one thing if you take a half a million dollars and you go to a sculpture gallery and say, 'buy me some sculptures.' But he did it all himself. And you know if you do it yourself, you make a few mistakes. That's understandable. But what he achieved is miraculous. They have a bust of Christ done by Bernini, who designed the columns for St. Peter's. I got blessed there by the Pope on Easter Sunday, 1957. Most guys on the ship didn't know what an opportunity they had. When they would show up, the first thing they wanted was a bar and then a girl."
Norfolk, Virginia: New York Pavements"Norfolk was once the dirtiest town there was. But what can you expect in a town with so many sailors?" began Eugene, the greeter on the deck of the U.S.S. Wisconsin, where 40 years earlier he had been the ship dentist. "It was like having my own $152 million yacht. I worked eight to five, and no one was going to call me to swab the deck."
Wilmington is on a natural harbor that was once home to famous shipyards. One single smoke stack had been kept from the shipyards, and it now loomed over the cinderblock chain outlet stores of Shipyard Shops. Kitty-corner sat the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, a tin-sided building down in Riverfront Plaza. The girl working the counter had dirty blond hair, big blue eyes, and a pouty lower lip. Six hoop earrings lined the bottom of her earlobe, with a final ring through the top of her ear. She wore a black zip-up sweater with cords around the neck above a light blue skirt.
"I'm not that familiar with his work," she answered, "to make that statement [that people here are isolated like in Hopper's paintings]. It depends on the person of course. You are what you put out. I don't see Wilmington as an isolated place, but I've grown up here. That makes a big difference."
"Are you an artist?" I asked.
"No," she laughed. "I love art. I love looking at it. But as far as raw talent? Nah! My mother's an artist and I've tried doing what she does, but I just end up hurting myself somehow." She giggled again. "She's a jeweler, and I've done it and bled. Cut myself. Nah!" She shook her head.
"So you're a perfect example that art is painful," I joked.
"You have to bleed to be an artist," she agreed, chuckling. "You have to hurt yourself so many times before completing a work. You can only lose so much blood."
"There is an artist's colony up north," she offered. "All the houses have a lot of sculptures. It's just in a class by itself. They're their own city. Arden Town."
"Art in Town?" I misunderstood.
"Arden," she clarified, spelling, " A-r-d-e-n. I don't know all the history to it. But it's a very, very old artists community. And it's so much fun. They have their own little theater. Like one of the oldest outdoor theaters in the country. They do Shakespeare every summer. I don't think enough people know about it."
In addition to Swedes, Italians came to Wilmington, and Little Italy is one of Wilmington's remaining ethnic strongholds, brooded over by St. Anthony, a square-towered church on a hill whose festival attracts 40,000 visitors a night. Row houses' brick-fronted porches jut right up to the sidewalk. Metal or oilcloth awnings reached over all the porches, and the city's rolling hills allowed each row house's roof to be slightly set above the next.
I interviewed the owner of a family legacy pasticceria whose face glowed with red burnished skin, brown eyes, blue mascara, and big eyelashes. Her blond hair was pulled back, and she wore simple black pants and black clogs dusted with tan flour. When I asked if people in Wilmington are isolated, she shrugged and said in a high pitch, "Maybe." Deciding to take the plunge, she continued, "I do think that Wilmington people are isolated. We do a lot behind closed doors. It's a small city. Maybe because everybody talks. I do think that people feel not free to be themselves."
"There are areas you don't want to go into," she warned me before I continued my wanderings, but assured me, "You can see the lines."
At lunch hour, I found many of the local corporations' employees lolling on the pedestrian mall where Seventh Avenue at Market Street was closed off to car traffic. I interviewed a pair of African American> friends laughing in the promenade. He was rail thin with a floppy cap and gray goatee. She was large in her late thirties and wearing flamboyant clothes. When I asked if they knew the paintings of Edward Hopper, the man responded, "No, not really. But who we work for probably has pictures of that. We work at MBNA. And they have a collection."
When I followed by asking whether people in Wilmington were isolated from each other, they both answered, "No."
"Like on Peyton Place," he explained, "everybody's pretty close to knowing everybody. When I came down here in '57, a lot of people came down from Detroit following Chrysler. A lot of people. So there's a lot of people that know each other for years."
