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How Speedway Blvd once earned the title of 'ugliest street in America'

LIFE magazine photo calling Speedway the ugliest street in America.
Posted at 3:40 PM, Mar 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-29 19:13:00-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — It was simply a two-page photo in LIFE magazine, but for many years it was a major embarrassment for the city of Tucson.

"No question about it," said former Tucson City Councilman Brent Davis. "It gave Tucson a black eye and it was a big black eye."

Brent Davis is referring to the July 24, 1970 issue of LIFE magazine.

The once popular publication featured an article called "Look Down, Look Down, that Loathsome Road."

The article began with a two-page photo of Speedway at Country Club.

LIFE magazine photo calling Speedway the ugliest street in America.
LIFE magazine photo calling Speedway the ugliest street in America.

"The view down 'The Speedway' in Tucson supports the mayor's opinion that it is America's ugliest street," read the caption.

"Back in the '70s it was more embarrassing than it is now to have something like that shown about your city," said KGUN 9 Traffic Reporter Allen "Big Al" Kath. "It really was a black eye on the psyche I think of people who lived here."

The "ugliest street" moniker stuck, Tucson had the ugliest street in America.

To understand the dubious distinction you have to go back to January 2, 1962. Then-mayor Lew Davis first uttered the phrase.

"In the city council chambers was talking to the media," said David Leighton, Tucson historian. "He was talking about fixing up Tucson. He made the quote 'East Speedway is the ugliest street in the U.S.'"

That quote resurfaced eight years later -- or at least a variation of the quote.

Mayor Lew Davis actually called Speedway the ugliest street in the U.S.

Life magazine called "The Speedway" in Tucson America's ugliest street.

"People began, including the local media, began to just say Life magazine quoted it," Leighton said. "That was actually misquoted and it was carried on for many many years. LIFE magazine said it, it was actually Lew Davis who had said it eight years earlier."

The LIFE magazine photo took on a life of its own, even if a photographic trick made Speedway look worse than it actually was.

"What got Speedway all the attention was a telephoto lens," said Brent Davis.

But that two-page photo taken with a telephoto lens, and published in LIFE magazine, did lead to some major changes on Speedway.

"It was an impetus to make some changes, which we then made when I got on the city council in 1979," recalled Brent Davis.

Then councilman Brent Davis was the swing vote, enacting a new sign ordinance in Tucson.

"It brought them down, it made them smaller, it brought them away from the curb and it eliminated some types of signs," said Brent Davis.

Davis points out the widening of Speedway, including the addition of a center median, also helped him achieve his goal of cleaning up the look of the area.

"Took down a lot of signs when they widened Speedway," Davis said. "So, you bet it is a sense of pride with me."

"They took a lot of the stuff out that was objectionable," according to Big Al. "Many of those, in fact all of those businesses that were shown in that picture are gone. You can see the Country Club sign and that's about it."

Speedway at Country Club in Tucson

So, what's the ugliest street in Tucson now?

That's up for debate, but Big Al thinks it's the major road one mile north of Speedway.

"I'd make the argument that the ugliest street in Tucson is Grant Road roughly in the same area. The city is doing what? They're knocking out all the stuff and widening it from Tucson Blvd to roughly, at this point, Palo Verde."

A footnote: Speedway hasn't always been called Speedway.

According to historian David Leighton it was first called Wilson Street and later changed Feldman Street. In 1904, it was changed to The Speedway, before being changed to its current name Speedway Blvd.