Guest Opinion

Modernism Week: A Golden Age for Whom?

Not all Tucsonans are jumping on the Modernism Week bandwagon as reported on by Jim Nintzel in "Zona Politics" (TW, 9/25/15). Most appreciate the whimsical mid-century designs that have survived, but efforts to celebrate a "wonderful" history as promoted by the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation raise questions about statements that mask unpleasant realities and offer more joyful versions of the city's past. According to their spokesperson, "Modernism Week is a celebration of Tucson's post WWII history from the 1950s, '60s and early '70s, and Tucson, it was a really transformative time for Tucson during this period. In the 1930s the population was just over 30,000, and by 1960, it had quadrupled to over 220,000. So it was really the biggest point of growth in Tucson, and it really is this golden era of our history." So, unbridled growth and sprawl characterize the "golden era of our history"?

We all want an opportunity to celebrate Tucson, and by extension find a means to celebrate ourselves and our hometown, but the Modernism Week celebrations have moved beyond an appreciation of architectural features and design. They are now actively recasting history.

Undoubtedly, a few modernistic architects incorporated "burnt adobe" into upscale designs and water features that considered the Sonora Desert landscape, but it's a stretch to embrace the Foundation's claims that modernism is something that "is distinctly us, and something we need to celebrate." The Modernistic era symbolizes a period when, more so than today, powerful real estate brokers and developers dictated the planning agenda of Tucson and Pima County. It also represents a time when the City of Tucson prioritized delivering services such as electricity and sewage hookups to the new housing developments springing up on the eastside while older areas were left with unpaved roads and even outhouses. A case in point: resources went into serving the new arrivals when, in 1965, the mayor and council established the Wilmot Library, designed by a prominent modernist architect, on what was then the extreme Eastside of town. Neighborhoods on the Northside and Southside were neglected.

These simplistic versions of the past obscure the reality that many of the changes ushered in by the influx of newcomers were not always "a lot of fun" for many local residents. The same forces that encouraged growth and had the most to gain in the Modernist period fought fiercely to defeat public housing referendums that would have provided for the poor. Influenced by developers and the real estate industry, elected officials unenthusiastically moved to seek federal assistance for the public housing. On the other hand, iconic pro-growth real estate developer and urban renewal champion Roy Drachman unabashedly moved to snatch federal funds when it served his purpose to remake downtown. Most of the city's poor—Mexican, Chinese and African Americans—once called this area home but they did not fit into Drachman's downtown designs. The City of Tucson leveled close to 80 acres, and displaced people that did not fit into characterizations associated with being "dynamic." After doing so, the city applied for Model Cities federal monies. To acquire these funds, the city needed to provide evidence that its older neighborhoods suffered from high unemployment, high infant mortality, and poor housing in general. The city's 1970 report concedes that development in Tucson's more affluent areas came at the expense of older ones that were "left behind by progress." Lastly, we should also consider that the early Modernistic Era also represents the height of restrictive covenants and racial segregation.

Despite some great individual designs in Tucson, Modernistic impulses deprived the urban core of vitality for more than 40 years. The sprawl it produced made the city overly dependent on automobiles and fossil fuels. Those left behind during the Modernist period are still trying to catch up. Attempting to convince Tucsonans to celebrate decades of unjust planning decisions, in addition to encouraging historical amnesia, is not the solution. Idealized fantasies that surround Modernism Week in these complicated times need to be revisited. The "fun" narrative is alluring but we also need to reflect upon the historical realities responsible for the urban sprawl and depletion of water resources that occurred during Tucson's so-called "golden age." There is also a balkanization or separateness that many Tucsonans experience in the current era. Perhaps dealing with these issues instead of masking previous injustices is a better solution.

Born and raised in Tucson, Lydia R. Otero is an associate professor in The Department of Mexican American Studies and author of La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwestern City (University of Arizona Press, 2010).