Landlord Have Mercy

A Downtown African Methodist Episcopal Church Prepares To Evict Two Longtime Tenants And Demolish Their Homes.

By Margaret Regan

A LOT HAS happened in Adelina Ruiz Baray's house since she first moved in with her husband, Miguel, in 1955.

The big three-bedroom Victorian, a Queen Anne Revival brick from the turn of the century, nowadays is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, rundown as it is. But its high status as a Tucson architectural gem didn't mean as much to the young couple as the fact that the place had plenty of space for kids. There was a big yard, and the attached apartment was just right for Adelina's mother. They moved in. Over the years, one by one, Mrs. Baray brought home eight new babies to the house.

Age 70 now, Mrs. Baray ticks off the accomplishments of the seven who grew up. Alex is a schoolteacher, Arthur works for the city, Mary Alice works in a senior center, Lidia works at a hospital. She's not finished raising children yet, though. The Barays have cared for their 7-year-old great-granddaughter from the age of two months, and later took in her little brother, who's now age 5.

Currents The house has sad memories too, as houses do. It was 32 years ago, right outside that window--Mrs. Baray points--that her 14-month-old baby Magdalena, in the care of another woman, was struck and killed by a car. And it was in the adjoining apartment that Mrs. Baray nursed her elderly mother, Mercedes Ruiz, until her final illness seven years ago.

Today, the house, at 23 W. 17th St., is still the physical heart of the extended Baray family. On Sunday afternoon, there are four great-grandchildren underfoot, and a pair of grown granddaughters dash in and out. Mrs. Baray's sister Lupe drops in, bringing along a daughter-in-law. Mr. Baray comes in from an errand, and grown son Eddie retreats to a bedroom for privacy.

This whole rich intermingled history of the Barays and the Queen Anne will end abruptly in just nine days. The Barays have been renters for 43 years--a nest egg Mrs. Baray was hoarding for a house payment went to pay for the funeral of baby Magdalena years ago. The real owner of the house is Prince Chapel, the African Methodist Episcopal Church just a stone's throw to the east, at the corner of 17th and Stone. The church also owns a duplicate next door at number 25, where members of Maria Cantú's family have lived for about 25 years. The church's minister, the Rev. Lee Norris May, is evicting both families at the end of the month.

"It's very sad to leave a house after so many years," Mrs. Baray says. "My mother lived here. I lived very happily here, even being poor, I was happy here. Those other ministers fixed up the place. I would like it if he would give me a little more time. I cannot find a place. They charge too much."

The Barays and the two great-grandkids survive month to month on Social Security and a small pension Mr. Baray collects from his years in construction. It covers the $350 rent, car payments, utilities and not much more. Mrs. Baray says it's going to be next to impossible to put together the hundreds of dollars for a deposit and first month's rent on a new place.

Next door, at number 25, it's much the same story. The Cantús have three children. Maria Cantú says the Rev. May raised the rent as soon as he replaced the old minister. He moved it from $225 up to the $300, still below market, but the Cantús, like the Barays, have mostly done all the upkeep on the old house.

"Since May, he told us we have to move," Cantú says. "It's hard to find a place. Apartments don't want kids and we have three."

Contacted at the Prince Chapel, the minister, the Rev. May, declines to say what the church plans to do with the empty properties. Neighbors have heard rumors that the church wants to demolish the houses to make way for a parking lot. Neighbor John Crow says the minister told him the church is looking for larger quarters. If the church leaves the neighborhood where it's been since 1904, people worry that the whole church complex could give way to a commercial development. So far, though, the city department of development services has issued no permits for demolition.

Told that the families have yet to find new homes, Rev. May was asked if the church could help them.

"We've done a lot to help them," Rev. May said by telephone. "They hardly paid any rent for them (the houses). The houses belong to the church and we need them at this point."

Local preservation experts say the houses' historic status doesn't protect them from the wrecking ball. The National Register can be invoked only if a demolition project is using federal money, says Marty McCune, historic program administrator for the city. The local historic district governing Barrio Historico has more teeth--but its boundary begins just a few houses to the west at Rubio Alley, bypassing the houses. Outside a historic district, there's nothing the city can legally do to prevent the houses from being leveled, McCune says.

Steven Paul, vice president of the Barrio Historico Neighborhood Association, says the church's actions are all wrong for a couple of reasons.

"They're displacing long-term residents and we need more residential downtown, not less," he says. "If you want to be a neighborhood you've got to have people there. The worst case for this site would be a parking lot. The best case would be for it to remain residential. A horrible case would be to replace the house with some sort of commercial building."

Paul says the houses, as part of an intact turn-of-the century block, add up to more than the sum of their parts. The church's two Queen Annes adjoin a third that's in private hands.

"The fact that those three contiguous houses are on the West side of Stone, they're a bridge between the older Sonoran style flush-front adobe neighborhood of Barrio Historico and the post-railroad Victorian neighborhood of Armory Park."

A longtime neighbor on 17th Street is worried about more empty space in a barrio already pockmarked by weedy lots that once held historic houses.

"We're trying to keep the neighborhood nice and family oriented," says Guadalupe Montaño. Residents have been making headway in clearing out gangs, drug dealers and groups of men who drink in the alleys, Montaño says, and "this is opening up the door to an empty lot. Houses give a better feeling to a neighborhood."

Just north of Prince Chapel sits the Stone Avenue Temple, the city's first Jewish house of worship. For the last four years, the Stone Avenue Temple Project has been working energetically to raise the money to restore it, says president Toby Sydney. They had a congenial relationship with Rev. May's two predecessors at Prince Chapel, collaborating on events and considering future historical projects together. All that changed with the arrival of Rev. May, Sydney says.

"He has not been willing to reach out," she says. "We're saddened that people who have been longtime residents of the neighborhood will lose their homes. We don't see why that's necessary. We're a historic preservation project (at the Temple). We're dismayed that two more buildings are coming down and we're worried about how that affects the integrity of the neighborhood--there is so little left in Tucson."

McCune, the city staffer, says she's willing to meet with the Rev. May to see if the city can help.

"Let's see if we can avoid demolition. Is there a way for us to help you accomplish what you're trying to accomplish?"

Mrs. Baray hopes so. Her high blood pressure's been acting up since she got the bad news, and she's been feeling depressed. Her husband's praying for a solution. Up on the kitchen wall, above the oilcloth-covered table where so many family meals have taken place, is a shrine. A print of "The Last Supper" echoes the table below, and an array of saint's candles are positioned on a shelf.

On Sunday, the flames are flickering behind the painted Sacred Heart of Jesus.

"My husband is very religious," says Mrs. Baray. "He lights the candles every day. He was thinking God will help us and we won't have to move. But I stopped believing when he told us we have to get out." TW

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