There Goes The Neighborhood

The Downfall of Downtown

THE WRECKING BALL swung slowly against the deep blue desert sky and then danced back into its target. Once, twice, three times it smashed against the old Del Monte Market on South Meyer Street. But the building had been around a while, and it didn't go without a struggle.

Leticia Jacobs Fuentes stood in her backyard behind the market and watched the battle, shading her eyes with her hand against the fierce sun. She didn't even have to think about whose side she was on. She was rooting for the market.

"No te dejas! No te dejas!" she called out to the old place. Time was, it had been a store where the manager let people slide on their bills until payday, where her kids used to hop in and out for sweets. "Don't let go! Don't let go!"

Despite her pleas, and the Del Monte's sturdy resistance to the demands of progress, it was no contest. Hit again and again by the wrecking ball, the market's old adobe bricks crumbled to dust and scattered to the winds.

FUENTES WAS SAFE in her yard for the moment, but soon her family and her neighbors would be scattered just as surely as was that adobe dust. The year was 1967, and urban renewal was abroad in the land. Cities from coast to coast, seized with notions of "progress" and "modernization," were gleefully demolishing their downtowns, leveling historic buildings, rooting out their poorest residents. More often than not the displaced were minorities, who bitterly nicknamed the federal program "brown removal" or "Negro removal."

In Tucson, the city fathers intended to erect a gleaming 20th-century New Pueblo upon the grave of the Old, a generic all-American city center that would in effect obliterate the adobe remains of the Mexican past. With the blessing of the voters, mayor and council had signed a death warrant for some 263 old buildings occupying 80 acres of prime downtown real estate. The barrio that would disappear in urban renewal was the city's oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood.

It took in some 29 city blocks, an irregular rectangle that sprawled from San Agustín Cathedral on the east almost to the train tracks on the west, and from Washington Street on the north to 14th Street on the south. The neighborhood, a mix of businesses, houses and apartments, was home to an estimated 1,170 people, mostly poor or working-class. It was a Mexican-American barrio, where Spanish was often spoken, but living there also were a sizable number of African-Americans and Chinese.

Under the ambitious urban renewal plan, the crooked pedestrian streets, with old-time names like Mesilla, Ochoa, El Paso and Sabino, would be replaced by streamlined semi-highways built for drivers who had no time to amble. A new chain hotel would go up in place of the old rooming houses and neighborhood hotels like the Belmont. On the remains of old adobe houses would rise the anonymous modern towers of the county government center, the long monolith of the Tucson Convention Center, and its attendant parking lots. Space would be found for a brand-new Tucson Museum of Art. The city's old central square, the Plaza de la Mesilla, and its surrounding Mexican-American business district would give way to the faux-Mexican office complex called La Placita.

Once urban renewal was complete, it would be hard for newcomers to know that anything else had ever been there.

LETICIA JACOBS FUENTES' house, an 1880s Sonoran adobe at 145 S. Main, had been owned for generations by the Carrillos, her mother's family. It was saved from the wrecking ball only by an historical fluke: It turned out that an Anglo territorial governor by the name of John C. Fremont might have stayed there for a time in the 1880s, or, then again, maybe not. Fuentes and her husband Henry had lived in two of the house's five apartments since 1941, raised their three children there, and continued to live there in the 1960s with an assortment of married offspring and a small tribe of grandchildren.

The Fuentes held on as long as they could, remaining in the house even after the city officially took ownership--and sent them rent bills of $11 each month to prove it.

"They couldn't get me out of here," remembers Fuentes. She's now 79 years old and lives in a brick house she and her husband own near A Mountain. "Finally they took my telephone...I didn't have any phone. I had to go."

The Fuentes say they were the last to leave the neighborhood, departing on December 17, 1968. By that time, the neighborhood where Fuentes had lived most of her life looked like a war zone. House by house, the bulldozers had moved in, kicking up so much dust that firefighters had to train their hoses on the disintegrating adobe.

"We saw all that go down. It was bad. I didn't want to see it," Fuentes says. "It was terrible for me when they knocked my dad's home down. It was a big, beautiful house....

"People weren't very happy. They'd been there all their lives. It was quite a trauma for us, for everybody. What I missed most was having all my children by me...I was separated from my children. We were a happy family there. We lost that neighborhood.

"They could have put (the convention center) someplace else. They wanted it downtown."

STILL, FUENTES MADE out better than most of her neighbors. She was young enough to adjust to her new circumstances, and a lawsuit she brought against the city yielded enough money to buy a new place. (The city had originally offered $12,000 for the historic mansion; Fuentes says she eventually got $50,000.) According to Keith Carew, writing in the Tucson Citizen in 1970, about 40 families ended up in public housing. Another 40 or so bought houses. The rest of the estimated 160 families and 120 individuals living in the neighborhood scrambled to find rentals elsewhere, or doubled up with family.

