“The main approach to Bisbee, southeastern Arizona’s mining town turned arts colony, is through a tunnel in a mountain. Once you pop out on the other side, you’ve entered a funky Shangri-la, a free-spirited community marked by a tangle of narrow streets streaming down the canyon and 19th century cottages clinging precariously to the hills, along with a historic Main Street bristling with galleries.
“With Bisbee, you either get it or you don’t,” says sculptor and gallerist Poe Dismuke, 62, who relocated here from the Bay Area in 2000 with his wife, painter Sam Woolcott, 60. “the town has this weird, fatal attraction. If you fall, you fall fast and heavy.”
Dismuke isn’t the first to fall fast and heavy for mile-high Bisbee. Prospectors discovered copper, then gold, in the surrounding Mule Mountains, and by the 1880s a boom town developed, its downtown resplendent with shops, theaters, saloons, and hotels- now part of Bisbee Historic District. When the mines played out in the 1970s, counterculturalists, artists, musicians, poets, and writers moved in, drawn by the scenic canyon setting, cheap rents, and preserved-in-amber historic architecture.
That’s when Bisbee coalesced into a proudly weird (to use a favorite local adjective) and quirky community-an outpost of liberalism in an otherwise conservative state. Local theater and a community radio station approved. Yoga classes, reiki therapy, and vegan eateries took root here years ago. In 2013, it became the first city in the state to legalize same-sex civil unions. More recently, an art installation in Main Street storefront offering an R-rated “dump Trump” political theme drew barely a shrug.
At the same time, Bisbee also evolved into a popular tourist destination. Galleries, pubs, boutiques, inns, and restaurants popped up. A monthly art walk, as well as annual craft beer, and Americana music festivals now fill the calendar.
Newcomers today are largely drawn by not only the boho vibe, but also by affordable housing. The recession hit Bisbee later, and the housing market is still recovering. With a median home price right at six figures, bargains can be had. While Dismuke and Woolcott could afford only to rent in California, they bought a house within six days of arriving in Bisbee. Their digs? “A classic Bisbee miner’s house from 1906,” says Dismuke. “Three buildings cobbled together, 900 square feet. It promises to be a lifelong remodeling project.”
Ceramist Tonya Borgeson, 40, also felt the vibe – and the real estate attraction. A Minnesota native, she began coming to Bisbee to participate in community art events. Last year, she was smitten enough to get a gig as an adjunct art instructor at nearby Cochise College and buy a property that she plans to renovate into a studio and residence. “It’s walking distance to everything,” she says.
Bisbee sense of community is also a big magnet for those considering relocating here. “Bisbee was love at first sight,” Borgeson admits. “Then I started meeting intelligent, creative individuals. I find myself stimulated by conversations I have with people I don’t even know, on a hike or at the Bisbee Food Co-Op.” Borgeson makes a point of participating in yoga classes, art lectures, and events to form connections, as well as meeting pals at pubs to listen to live music.
Dismuke also felt the love. “We were embraced from the day we moved here. We were invited to people’s houses for dinner so often that we were almost worn out. In the Bay Area, we hardly knew the people in our block.” Dismuke and Woolcott have immersed themselves in community events, like fund-raising for the town’s library, organizing an annual artists’ soapbox derby, and trekking to the Saturday farmers’ market.
Still, Bisbee’s not for everyone. Job options are mostly tourism-related, with government, medicine, schools also offering some employment. For families with young children, school choices are limited. Major medical facilities and mainstream shopping are 30 miles away in Sierra Vista.
But on a recent sunny afternoon, as locals kibitzed over ice kombucha and hearts-of-alm salad on the patio of the High Desert Market and cafe, an orange and blue PT Cruiser festooned with plastic owls cruised by slowly. Nobody batted an eye. This is, after all, weird Bisbee.” – N.B.T.
Join FSV for a trip to Weird Bisbee in April 2017
-Article Credit to Sunset Magazine, February 2016