"What about African Americans versus the white community here. Is there any division there?"
"No," she dismissed the idea. "We all hang on the same wall together. We pretty much get along cause Wilmington is a big small city. Everybody knows your business. Delaware is real small. You go in one end and you're out of it at the other end in no time."
[Wilmington downtown]Downtown Wilmington consisted of large corporate offices and huge tracts of poverty. If every town chose an appropriate subject for its series of public downtown sculptures (Kansas City: cows; Toledo: frogs; etc.), what does it say about Wilmington that they chose dinosaurs?
Delaware propaganda can be found at the Delaware History Museum, a cheerful Art Deco storefront in downtown Wilmington that looked like a Hopper subject. Statues of Native Americans, people in Victorian costumes, and African Americans stood around awkwardly in the lobby, where a small amphitheater played a film titled Distinctly Delaware. However, the feature was "Two Centuries of DuPont Products in the Home." Corporate sponsorship at its finest.
The man behind the counter was a tweedy academic man with a graying beard and literally a tweed coat. "It depends on what you mean by isolation," he began in answer to my question. "If you mean is Wilmington isolated from the rest of the general region, maybe to some degree. We've got to march to our own drummer. If you mean isolated from each other, no."
"Talking about Wilmingtonians," he continued, "who have lived here for years and gone to school here and so forth, everybody practically knows each other." Then he added ominously, "But there are a lot of people who have come in relatively recently, and they sometimes don't quite get it. The entire state of Delaware is almost like a small town. Everybody knows everybody. But, I would have to amend that to say maybe some of the African Americans are more into their own culture and they all know each other. And the Caucasians are probably more of a group too. It is kind of split along racial lines."
Due to the founding Quakers' anti-slavery beliefs, Wilmington was a key stop on the Underground Railroad, and Wilmington's August Quarterly is the oldest continuously celebrated African American Festival in the nation. On condition that they return at the end of the weekend, slaves were permitted to gather once a year to celebrate and worship free from discrimination. However, Delaware was also the last Union state to ban slavery, and it voted against the Amendments that freed the slaves. Only in the early 1900s did it abolish the pillory --the last state in the Union to do so. Delaware flogged its last convict in 1952.
In 1698, children of the Kalmar Nyckel's emigrants built Old Swedes Church, the nation's oldest church building still standing as originally built and in regular use for worship. The modest building was heavy with mortar holding together various-sized stones in meticulous stone masonry work. After the nearby Battle of Brandywine in 1777 (the largest of the Revolutionary War), British soldiers were quartered in the church.
The man who showed me around Old Swede's church was tall enough to strain the pulpit (the oldest in the United States), which was built for a man who was six-foot-four. He had thinning, whitish gray hair, combed over to one side above a tan birthmark on his forehead. If he had taken off his thick glasses, he would have looked a little like a weightier Jimmy Stewart. He had retired here from being a music teacher in Southern California. "First, I went to Western New York, the Fingers Lake Region, and those people are isolated. I haven't been in Wilmington a lot, but I think that they're less isolated than there. In Southern California, where I used to live, everything is isolated: sprawling and car-centric."
I told him I was in a hurry to see the rest of Wilmington, so he gave me an abbreviated tour of the church, though I took the time to ring the bell in the front tower that had been added in 1892. He proudly displayed the church's organ--one of the few organs that does not have any swells to stop the sound; the player adds stops to increase or decrease the volume. "When this church was built," he explained, "Bach and Handel were both thirteen." He demonstrated how it worked by playing Johann Sebastian Bach's Tocatta & Fugue in D Minor, which was played by Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I sat enthralled through its entirety.
SAS had a Wilmington connection: it was started by the DuPonts. In 1791, several French families fled to Wilmington to escape a slave insurrection in Santo Domingo. One of them convinced his friend Eleuthére Irénée du Ponts de Nemours to settle here, where DuPont opened his black powder mill in 1802. DuPont grew to be the largest manufacturer of black powder throughout the nineteenth century, supplying it to the United States government in the War of 1812, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish American War, and World War I.