Many of the elderly were plunged further into poverty. A Mrs. Virginia Gamez, an 84-year-old widow, had owned four houses on Wood Street, but was paid so little by the city for them she ended up moving in with her son. Another pair of octogenarians, Ignacio Duarte and his wife, were paid about two-thirds of the value of an adobe house on West McCormick that Duarte had built himself. It was only enough to buy a tiny place in South Tucson, far from their old friends.

The case of Leonides Placencia Wall was typical, and tragic. She was always addressed as "Doña," says her granddaughter, Ann Montaño, a 58-year-old Tucson teacher, because of the respect she commanded in the neighborhood. Like Gamez, Doña Wall lived west of Main, down a sloping hill that gave this distinctive residential section of the barrio its name: El Hoyo, the hole.

Doña Wall and her husband, Richard, come to Tucson in 1921 and bought the house at 303 W. Wood Street. Richard enlarged the house and built a row of five apartments in the big yard alongside it to supplement his income as a miner. In this house the Walls raised nine children, and mourned the loss of three other babies. And it was from the big front porch that they had their last glimpse of their son Richard before he went off to war. Richard closed the gate of the picket fence, Montaño remembers, strolled off singing and disappeared over New Guinea in 1943.

By the time of urban renewal, Richard Sr. was long dead, but his widow lived on in the house, the rentals still giving her a tidy income. Doña Wall, who spoke only Spanish, resisted urban renewal as fiercely as had the Del Monte market. Montaño says she was enlisted to help her grandmother ward off the blandishments of the urban renewal director, the priest and everybody else who came round trying to persuade her to sign the papers giving up her home. Montaño says her uncle was even threatened with the loss of his city job.

"They knocked again and again on my grandmother's door to sign," Montaño says. "They harassed her so much."

Doña Wall had many reasons for wanting to keep the home she'd lived in almost half a century. Relatives could visit her there, it was full of memories, it provided her with an income. And she wanted to wait for her son Richard, who was still listed as missing in action.

"She always thought he'd come back," her granddaughter says. If he did, she wanted to be where he could find her.

Missing soldier and family ties notwithstanding, when Doña Wall was 85 years old, the city bulldozed the house she'd lived in some 46 years. She was paid $6,000 for the house and apartments, at a time when a replacement home would have cost about $17,000. Always an independent woman, she refused to move in with her children. So the respected Doña of El Hoyo was despatched to public housing, to a tiny apartment over at Connie Chambers.

Deprived of her income from the rental apartments, Doña Wall eked out a living on Social Security. Her granddaughter says the old woman was afraid to answer the door, terrified that once again city officials would come knocking. But she lasted only two more years. In 1969, at the age of 87, Doña Wall died.

"She was broken-hearted," says Ann Montaño. "She was real brokenhearted after fighting for her houses, her income.... She died of sadness."

IT'S BEEN 30 years since the bulldozers first smashed into the barrio, leveling historic buildings with the kind of frenzy that they nowadays devote to virgin desert in development-mad Tucson. Thirty years, but the wounds have not healed. People weep or tremble or even rage when they describe how the city took their homes. Some, like Montaño, believe to this day that the city killed their elders. Martha Fimbres is a psychiatric social worker at UMC who studied five of the displaced families for her master's thesis, co-authored with Patricia Clark, back in 1978. In four of the five families they studied, an elderly member had died shortly after losing their home to urban renewal.

"It was very tragic," says Mimbres. "They had been cheated out of their homes, where they were intending to live and die...How do you go up against City Hall, especially people who don't know the system, don't know the language?"

Rev. Arsenio Carrillo served as a parish priest at San Agustín from 1956 to 1963, and returned in 1969. He agrees: "The city took advantage of poor people, uneducated people who were actually afraid to stand up for themselves.... The Hispanic community was not well-organized."

Michael Cajero's father Nick was among the estimated 140 business people forced to move. Nick Cajero had run a barbershop successfully in the neighborhood for 20 years and was unhappy about relocating to South Tucson.

"The lesson that was taught is that you can push people aside," says Michael Cajero, a Tucson artist. "They stuck a knife in the heart here and the blood spattered out."

Alva B. Torres led the most conspicuous public resistance to urban renewal, organizing a coalition and gathering 10,000 signatures in a not-so-successful attempt to save the old Plaza de la Mesilla and the surrounding Mexican-American businesses.

