Documenting Downtown Tucson's Urban Renewal

Lydia R. Otero intended to write about the origins of downtown Tucson and how it evolved for her dissertation, but her focus shifted after poring over papers at the Arizona Historical Society.

During her research as a University of Arizona graduate student, Otero came upon the Alva Torres collection – more than three boxes full of documents and handwritten letters to and from elected and housing officials.

It was then one particularly recurrent theme became clear for Otero: It seemed Tucson decision-makers had historically made blatant efforts to phase out established communities south of downtown to advance local tourism.

"It was a goldmine to find these documents," said Otero, now an associate professor in the UA department of Mexican American studies. "Once I looked at those papers, I realized there was so much more I could do."

Scheduled to be released this month, Otero's "La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City" pulls about 30 percent from Otero's 2003 dissertation and is coupled with new research completed since her faculty appointment at the UA.

"It’s a comprehensive and extensively researched book that is so important to our community and our understanding of urban renewal and growth," said Holly Schaffer, publicity manager for UA Press.

"We’re very proud to be the publisher of Dr. Otero’s work,” Schaffer added.

Based on her investigations, Otero determined that the era was not merely about urban renewal, but an attempt by some to connect economic development with tourism at the expense of certain communities.

"It's the interconnectedness of tourism and development lobbying that grabbed my attention," said Otero who, growing up, lived along 22nd Street near what is now Interstate 10.

The key period "La Calle" covers is post World War II-era Tucson.

For Otero, the interviews she conducted and also the historic maps, photographs, posters and other materials she analyzed appeared to explain that the Old West identity was closely related to Tucson and how the region was constructed.

During the 1960s, much of industry was absent, save the big drivers – the UA, the U.S. Air Force base and Hughes Aircraft Company, Otero said.

The focus, then, was placed on building an industry based on tourism – downtown tourism to be specific, Otero said, adding that Tucson's namesake became closely related in the public's view with the old west, cowboys and dude ranches.

Part of the evidence in the "version of the past" she found was squarely located in downtown Tucson's urban renewal, one that, in turn, adversely affected the Tucson's barrio, a Mexican American community.

"Appearances mattered," Otero said.

"Downtown is very significant because it symbolizes and speaks to who the city is," she said, adding that the decision to place the Tucson Convention Center on the barrio's border was an important move.

"The decision was made that people shouldn't live downtown. There was a disdain for people living downtown; this belief that there must only be businesses located in the central business district, not residents."

But much of the downtown residents were people of color. Overwhelmingly, Mexican-Americans lived in the downtown area, which also had a growing African-American population and a well-established Chinese American community.

"Defining a civic identity attractive to outsiders is endemic of planning and zoning history," she said.

"The planners were looking to define Tucson into the future, so the present tense seemed to have gotten lost in those agendas," she added. "Tourism is huge to the Tucson economy, and the local power brokers were conscious of how to sell the city. I've tried to tell the story in a more comprehensive way."
By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications, November 10, 2010