Before the DuPonts et al., Wilmington was founded by Swedes, some of the most successful colonists in the new world. When the men left for a year, they returned to find all the women and children still alive. Six years before William Penn was born, these Swedes negotiated for the land from the local Lenni Lanape, whose name meant "the original people." In Wilmington's harbor, you can tour a reproduction of the 139-foot Kalmar Nyckel, the ship that brought these settlers. Fort Christiana Park now stood where the ship's Swedish, Finnish, Dutch, and German settlers landed along with Anthoni "the Black Swede," a freeman from the Caribbean. Here they built the first log cabins in America. The Dutch laid siege to Fort Christiana in 1655, and the Swedes surrendered without firing a shot after negotiating for twelve days. Perhaps this foreshadowed its settling by pacifist Quakers as part of William Penn's Pennsylvania Colony, whose lower three counties became what we know today as the state of Delaware. These counties are part of a peninsula called Delmarva, for the three states with parts of it: Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Delaware is thus on an isolated peninsula, like Hopper's Cape Cod.
The town was chartered by the Crown in 1739, but on June 15, 1776, Delaware declared its independence from England ahead of the other 12 colonies, and became the first state to ratify the Constitution. "The First State" is still its nickname and on their license plates. Wilmington became capital of the second-smallest state in area, about 1/108 the size of Texas, whose entire population is 750,000.
A sign I saw at the town limits read: "Wilmington: A place to be somebody."
Delaware is also home to most of the country's corporations due to the founding Quakers' liberal business laws. More than 300,000 corporations, including half of the Fortune 500, incorporate in Delaware, though they don't have to bother to relocate there. It further enticed the banking industry to relocate within its borders by offering tax breaks and rigging its laws governing how much interest a bank can charge. Eight of the ten largest credit-card firms in the country operate within Delaware. In the meantime, personal bankruptcy nationwide rose sevenfold.1
1An ad in a Wilmington newspaper said, "We all want our kids to be the same thing when they grow up: financially secure." Whatever happened to "happy"?
Wilmington, Delaware: Summertime
"Well, sir. We're closed. We've been without power since this morning." I only then noticed the lack of patrons and the darkness in the upstairs galleries. "The shop has an emergency generator that is keeping its lights running. Maybe that is why you didn’t notice." She smiled and nodded, "You can come back some other day."
I began babbling like an American caught in a foreign civil war, "I've come all the way from Chicago to study your Edward Hopper painting, and I'm only here today. Can I talk to the curator who I have been e-mailing?"
"She's not in today."
I slumped onto a lobby bench.
"Oh, dear," she frowned. "Let me think of something."
She pressed into service a security guard to take us up to the gallery with the painting, where they showed me the painting by flashlight. Wilmington was the thirty-ninth city I visited for the book, and I thought I had seen pretty much everything. But I'd never seen a Hopper by flashlight.
Only about two square inches of the painting could be illuminated at a time. The docent instinctively trained the beam on the woman's face at the painting's center then followed the contours of the woman as if the light beam were the eyes of an appreciative suitor. After all, the main character is a full-bodied, red-lipped strawberry blond in a tan hat and a gauzy white summer dress beneath which you can see her thighs. Hopper finished Summertime on May 8, just in time for his summertime move to Cape Cod.
The docent commented, "That is gorgeous. You see much more in it actually in the dark, shining a flashlight over several areas. The impression that you get when this is lit is a blue-and-white floor behind her; now it looks green and yellow. You can feel the heat off of the sidewalk and off of the building. You can see that there's some wind drawing the window in and her dress clinging to her, and you just know it's summertime on a hot day. You just wonder what she's thinking. Is she waiting for somebody or something? It's very dramatic. This is supposed to be his wife. I understand that even when she got older, he painted her as a youthful figure."
I said, "There's a lot of old architecture in Wilmington. I might see a thing like this: a young woman who buys retro clothes, vintage clothes."
"Or just coming out in her nightgown." she harrumphed.
To my question of Hopperesque isolation in Wilmington, she merely shrugged, "I think there are people that are isolated here as in everywhere, but I think basically they're not isolated here."
