Barrio destruction: Will the City of Tucson continue to be part of the problem or own responsibility?
Most people that I know will speak of the destruction of the Mexican-American barrio, one of the original neighborhoods of Tucson, just south of the Presidio, where the people that literally built early Tucson lived, as a travesty and something that should never have happened, and never as a great idea.
It was all destroyed to build the Tucson Convention Center, and financial disaster which has cost the city of Tucson over $100,000,000. In addition the Fire and Police Headquarters for Tucson where built on the old sacred land, and I would estimate around half was destroyed for parking space.
This was due to Si Schorr, who would later go on to found the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, a conglomeration of some of Tucson’s richest businessmen and developers.
To this day, Si Schorr thinks it was all worth it, even though the city has not profited from this destruction financially, and in fact has lost an important link to its past.
Consider his editorial in February of last year in the Arizona Daily Star:
This scaled-down project, initiated in 1964, targeted the heart of the blighted and deteriorated slum area, which involved 118 individual householders, 142 families and 105 businesses. It was a prudent civil decision and the result of, and in response to, the well-documented deteriorating conditions in the area – clearly not their cause.
Si Schorr’s words are important because he was working with the City of Tucson during “Urban Renewal,” and his legacy still lives on in the present day with this type of thinking. Schorr’s response to historic buildings was not to renovate them or preserve them, as we did with the Fox Theater, or even the Fort Lowell or Casa Grande ruins.
Actually, there were still people living here! Should we help the people who helped build Tucson fix their homes?
No! “In response to” these conditions, a “blighted and deteriorated slum” that Mexican-Americans called home, the entire area was bulldozed, except for one house which is now a museum where people can sip wine before listening to the symphony next door.
But consider the following.
The barrio was only destroyed up to what is now Cushing St, just south of the TCC.
The barrio extends further south and includes some of the original architecture with row houses of adobe being built along the property line, which simply means that the houses opened up to the sidewalk and had no front yards. Some of these remaining buildings were built in the 19th century.
Let’s consider the following logic. If these homes were considered “blights” and “slums” back in the 1960s by Si Schorr, then surely these similar adobe buildings, nearly half a century later, are worthy of the same fate their northern neighbors north of Cushing met with, right?
Sure enough, as much as we say NEVER AGAIN or NEVER FORGET and how we not let the destruction of the past reoccur, sigh, sure (Si Schorr) enough, it is happening in 2011 and some of these buildings have about 5 years left before being no longer fixable.
What the heck is going on in 2011 to the remaining barrio?
Readers of the Three Sonorans know that this issue has been a major focus for this column, especially since the release of La Calle by UA professor Lydia Otero which is about the “Urban Renewal” project that led to the destruction of the original barrio (and all the history and culture that existed there), and thus my concern with this is completely issue-oriented, despite the current players involved.
My ultimate goal is preservation and restoration of the now officially Historic buildings that are left in the barrio that still remains.
The more research that I do on this subject, however, the more I realize that what remains will soon be destroyed, not as overtly as in the 1960s, but as result of policies and actions being taken today but that will still lead to a similar result.
Below is a concept map that shows some of the connections with today and the past, and some latest developments as I understand them.
The way Si Schorr was involved in the “Urban Renewal” project was by being an employee of the City of Tucson at the time. So one can use the City of Tucson or be more specific to the person Si Schorr when talking about this destructive project.
First of all, it is clear that there are different value systems at play here, and culture-clash has a lot to do with this.
When Si Schorr says he saw a blight, which includes mud huts being lived in by poor brown people, he did not understand that there is more to life than cookie-cutter homes, strip malls, and being rich. He also did not realize that adobe homes are as “green” and environmental one can get for living out in the desert. The thick walls, sometimes 2-3 feet wide, are much cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter than brick.
It is interesting how some richer folk today are basically mimicking the techniques of these primitive slum-living people with their thick straw-bale houses. (Just to be clear, I am being sarcastic when I say primitive slum-living people, because as time goes on, we learn that the Mexican way of life was far more advanced than people could understand, including being one of the first genetic engineers and doing something that modern science could never do today; turn teosinte into corn.)
Sometimes simple is better, and the poor brown people also had less of an AC bill to deal with, so overall this is the type of house-building material that was perfect for them in the hot desert sun.
