Tucson's past alive in historic districts

Legends, lore, adobe structures, residents make up Barrio Viejo
2013-02-10T00:00:00Z 2013-12-05T14:03:49Z Tucson's past alive in historic districtsGabrielle Fimbres Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Alice Riesgo Galvan sits on her front porch in Barrio El Hoyo, looking out at the home across the street where her husband was born nearly 80 years ago.

Since the 1920s, members of the Galvan family have lived in this historic district nestled in the west end of Barrio Viejo, just south of downtown.

"I've been very lucky, raising our children in this neighborhood,'' said Galvan, 75, who moved into the home in El Hoyo - or "the hole" - section of the neighborhood with her late husband, Fernando Galvan, in 1961. El Hoyo derives its name from its topography, with most of the neighborhood on lower ground.

"The people here are happy,'' she said. "The people in the neighborhood do not judge me for what I have but hopefully who I am."

Some of the Barrio Viejo streets are so narrow, resident Ray Martinez can thank his vecinos across the avenue for a pot of menudo or another gift without shouting.

"What I like about it is everybody knows everybody," Martinez said.

Barrio Viejo is bounded by Interstate 10 to the west, Stone Avenue to the east, 18th Street to the south and Cushing Street to the north. It includes three historic districts - El Hoyo to the west, Barrio Libre to the east and Barrio El Membrillo, with only 13 homes left standing after much of the neighborhood was razed to make way for the Tucson Convention Center.

Many of the original adobe homes still stand. Some have undergone significant restoration. Others show their age. They all have a story to tell.

Rhonda Walker and her daughter make their home in the beautifully renovated Elysian Grove Market. The adobe structure was built in the 1920s by Jose Q. Trujillo, and served as a gathering place for neighbors who came to purchase chorizo and other staples.

Walker enjoys walking her daughter to school at Carrillo K-5 Magnet School. They ride bikes through the neighborhood and stroll to Children's Museum Tucson.

"I love the architecture and the history of the neighborhood, and I love living the urban lifestyle," Walker said.

She opens her home, which she rents from the owner who restored it, to neighbors for events.

"We get knocks on the door, people who want to share their stories - maybe their grandmother shopped there," Walker said. "There is always a family tidbit they want to share."

The home stands in what was once the Carrillo Gardens and later Elysian Grove. An artisan spring - known as El Ojito, or the eye - on Simpson Street was the source of drinking water in the 1800s. In 1885, Leopoldo Carrillo built a dam to form lakes and planted gardens with towering shade trees and roses. The spot was popular with picnickers, and featured swimming pools, bath houses, dances and dog and pony races with monkeys for jockeys.

As the story goes, a strong earthquake in the late 1880s caused the artesian spring and lakes to eventually dry up. The Carrillo family sold the land to the Drachman family, and neighborhoods were developed.

At the east end of the neighborhood, Barrio Libre, with its beautifully restored row houses and other homes, was built in the Sonoran adobe style of the 1800s. According to historical records, many early residents were ranchers who kept homes in town for their families.

Tania Rhodes has lived in her Barrio Viejo home for 18 years. The home was built 40 years ago, and has pine ceilings made from wood harvested on Mount Lemmon.

She tends two vegetable gardens in front of the home. There are chickens out back.

"I like that this neighborhood is almost hidden away," she said. "I moved here from New York City and I like to be in the city."

Fred Leyva was born in 1941 at 315 S. Main Ave. The house was torn down to make way for the TCC.

"Everybody was related to each other in one way or another in the barrio," Leyva said.

His relatives moved into the neighborhood in 1919. His earliest memories are of house parties and playing games in the streets. Monsoon rains flooded the streets, and he and his pals would race down rivers created on Simpson and McCormick streets in inner tubes. "We got a lot of spankings out of those," he recalled.

He was known by all neighbors. "If we misbehaved in school, by the time I got home everybody in the neighborhood knew. They would all scold me."

Leyva became an altar boy at San Cosme, a restored chapel at 546 W. Simpson St. that was built in 1931. "San Cosme was the center of activity of the neighborhood," he said. It again serves as a gathering spot for neighbors, with monthly Mass and other events.

Leyva's mother took in performances at Teatro Carmen on Meyer Street, the first theater in Tucson devoted to dramatic works in Spanish. Built in 1915, it later was a cinema, meeting hall, ballroom and boxing arena.

He recalls the old neighborhoods, mostly made up of Hispanic families. Chinese workers who helped build the railroad in the 1880s often went on to open restaurants, laundries and stores, and the families lived on Meyer Street, he said. African American families lived on Convent Street, Leyva added.