Wilmington, Delaware: SummertimeI was in a hurry in Wilmington, on a tight schedule to make my twentieth high school reunion at St. Andrew's School (SAS) in downstate Middletown. The woman at the museum's front desk was white-haired and stooped but solid, wearing a heavy woven skirt and a choker of pearls across her white button-down shirt. She seemed about to launch into the usual spiel for visitors to the museum, so I pre-empted her, "Where can I check my backpack?"
Tucson was settled more than 12,000 years as an Indian village called Stook-zone, meaning "water at the foot of black mountain." The non-Spanish-sounding Hugo O'Conor established the Spanish Tucson Presidio, and settlers began arriving in 1776 to the town known locally as the Old Pueblo.
Now, the city (Tucson, not The City) had a smallish business center downtown, sending tendrils of housing developments deep into the furrows of the surrounding desert mountains. None of what passed for high-rises seemed tall enough to provide the dizzying perspective in Hopper's painting. The largest was about 20 stories. In Tucson, you're more likely to get vertigo by staring up the pole-like shaft of one of the ubiquitous saguaro cacti, whose blooms are Arizona's State Flower.
Downtown Tucson's architecture was a bizarre mix. A squat 1900s brick-fronted building jostled a 1960s office building sided in blue and brown glazed brick. Downtown streets were deserted, and the event center was for rent. Seemingly everywhere in town, I heard trains rumbling past or blowing their horns.
Like Jodi had said, the town was home to a large number of theaters. The Fox Theater sported a southwestern mosaic of glazed tile. The Spanish-style Temple of Music and Art housed the Alice Holsclaw Theatre and the Arizona Theater Company. The Teatro Carmen was on Cushing, where the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson was presenting a play, "Three Views of Frank Lloyd Wright."
Hopper might have used these as subjects. Or he might have chosen the Grill Café, which retained its old black-and-white sign that promised, "Open later than you think."
But perhaps the most Hopperesque place was the Hotel Congress at Fifth and Congress, perfectly preserved from the night in 1934 when a fire raged through the upper floors. Some of the guests so frantically begged firemen to save bags that were in their rooms that the firemen peeked inside the bags and found Tommy guns and cash. That's how some of Dillinger's gang came to be arrested in Tucson. True to the fire's era, the rooms have no air conditioning or televisions. (Hopper's friend Brian O'Doherty reported, "[Hopper] possessed a radio but no television.")
Behind the counter squatted an old switchboard to call up to the rooms. Standing beside it ready to dispense cigarettes, candy, toiletries, or sundries stood a guy with shaggy hair that had random blonde highlights, either from the sun or a bottle. He wore an old white shirt with a thin red tie. He had a boy-next-door look, and his gracious attitude seemed tailor-made to be the clerk at an old-time, service-oriented hotel. "Dave," read his nametag.
"I saw his [the Hopper] retrospective at the Whitney," he began. "It was an overwhelming tour. He's an incredible painter. I have a copy of one: it's a bunch of people just sitting fully clothed in the sun."
"People in the Sun?" I asked. "He claimed that was Tucson."
"That's fantastic," he gushed. "Hopper to me I've never associated with the west. You see all the great old pictures in the Smithsonian and they're all eastern seaboard."
"You're a native of Tucson?" I queried.
"Tucsonian," Dave answered, "yes."
"Do you think people in Tucson are as isolated as the characters in Hoppers paintings?"
"Not any more. Although, if you notice, the town is isolated geographically. But it isn't isolated. Like any place you go to now, there's television and the Internet; everything is here. Frankly, I think it's such a homogenized world now. That being said, we're certainly aware of our surroundings. We are aware that there is miles and miles of desert between us and anyone else.
"Just living in the desert, to me, is still a Wild West analogy. Our isolation is keeping us together. We have our own tempo. There's nothing else really influencing us. There's a certain lifestyle that we've come to know and like and operate. It's slow. It has a certain vibe. Lot of people tend to like it. Great town. It's right, if you're self-motivated. Cheap rent, great Mexican food, Mexican women-all great things in my humble opinion.
"I have no idea," he mused, "what brings a person into Tucson. Not that I don't think we have enough attractions. But I can travel around the country and find great things and certainly great places. I guess we are the quintessential western town. We're the largest city right outside of Tombstone if you're going to the Old West. We have the beautiful saguaro desert, unlike the northern deserts. So you get a lot of bang for the buck.