More importantly, this was the original home for those that built the American city of Tucson. This was called home for as many as seven or more generations for some families still in Tucson, and anyone living here for that long would undoubtedly have some connection to the downtown barrio.
What better way to displace a people than to cut their roots to what they call home?
Now fast-forward to 2011
Of the buildings that remain in Barrio Viejo, they are in dire need of help now, and once again, it is the city of Tucson that is helping with their ultimate destruction, although now they are more clever and doing this in a less overt way.
There are also many parallels with what the recent Vice-President of SALC and now TUSD superintendent, John Pedicone, is doing with Mexican-American Studies and what the legacy of Si Schorr and the city of Tucson are doing with the Mexican-American barrio. Non-overt destruction that takes longer but eventually leads to collapse.
Both things that were created by Mexican-Americans in Tucson, and both are viewed as blights to be replaced with something more profitable. For example, replace a semester of social studies with Economics, which is what TUSD is now doing, and that’s after you attack the strong foundation upon which either is built upon.
For Mexican American Studies, the courses are built on a core foundation that gives graduation credit to students, meaning that the “American History / Mexican American perspectives” is a valid course of study that satisfies the state standards as the traditional “American History” classes, that need not put the “Anglo-” hyphen in front because we know what “American” means, and the way you attack this foundation is to strip the courses of their graduation credit.
For the Mexican American barrio that remains, the way you destroy the foundation is by not fixing the city’s leaking water pipes. In some houses one can see a water spot forming on their floor, and how smart is it to soak adobe, which is basically dirt and water that is sun-baked, in water for long periods of time?
Even the Grand Canyon shows how much power water has given enough time.
Now, for documentation of what seems to be the major problem today. Adobe needs a lot of upkeep as the rain and sun beat down on it, and this is manageable, but what is not is when you have water that is constantly soaking up into your floor.
Donald Rollings prods an old wall, and watches a fist-sized chunk of plaster tumble to the floor. When he steps back, he does so gingerly; the floor itself is a buckling mess, a result of what Rollings believes is moisture leaking from ancient water mains.
That moisture, he says, is laying waste to this 1850s adobe home—and countless others in downtown’s historic Barrio Viejo.
It seems all he can do these days is stand by and watch as the lovely old buildings his family has spent years restoring slowly crumble to earth. In the meantime, he contends that the city knows full well that its old cast-iron water pipes—some more than a century old, lurking mere inches beneath nearby pavement—are leaking under his buildings. Those leaks are causing enormous water waste and, like a cancer, slowly destroying a precious piece of Tucson’s heritage.
Rollings first noted this deterioration in the late 1990s. By 1999, the first clues to its cause became apparent when the city dug up a decayed old line, attempted a stopgap repair and eventually decided on a full replacement.
As a homeowner, I am responsible for the water pipe that heads from the street to my house, but all the water pipes that belong to the city I am not responsible for.
Luckily if they leak, my house is not too much in danger because of the front yard I have.
This is not the case with the Barrio Viejo homes which are built long the sidewalk.
“I thought, ‘What about the rest of the neighborhood?'” he says. “But the replacement stopped there.”
Instead, the city has attempted to repair, not replace, most other decrepit lines—a decision with its own costs.
“If this damage isn’t caused by the water mains,” Rollings says, “then why is the damage only occurring in the parts of these buildings that are next to those water mains?”
Initially, he says, city officials urged him to file a damages claim. “But when we did so, they denied it 100 percent.”
After taking the city to court:
After the trial, he asked for an estimate of the city’s legal costs. He recalls receiving a letter in reply, pegging that sum at roughly $700,000. (Confirmation of this number by the city was unavailable at press time.) He wonders why that money wasn’t better spent just doing the necessary repair work.
In the interim, he’s already spent nearly $200,000 to repair the ongoing water damage. Because of their condition, many of the affected buildings now have no tenants, depriving him of rental income.
Do you see the cycle that is occurring here once again?
The City of Tucson would rather spend $700,000 on lawyers than on plumbers fixing the darn leaking water pipes.
No matter what the building owner does, since the problem is the leaky water pipes, the damage will continue day after day.
