Bulldozing the Barrio

Photos and film at UA Special Collections document the neighborhood lost to urban renewal

The grand stone-and-adobe Otero House, boasting a decorative porch and a brick wall around its tidy front yard, didn't look like an example of urban blight.

Neither did the Plaza, a Spanish Colonial Revival movie theater with white-washed walls, a tower and a tile roof, designed by the renowned architect Roy Place.

And slum seekers could rule out the Ying On Club too. The two-story building with a pagoda-roofed balcony was a cultural center—and sometime dormitory—that had served Tucson's Chinese community since the 19th century.

But in the mid-1960s Tucson city officials embarked on a program of "slum removal." Declaring 80 acres of downtown to be an unredeemable slum, they laid to waste these three venerated buildings and about 260 others—homes, stores, restaurants, bars, even a place of worship. The catastrophic urban-renewal program, endorsed by the voters, leveled Tucson's oldest neighborhood, including blocks and blocks of adobe Sonoran row-houses, many dating from the 19th century.

It banished some 1,200 residents, most of them Mexican-Americans, along with a smaller number of Chinese-Americans and African-Americans: the racial dimension of the expulsion won the program the angry nickname of brown removal. The city's historic heart was turned into a wasteland. (See "The Downfall of Downtown," Tucson Weekly, March 6, 1997)

In an extraordinary, must-see exhibition at the UA Library's Special Collections, you can actually watch some of the buildings being demolished, on grainy 16 mm. films shot by Paul Smith in 1967. Smith captures the bulldozers smashing into the walls of the Ying On Club, while other trucks fire blasts of water onto its dusty remains, to keep them from blowing across Tucson. Watching the movies feels like watching a death; it's painful to see Tucson violently laying waste to its own history.

The demolitionists were a little gentler with the Otero House. The city promised to rebuild it, and the grand house was dismantled, not obliterated. In the movie, Smith lovingly records the house's carved porch posts, all curves and arcs, and documents an imposing fireplace and ceiling beams on the inside. The porch was later rebuilt at the Arizona Historical Society museum and those beams made their way into the Sosa-Carillo-Frémont House, one of the few historic houses the city saved. It was restored as a monument to an Anglo, John Frémont, an early Territorial governor who may never even have lived there.

The Otero House had an authentic connection to one of the oldest Hispanic families in southern Arizona: an ancestor, Don Toribio de Otero, had gotten a land grant from Spanish King Charles V in 1789. Yet the city abandoned its promise to rebuild the house.

The exhibition, "Tucson: Growth, Change and Memories," also displays for the first time a collection of black-and-white photos of some 72 of the doomed houses. An unknown city staffer, working in 1966 or 1967 just before demolition, documented every building that was to be torn down. These carefully shot photos picture a ghost town; the residents have already been banished and the once lively streets are deserted.

Hauled out of the Special Collections archives by librarian Bob Diaz, the collection of negatives has been digitized for public viewing. Working alongside reps from the Tucson Preservation Foundation, Diaz had 72 of the negatives printed for this show.

The barrio was poor, to be sure, but the long-forgotten photographs put the lie to the city fathers' 1960s allegations that it was a sea of urban blight. The pictures show a community theater on Meyer—cousin to the still-existing Teatro Carmen—that staged plays in Spanish. A charming mission-style Chinese Evangelical church was on Main. The Busy Bee Café and Jake's Quick Lunch on West Congress offered cheap eats, and Flores Nacional Drugstore was the place Bob Diaz's mom would take him when they needed medicine.

There were night spots that the city fathers railed against, the Legal Tender, Barbary Coast ("Home of the Go-Go") and the Moon Lounge, all on Congress Street. A crumbling "rooming house" was on South Sabino Avenue, a vestige of the city's old red-light district.

Much of the neighborhood was rundown. But as Lydia Otero documents in her invaluable book "La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City," the city deliberately triggered much of the deterioration. The city had hoped for decades to demolish the Mexican barrio and erect a convention center and government buildings in its place, and for years officials refused to issue permits for repairs and improvements. The poor conditions became a justification for demolition.

This excellent exhibition is not flashy, but it's important. Documenting as it does a massive city project that was a monumental failure, it should be required viewing for city leaders and anyone who cares about Tucson. And as curator Diaz writes, its images can "help people remember what was lost."

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