The Straight Story

To the Editor,

In 1995 a bilingual survey of Barrio residents revealed their highest priorities regarding the old Drachman School to be: 1) restore the building to its appearance prior to the 1948 fire, and 2) reuse it for either a cultural center or for the elderly.

In 1996, I was hired as architect by the Barrio Viejo Neighborhood Association with a small grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the neighborhood association and the Tucson-Pima Historical Commission to advance the neighborhood's wishes.

Between 1997 and 1999 a feasible plan for elderly housing was completed by the neighborhood association and Tucson Design Center, an experienced non-profit in elderly housing (See "Walls Come A-tumblin' Down," December 14). The plan included reconstruction of the original 1928 façade. Every existing stone was to be reused. A central arcaded courtyard, surrounded by 200 linear feet of murals and photos of the school's history, was to contain a shaded outdoor performance space honoring Lalo Guerrero--father of local Chicano music and graduate of the old Drachman School. Additional Sonoran row housing was to be constructed east and west of the school with each unit having its own street frontage and address, as requested by elders in the historic zone.

Bilingual descriptions of the housing along with reduced copies of the plans, elevations and sections of the project were delivered to every house in the barrio prior to their approval in a well-announced and -attended meeting in the community. The plans were also approved by the Tucson-Pima Historic Commission and the Mayor and Council prior to their submittal in competition for $4 million from HUD. All three groups (neighborhood, Historic Commission and the Council) chose to reconstruct the historic façade according to the original plans rather than spend an additional half-million dollars to underpin and conserve the existing exterior wall. The final appearance would be the same in either case.

In the final month prior to submittal to HUD, the neighborhood association and Tucson Design Center asked Catholic Community Services to join them in sponsoring the project, since Catholic Community Services operates the Pio Decimo Social Service Center adjacent to the school.

In January, 2000, HUD announced the project to be the winner of their funding. Within weeks Catholic Community Services demanded full control of the project and said they felt no obligation to honor the approved plan developed between 1995 and 1999 and submitted to HUD. They felt they could just tear the building down and build whatever they wanted, regardless of the plan to reconstruct the school developed from 1995 to 1999. For eight months people attempted to reason with Catholic Community Services to no avail.

Then in August, Catholic Community Services moved to change architects and develop a totally new plan. A number of people resigned immediately from the board of the proposed housing project, including two previous presidents of the Barrio Historico Neighborhood Association (Mary Lou Heuett and Kathryn Wilde) and representatives from Tucson Design Center (Bill Risner, prominent Tucson legal and political activist; Dr, Johnny Bowens, former Arizona NAACP president and chairperson of the Spring Dunbar Project; and Hector Morales, former director of the El Pueblo Clinic, who resigned previously for reasons of health). Both the neighborhood association and the Design Center now oppose the project.

It is false that I was unwilling to be the architect unless the fee was higher. I was unwilling to be the architect if Catholic Community Services would not honor the plans previously developed by the neighborhood, the Tucson-Pima Historical Commission and the Mayor and Council. Nor was I willing to build the proposed building out of wood frame and stucco, and other cheap materials.

Catholic Community Services never called a community meeting to allow the neighborhood to see what they are planning, and they attempted to tear the old school down before the neighborhood and the Historic Commission could see their plans. They have been supported in these efforts by the city staff.

On January 24, the City Department of Community Services announced in a meeting held outside the neighborhood that the Drachman School would be demolished starting February 5. They and the Historic Preservation officer of the city said the city had no obligation to inform the neighborhood of the new plan for the site, nor any obligation to gain the neighborhood's input or approval. Nor did they think it necessary to show the Tucson-Pima Historical Commission the new plan or gain their approval prior to demolition. Mayor Bob Walkup and Councilmembers Fred Ronstadt, Carol West and Shirley Scott then tried to demolish the school without showing the neighborhood or the Historical Commission the new plan. To their credit, City Concilmembers Steve Leal, Jerry Anderson and José Ibarra attempted to stop the demolition and called for a public meeting to allow due process and full information on the changes that have taken place. Public pickets and demonstrations at the school site and outside Ronstadt's office have now resulted in slowing the demolition and a promise of public meetings. Such meetings, however, are to be rushed and run by the city staff, which does not bode well.

On February 7, Catholic Community Services' plan for the old Drachman School was finally shown. It replaces the planned reconstruction of the old school with a 40-foot portion of the building and 18 "cookie cutter style" housing blocks scattered across the site in the manner of military barracks.

