This article was part of a special February 2012 Zocalo Magazine issue commemorating the 100th anniversary of Arizona’s statehood. The complete section of Tucson snapshots over the last 10 decades is at this link.
No discussion about Downtown Tucson over the last 100 years would be complete without paying homage to Los Tucsonenses and the late 1960s decimation of la calle – 80 acres of Downtown that was once a culturally diverse residential and business district.
Tucsonenses, as described by Lydia R. Otero in their book “La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City,” is a self-indentifying term for a population of (mostly) Mexican-Americans which “dates back to the nineteenth century that expresses a distinct cultural and historic connection to the city and the region around it.”
As Tucson’s population grew post-Gadsden Purchase (1853), the immigrating Anglos overtook the city’s business core along Congress Street and settled Downtown’s north and east ends. “In 1860,” Otero wrote, “Anglos constituted less than 20 percent of the population but controlled 87 percent of the wealth.”
Over the subsequent decades, Anglo dominance prompted Tucsonenses, along with Asian and African-American residents, to shift their businesses and homes (generally) south of Congress Street and west of Stone Avenue. These populations built and encompassed a thriving, ethnically diverse community.
Otero cites the “WPA Guide to 1930s Arizona” description of la calle: “Residents of Mexican extraction comprise around 45 percent of the Old Pueblo population. Most of them live in Old Town, called El Barrio Libre… Old Town is centered around South Meyer [Avenue] near the city’s main business area, is also peopled by Chinese and Negroes… This is the exclusive Mexican shopping district… In most of the bars around Meyer [Avenue], Negro chefs are busy concocting hot chili sauce to pour over barbequed short ribs.”
However, Tucson’s municipal power structure seemed to view the area as a hindrance to modernity and growth. In “Rehabilitation of Blighted Areas: Conservation of Sound Neighborhoods,” the 1942 study published by the Tucson Regional Plan strongly asserted the area’s real estate “ruination.” Some telling descriptions in the publication of the city’s motivations include defining blight as “the visible evidence of inability to attract profitable investment, the intermingling of incompatible uses… overcrowding of dwellings designed for fewer persons, occupancy in violation of local zoning.”
It is a wry irony that the current and ongoing goals of Tucson’s downtown revitalization call for mixed retail and residential use, in order to create critical mass and reduce vehicle dependency, yet when this was happening south of Congress Street for many decades, it was considered a worrisome zoning issue.
But the most telling description to shed light on the ambitions behind the recommended “rehabilitations” was the statement that an “intermixture of racial or ethnic groups” was considered another attribute of blighted neighborhoods. The 55-page study specifically targets the barrios as areas that “required major redevelopment.”
In 1961, the city’s Urban Renewal Director/Assistant City Manager S. Lenwood Schorr issued the “Urban Renewal: For Slum Clearance and Redevelopment of the Old Pueblo District” study.
While not as overtly racist as the 1942 publication, the undertones were still there – stating the district was afflicted by “crime, fire and juvenile delinquency rates,” without providing specific evidence, such as hard numbers of police and fire responders to the area over any given time period.
The cumulative effects resulted in Tucson voters approving the Pueblo Center Redevelopment Project on March 1, 1966. Despite the efforts of the La Placita Committee, the city razed 80 acres of irreplaceable culture, shops, homes, restaurants, entertainment venues (notably La Plaza Theatre) – wiping out over 100 years of historically significant buildings and scattering its residents asunder. In its place stand government buildings, the Tucson Convention Center complex and the La Placita Village complex.
All that remains of the neighborhood’s cultural heritage north of Cushing Street is the gazebo in La Placita Village, a kiosko originally called Plaza de la Mesilla. The locale dates back to the early nineteenth century and was the site of innumerable neighborhood fiestas.
Details on “La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City,” are available at UAPress.arizona.edu and on Amazon.com. Also check out these great titles by Thomas E. Sheridan: “Los Tucsonenses: The Mexican Community in Tucson, 1854-1941,” and “Arizona: A History, Revised Edition.”