Santa Fe, Taos, And...Bisbee?

James R. Burnett, the Bisbee Observer's "Barnyard Philosopher," hopes to erect a statue to the Unknown Hippie who discovered Bisbee in the 1970s, after Phelps Dodge Corp. shut the copper mines in this Arizona town. The hippies turned Bisbee into an arts colony, with some 100 writers and artisans, that helped restart the economy.

Burnett is less keen on immortalizing the First Californian who followed the hippies. Once Bisbee was firmly established as an arts colony, it was discovered by other outsiders, many of them stressed-out refugees from the Golden State. Burnett settles down over his salad at the Copper Queen Hotel, then admits that the Californians "haven't hurt us any. I'm hoping they will mellow out."

They probably will, because Bisbee does seem to have that effect. "People make a connection here," says Rod Kass, a former Coloradan who connected with the town in 1989. He worked on the chow line at the state prison in Douglas, then delivered baked goods around Bisbee. Last summer, he opened Cafe Roka in the former Tavern Bar, an old mining-era saloon. Cafe Roka serves such fare as penne with smoked salmon and asparagus crepes. It's popular with locals--but also with tourists, who are coming here in increasing numbers as word spreads about Bisbee's out-of-the-way charm.

This quaint, turn-of-the-century copper town of 6,300, near the Mexican border and 200 miles from Phoenix, is a jumble of miners' shacks and Victorian cottages studding the steep slopes of the Mule Mountains canyon. Long flights of stairs, like zippers against the hillsides, define Bisbee today. The Green Tomatoz, a local singing group, pay tribute to the steps in their song, Driving in Your Car: "Someone's seen her around--up the stairs, down the stairs...." Instead of a marathon, Bisbee has an annual stair-climb--500 people race up 1,001 steps.

The town is so steep, it reminds me of Central City, Colo., where it was said the ashes thrown out of a house on top of the mountain landed in the chimney of the next house below. Bisbee reminds others of another Colorado town. "It's Aspen 30 years ago"--without the skiing, says Daly Nelson, who moved here last year from Aspen to write. She lives in a miner's cottage on Laundry Hill approximately "75 steps up."

Nelson, along with other newcomers, raves about the climate, the art galleries and crafts boutiques, the historic buildings that line Old Bisbee's narrow, crooked streets--and the low living costs. The town is a refuge for artists, such as painter and gallery owner Judy Perry, who can't afford Santa Fe's high prices, and folks who've turned their backs on Aspen's celebrity-studded lifestyle.

Nelson is part of the new wave who come "with more than a shoestring," as Shirl Negus puts it. She and her husband, Marc, are recent arrivals. They worked for Apple Computer Inc. in Cupertino, Calif., until they got fed up with the hour-long commute from Fremont. Two years ago, they sold their house and paid $240,000 for an old elementary school in Bisbee, which they run as the Schoolhouse Inn, a bed-and-breakfast with nine guest rooms.

"The seller [told Bisbeeites that] a California couple was buying the place, and we thought we'd be shunned," says Negus. Instead, when they arrived in Bisbee, they found a note from neighbors, inviting them for dessert. The couple hung their California license plate next to the front door to remind them of their old life.

The Neguses and others are driving up prices in Bisbee. Houses that sold for $5,000 to the hippies now fetch as much as $50,000. Commercial properties have gone from $15,000 to $150,000. Real estate has gone up 300% over the past three years, "and I don't know when it will peak," says Rosalie Butler, a realtor here for 21 years.

"BUILT ON GRIT." Of course, appreciation's not all bad, says City Treasurer Jeri M. Dustir as she shows me around Old Bisbee. "With mortgages, you have to pay attention to cash flow. That means more attention to marketing and customer service." New people are putting money into old buildings, but they're trying hard not to "oversanitize." Says Dustir: "It's a town built on grit."

Nobody ever accused Bisbee of being oversanitized in the past. Founded in 1880, "the Queen of the Copper Camps" was a rough-and-tumble place with a population of 35,000 early in the century. Technically, Bisbee wasn't a company town, but it was dominated by Phelps Dodge, and it was one of the country's biggest copper producers. During Apache scares in the early days, schoolchildren hid in mine tunnels. In 1917, when the Industrial Workers of the World called a strike, 1,200 Wobblies were loaded into cattle cars and dumped in the desert to fend for themselves.

NEWCOMERS. By 1951, Phelps Dodge had turned to surface mining, opening the giant Lavender Pit, which didn't get its name for its colorful hues but from mine manager Harrison Lavender. A century of copper mining ended in 1974, and shortly afterward, Bisbee's population dropped to as little as 5,500. Now, city and county governments are the biggest employers. A number of newcomers find service jobs, but many are retirees or trust-fund babies, known in Bisbee as "lucky sperm-club members."

Bisbee has so far escaped the real estate hucksters and speculators who have a knack for finding hot towns. There are no condos or townhouses, no subdivisions or resort hotels. A big San Francisco developer came into Bisbee a few years ago, buying up the YMCA, the Pythian Castle, and other landmarks. But "Bisbee has a way of grinding up money and grinding up people, and by the time Bisbee got through with them, the boys ultimately went broke," says Barnyard Philosopher Burnett. Adds Stephen M. Desens, superior court judge for Cochise County: "That soured the town on loudmouths who show up and say: 'I'm your savior.'"

The things that make Bisbee unattractive to hard-nosed investors makes it a haven for Bisbee's newcomers. "There are no conveniences here," says Sonja Templeton, a potter who moved from Tempe two years ago because Bisbee is a place where "you can wear a purple hat and not stand out in a crowd." Even Mayor Mike "Lefty" Lazovich concedes that "people aren't going to climb them stairs and walk them hills." If they would, says artist Caroline Norton, the town could always publicize Bisbee's scorpions, snakes, and kissing bugs, which attack in the night and leave swollen blotches on arms and legs. Norton lived in Santa Fe for 17 years before she threw everything into her pickup and headed for Bisbee last year. Bisbee's best hope, she says, is that "when people come here, they will think it's good enough and won't gold-leaf it."

I hope she's right, but I've lived in the West a long time, and I remember when Aspen, Santa Fe, Taos, Sedona, and other spots were charming, too. That didn't stop speculators and jet-setters from gilding them. Then, as I climb up the mountain for a last look down, I put my money on Lefty Lazovich. Them stairs and them hills are a killer.