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  • Loss of neighborhood paved way for local government’s transformation

    The Way We Were logo
    By Tom Prezelski

    Half a century ago, the City of Tucson, in the name of progress, razed the oldest and most vibrant neighborhood in Arizona, a move that continues to inspire lingering bitterness in the community. Though the project was driven by the city, Pima County had a role in what occurred, and the aftermath transformed County government.

    Prior to the 1960s, the heart of Tucson, roughly an area bounded by Alameda Street on the north, Stone Avenue on the east, 14th Street on the south, and Granada Avenue on the west, was a dense neighborhood of adobes and narrow streets with roots going back to the 18th century. It was a multi-ethnic, but primarily Mexican-American community where Spanish was heard at least as often as English. Though distinctly a product of frontier culture, it also had a character evocative of the cityscapes of Europe, with homes, businesses and churches often sharing the same block.

    As early as the 1930s, business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Sunshine Climate Club called for the redevelopment of the area. The old barrio, and by extension, the people who lived there, they argued, represented a past that needed to be set aside if Tucson was to advance as a community. At worst, they argued that the neighborhood was a nexus for crime, poverty and all manner of social ills and that razing it was necessary for the improvement of the city. Asking the folks who lived there what they needed never seemed to enter into the discussion.
    County dome
    Nationwide, the postwar growth of the suburbs shifted political and economic power away from older urban areas and the inner cities were increasingly characterized as a burden to taxpayers, creating a political environment more favorable to the chamber’s position. In 1958, Congress authorized grant money for “urban renewal,” ostensibly to help cities invest in older neighborhoods. Tucson attempted to take advantage of this money to redevelop the barrio, but their plans proved to be unwieldy and controversial. It was not until the mid-1960s that the city began to pursue its plans to redevelop downtown in earnest. In an ironic use of Spanish, the project was referred to as the “Pueblo Center.”

    The County had its own issues at the time. The iconic 1928 courthouse, which continued to house many county functions, including a jail, courts, and the Board of Supervisors, was, in the words of the Arizona Daily Star, “bursting at the seams.” The expansion of county government that followed the region’s rapid post-war growth made it necessary to rent space in the surrounding neighborhood at a cost of over $78,000 a year.

    Seeing an opportunity to address this problem, the County agreed to join the City’s project in 1965. The County’s plan was to construct a $10 million “Government Center” consisting of three towers: a courthouse, a health and welfare center, and an administration building. Officials projected that this would meet the county’s needs through 1985, and that the buildings would accommodate expansion if needed. Also part of the proposal was a joint city-county parking garage.

    The Board of Supervisors included the new buildings in a $11.8 million bond package scheduled for an election in January of 1966. There was little debate beyond a discussion of the specifics of the financial arrangement with the city. Under the State Constitution, only taxpaying owners of real property were eligible to vote, and a “siege of damp and blustery weather” kept turnout to less than 10 percent, so it was a small group of voters who approved the bond package.

    The county’s first move after the victory came within a few months, when the county condemned Ruben Gold’s Furniture Store, a local landmark that took up most of a city block, for what would become the Health and Welfare building. Later that year, the two-story headquarters of the Alianza Hispano-Americana, a powerful social-welfare organization, was demolished to make way for the new administration building. Ironically, the Alianza was co-founded in the 19th century by Mariano Samaniego, once one of the most powerful politicians in Pima County.

    The Government Center was complete in 1968, and most county functions started moving in over the next two years, though the old courthouse would continue to house the Justice Courts, Assessor, Recorder and Treasurer until 2015. Tucson City Councilman Kirk Storch commented that this was the first time that he could remember the City and the County working together and predicted “greater harmony ahead.” Said harmony broke down within a year, as the city and county clashed over plans for a planetarium at El Presidio Plaza.

    Needless to say, the community that was displaced by the project did not join local leaders in celebrating the outcome. The high-handed treatment of the neighborhood sparked a new activism, particularly among Mexican-Americans. Community work by these emerging leaders like Alva Torres directly led to the 1974 creation of the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission, which advises local officials on preservation issues. As more neighborhood-minded leadership emerged, government began to make investment in the inner city more of a priority. The County’s neighborhood reinvestment program, which started in 1997, is difficult to imagine without the community-centered activism that began in the darkest days of the Pueblo Center Development.

    More than anything, the project, and the way it was pursued, permanently changed the discussion about development in Tucson and Pima County. Tucson’s neighborhoods found their voice and would no longer be easily dismissed.

    Pima County FYI is featuring a monthly column on some of the history behind the people and places of Pima County, written by Tom Prezelski. Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West was a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards.
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