Leatha Mae Reed has weathered single parenthood and witnessed fatal shootings on the street outside her Waverly Street home.

She survived the vascular disease that took both her legs, and escaped three close calls with speeding cars while crossing East Grant Road or North Euclid Avenue in her wheelchair.

She figures she can survive an invasion of University of Arizona students in the Sugar Hill neighborhood, but she doesn't have to like it.

Sugar Hill, less than a mile from the UA campus, was one of the few places in Tucson where black professionals could buy a home between World War II and the passage of civil-rights legislation in the '60s.

While no one laments the passing of practices that once steered black home buyers to this enclave south of Grant between North First and Sixth avenues, its longtime residents miss the tight-knit community that segregation created.

Today, the area is one of the most diverse in Tucson. Blacks, who make up only 3.1 percent of Tucson's population, still account for 11.3 percent in the census district that stretches a bit north and south from Sugar Hill's unofficial boundaries. Asian-Americans are 8.9 percent of the population and Hispanics account for 22.9 percent.

The other big change over the years is in the mix of homeowners to renters in the district. About 65 percent of the homes were owner-occupied in 1960. Today, renters outnumber owners by more than 2-to-1.

It's a familiar story in many Tucson neighborhoods with aging houses and proximity to the university — exacerbated here by zoning that allows for multi-family residential units.

A great place to live

The Sugar Hill area was never wholly black but blocks such as Waverly Street were.

It was a great place to raise a big family, said Lilly Bacon, who moved to the area from Crockett, Texas, in 1951, eventually settling in the house in the 500 block of East Waverly where she still lives.

"When I moved here, wasn't nothing but colored folks," she said. Bacon's husband, Joy, who picked cotton in Marana when they first arrived, was a minister who affiliated with Sugar Hills' Church of God in Christ.

The couple raised 11 children in the house and filled it with their neighbors' children, too. She will be honored next year as a "neighborhood icon" when a mural depicting the area's early black residents is unveiled at the new gymnasium at Northwest Neighborhood Center.

The matriarchs of Waverly

Like many of the older residents on the block, Bacon, 88, is alone in her house now and all but one of her children have moved out of the area, though two of them return daily.

Joy Bacon, 71, the oldest, moved to the East Side along with six of his seven brothers. Retired after 30 years as a telephone lineman, he still shows up daily for his retirement job at Northwest Neighborhood Center, where his brother Forrest, 69, volunteers.

Down the block from the Bacon home lives Reed, 68, who moved to Sugar Hill from Waco, Texas, in 1956.

"It was mostly all black people in this neighborhood. We're all mixed up now," she said, then held out one of the strong hands she uses to navigate life without legs. "But this color's only skin deep. My grandmother was a cute little old Indian woman from Oklahoma."

Reed moved to Waverly Street at age 19 with her sister, who was married to a Davis-Monthan airman.

In 1970, she moved down the block to this house with her husband and three children. He left, and she raised the kids, working as a patient aide at a hospital and a nursing home.

She saw to it her son and two daughters graduated from high school, which she never had the chance to do: "I had to stop and go to the fields and help my daddy, chopping cotton."

Waverly was a great block but it turned tough in the '80s and '90s as the housing mix changed from ownership to rental and drug dealers moved in, she said.

"That house across the street was raided four times. The neighbors signed letters. We didn't want no dopeheads around here. I seen a boy get killed, right out in front of that house. My grandson was here, toddling around on the floor. He said 'Grandma, look at that poor man out there. He's dying.' "

Reed's nearest neighbor, Clara Hopson, said the neighborhood has been quieter in the past few years, but, like Reed, she wishes the new additions to the area held single families.

"They're messing up the neighborhood, that's what they're doing," said Hopson, who is 82 and has lived in her home for more than 35 years.

Increasing sense of safety

The stretch of Waverly where Hopson, Reed and Bacon raised their families is now the site of three "mini-dorms," oversized two-story structures, whose owners rent the bedrooms separately to UA students.

They are intrusive and ugly, the residents say, but they are a hopeful sign: an increasing sense of safety.