Then you have no tenants… the destruction continues until… it becomes a “blight and a slum” where people don’t even want to live… sound familiar?
But wait a second, how do we know the water pipes are still leaking?
Throughout this ordeal, says Rollings, Tucson officials have assured him that the mains in Barrio Viejo are sound. But he provided the Tucson Weekly with contrasting information from the engineering firm KE&G, contracted by the city to pressure-test Barrio Viejo’s lines in 2005.
The company’s report reveals many of those lines to be in terrible condition. For instance, when tests were run on the Kennedy Street main—the site of some of the most badly damaged buildings—line pressure dropped by nearly half in 13 seconds. Such pressure losses, often indicating significant leaks, were found time and again throughout the barrio.
This also sadly parallels what the Mexican-American barrio and the Mexican-American Studies are dealing with, when the “other side” hires a company to do a report, and that report validates what you have been saying all along!
The fact that the city continues denying the obvious doesn’t sit well with Ralph Pattison, a geotechnical engineer hired by the Rollings family to conduct soil samples around their damaged properties.
Pattison is convinced that the water-saturated soil he found is due to faulty city mains. “I started out fairly skeptical, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized that every single place where they had an adobe building fronting a leaking main—based on the ones the city was repairing—they had problems. And every place where they weren’t facing a main, they weren’t having problems.
He cites “two extremely compelling bits of evidence. No. 1, we knew the pipes were leaking. Otherwise, the city wouldn’t have fixed them. There’s just no question of that—there were leaks all over the place. And two, every place where there’s a leak in a main, it can travel into laterals going under a house.”
Laterals are loosely filled trenches beneath a home that typically contain utility connections. “There are many methods water can use to travel around,” Pattison says. “But if there’s a leak in the line, the first thing it does is go up and down that trench—especially with a prolonged leak that goes on for decades.”
This all leaves him with one conclusion: Porous water mains are the culprits. “I’m convinced of that,” he says.
Another Barrio property owner is Lisa Mele who is also dealing with this issue, so it is not just a Rollings conspiracy.
“I just think it’s really disgusting that the city is holding so hard and fast that there’s nothing wrong here,” she says.
That disgust mingled with discouragement, she says, when Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik made a fact-finding trip to the barrio early last month. He was accompanied by geotechnical engineers “who said that the rainwater never goes more than 6 inches into the ground, and that the moisture is at the same level as the (water mains). We all agree there is water damage to these buildings, and right there is the source,” Mele recalls.
But Councilman Kozachik, whose ward includes Barrio Viejo, says he came away with a far different impression. “Nobody has demonstrated that there are leaky water mains. That’s where I’m coming from. That argument failed in court. There is some water-related issue, but there literally used to be subterranean lakes over by the Santa Cruz that may be an issue. It may be sewer; it may be Tucson Water.
Now this is were the plot thickens. Notice here that it is the city of Tucson denying all responsibility once again even though all evidence suggests that it is their pipes causing the problem. Kozachik’s argument is not based on all this leaking water, but on the court case which the city one after paying $700,000 for some high-priced lawyers…
… who are those lawyers?
He says the city will be represented by the law firm of Mesch, Clark and Rothschild, the same legal team that handled the earlier litigation. One of the firm’s partners, Jonathan Rothschild, is running for mayor of Tucson.
According to Silvia Amparano of the city Finance Department, fees for each private attorney will cost taxpayers about $150 per hour. That’s in addition to expenditures for various experts and consultants.
“It will cost money,” Rankin says, “but just how much depends upon the length of the trial and how many motions are filed. So I can’t really give you a reliable figure.”
But Mele figures the city could have fixed Barrio Viejo’s mains a couple of times over for the money already spent in court. “That’s what really gets me,” she says.
In these times when money is scarce, according to Mele, the city could have already fixed the water mains with the amount they have spent on making Jonathan Rothschild’s law firm richer. Rollings has won the right to appeal this case and:
This spring, Rollings reactivated his lawsuit against the city, which once again will be represented by Mesch, Clark and Rothchild.
Tim Vanderpool, the author of these articles, and Joanne Garver who is part of the latest article, come to a conclusion that I would have come to also.
