Where we live: Menlo Park

This vibrant west-side neighborhood traces its origins back thousands of years
2013-06-30T00:00:00Z 2014-07-01T16:44:29Z Where we live: Menlo ParkGabrielle Fimbres Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Editor's note: This is the next in our series exploring Tucson neighborhoods - the homes, the vibes, the people. Look for the Where We Live series monthly in the Home + Life section of the Arizona Daily Star.

For more than 4,000 years, man has been drawn to the base of Sentinel Peak to harvest the land and to create a home.

From early pit houses to Spanish settlements and modern-day luxury dwellings, what is now known as Menlo Park Neighborhood is truly Tucson's birthplace.

Sentinel Peak - christened "A" Mountain by University of Arizona students in 1916 - is more than just a mountain, according to neighborhood historians. It serves as a guardian of Tucson's history.

In the shadow of that mountain, Menlo Park residents celebrate the neighborhood's rich past.

"Living here gives you a sense of roots," said Lillian Lopez-Grant, a Tucson grandmother who has lived in the same Menlo Park home for much of her life. "It's always been our home."

Lopez-Grant moved into the neighborhood with her mother in 1945 at age 5. Her parents hailed from Nayarit, Mexico, and her father died before she was born in Nogales, Ariz.

Her mother remarried, but her second husband, the son of Irish immigrants, died from food poisoning. Her mother bought a 1925 Spanish colonial revival home for $5,500.

The home was the first on the block. Lopez-Grant and her mother were one of few Hispanics in a neighborhood that had deed restrictions preventing non-Anglos from owning homes.

Turns out that no one knew her mother - who had taken her Irish husband's last name, "James" - was Mexican.

Lopez-Grant has fond memories of her days at Menlo Park Elementary School, which closed earlier this year. Some days, her mother would bring her a jar of homemade soup, or meat and hot tortillas for lunch.

She married young and had five children. After she divorced 45 years ago, the family moved back in with her mother.

Lopez-Grant has been a pivotal force in neighborhood and community issues. Neighbors joke that for politicians to get elected, their campaign sign must make it up on her chain-link fence.

"Everybody knows everybody in Menlo Park," said Lopez-Grant, who served as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. John McCain and U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe before retiring. "It's just a great place to live."

Alice Gallardo and her parents and five siblings moved into a two-bedroom brick-and-stucco home in the south end of Menlo Park in 1936.

Her father, Albert Ybarra, was a custodian at the Pima County courthouse and her grandfather was a sheriff's deputy known for his hot temper.

Her mother made tortillas on a wood-burning stove.

"We had chickens and we would sit on the porch and eat boiled eggs," recalled Gallardo, 78. "It was a beautiful neighborhood with beautiful, wonderful people.

"We would sneak out our window and walk around at night, singing Mexican songs," she recalled. "We used to climb the mountain and lay there and pretend to sunbathe."

Gallardo and her late husband, Donald Gallardo, moved back to the neighborhood with their six children in 1975, across the street from the home she grew up in.

They moved into a home that served as a welding shop, with a bar and a house of ill repute on the side, Gallardo said, before it was converted into a Spanish colonial revival.

She lives there today with some of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"I guess I will stay here and my kids will stay here until the house falls down," she said.

Not far from her home is Corrales Menlo, a stable that has boarded horses since 1904. Gallardo rode horses there as a child.

Amy Rusk, owner of Corrales Menlo, bought the property in 1989.

"I was afraid it would be turned into condos and lose the grandfathered-in horse rights," Rusk said. "People in the neighborhood have long enjoyed having horses in their midst, and I like the idea of having an affordable stable on the west side."

Rusk enjoys being in the heart of this family-oriented neighborhood. She appreciates the color, with kids riding their bikes, the guy selling oranges off the back of his truck and the neighbor working a small organic farm on his lot.

Diana Hadley lives in a home in Menlo Park that dates back to the 1800s. She has done extensive research on the neighborhood and its history.