She puts the matter forthrightly: "It was a war against people who were poor."

IT'S BEEN 30 years too, that urban renewal has had to the chance to prove it could "revitalize" the downtown. Tucson has tried scheme after scheme to lure crowds to the city center. All the plans and small successes notwithstanding, locals don't often linger downtown and tourists routinely bypass it.

Don Laidlaw, who served as director of urban renewal during the demolition, argues, "It's been very successful in terms of art and culture and government," but as a whole, he concedes, urban renewal "didn't do anything to revitalize the downtown."

Outsiders have noted the downtown's sterility, perplexing in a city as old as Tucson. Its conspicuous lack of charm took two major hits in the national media in the last month alone.

A feature on Tucson in the March 1997 issue of Runner's World sniffs, "Its downtown core is nothing special--it calls to mind Getrude Stein's there's no there there' take on Oakland."

Steve Thomas, the host of PBS' This Old House, was more blunt. On a show that aired February 8, Thomas stood in the courtyard of the Tucson Museum of Art's Casa Cordova, an 1848 adobe that was saved from urban renewal only after a fight. Tucson just may be the oldest continuously inhabited city in North America, Thomas told his nationwide audience, but it's hard to tell that from the few historic buildings the city has left. La Casa Cordova has been preserved, he added, "And that's a good thing. Because just about everything else that's old in Tucson has been pulled down, paved over and modernized."

Thomas may not be telling the whole truth--yes, urban renewal did spare the five historic buildings now under the care of the TMA, as well as the Sosa-Carrillo-Fremont House (Fuentes' old home), the Samaniego House and, thanks to Torres and her group, the old El Charro building and stables (now part of La Placita), and the old bandstand of the Plaza de la Mesilla. But that's slim pickings considering what was lost. Other historically important buildings, the carefully preserved stone-and-adobe Otero House on Main and the odd two-story Jacobs House, an Italianate adobe on Alameda, bit the dust. So did blocks and blocks of Sonoran-style adobe rowhouses.

"When I give tours of Barrio Historico and El Presidio, I start at Janos and tell the people to look south over the convention center," says R. Brooks Jeffrey, curator of the Arizona Architectural Archives at the UA College of Architecture. "It was all one continuous barrio. We basically blew out a whole segment of our community."

THE NATURE OF that community by the time of urban renewal is still hotly disputed by both sides, and the disagreements about it reveal a deep cultural divide. Some would call it a racial divide.

Ask James N. Corbett, the mayor who presided over the demolition, about the lost history and he replies sharply, "I never quite figured it out, if they were talking about the bars on West Congress...the derelicts and drug users on Meyer Street...the Gay Alleys and Sabino Alleys...the slumloads owning properties down there. I'm sure some areas could have had a second look--there could have been some. But it was not in the best interest."

What people like the Fuentes saw as a warm, tightly knit, convenient community, the city fathers saw as a slum, an embarrassing enclave of poverty right in the city center. But they weren't speaking the same language, neither literally nor figuratively.

The rhetoric of a 1961 city planning document is typical. Illustrated with a photograph of a ramshackle backyard, the brochure criticized the neighborhood's mix of residential and commercial uses, so far from that era's suburban ideal. Nevertheless, that's one of the things Henry Fuentes misses the most. "Our place was close to everything," he says. "We could go to the movies, go to a bar, go to play pool. It was not too far to go to the market."

The document also points out disapprovingly that few houses in the neighborhood had front or side yards. What its authors fail to mention, or perhaps realize, is that they were describing classic Mexican city design of many centuries' standing: townhouses flush against the street, patios in back. After all, as Fimbres, the social worker says, "It was a barrio...It was not the Foothills, not El Encanto."

What it was was an eclectic mixture of working-class homeowners like Doña Wall, proud of their houses and gardens, and poor renters who were at the mercy of slumlords. Many of the tenants lived in substandard adobe apartments, some with backyard outhouses. There was a remnant of Chinatown, particularly a workers' dormitory where a Chinese society continued to care for a number of aged men.

Respectable small businesses were sprinkled throughout the neighborhood--Chinese markets on the corners, restaurants, gas stations, cleaners and, at the north end, barber shops, movie theaters (including the Plaza, the only theatre in town that showed Spanish-language films), the old El Charro restaurant and even the toney Rosequist Galley. The Plaza de la Mesilla and its bandshell still attracted thousands on Mexican holidays. But also at the north end, clustered mostly along Meyer, were the enterprises that Corbett points to: the bars and pool halls that gave the neighborhood a bad name. Sabino Alley still sheltered the vestiges of the old red-light district.

