Downtown's Demise

Lydia Otero tells the sad story of 'urban renewal' and Tucson's la calle neighborhood

Even though Tucson's metropolitan region has topped a million souls, and Rio Nuevo has drenched the city with a veritable flood of redevelopment dollars, on most days, Tucson's central business district exudes about as much vitality as a valley-fever patient.

While it's had some promising gains, downtown has also witnessed a long and embarrassing parade of failed projects, and the reasons for its malaise are complicated. Of course, a huge part of the blame can be assigned to incompetent city leaders. And then there's the feeble economy. The centrifugal pull of Tucson's ever-expanding suburbs certainly also works against downtown growth. However, after reading La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City, by Lydia R. Otero, it occurred to me that perhaps another possible factor should be added to the mix: bad karma.

Otero, an associate professor of Mexican-American and raza studies at the UA, doesn't weigh in on the topic of karma, but she does detail a dark chapter in Tucson's history that merits—if such a phenomenon as karma exists—a substantial dose of the bad variety.

The story revolves around a long-established Mexican-American barrio that once stood on the southwest edge of Tucson's downtown. Often referred to as la calle, it was bulldozed out of existence during a frenetic wave of downtown redevelopment in the late 1960s, displacing hundreds of residents and obliterating many historic buildings. The most densely populated spot of its size in Arizona, la calle was home to numerous businesses and served as the epicenter of Hispanic life. However, Otero contends, it fell to the wrecking ball primarily because it didn't conform to the vision city fathers had for Tucson—one that was essentially white.

The origins of la calle can be traced to the years following the Gadsden Purchase, when Anglos began pouring into Tucson. These newcomers began dislodging Tucson's Mexican inhabitants from their homes in the area of what had once been the old presidio. Moving southward across what is now Congress Street, the uprooted tucsonenses (Mexicans with multi-generational ties here) established a new and semi-insulated district.

Writing that place and historical memory are essential to the preservation of cultural identity and autonomy, Otero notes that early tucsonenses created an enclave "that looked and felt like their homes in Sonora or in Tucson before the arrival of Anglos." Containing street after street of adobe row houses—much like present-day Convent Avenue—the area focused on La Placita, a grassy plaza that was the site of numerous festivals and community events.

By the 1960s, city planners viewed la calle as little more than a crime-ridden slum and targeted it for demolition. Otero, however, offers a counter-image. Using numerous photographs and the testimony of many former residents, she describes a barrio that was rough around the edges—but thriving. Otero argues forcefully that although many structures in la calle were, indeed, rundown—in part, she says, because the city rarely enforced building codes in the area—the neighborhood's demise stemmed mainly from the convergence of two ethnocentric forces: Tucson's tourist-industry advertising strategies, designed to make the city seem less Mexican; and the efforts of city planners to re-create downtown along the lines of a suburban shopping mall (there was actually a plan to cover part of downtown with a geodesic dome).

Following a bond election in 1966, an 80-acre swath of Hispanic Tucson was razed. By 1974, it had been supplanted by a community center, a hotel and a multi-story shopping and office complex. By 1980, the entire downtown area, overpowered by the burgeoning suburbs and deprived of its indigenous core of shoppers, was essentially comatose.

There are at least two silver linings to be found in the cloud of dust rising out of la calle's destruction: Tucson's heightened sensitivity to historic preservation, and the birth of social activism in the Hispanic community.

Otero delineates the resolute but ultimately futile attempts to save La Placita. La Placita was replaced by La Placita Village, a Southwestern-style collection of shops, restaurants and offices that was a dismal failure. By calling it "contrived," Otero may have put her finger on another reason for downtown's wilted condition: Our urban center is woefully short on authenticity and charm.

Tucson did, however, get the kind of downtown it seemed to want—and, in certain respects, exactly the one it deserved.