That night we also witnessed the crying of many crocodile tears by Catholic Community Services and city staff about the need for affordable housing. They didn't propose any solution, however, beyond their tears. According to the 1999 census update we have 879,789 persons in metropolitan Tucson, with 15.3 percent of that population in poverty, and an average of 2.29 persons in each rental unit. That means we need approximately 58,780 units of subsidized housing for people in poverty alone. Currently, the city has fewer than 4,000 assisted-housing units. That means we have a shortage of nearly 55,000 units. It has taken six years to try to provide 60 units of housing at the old Drachman School site. At this rate it will take us over 900 years to meet the need that currently exists.

Actually the problem is getting worse, because every year, more than 60 families enter poverty or come to the city in poverty. The city has no plan to solve this problem. It would require the city to tax the rich, or to tax real estate sales, or to tax legal settlements, or to find some other source involving the rich to raise the money needed to solve the problem. The cost of 55,000 affordable housing units would be $4.3 billion today.

It is sad and typical of the city staff and Catholic Community Services that they shamelessly attempt to justify their behavior on the basis of the infinitely larger housing problem in the city. At the February 7 meeting, Fred Ronstadt said we need 10,000 units of affordable elderly housing. Fred, where's the plan for the remaining 9,940 units? Or is that something that won't be mentioned as this project is crammed down the barrio's throat?

This is not a new story. It's the same heavy-handed "bait and switch" of too many City of Tucson projects, including Tucson's urban renewal in the 1960s, the recent Civano project and the current Rio Nuevo project. The fantasy of our society is that it is open, democratic and egalitarian. The reality is that society is one of special-interest groups controlling politicians who in turn control government employees. Four vested interests in this project are the two HUD housing consultants (not hired competitively) who will get paid $40,000 only if the project is built; the building contractor (also selected without competitive bidding); Catholic Community Services, which potentially stands to gain considerable patronage influence in the projects operation; and the city staff, who will continue to justify their positions and salaries while essentially ignoring the larger housing problem.

It is an insult to name such a project after Lalo Guerrero. It should be called the City Staff's Typical Token, the Fred Ronstadt Barracks or the Catholic Community Services Urban Renewal Project for the elderly. One of Lalo Guerrero's most famous songs is titled "Barrio Viejo, Viejo Barrio." It is about the destruction of Barrio Viejo by urban renewal, and how of course it was done in the name of progress.

The idea that I, Jody Gibbs, personally have the power to convince 70- and 80-year-old barrio women to risk arrest to stop bulldozers, or to cause 200 barrio residents to protest, or to cause Fred Ronstadt to make racist statements, or to cause the City Manager and staff to lie is flattering but false. Many people know we need big solutions to big problems. We don't need lies, control by bureaucrats, bait and switch, social service agencies that don't advocate for real change, or prostitution of due process for yet another federal handout that isn't worth the divisions it creates in the barrio. If we haven't been able to work this project out in five years we certainly can't work it out in 30 days as is now expected. Let's learn from this experience, and learn to say no.

The current board of directors of the Barrio Viejo Neighborhood Association has seen enough bad faith on the parts of HUD, the city staff and Catholic Community Services. They have called for an end to the undemocratic tactics used by the city to divide the residents of their neighborhood. They know that the housing project as now planned is both destructive to history and to the neighborhood, and they are calling for a full stop. They want the historic building preserved and reused as a facility for youth. If HUD isn't interested in preservation, then they aren't interested in HUD. Quite reasonably they point out that if there is $300 million available from tax money for Rio Nuevo, then certainly there is tax money available to preserve the old Drachman School and reuse it for a facility for youth.

--Jody Gibbs

Old School?

To the Editor,

I don't see why everyone is crying about Drachman School as a historical landmark. The original school was destroyed in a fire and the existing school was constructed in 1949. What is so historical about that?

--James George

Smelly Threats

To the Editor,

Whoever wrote the bit on Wildcat subdivisions missed the boat (The Skinny, February 8). I invite any of your staff down to the fourth floor of the City-County Public Works building to the department that regulates floods. Ask for me and I will personally show you and your staff what wildcat subdividing is, how expansive it has become and how destructive it really can be. Septics on 3.3s? Hah, hah, hah. How about 648 septic tanks in a 1-square-mile section? You cannot tell me that does not impact the ground water. Just ask Zakin. Bad, bad, bad Tucson Weekly. Shame on you. Ssssshhame on you, Cochino!