"Here [at the hotel], we get mostly artists, foreign travelers. That's usually our demographic. My job would be helped immensely if I knew Japanese and German. But it's very European. We don't have air conditioning. We don't have TV. Let's face it: it's not a Motel 6."
There was another museum in town besides U of A's: the Tucson Museum of Arts (TMA). Inside, it looked like a squared-off version of New York's Guggenheim Museum. A ramp slanted down along each wall, and galleries sprouted off each landing. Here, during my visit, was Hopper's Pretty Penny, as part of a traveling show of works from the Smith College collection.
In front of the TMA stood an employee bearing a name tag that read "Jodi, Director of Member Services." She was pale-skinned, despite Tucson's annual 300 days of sunshine. She looked to be in her twenties and had dyed red hair, big green eyes, pearly white teeth, and bright red lips. Beefy arms stuck out from a lightweight chartreuse sweater buttoned to the top and thrown over a lightweight shirt embroidered with blue and green flowers.
She said she had just moved here from Indianapolis. I laughed, "They have two Hoppers there [in Indianapolis]."
"Oh that's a beautiful art museum," she gushed. "Their executive director became the executive director of the Tucson art museum."
"Did you follow him?" I asked.
"I did not," she emphasized. "But I think being a Hoosier may have helped me into my position," she laughed. "A lot of Midwesterners live here. You have that friendly, Midwestern hospitality. Then you mix that with the strong cultural base that Tucson has for the size. I mean, you're looking at really small, roughly 700,000, but you've got 13 performing arts groups here. You've got the University Art Museum and you've got the Tucson Museum of Arts. So people are out from their communities all the time. I don't think people in Tucson are as isolated as other parts of the country.
"I've lived in Chicago and Indianapolis, Louisville. I guess I felt an isolation in those cities. During the winter months, not seeing the sunshine from November to May, I think a depression sweeps over everything and leaves everything with a little bit of dust over it.
And not that there is not a lot going on, but people are so into the people they already know that you don't see a lot of venturing beyond that. I was in Louisville, Kentucky. I did not really make one solid friend there. They go to grade school and high school and college in the same community, and they just don't really leave that.
"If you talk to almost any person in here, they didn't grow up here. I've had many friends who have already left. And then I still am in contact with some people that I met when I first moved here. There's a certain type of personality that moves to Tucson. They're here because they enjoy being out with other people. And they enjoy being with nature. You won't meet a nicer group of people in one place. People give to social services. They give to the arts. It's a very giving town and a very forgiving town."
[U of A Campus]
My barista was a young female student, round-faced and tanned, who had a vertical silver dumbbell through her pierced eyebrow. She had short brown hair and wore the red short-sleeved shirt of her food-job uniform.
"I think this is a pretty tight community actually," she answered. "The university's kind of isolated from outside the university, but, within the university, everybody's pretty welcome and open and pretty tight."
I took my coffee and sat beside a kid with a calculus book, a Bobbie Fischer book, and a series of decks of cards spread out before him. He stared intently at the cards, rolled a die, re-arranged the cards, and wrote on a piece of paper. When I asked what he was doing, he responded with a pronounced Southern drawl, "I am inventing my own card game. I already invented a couple others." He explained to me an elaborate scheme of flipping cards based on the most recent roll of the die, but I got lost soon into the description.
To my question, the kid said, "The university brings all the scenes together, but people are confused as to whether or not to explore the city. I think the university has to get more involved. The university is trying to offer universal programs that incorporate all the classes. It's a way for people to break out of that isolation."
"What are you studying?" I laughed and pointed at the cards. "I would guess math."
"Theater arts, really," he deadpanned. "I moved to theater. At first, my major was physics."
"What are you going to ou do with this card game?" I asked.
"I could try to sell it to Vegas. I don't know how you could play this with money, though. This is just for fun," he concluded with another nervous laugh. "By yourself."
[U of A Campus]I went for coffee to the second floor lounge at the food court and watched students scurry below like ants. Architecturally, the University of Arizona campus resembles the city and this whole region: low, sandy buildings line either side of a broad flat, brown mall lined with palm trees.
