In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the city fathers of Tucson--and they were mostly fathers--scooped up an 80-acre tract of downtown and flung it into the landfill. It was called the Pueblo Center Redevelopment Project--better known today as TUR, Tucson Urban Renewal. Spoken of, I might add, with either a sideways spit or a grateful thanks, depending on your POV. As a former and still part-time archaeologist, I can see that some good came out of the leveled dirt. Academic treatises like The Chinese of Early Tucson by the wife and husband team of Florence and Robert Lister, brought a face to a history unknown to most Tusconans. But this is how archaeology often works: you save something in order to destroy it.
The project had its critics. Lots of critics. It also has its supporters. When I lived in Tucson in the mid-1980s, a good part of Congress and Broadway was windswept and empty--mostly an exhibit to the different kinds of plywood you can use to board-up doors and windows. "Renewal" kept strict 9 to 5 business hours, and coyotes crossed the Santa Cruz and prowled the night streets, digging up 1929 Calumet baking powder cans.
Today, it's a different, livelier scene. People go downtown. They hang out. They buy cheddar curds with sriracha ketchup, and, no, I don't know what that is.
But, my goodness. It's been almost 50 years since the backhoes and wrecking balls obliterated what some dismissed as a "blight" and others scarily described as a "cancer." It's difficult to draw any kind of straight line between TUR and HUB, which, I admit, has a pretty good lobster roll. And the downtown resurgence I'm speaking off wasn't restricted to Tucson. I saw the exact same thing happen--practically in temporal lockstep--to Flagstaff. Even downtown Phoenix managed to rise like a, you know, phoenix, on the wings of--well, let's nix the metaphor while we're ahead...
Is it possible that we cannot renew history? That history simply renews itself?
Which leads me to Barrio Viejo. At least a portion of the neighborhood more or less avoided the Big Brother approach to civic mindfulness. It has been called the largest, remaining collection of 19th C. adobe buildings in the U.S., although Santa Fe could make the same claim. It has had its own ups and downs, but today is a charming walk past bright mauves and yellows, with just enough exposed adobe brick and weedy lawns to avoid the Curse of the Gentrified Class. It is a wonderful location, if a challenge to photograph. The streets are narrow. Cars and trash cans pose in your viewfinder like Wisconsin tourists.
This is what you see today. But Barrio Viejo, itself, was a product of urban growth--a commercial and residential center constructed over the bones of Archaic hunter-gatherers and unlucky Jesuits. 200 years ago, it was a small oasis of springs and flowing water--a respite for the hardy souls inhabiting Old Tucson--and I mean the Pueblo, not John Wayne's digs. But you had to be careful. Apaches could swoop down with the sun at their backs, and you might find yourself crossways between Union and Confederate soldiers.
The bones are still there. I guarantee it. History--when it is not scraped off like barnacles on a barge--accumulates. It forms layers. Stratigraphy. You can date the layers and you can draw them--stacks of time, like a better-behaved Dali prints. Sometimes, you find people in the layers. Either prone and stretched out, or flexed, hands hugging knees.
There is a mural next to the El Tiradito shrine on South Main, that would make any archaeologist, any local with a connection to the land, pause. Beneath a bright panorama of people and "progress," lies a skeleton, wedged in blue rock. He or she might be construed as an artifact from the long ago past. But connecting the land of the living and dead is a blue river, perhaps the waters of the old artisan spring, El Ojito.
In a bar at Mormon Lake, Arizona, is a pair of crossed boat oars and a plaque that reads, "Hold on to your oars, boys. The lake will rise again." If the Santa Cruz River ever decides to roar and overtop the old alluvial gravels that pave downtown, it will be not unlike the mural, and at that moment Tucson's past and present will intertwine, and our attempt at manufactured renewal will just be another braid in El Ojito's stream.