Which leads us back to Joanne Garver. She’s a Democrat who initially supported Jonathan Rothschild in a contest where he is currently the only mainstream contender. She wonders whether the property next door is being allowed to deteriorate because of the candidate’s political connections.
“I really hope it’s not all about politics,” she says. “That building was decaying when I moved here several years ago, and it’s still decaying now.”
Other neighbors believe the property’s owners plan to let it slip into such disrepair that it can ultimately be razed.
Lisa Mele adds:
“I don’t think Mesch, Clark and Rothschild appreciate the historic value of these properties,” Mele says. “They’re just down here to make a buck.
First I want to note that all the research into the current state of Barrio Viejo that I quote above has been done by Tim Vanderpool from the Tucson Weekly. My own research, as a mathematician, is to look at historical patterns and to find cycles that repeat, which is never exact since things change, but close enough.
I firmly believe that what is happening today is the new “Urban Renewal” of the 2010’s.
Before people like Si Schorr could have a racist/less-than-worthy view of people living in mud huts downtown, which is what “progress” is all about. Making it better, but better is in the eyes of the beholder, or rather stockholder. Who today ever hangs out at the TCC or La Placita, or on the parking lots where homes for generations of families used to stand? Progress for who?
Back then you could just call a place Mexican-American people lived a slum and a blight, and bring in the bulldozers.
Nowadays you have to accomplish the same goal indirectly.
How can you destroy a Historic Site to build new housing developments, which is what developers in SALC would like?
You can let a leaky water pipe continue to leak up into the building…
… and let the water slowly destroy the foundation…
… until the building foundation is no longer sound, and dangerous, and therefore it must be…
The City of Tucson is firmly in the wrong here
I don’t care what high-priced lawyers were able to argue in court, plain and simply:
The city needs to replace its leaky water mains!
Putting the barrio aside, just for the sake of water conservation; here all of us are told to turn off the water when brushing our teeth but the city can knowingly waste orders of magnitude more by not fixing a simple water pipe? Talk about hypocrisy! This is the desert, and water is precious, so you are just going to pay lawyers instead of spending money to replace the pipes?
What good argument does the city have for letting known leaking water pipes continue to leak for DECADES wasting water in the desert?
This makes no sense whatsoever… unless…
You look at the historical patterns. The barrio that remains is the same looking barrio that Si Schorr called a blight before. Steve Kozachik also just worked to get the city to honor Si Schorr within the last two months, and the council voted unanimously to do so, including people like Regina Romero who should know better (unless she really believes that Si Schorr deserves to be honored?).
This sets up the repeating pattern that the City of Tucson does not think that the person responsible for the tragic destruction of the barrio is in the wrong, and in fact needs to be honored by them, a move made by the Ward 6 councilmember that represents the barrio today.
Rather than conserve water and fix a leaking pipe, which is not that difficult to do, they continue to let it leak and destroy the remaining buildings.
Destruction by neglect. The bulldozers will come later. For now let the water do its damage.
What is most disturbing is that the next mayor of Tucson will probably not do anything about this, because why else would he let his firm defend the city and deny responsibility for leaking water? His belief is that the city is not to blame, and the water pipes will continue to leak.
And thus you see how history repeats itself.
The difference now is people like myself are trying to be pro-active rather than re-active. We see the problem, and rather than just complain, we offer solutions.
The solution here is simple
Fix the darn water pipes that are both wasting our precious water, and destroying historical sites.
It is not even that hard to do so. Dig them up, replace them, and that’s it. It is done all over Tucson everyday.
To not do so, and if these buildings get weaker and more damaged, reasserts the argument me and others are making. The City of Tucson let the old barrio be destroyed, and today is continuing this same legacy. 5 out of 6 councilmembers are Democrats but still honoring Democrat Si Schorr to this day, and continue to neglect these historic sites in downtown Tucson, and sadly our next Tucson mayor has been helping this destruction by neglect take place, and one can only assume he will continue to do so unless he wants to go against his own law firm that bears his last name?
I doubt it.
When future historians read about the destruction of Barrio Viejo, I hope they read this article and about the people involved, and how they were warned and how they were a part of the problem, and yet continued down their path. Ignorance is not an excuse.
Founder of Chicano Rock, the famous Tucsonan Lalo Guerrero, visits the remaining barrio and remembers growing up there in the video below.