By the 1960s, many of the buildings were crumbling and in disrepair, and some of the renters were living in deplorable conditions.

"It was a poor neighborhood, yes," says Father Carrillo, "but a neighborhood where people knew each other. People helped each other. It was poor, but livable."

Critics point out the neighborhood had been living under the threat of condemnation for 10 years, while urban renewal was debated. Torres says banks had redlined the neighborhood, denying loans in what amounted to a "strangulation." Montaño accuses the city of deliberately forcing the neighborhood to go downhill, the better to justify a future land grab. Her grandmother's apartments had outhouses, she says, but the city refused Doña Wall's requests for permits to upgrade them.

Laidlaw says there's some truth to the allegation.

"During the 1950s, before the new project got started, there was some zeal on the part of building inspectors to rein in improvements, because the conclusion had already been reached that everything was gonna get torn down--why spend public money on buying back improvements? This is what I think--that one or two inspectors were very reluctant to issue permits. There was never a blanket buliding permit moratorium placed."

The city fathers also relentlessly described the barrio as not only dilapidated but dangerous, tarring the whole neighborhood with their skid row brush. Kirk Storch, a city councilman at the time, played on those fears when he told a reporter in 1966 that the urban renewal area was a "cancer" that had to kept from "spreading over the entire downtown." Laidlaw argues that there was "so much crime...the whole environment was becoming dangerous."

Joel Valdez, a University of Arizona administrator who worked for the city for 24 years, grew up in the neighborhood and even worked as a probation officer there for a time in the late '50s. Certainly there was crime, he says, but it was hardly shocking by today's standards.

"It's not what we have today...Unofficially there was a red-light district. The crimes were petty stuff, small-time marijuana, heroin started coming in. The kids I saw were doing car stealing, drinking underage, truancy."

The residents themselves say they were unafraid. Ann Montaño was free to roam her grandmother's neighborhood as a young girl. "These were peaceful, hard-working families," Montaño says indignantly. "We never saw the police down there." Michael Cajero used to walk down to the barrio after school at Tucson High and never felt afraid. Likewise, Torres says she used to walk home from the movies at night.

And proponents of urban renewal also stressed the vacant storefronts, the empty apartments, giving the impression that the whole barrio would soon die anyway of its own accord. But this isn't borne out by the record. A check of the city directory for 1965 lists plenty of vacancies on the commercial streets of Convent and Meyer. But the more residential streets register high rates of occupancy.

Nevertheless, declared by the city to be decaying, dying and dangerous, the "cancerous" barrio was ripe for a major surgical strike. It was time, as a city documentary of the period declared, to root the cancer out.

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT gave Tucson the opportunity to do just that. All over America, city centers had been on a downward swing since the 1930s, and in 1949 the federal government passed the first urban renewal legislation to "revitalize" the inner cities.

In Tucson, in the late 1950s, right around the time Arizona Highways magazine featured a photo of Tucson's charming historic center on its cover, Mayor Don Hummel floated the first urban renewal plan to destroy it. His proposal was of an astonishing grandiosity: He wanted to bulldoze 400 acres, leveling the neighborhood as far south as 22nd Street.

That idea got nowhere, nor did a second, more modest plan re-introduced in 1962.

Urban renewal's most vocal opponents were Republicans who denounced it as a big-government boondoggle, a liberal, Democratic scheme to wrest local control away from cities. At a noisy public meeting in February 1962, opponent Dan C. McKinney declared, "It drives us farther down the road to socialism and the loss of freedom."

Economics soon softened the opposition. The Tucson economy went into a tailspin in the 1960s.

That big-government money, to pay for a massive demolition and rebuilding project, started to look pretty good, especially for a city whose downtown retail district was rapidly losing customers. (The first mall, El Con, had gone up in 1960.) Roy P. Drachman, a developer who'd grown up in the neighborhood on South Main, led the charge in favor of urban renewal as chair of the Committee on Municipal Blight. The Tucson Board of Realtors soon lined up in favor.

In February 1965, the mayor and council approved the project. The following March, the voters OK'd the city's plan to borrow around $15 million to get the project under way. Following the complicated format decreed by federal law, Uncle Sam eventually would kick in $7 million, or two-thirds of the city's outstanding expenditures, while the city would recoup about $4.5 million from sale of the land to private developers. Loans would be floated for construction of the convention center and the new county buildings. The final costs were an estimated $66 million in public and private costs.

