U.S.A. Today October 1995
Arizona Hamlet Gets Hip
by Marco R. della Cava
USA TODAY October 5, 1995
Bisbee, Ariz. -- A small crowd has gathered in the saloon of the Bisbee Grand Hotel. Frustration flashes in some voices, anger in others.
Yet another fire has claimed a Bisbee home. The group thinks an arsonist is to blame. Talk turns to vigilantism.
While they're not the Bisbee Mob of 1881 (that pack tore into nearby Tombstone and lynched a man whom a judge had set free), tonight's saloon visitors remind one of this town's rough-and-tumble roots.
In many charming ways, Bisbee remains a prisoner of yesteryear. And that time-capsule quality has trained a broadening national spotlight on the town that copper built.
Travel & Leisure has flagged Bisbee as "The Next Sante Fe," while Rolling Stone recently dubbed it a "hot vacation spot." None of this is news to hippies, who first encamped here in the '70s, establishing an arts colony whose poetry festivals attracted the likes of Allen Ginsberg.
That aura remains, echoed in today's poetry readings, concerts and art galleries filled with wild landscape paintings and abstract sculpture.
But while there is excitement about Bisbee's new-found fame, some residents are wary of being hot-spot homeowners.
"We're like a diamond that's finally been cut," says Rick Hossman of Mule Mountain Trading, one of two dozen shops and galleries that dominate this hamlet of 3,000. "The people make it special. I'd like to see things stay that way."
Bisbee sits in a natural bowl in the Mule Mountains. At an elevation of 5,000 plus feet, it is spared Arizona's searing heat. While there isn't much to do here (window-shop, tour the Copper Queen mine), the town explodes with atmosphere.
At night, lit by meager strands of dim bulbs, Bisbee recalls an Italian hilltop village. By day, its undulating, sinuous streets bring to mind San Francisco in the 1800s.
Bisbee was founded in 1880, and copper soon drew as many as 20,000 people. The town commanded its own stock-exchange board, where men would gather to watch their money's fate. The site is now the Stock Exchange bar, the battered green chalkboard standing silent tribute to Bisbee's roaring past.
When the reigning mining company, Phelps Dodge, closed shop in 1974, the town was on its last legs. Hippies seeking sun and cheap living saved Bisbee from becoming another Arizona ghost town.
"I first came in '74. Paper bags were blowing down the streets. It seemed like every day was Sunday," says Grant Sergot. "There's a tremendous creativity here. I don't know if it's the metals in the air or just having time to think."
Sergot channels that creative energy into his craft: fashioning straw hats per customers' specifications at his Optimo Custom Panama Hatworks. Only shops in San Francisco and Sante Fe provide such intimate service, he says, and at higher prices.
The quality of the straw weaving ranges from Grade 1 (course, $20) to Grade 20 (virtually seamless, $5,000-plus). Faye Dunaway bought one. And a few months ago, Tom Selleck, in the area shooting Showtime's Ruby Jean and Joe, popped in and got two.
Bisbee's steady stream of foreign visitors (many Germans and some Eastern Europeans) seek out Sergot's wares. And so do locals able to afford booming housing prices.
"Property values have doubled or tripled in the last five years," says Doris Turner of OK Property Management and Real Estate. She says a fixer-upper going for $5,000 in 1975 now would fetch $50,000-plus.
Nonetheless, Bisbee's hills remain dotted mostly with modest tin-roofed homes.
A walk up Brewery Gulch, named during the days when beer flooded miners' eager mouths, finds life subdued. Children play, wind rustles the trees, laundry waves lazily.
As one climbs, the gulch narrows and homes decay. Car doors keep a porch chair company. Cracked steps lead to an empty foundation. The faded sign on an old grocery advertises Carnation Ice Cream.
Suddenly, a mutt rounds the corner. He stops, looks up, then hangs his head and continues up the path. Somehow, you know he's not lost. And therein lies Bisbee's intoxicating appeal; it is a town fast dissappearing from the American landscape, a friendly place where everyone knows your name.
That's why Cristina Plascencia came. She spent the past few decades in Carmel, Calif., and watched that seaside village get super trendy. A few weeks ago she opened 55 Main, an art gallery for everything from South American crafts to dolls tacked onto crucifixes.
"I watched Carmel go from an artist community to a resort community. Here, artists can afford to be starving artists," she says with a smile. I found I missed belonging to a small group of people who are accountable to each other."
Not to mention tolerant.
"You'll go to a bar and see a gay person, a lawyer and a cowboy all sitting together, arguing over who's going to buy the next drink," says Hossman. Indeed, the stretch of Highway 80 near town is kept clean courtesy of the local gay and lesbian community.
Adds Plascencia, " You think 'small Arizona town' and you assume conservative and redneck. But we're progressive."
With Bisbee starting to attract more and more attention, hat master Sergot exhorts anyone moving here to "please get involved in the community."
A lack of that sentiment has brought much-publicized unrest in Sante Fe, whose residents blame the idle and often absent rich for ruining their once tight-knit town.
Says Hossman: "We're being compared to Sante Fe, but I don't want that. I don't want to stop being a town and start just being a tourist attraction."
Not to worry. On each storefront window hangs a photocopied, hand written note, evidence that tragedy only fuels Bisbee's communal spirit.
It reads: "Fire clean-up for Jill. Bring rakes, shovels and a shoulder to cry on."