--Allan M. Sanchez

Go Wildcats

To the Editor,

You deserve a great deal of thanks for telling the truth about what constitutes a wildcat subdivision.

Five years ago my wife and I found a 5-acre parcel in the Tucson Mountain Foothills, bought it, built, and now we live there.

Before, we lived in an increasingly desirable part of Tucson, the West University neighborhood, where the oldest neighborhood association in Tucson exists. It is a charming place, kept lively with student renters and other good neighbors.

The downside for us was the city, its disregard for us, our garbage collection, and failure to deal with law-enforcement issues and an almost constant parade of undesirable characters shuffling past on their way somewhere. We were burglary victims twice, and once someone tried to steal our car, but because it had protection, the thief was only able to destroy the ignition switch. Three times our driver's side window was shattered by vandals.

Now we live outside the city. We pay a private vendor for garbage collection, and we pay our neighborhood association $100 per year to keep the dirt roads relatively smooth. As you pointed out, our septic tank impacts no one else. We also keep a big dog in an attempt to provide our own security. We also own a part of Sweetwater Wash, and I can guarantee that any wildlife living there are safe from me and others. (Now if I can just figure out how to get off the electric grid!)

Some neighbors have lived in our neighborhood for more than 30 years. We do not have county-maintained roads and we do not want them. In addition, I personally will resist any attempt at annexation by either Tucson or Marana.

--Dennis St. Germaine


To the Editor,

To my knowledge, the Inquisition is over. At least, I thought it was, until I discovered that it is alive and well, and dwelling in the depths of the Mailbag. Now, however, it seems to have taken a new, somewhat more sinister turn. Instead of hunting heretics of all sorts, now it seems to be focused on one Mr. James DiGiovanna.

I read the Weekly religiously. Thursdays are the closest thing I personally have to the Sabbath, and on this holy, holy day I truck on down to the Circle K by my home, pick up my beloved paper, and flip directly to the Cinema section. I flip directly there because I have discovered a species of creature that I had long thought extinct: a good movie critic. An individual who is capable of seeing the latest über-hyped eye-candy-laden big-star two-hour soul-sucking waste of time for what it truly is.

Guess what, people. Critics dislike things. It's a fact. If you want to get warm fuzzies from a review, go pick up the Weekly's mainstream competitor. Trust me, you'll find a movie critic to your liking. DiGiovanna's reviews praise movies that should be praised (innovative, enjoyable, etc.) and condemn those that should be condemned (the boilerplate crap that's inevitably going to win an Oscar, God alone knows why). Meanwhile, he's making the entire experience entertaining as all hell to read, while he himself generally has wasted an hour or so of his life that he'll never get back sitting through something so we won't have to.

The job of a critic is to critique things. That involves taking one's personal opinion of something and writing it down for all to see. If DiGiovanna doesn't like something, well, he doesn't like it. It's his job. If he likes it, he'll let us all know. Quit bitching about the fact that he didn't like ... The Patriot and get back to your lives.

Leave the man alone. If you don't like his work, then stay the hell out of the Cinema section.

--Jeremy Graf

Measuring Up

To the Editor,

Thanks for reviewing the shows we put on at The Screening Room this weekend (Film Clips, February 8). Also thanks for proving how inept film criticism has gotten.

While the Daily Star didn't cover the event, continuing the publisher's stated policy of no coverage for foreign or "art" movies (a ridiculous term that changes depending on what theater a kung-fu film is playing at), you did us a favor (?) of taking your brain to the theater instead of leaving it at home.

Why do your capsule reviews suddenly get more harsh for films that aren't slick or completely recognizable? Instead of going to see Jeff Krulik's short films on pop culture--quick, fun entertainment--you told people to "stay home and rent Errol Morris' Fast Cheap And Out Of Control."

Come on; you could not get more simple. So Krulik isn't the documentarian recognized by most real critics and film fans as one of the best American filmmakers of the last 20 years. And you picked Morris' most boring film. What about his short Vernon Florida, which resembles Krulik's work?

So Krulik doesn't "delve" as deep as Morris. Do you really think every single film has to be the most judgmental and profound work ever made? Apparently only the "art" films. You didn't think Snatch needed to, which you said was junk but people should go see because it's eye candy and rips off other good films.

Please pick one yardstick and deal with it.

--Mike Plante

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