I pioneered out of downtown to the University of Arizona campus to see the Hopper painting here: The City, in which you look down onto a Second-Empire, French-style building fronting a public square. All the other building façades are flat tenements trailing away into the distance where looms a skyscraper. Jo noted, "over 100 windows...." The painting seems a battle between French and American architecture. The French arched windows are charming, but the endless square windows on the others imply that American buildings will win by sheer numbers.
A woman named Betsy displayed the painting for me in storage. She was matronly, with an elfish nose that made her look like a young girl, as did her high energy level and quick, bird-like movements. She had short hair and wore a blousey pastel dress along with white polished shoes.
"There really is a physical isolation in Tucson," she began. "We just moved. The neighborhood we were in was an established neighborhood, and we lived there for 10 years and knew very few neighbors. Nobody came out of their houses. Where we moved into was a townhome, which, in itself, is more intimate. Like of 120 homes, we probably know half the people. We may not know their names, but we see them at the park with the dogs, or they walk. I want to say Tucson could be like this [The City]. I don't think we are. We're less metro than Phoenix. We tend to go out and visit our neighbors."
Betsy told me about the man who donated the Hopper. "C. Leonard Pfeiffer was an alumnus and businessman who moved to Tucson and got a master's degree here. He had begun his bachelor's degree at Cornell before World War I interrupted, and by the time he went back after a 22-year break, his son, George, was a sophomore here while he was a senior.
"He wanted to create an art museum, and so he took a stamp collection that he had and sold it, and with the proceeds from the sale, bought artwork. It was right during World War II, which was a very conservative environment. And his collection reflects that sentiment. They concentrated on work by living American artists. And the Hopper was one of those gifts."
A newspaper article announcing the collection's 1943 preview at New York's Metropolitan Museum said, that making one of the first 12 purchases Edward Hopper's The City, "demonstrate[d] good judgment as well as Catholic taste."
Tucson, Arizona: The City
Ned was short and square-shouldered, with shaggy dark hair and a full beard. His brown eyes measured everything. We arranged to meet at his law office in the old yellow stucco Steinfeld mansion.
"It was a nunnery for a period of time," he said of his workplace. "It was also a house of ill repute. Hopefully," he added with a sly smile, "those two didn't overlap."
"You probably saw some of the other homes in this area," he continued. "It's a beautiful place, but this neighborhood experiences a lot of crime. The train tracks are down at the end of the street, and they have to slow down to go through Tucson. It's the only big town around. A lot of hoboes and rail riders hop off at night."
We headed to a Tucson legend, the Mexican restaurant El Charro. The dark wood walls were adorned with Western memorabilia: old road signs, weathered wood, etc. Hip-hop music blared out of the sound system as we sat at a blond wood table and ate some of the best Mexican food I have ever had.
"I would say," Ned slowly answered my question of Tucson's Hopperesque isolation, "compared to some of the places I've seen, that people here that I interact with are not isolated. I think you've seen, just being here a couple of hours, that people tend to be social and friendly here. Maybe it's by virtue of being out in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it's sort of the mentality that 'hey, we're all stuck together here in the desert.' Maybe that sort of cooperation and interaction is necessary to eke out a survival here. That might be a hangover from previous times. People in this area have a sort of pioneer psyche. I like hiking," he offered as evidence of the desert's influence, "and when I'm just out of town, I feel like I'm out in the middle of nowhere."
"You have a background in psychology," I noted. "Do you think there is anything about American psychology in Hopper's paintings?"
"Well," Ned coughed, "I didn't study clinical psychology, and I'm not sure my background in psychology gives me any special perspective about whether Hopper captured some sort of essence of our American psychology. I think all people are basically on their own. Sometimes you find yourself in your life getting to a point when all the options run out. Because of the way that we immigrated to this country and the way that we moved through it (to the west), I think there was a sense of isolation here that was different from other place. We've always been a country that encouraged individuals being on the cutting edge and going out and pushing the frontier. It's always been a pride in that expansionism. We're a very mobile society. In Europe, family essentially stayed in the same area as far back as you can go. Especially nowadays, people are more mobile than ever. If you go somewhere else and you don't have that sort of family network, it can be more difficult. People coming here left community and family behind. When they did get here, they dispersed. Maybe you stayed east and your bother moved west. And your son went off to college and never came back. This is a big country: physically, a big country."
