By BRITTAN BATES
Arizona Sonora News
“Border town” is hardly what comes to mind when you stumble upon Bisbee, Arizona. There are no Border Patrol vehicles pulling over cars. The town doesn’t have a reputation for drug trafficking, or undocumented immigrants walking in with nothing but the clothing on their backs.
Instead Bisbee is a quirky, bohemian place with a Main Street straight out of the 19th century Wild West, just 10 miles north of the border — and 20 miles south of the shoot-em-up faux westernalia of Tombstone.
Here in Bisbee, you’ll find street performers, not gun-toting men in cowboy costumes. You’ll find the annual parade of “art cars;” the famous Brian “Legs” Tagalog, a tattoo artist who works solely with his feet (he was born without arms) and maybe even on a sunny day you’ll see Bisbee’s local celebrity, stand-up comedian Doug Stanhope, performing in someone’s back yard. (Though Stanhope, whose latest comedy special “No Place Like Home” was taped at the venerable Bisbee Royale theater in town, does perform in sold-out national venues).
While this unconventional town seems to be tucked away in the vast, dusty Southwest, the 5,500 inhabitants seem to be determined to keep little Bisbee in the headlines as a place that has a different outlook from, say, conservative, stuck-in-the-old-days Tombstone.
Bisbee’s city council bickers with Arizona’s state legislature as much as you and your siblings did growing up. Bisbee scurried to legalize civil unions for gay couples; it banned plastic bags; its residents have protested the border fence over concern for environmental damage, and in a new move, the town is giving legal protection to the homeless, allowing them to sleep in public parks.
“We are really supportive of our homeless here, not that we want to attract more, but there are free meals for them every day of the week,” said City Council member Serena Sullivan. “They have a right to sleep.”
The Legislature, in turn, has tried to shoot down some of the town’s more progressive actions. Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation barring towns from eliminating plastic bags. At the time, Bisbee was the only town to have done so. Tom Horne, when he was attorney general, tried to block Bisbee from legalizing civil unions.
The first couple to join in civil union, Melissa Reaves and Jennifer Garland, started coming to Bisbee five years ago on a whim. In the music store they own in Boone, North Carolina, Garland heard a track called “Bisbee Blue” from one of her favorite bands, Calexico. Discovering that Calexico recorded in Bisbee, Garland became hooked without even visiting.
Reaves said it was a perfect fit. “We were only going to be there a week and then a week turned into two weeks, then three,” she said. “We continued to come back and stayed for longer the first year, and longer the second year so in the third year we thought, well, we should try and move here.”
Reaves, a singer, and Garland now spend half of the year in Bisbee, when Reaves is touring on the West Coast. When Garland worried about finding a job during her six-month stay is the town, the community instantly dove in and helped her find one within Bisbee in a matter of days.
Sullivan, who has lived in Bisbee her entire life, said the evolution into the progressive, artistic town began when hippies swept in in the 1970s. They brought art and music, and lots of festivals.
“The culture is very laid-back, expressive, artistic and very close-knit,” she said.
“One of my favorite memories growing up in Bisbee, and this happens on a reoccurring basis, they would close down Main Street for street dances,” she continued. “So from like 5 p.m. till 10 p.m., or even later sometimes, the whole street would be closed down and there would be bands playing and it was free for everyone to come hang out. There was no real purpose; nobody was trying to sell anything. It was just a town celebration.”
Mark and Hywel Logan, both artists, came to Bisbee in 2003 as an escape from their home in Kentucky. Mark makes stuffed animals and soft sculptures, and Hywel paints.
“We searched for a small gay-friendly and arty town,” Logan said. “Bisbee looked like it would be good, and it’s been a perfect fit for us. I like that Bisbee is very small and people are friendly and welcoming. You can do what you want to do and be how you want to be and most everyone is cool with that. Bisbee is a good place to just be and to watch the clouds roll by.”
Mark and Hywel opened The Teeny Tiny Toy Store in Bisbee in 2008, where Mark created nearly 7,000 stuffed animals and soft sculptures. He even made a doll of President Barack Obama which, in turn, got its 15 minutes of fame when former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords delivered it to the president himself on national television in 2010.
The couple considered leaving Arizona a few years ago after they closed their store, but Bisbee ambitiously passed a civil union bill in spring 2013. “After the civil union bill passed we had our wedding ceremony here in Bisbee,” Mark said. “So many of our friends were there and there was just love all around. It was beautiful.”
Mark and Hywel were among the first gay couples to be wed. Sullivan explained that the civil union bill wasn’t quite gay marriage, but Bisbee’s version of it. At the time, the state tried to prohibit the civil unions.
“I had a problem when they tried to have a local law on matters of state laws on what constitutes marriage, what constitutes divorce and I stopped them initially because they don’t have the authority to do that,” he said.
Then-Attorney General Tom Horne threatened to file a lawsuit against Bisbee until the town’s council changed some of the language to better comply with the state laws.
At the time, benefits given to married couples by the state were off-limits to the people joined by civil union in Bisbee — for example, appointment of guardianship. However, the civil union accorded several city benefits such as allowing partners to decide where their loved one is buried in Bisbee’s cemetery.
Garland and Reaves were the first couple united once the Bisbee law held.
“It was quite the whirlwind. We didn’t know initially that we were going to get caught up in that, but everything started and it was cool, it was pretty cool,” Reaves said. “It was cool to see that taking place and it was cool to see another great thing about Bisbee, they just jump in with both feet.”
She continued, “I think the thing that really solidifies Bisbee’s uniqueness, and the reason it is the way it is, is its electric mix of people. The people are just a mix of unusually artistic and genuine and interesting people. It is always hard to explain Bisbee to somebody, I mean some people could just think, ‘Oh it’s just an old hippie-artist enclave.’ But it is so much more than than.”
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