“It’s hard to estimate where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been,” says David Devine of his decade-by-decade compendium of Tucson’s history from the time of the Gadsden Purchase.

The task he set himself was not simply to create a record of events, but also to place on a continuum the personalities and trends that guided the evolution of a desert city.

Does the way we once were still define us? Devine poses a number of questions about Tucson’s unresolved issues and posits that the past holds clues that can guide us to the future we deserve — whatever that may be.

From the city’s earliest days as a lonely territorial outpost, Tucsonans have tended to dream big, despite being isolated by geography and subject to depredations by marauding native tribes. Their vision of the Old Pueblo emerging from the desert as a bustling Arizona metropolis with a burgeoning populace has persisted over time, and the theme of growth is central to this book.

Each chapter begins with a map of downtown showing its incremental development, and a brief synopsis that gives shape to the decade at hand. The narrative commences with the cessation of the Apache wars — an event that “lift(ed) the cloud of distrust” that surrounded the nascent city — and the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad. With these two events the founding fathers believed they had at last achieved the perfect incubator in which population and industry could thrive.

In the same chapter Devine also highlights a less monumental and yet telling event, the construction of the first public school. Given the desire to draw settlers, it’s curious that this civic improvement didn’t gin up much interest among the locals, who were content to leave education in the hands of the Catholic Church.

Were it not for the efforts of freight hauler and public education advocate Estevan Ochoa, who bankrolled the building himself when the money ran out, the project might have languished. Instead, the three-room school, located on Congress Street near Sixth Avenue, opened its doors in 1875 bearing the name of its benefactor. Ochoa himself went on to become mayor, making him the first, and only, Mexican-American to hold this post.

There was less ambivalence on the part of the citizenry when the University of Arizona was secured for the Old Pueblo — they were downright disgusted with this academic consolation prize when what they really wanted was the return of the territorial capital.

“Tucson,” sniffed the Arizona Daily Citizen, “does not care a fig” about a university, and the legislator responsible for cutting this deal was roundly denounced.

Historically, Tucson has been a contentious place, as subsequent chapters demonstrate. Political controversy dogged the administration of Mayor Ben Heney in the early 1900s. His attempts to remove a councilman for allegedly accepting bribes incited a firestorm of opinion that culminated in a public meeting at the Opera House.

The morning and afternoon newspapers (clearly as divided and antagonistic as the populace) reported two curiously different versions of the same event. It was “an appreciative, standing-room only audience,” said the Arizona Daily Citizen, while the Arizona Daily Star characterized the meeting as a “farce” played out in front of empty chairs.

Devine, who has contributed monographs to the Tucson Corral of Westerners and written frequently for the Tucson Weekly, relied on numerous original sources, most particularly newspapers, in this well-documented and footnoted volume.

In his capable hands, Tucson’s personality emerges as the decades unfold: from a cow town with a formidable red light district to a health haven for TB sufferers, a movie mecca, a spring training home for major league baseball, an Air Force town and a tourist destination.

Tucson has indeed emerged from the desert, constantly repackaging and repurposing itself in the interest of growth and development.

But, Devine asks, to what end? The steadfast belief that “bigger is better” has yielded mixed results, evident in the later decades in which controversies over annexation, land grabs, urban sprawl, racial tensions and water wars predominate.

Tucson history buffs will enjoy this fact-rich account of the city’s life and times, and issue-oriented readers will find plenty of food for thought.

Helene Woodhams is a supervising librarian at the Dusenberry-River Branch of Pima County Public Library and co-chair of the authors committee of the eighth Tucson Festival of Books. She writes reviews for the Star’s monthly Southern Arizona Authors column.