I said, "You could be in D.C. and say, 'I'm going to California,' and according to the U.S. 'you're still under our jurisdiction.' But that trip is further than from Moscow to Barcelona. It should be some sort of culture shock, but instead you find the same McDonald's."
"Yeah," Ned agreed, "nowadays. No matter how much the country moves toward that sort of McDonald's society, with big box stores, and national chains taking over mom-and-pop places and eradicating some of the local color and flavor, a lot of places still seem to have their own feel. Despite the fact that we have the national news and all the same television programs and all this stuff that ought to be pointing us to a narrow bandwidth of experience, there seems to still be a lot of things that are unique to different parts of the country. People might say, 'we're having such-and-such for dinner.' And you're like 'what is that?' They can't believe you never heard of that. Because everybody there has had it. If you go anywhere in the country, there's Home Depot and McDonald's, and you have a feeling of familiarity. But if you dig underneath that, you'll find things that are unique to that area that are a part of that area's culture. It might be that the people who go to Applebee's three nights a week, still go two nights a week to LoDuca's--a mom-and-pop place that they like in addition to the chains."
Tucson, Arizona: The City"What did you expect?" my host Ned asked when I was so pleasantly surprised by Tucson, "a 'Phoenix Junior'?" I did. Instead, I found Tucson much more manageable, slow-paced, liberal, and cultured.
Another house by a road here was the Petersen House on Southern Avenue, the only two-story Victorian still standing in Tempe. It was built in 1892 by Niels Petersen, a Danish immigrant, as a wedding present for his second wife.
My stocky, fast-talking tour guide Tim had short, rumpled blond hair and wore shorts and a white Honeywell T-shirt. Tim said, "Back then [when this house was built], people came west to get rich. The government was giving away land. Before they built the dam, the river flowed year-around. It wasn't that hot or dry. There were a lot more of these houses down here. But they got bulldozed out because people needed room. The reason this house got saved actually is it passed down the line, and they left it to the Oddfellows. They gave it to the city of Tempe. I guess they figured better that than to bulldoze it. It's sort of a landmark now."
Tim told me that I should talk to his boss, Josh, who would know much more about Tempe. I expected an ornery, gray-haired buzzard. Instead, Joshua was about 30, with sad blue eyes and randy hair that flared out around the base of his neck. He wore a green Tempe City T-shirt, jeans, brown shoes, and a large silver wristwatch.
"Yeah," he laughed in answer to my question. "The way the houses and neighborhoods are built here always struck me as being very isolated. Their master plan was, 'wall it in.' And the focal point of the house is behind the house rather than the front."
Joshua related that the plat of homes right behind this house was put in on the Petersen's old farm and only had three entrances. The people there were so unhappy about living there that they tried to get everyone to agree to sell their homes and close down the neighborhood. But a couple of people didn't agree. So everyone was stuck in their houses by a road.
"I grew up in a small town in northern Idaho," Josh continued, "sort of a real typical All-American town: Moscow. [He pronounced it with a long O.] When I moved here, it made a big impression on me how everybody has a big wall around their house. I thought that was weird," he squinted. "I thought it was very, very weird. I think it's easy for people here to not know their neighbors, not know who lives around them."
"Tempe," Josh deplored, "was sort of a classic small town up until then. As you go further downtown, around ASU, the older part of town, you'll see small neighborhoods that make more sense to me. Other communities have all grown in the same way, and Tempe is now completely boxed in.
There's other cities on all sides. It seems like the focus everywhere is now on the edges rather than on the core. The town keeps pushing further and further away. Further from a sense of community. It will be interesting to see how Tempe continues to grow now because there's no place to grow but up.
"They're master-planning the downtown area now to be an integrated living, working, and shopping space. They're trying to move back away from isolation and back to some more integrated, non-suburban way of living. It's so funny that this way of living that we used to have now they're selling back to the American public. 'You can have it, but for a half million dollars.'"
"Tempe is not for everybody," Josh concluded. "But it really appeals to me for some reason. I really like it here. But, yeah, there is a sense of isolation."