She loves the sense of peace in this neighborhood that once was an alfalfa field.

"It's close to downtown and yet because of the precious open space that exists, we have javelina, gray fox, bobcat and great horned owls," she said.

Hadley has been involved with the neighborhood's Mission Garden, a project of the Friends of Tucson's Birthplace, a non-profit organization dedicated to recreating the Spanish Colonial walled garden that was part of Tucson's historic San Agustín Mission. (Look for a story on Mission Garden in the July 14 Home + Life section of the Arizona Daily Star.)

The Menlo Park Neighborhood has grown in recent years, with the addition of the Mercado San Agustín and the nearby Mercado District of Menlo Park neighborhood, both near the new street car line.

About 35 newer homes that maintain the historic flavor of the neighborhood have sprung up in the Mercado District, with another six being built this year.

Gene Einfrank has lived in the newer neighborhood for six years.

Einfrank, production manager at Tucson 12, the city's TV channel, watched Rio Nuevo closely, and wanted to be part of the area's revitalization. While Rio Nuevo stalled, Einfrank is excited about the continuing development of downtown and the west side.

"Hopefully that vision that developers had will come to fruition, and it's starting to happen," he said. "It's been a long six years, but I always say that in Menlo Park, we are a patient people."

He will take the streetcar to work downtown and his wife will take it to her job at The University of Arizona Medical Center.

Down the street from his home is Mercado San Agustín, where visitors can enjoy a pumpkin empanada at La Estrella Bakery or tacos from Taqueria El Pueblito while sitting in grassy shade.

Also relatively new to the neighborhood is Roger Pfeuffer, who lives in the Mercado District. Pfeuffer and Einfrank are brothers-in-law.

"The ability to walk or ride a bike or take the streetcar to anywhere we wanted to go downtown was very inviting," said Pfeuffer, former superintendent of Tucson Unified School District.

He and his wife, Vera, also persuaded their best friends to move in next door.

"I have loved archaeology since I was a kid, so it means a lot to me, and to live in the birthplace of Tucson," Pfeuffer said. "But the thing we most love about this neighborhood is the sense of community."

About Menlo Park

This historic neighborhood, which sits on 2.7 square miles, is nestled between downtown and the Santa Cruz River to the east and Sentinel Peak and Tumamoc Hill to the west, and St. Mary's Road to the north and Starr Pass Road on the south.

According to city of Tucson documentation, archaeological excavations revealed that Native Americans raised corn and established a small pit house settlement in what is now Menlo Park.

In 1770 the Spaniards established a visita, or a visiting mission, at what is now the south end of the neighborhod, and introduced the O'odham to new structural technology and agricultural practices, according to city documentation. Here was built a two-story convento - a priest's residence, storehouse and granary - and a nearby walled garden. After the Spaniards departed, Mexican farmers grew crops irrigated by canals fed by the Santa Cruz River. The mission slowly crumbled.

Menlo Park Neighborhood was developed in 1912 for Anglo/Europeans. Its founder, Henry E. Schwalen came to Tucson with tuberculosis, and was admitted to St. Mary's Hospital; the hospital just outside the neighborhood boundary opened in 1880.

Schwalen had read about a city called Menlo Park, Calif., and dreamed of building a neighborhood with the same beauty. He and developer Manuel King subdivided the neighborhood in 1912, and non Anglos initially were not allowed to buy homes.

It evolved into what was known as Tucson's most upscale Mexican barrio, hosting Spanish colonial revival, bungalow, post-war ranch, modern and prairie-style architecture.

The oldest standing home, on South Grande Avenue, was built in 1877 by Solomon Warner. Most of the about 2,000 homes were completed by the 1960s.

The neighborhood has more than 5,000 residents today, the majority of whom are Hispanic.

Contact local freelance writer Gabrielle Fimbres at gfimbres@comcast.net

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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