Southwestern Scourge

A History Of Urban Growth In The Southwest Turns Up Some Surprising Villains.
By Tom Sheridan

Fighting Sprawl And City Hall: Resistance to Urban Growth in the Southwest (University of Arizona Press), by Michael F. Logan. Paper, $18.95.

FIGHTING SPRAWL AND City Hall is an honorable if bloodless analysis of the guerrilla wars against the southern Californication of the Southwest. Comparing Tucson with Albuquerque, New Mexico, historian Michael Hogan traces the resistance to urban growth that arose as early as the 1940s in both cities. Modern environmentalists were not the first opponents of the urban onslaught. Decades before the flowering of the environmental movement, political conservatives fought expanding city governments, and Hispanic residents battled to save their neighborhoods from the relentless boosterism and aggressive annexations that propelled Tucson and Albuquerque from the Southwest to the Sunbelt after World War II. Environmentalist attempts to limit sprawl in the 1970s and 1980s were simply the latest stage in the struggle.

By and large, it was a losing and demoralizing fight. Hogan does a good job exposing the "gaps and fissures within Tucson's booster structure." Pro-growth forces were not monolithic. The Chamber of Commerce promoted a sleek, sophisticated image of metropolitan Tucson as a good place to live. The Industrial Development Department lured businesses with tax incentives and low wages. The Sunshine Climate Club commodified Tucson's ethnic diversity and natural beauty by emphasizing "the interesting Mexican quarter, the several Indian villages, the beautiful San Xavier Mission, the giant cactus forests, the rugged mountains, western ranch life, the proximity of Mexico with its big-game hunting and excellent deep-sea fishing, and last but not least, the glorious sun that makes it possible to play golf in shirt sleeves on Christmas Day." Despite these differences, however, boosters steamrolled their early opponents, marginalizing them as "eccentrics" or minorities living in "blighted" slums.

The saddest fight of all was the resistance to "urban renewal" in the 1960s. Hogan describes South Tucson's successful struggle to win and maintain its independence but dismisses it as a Pyrrhic victory. "Political independence also translated into an impotent town government, surrounded by poverty, but without the material means to address the needs of its residents." He then goes on to document the assault on the Mexican barrio just south of the Central Business District, portrayed by Tucson Mayor Don Hummel in 1957 as a source of "dirt, disease and delinquency," from which blight spread into "good areas of the community."

During the early 1960s, urban renewal stalled because of opposition from political conservatives, historic preservationists led by the Arizona Pioneer Historical Society (now the Arizona Historical Society), and some, but not all, Mexican, African American, and American Indian residents of the barrio itself.

But then the Great Society poured money into cities, including Tucson, and the bulldozers arrived. Opponents managed to whittle the project from 360 to 52 acres, but family homes were demolished and the historic Plaza de la Mesilla disappeared beneath La Placita, the epitome of ersatz ethnic chic.

Hogan ably dissects the issues driving the various manifestations of resistance. What he fails to do is to put a human face on these processes; Margaret Regan's "Bulldozing the Barrio" (Tucson Weekly, March 6, 1997) far more vividly captures the tragedy--and absurdity--of destroying a neighborhood to make way for a failed city center.

Hogan also does not take his analysis far enough. It's easy for many of us to demonize heartless city planners or rapacious real estate developers. In the final analysis, however, these "villains" are simply responding to our demands for low-density housing, auto-dominated transportation networks, and cheap energy and water. They may manipulate and grow rich off the rezonings, but the ultimate responsibility is ours. As long as we want it, they will build it, and we will come.

Meanwhile, Tucson, Albuquerque, and Phoenix keep chewing their way up to and around the mountains, consuming every parcel of land not locked up in a national forest, monument, Indian reservation, or state park. The Sonoran Desert Open Space and Historic Preservation Bond, which will be presented to Pima County voters on May 20, is one small step toward reversing this trend. Part of a $362-million bond package, the open space initiative will set aside $36.3 million to acquire, preserve, and restore stretches of the Sonoran Desert as well as archaeological and historical sites of immense cultural importance.

But we need to think further ahead and protect open spaces beyond the margins of our cities, and that will involve rethinking some tired old stereotypes. For the last several years, I've focused on issues of ranching and rural development in southern Arizona--issues of more than academic interest because I live in a subdivision carved out of a ranch 35 miles southwest of Tucson. I've watched environmentalists and ranchers snipe at one another about grazing on public lands. I've also watched reasonable individuals from both camps make the first tentative efforts to talk to each another and find out what they have in common. They better hurry up, because they share more common ground than they're aware of; and that common ground is being bulldozed out from under them at a disastrous rate. The greatest threat to the Southwestern environment is not too many cows, but too many people. And the greatest threat to ranchers is not too many environmentalists, but loss of habitat. In one of the ironies of history, ranchers may go the way of the grizzly and the Mexican lobo--victims of "progress" as developers swallow up their little pockets of private land and chop them into ranchettes.

After living on one of those "ranch estates" for the last 15 years, I know we rancheteers are not better stewards of the land than the cattlegrowers. If you don't believe me, come take a look at the wildcat dumps, off-road vehicle damage, loose dogs, proliferating horse corrals, meth labs, bladed yards, Italian cypresses, chain link fences, and all the other ways in which we inflict ourselves upon the land. TW

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