A thin veneer of do-gooderism colored the original urban renewal legislation, an odd idea that somehow by destroying the substandard homes of the poor their lives would improve. But the real appeal to cities turned out to be getting a walloping fiscal shot in the arm. As Corbett remembers, the mayor of Detroit told him at a meeting that he'd gotten millions in urban renewal for his city. Corbett thought to himself, why not get some of that largesse for Tucson as well?

"Rather than initiate a new method for aiding the poor," writes Sam Bass Warner Jr., in his classic book The Urban Wilderness, "municipal officials and commercial interests turned the $10-billion (urban renewal) program into an irresponsible social monster."

Corbett is quick to point out there were never any accusations of profiteering in Tucson's urban renewal project.

Yet the money went to demolition experts, to architects and developers and construction workers, to a small army of government bureaucrats and re-locators, and even to slumlords who'd bought up property in the neighborhood. The money did not solve the problems of the poor: It simply moved them out of sight. And in some cases, like Doña Wall's, it impoverished them.

"The residents were not compensated adequately," Laidlaw says. "They had a hell of a time finding adequate housing. The acquisitions were handled by the city real estate department--their attitude was to buy the property for the cheapest possible price."

The city sold the program to the taxpayers as virtually cost-free, so it was in the city's interest to keep payments to the dislocated as low as possible. Most of the homeowners, politically unorganized, fearful of the law and the courts, did not contest what they got. Many of the small-business owners successfully enlarged their payments after suing the city, and some actually benefited by moving their businesses at government expense to more prosperous neighborhoods. Some renters reported themselves pleased with the more modern accommodations in public housing.

But the homeowners who sued found themselves once again humiliated by the city. When Montaño went to court as part of a class-action lawsuit to get more money for her grandmother's lost properties, it was déjà vu all over again. The city lawyers reiterated all the old slurs about slums and streetwalkers and winos.

"It was like stabbing us through the heart." Again. The city did finally cough up another $3,000 for Doña Wall, but by that time she was already dead.

In 1969, a Superior Court judge reproached Tucson for its low assessments, ruling that the city should have taken into account the future development planned for the land. But the lawyers on both sides agreed that the ruling wouldn't do much good now: It would cost the plaintiffs more money to sue again than they would likely get in return. After the scandals of urban renewal, new federal programs like Model Cities required that anybody displaced be paid the replacement costs for their houses. But this more enlightened policy came too late for the residents of the lost barrio.

"The tide changed completely," Laidlaw says. "But by that time it had already flooded the (barrio residents') houses."

CORBETT TODAY IS happy with the downtown he surveys from his chambers as clerk of the Superior Court. He believes he assessed the future accurately: Downtown was dead as a retail center, so it was crucial to convert it to a government center instead. The new federal building going up on West Congress proves his point, he says. Corbett thinks of himself as a realist: The times were transforming the city into a "basic 8-to-5 structure, five days a week." The descendant of Tucson pioneers, he said he of all people had the right to decide on a bold stroke of change for the future.

If Corbett is pleased with today's Tucson, others mourn what it was and what it might have become. Ken Scoville is a Tucson historian who regularly takes visitors on tours of the "trail of tears" of the central city's destruction. He believes urban renewal was a classic land scam like those that still wrack Tucson today: A public program, undertaken at public expense, promoted as being in the public good, was used to benefit the private sector. And like Alva Torres, like Brooks Jeffrey, like Father Carrillo and many others, Scoville laments the loss of what could have been a unique attraction for the city: a gigantic--and authentic--Old Town, filled with restored architectural treasures.

Most of the critics concede the lethal trauma of urban renewal had at least one lasting benefit. It raised consciousness about historic preservation, and led to the formation of the numerous historic districts that today ring the downtown.

As for the Mexican-American community, it raised consciousness of another kind. When the proposed Butterfield Freeway threatened the remaining Barrio Historico a few years after urban renewal, this time around the residents fought back. They organized quickly, and had the Tiradito Wishing Shrine declared a national historic landmark. The highway was stopped.

The city has never officially acknowledged the losses of the displaced residents and their descendants. Montaño and others would like to see a plaque somewhere, anywhere, in the convention center that admits what happened: a description of the barrio that disappeared, a listing of names of the displaced. There's nothing now, unless you count the insulting plaque in La Placita, the disastrous ersatz "Mexican village" that replaced the real one.

Its weird text reads in part "La Placita is dedicated to the memory of those who founded Tucson and whose love of life made them willing a hospitable city on the foundation of the old."

Who said they were willing? TW

Image Map - Alternate Text is at bottom of Page

Tucson Weekly's New User Page
Tucson Weekly Staff Page
Tucson Weekly Archives

 Page Back  Last Week  Current Week  Next Week  Page Forward

Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Cinema | Back Page | Forums | Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth