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.
Tucked comfortably alongside the University of Arizona and downtown Tucson, Rincon Heights is more than a neighborhood.
It’s a community.
It’s a place where neighbors speak up. With a common goal of building a stronger community, these neighbors get things done.
And they have a heck of a good time while they’re at it.
“We are active, but dang we have a lot of fun,” said resident Mark Homan, who has lived in Rincon Heights since 1976.
The neighborhood of about 2,000 residents is an eclectic mix – UA professors, college students, attorneys, artists and plumbers, to name a few.
Featuring about 600 homes, duplexes and apartment complexes, the neighborhood is bounded by Park Avenue to the west, Campbell Avenue to the east, Sixth Street to the north and Broadway to the south.
Rincon Heights is said to have some of the most diverse architecture in Tucson. The oldest home – an adobe hall-and-parlor with a gable roof – dates to 1877. Cottages built for people recuperating from tuberculosis dot the neighborhood.
Through grants and sweat equity, neighbors have created a lovely place to live in the heart of Tucson.
“To see our neighborhood flourish has been wonderful,” said Homan, who lives in Rincon Heights with his wife, Barbara. “There was a decline for some time and now we are seeing a rebirth. It’s really come back to life.”
Neighbors have emerged as leaders.
“We are a neighborhood that deals with challenge,” Homan said. “We organize well. We stand up for ourselves.”
Chris Wilke, who has lived in Rincon Heights for 25 years, is a champion for all things green. She and neighbors have planted more than 1,500 trees and developed one of the most extensive neighborhood water harvesting systems in the city.
Neighbors have created 81 rain gardens – curving cutouts along the streets that add lush little gardens of native plants to the neighborhood. The gardens, which thrive on rainwater, slow traffic and draw birds and other nature to the area.
“It’s more exciting to live in a neighborhood where you are part of a community,” Wilke said. “We are hoping to attract more people that want to come in and restore these beautiful old homes.”
Gretchen Lueck led the historic designation project with a team of neighbors who volunteered for a couple of years, taking classes and doing research required to achieve historic status.
The city of Tucson’s Historic Preservation Office provided a grant to the Preservation Studies program of the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture to help prepare the National Register of Historic Districts nomination for Rincon Heights.
Neighbors recently were rewarded with historic designation.
“We did all of the work without spending the $60,000 to $100,000 it can cost to hire someone to do it,” Lueck said.
Other recent neighborhood projects include:
• The creation of an organic community garden.
• Participation in the Tucson Phenology Trail. Neighbors work with scientists to document the life cycle of plants.
• Entomology events, including a black light bug safari, presented by neighbor and entomology doctoral student Kara Welch.
• The development of a charming pocket park from what was once an empty lot.
“Neighbors are getting out their shovels and picks and pitching in,” Homan said.
The neighborhood has developed strong relationships with elected officials and the UA in recent years. In decades past, “the relationship with the university was not great, but it is now,” Homan said.
Neighbors have partnered with the UA’s Drachman Institute, Tucson Clean & Beautiful, Watershed Management Group, Pima County Neighborhood Reinvestment and other organizations on projects and improvements.
“Every time we get a grant we do what we say we will and we do it in a timely manner,” Wilke said.
Neighbors are making their voices heard about a Regional Transportation Authority plan to widen Broadway to six travel lanes, two bus lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks. .
The project is in the early stages of planning and alternative proposals are being reviewed. Colby Henley, president of the Rincon Heights Neighborhood Association, is a representative on the Citizen’s Task Force.
Neighbors want to preserve businesses along the route. “We are hoping we’ll get a really great street and that the businesses will be left intact,” said neighbor Laura Tabili. “We also hope it will be a better environment for bikes.”
Neighbors often ride to nearby favorite restaurants, including Rocco’s Little Chicago Pizzeria, Zemams Ethiopian Cuisine, Tucson Tamale Company and Lerua’s Mexican Food.
A stroll around Rincon Heights shows neighbors walking dogs and riding bikes. The downtown skyline looms to the west, Arizona Stadium to the north.
Nearly every home is unique, and styles include ranch, bungalow, Queen Anne Revival, Mission Revival and others.
Two main streets — 9th and 10th — are unusually wide. They were designed to accommodate a streetcar that never came to be.
Stops on a neighborhood tour include the High School Wash, a lush riparian area, and Feld Davis Park, built by neighbors from grants and hard work.
Park benches are being decorated with tiles that are handcrafted by neighbors. A straw bale wall is painted with hummingbirds and flowers and a there’s tiny library. Borrow a book, drop off a book. A seed library hangs in a tree.
For five generations, relatives of Tucson artist Melody Peters have lived in Rincon Heights.
Peters and her husband, musician Jay Vosk, have no desire to live in any other neighborhood. “I like that there are so many people of different ethnicities, everybody is friendly and supportive and there is great history,” Vosk said.
They live in a 1928 California Bungalow home that was owned by Jeff Milton, known as the first border patrolman who was charged with guarding the ship used to deport anarchist Emma Goldman early in the century.
Another landmark is El Capitan Court, a collection of apartments, casitas and homes that was built in 1927. Jean Harlow and John Wayne are believed to have stayed there, and scenes from the 1960s TV show “The Fugitive” were filmed there, according to neighbors.
Colby and Karen Henley live in a beautifully restored 1930 Spanish Colonial home, painted butter yellow. They moved from the northwest side three years ago.
On a recent evening, their backyard served as a gathering spot for neighbors who sipped wine and chatted about Rincon Heights under the stars, with the sounds of a train passing in the distance.
“We really loved the neighborhood and when we got here we found this great group of positive people,” Colby Henley said.
They appreciate the history of their home, with a narrow Model T garage out back and the faint footprints of children forever etched in the concrete sidewalk in front.
Perhaps what neighbors appreciate most is the sense of community.
“We build strong relationships here,” Homan said. “People care about each other. A neighborhood is its history, its homes, its businesses and services. But it’s mostly the people and their talents that make a neighborhood, We grow leaders here.”