- La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwestern City
In the 1960s, bulldozers ran roughshod over the American Southwest. Under the banner of urban renewal, Anglo-dominated city governments from Texas to California used federal dollars to assault what they called blight. The end results were not pretty: they ripped apart compact neighborhoods and historic structures, obliterated streets, markets, and alleys, and displaced thousands of poor and powerless citizens, many of them Latino. In San Antonio, earth-moving equipment flattened ninety acres of the Lavaca district. In El Paso, a major portion of the southern sector was rezoned for industrial purposes and nearby Las Cruces, New Mexico, toppled a nineteenth-century gem of a church, St. Genevieve’s, in favor of a pedestrian mall. Planners may have failed to eliminate Barrio de Analco in Santa Fe, but they were more successful in Albuquerque and Los Angeles. There, wrecking crews demolished the remnants of the Spanish and Mexican built environments to construct parking lots and high-rises. Collectively, this forceful tearing of the urban fabric resulted in an irreparable rending of the past.
Tucson suffered similarly, and although Lydia R. Otero does not set its story within this larger historical context, her first book nonetheless is a remarkable achievement. It is so because La Calle takes seriously the oft-devastating human consequences of those grand schemes to remake urban society. Drawing on a rich blend of oral histories, local newspapers, city records, and archival documents, and deftly using her family’s long connection to Tucson to infuse her narrative with a critical edge, she probes the decision of local powerbrokers to target the neighborhood known as La Calle.
Once the pivot around which the city had revolved—a centrality it had maintained whether a Spanish, Mexican, or American flag flew over its public buildings—La Calle became dispensable in the minds of its detractors following World War II. One reason for this was that well-off whites were abandoning the downtown core for the suburbanized periphery; as they detached themselves from the community they lost touch with its vibrant diversity and its complex history. They convinced themselves that in supporting the Pueblo Center Redevelopment Project they could remake the city in their own image: for them, razing the old district, like building up the suburbs, was part of the modernist project.
Modernity also meant the reconceiving of physical space and the reconceptu-alization of its imagined significance. Or put more bluntly, it entailed the destruction of an offensive architecture and a dispossession of the people who called it home. Otero offers an especially sharp analysis of this disturbing element in Tucson’s plans. As the city’s elites cheered the dismantling of La Calle’s streetscape and landmark buildings, it was busy inventing what she calls the “Anglo fantasy heritage.” By identifying itself with, and enhancing the importance of, cowboy culture; by privileging the western frontier in Arizona’s official history, it airbrushed out the dynamic presence and substantial contributions of Spanish, Mexican, and Mexican Americans to the region’s making. The institutional expression of this rewriting was captured in the enthusiastic support that the Tucson Heritage Foundation, the Society of Arizona Pioneers, and the Arizona Historical Society gave to urban renewal. Even when they rushed to protect the house they associated with [End Page 323] John C. Frémont, Governor of the Arizona Territory, they deliberately denied its link to its real owners, whose last names were Sosa and Carrillo.
By declaring that downtown Tucson needed “saving” from the community’s founders and their progeny, white preservationists promoted a racist agenda that “played a key role in the spatial and social marginalization of Mexican Americans” (177). This outcome was as true in Arizona as it was across the southwest.