Leyva is still saddened by the demolition of many of the homes in the area. His home was demolished in the 1960s, but the memories survive.

Leyva, who no longer lives in the neighborhood but is on the advisory board of La Pilita Museum, 420 S. Main, visits often. "From time to time, I'll walk around the neighborhood and reminisce."

Fernando Antonio Galvan cherishes his childhood memories.

"All of the families in this neighborhood were poor, but we were rich in many ways," recalled Galvan, who still lives in the neighborhood. "When you were a kid, every other kid in the neighborhood would come to your birthday party. If someone was sick, everybody would bring food.''

When his father died last October, neighbors lined up to pay their condolences, said the widow of Fernando Galvan, Alice Riesgo Galvan.

"Fernando always said 'I was born here, I was raised here. We raised our kids here. I never want to leave here.' And gracias a Dios, he died at home,'' she said.

On StarNet: See more photographs at azstarnet.com/gallery

Historic Districts in Barrio Viejo

Three of Tucson's historic districts are found in Barrio Viejo - Barrio Libre, Barrio El Hoyo and Barrio El Membrillo. Here are descriptions of each, found in the Tucson Historic Neighborhood Guide, a project of the Blenman-Elm Neighborhood Association, historic districts and the city of Tucson Historic Preservation Office:

• Barrio Libre

Tucson's third oldest historic district, this neighborhood offers a sense of Tucson during the 1870s. Its northern half was demolished during urban renewal in the late 1960s. It still has more territorial-period adobe buildings than any other part of Tucson, and its intact Mexican-style urban streetscapes are unique in Arizona. The architecture is predominantly Sonoran, transformed Sonoran, and transitional styles. Carrillo K-5 Magnet School, built in 1930, was designed in the mission revival style. The school is at the district's western boundary.

• Barrio El Hoyo

Most of the neighborhood was once owned by Leopoldo Carrillo and developed as Carrillo Gardens. The houses, mostly built between 1908 and 1950, include many small adobe structures built in the Sonoran style. It retains a distinct, almost rural feel, reminiscent of when it was the garden spot of downtown Tucson. This district is west of Carrillo school.

• Barrio El Membrillo

Named for the quince trees that grew here, El Membrillo was platted in 1920. The construction of Interstate 10 in the early 1950s resulted in the loss of more than half of the neighborhood. During the urban renewal initiative of the late 1960s, another portion of the neighborhood was demolished for the Tucson Convention Center. Of the 13 houses left today, the characteristic type is the single- or multiple-unit dwelling built in the Sonoran style. This tiny district is on the western edge of Barrio Viejo.

Barrio Santa Rosa Historic District, just south of Barrio Libre and extending to 22nd Street, shares a cultural and historical association with the barrios that make up Barrio Viejo.

Legends of Barrio Viejo

Ray Martinez, who lives in Barrio Viejo, volunteers his time at La Pilita Museum, telling the history of the old neighborhood and sharing some of the lore. Among his favorite stories:

• El Tiradito - This shrine, tucked between La Pilita and El Minuto Café on Main Avenue, is dedicated to el tiradito, or the castaway. It is said to be the only shrine in the United States dedicated to the soul of a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground. The story goes that in the 1870s, a young man moved to Tucson with his in-laws. The man engaged in an affair with his mother-in-law, and when the two were discovered, the young man was killed with an axe by his father-in-law, who escaped to Mexico. The man was buried in Barrio Viejo, where a shrine was built. In 1940, the shrine was moved to its current spot, where today it remains covered with candles, prayer requests and colorful satin flowers.

• El Diablo - A young girl begged her mother to go to a dance in Barrio Viejo. Her mother forbade her to go, and the girl snuck out the window and went to the dance, where she met a charming man. They danced all night, and the handsome man invited her to run away with him. As they danced, the girl looked down to find the man had the feet of a chicken. She raced home and never disobeyed her mother again.

• La Llorona - Versions of this story are told throughout the Southwest. According to local lore, a beautiful and vain girl found every suitor to be too ugly until a handsome visitor came to Tucson. They married and had two children. The man developed an outside love interest and left. The woman drowned her two children and herself in the river, and when she arrived at the pearly gates, her children were not with her. She now walks the earth, an ugly, old woman in tattered clothing, looking for her little ones.

A glimpse into the past

Some of the history of Barrio Viejo can be found at La Pilita Museum, 420 S. Main Ave. Family photos and stories fill the small museum.

Call 882-7454 or go to lapilita.com for more information.

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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