Johnny Bowens moved to Tucson for graduate school in 1969, married, and moved into Sugar Hill at a time when the black population was dwindling, homeownership had begun its decline and many regarded the neighborhood as dangerous. He joined with area activists to lobby the city to build its new neighborhood center at Mansfield Park.

That reputation is part of the reason some still object to the name Sugar Hill. The area's two neighborhood associations both considered adopting the name, but settled on Northwest and El Cortez Heights after debates about whether the name honored the area or denigrated it.

Some said it referred to drugs or prostitution or was code for "black neighborhood" and dangerous by definition.

It wasn't derogatory, said Bowens. It simply referred to a place where you could live the sweet life. "Every African-American neighborhood in the country has a 'Sugar Hill,' sort of representing the middle class and above … professional, educated and so forth, that image."

Welcoming a "blockbuster"

When Mike and Mimi Haggerty moved to East Waverly Street in 1974, they were the first white family there. "Now I think of myself as a blockbuster," he said. They opened a bead shop on North Fourth Avenue and Mike eventually served on the City Council.

The Haggertys had been living with friends, or in their school bus. "We were kind of desperate for housing. The price was definitely right and it had a swimming pool."

Haggerty said he realized they would be the only white family on the block so he went knocking on doors, asking what the neighbors thought. They all welcomed him, he said.

Haggerty said he has a paramedic friend who warns him all the time to move out, citing his many visits to the neighborhood for acts of violence.

Cleaning up the crime

Tucson police statistics for 2004 show violent crime and all crime is higher in the Sugar Hill neighborhood than in most areas of the city.

But it is much lower than in neighborhoods to the west, and just slightly above crime rates in other areas surrounding the UA.

It wasn't so just recently. When Pete Chalupsky's development company bought the Parkside Terrace Apartments on the east side of Mansfield Park in 2000, they were "probably the largest property on the city's substandard housing list, drug infested, gang infested."

Chalupsky's Community Development Partners, which builds affordable "work-force housing," gutted the building, spending about $30,000 per unit.

He installed an on-site manager, "basically a sheriff."

The tenants joined with neighbors in adjoining El Cortez Heights to be vigilant about goings-on at adjacent Mansfield Park. They pestered police to enforce laws.

"Last year, there were 19 drug busts in the park. They've done a good job of that. They've cleaned up some of the crack houses on our borders.

"Two years ago, people were afraid to use the park," Chalupsky said. "Not now."

The park is now flanked by his development and a new student-oriented apartment complex, which the neighbors still refer to as "mini-dorms," despite their grouping on a large commercial lot and nicer appearance.

Some neighbors complain about the student complex, but Chalupsky sees nothing but good in having "more law-abiding folks there to use the park."

"I think back to the days when drug dealers occupied that corner. It's an easy choice," he said.

Tori Stypula, president of El Cortez Heights Neighborhood Association, has high praise for Chalupsky and the turnaround. She and Lori Mennella moved in 1990 from D.C. to El Cortez Heights, whose winding streets of red-brick homes once housed the cream of Tucson's black community.

Stypula said they were the youngest residents on the block then, but are now, in their late 40s, close to being the oldest. "Many of our seniors have passed on or moved to nursing homes," she said.

She said it's difficult to retain a sense of community with many of those homes being converted to rentals or, worse, redeveloped as "mini-dorms."

"It's the rentals that give us trouble. The college kids, the beer cups up and down the street every Friday and Saturday. When it's renter occupied, properties are not as well kept."

The unfairness of it all

Leatha Reed is astonished that her neighborhood is now considered a prime site for university housing and she resents it. It's not the noise or the students themselves that bother her. It's the unfairness of it all.

Reed said when she and her husband first moved onto Waverly, they wanted to build a two-story addition and the city turned them down.

Now, the house across the street has been refurbished and a structure she calls "the barn" has been built behind it. It's a two-story "mini-dorm" that fills most of its lot, with apron parking on the street in front and the alley out back.

She would prefer to see young families moving in, buying homes, taking pride in them.

Reed, who lost both legs and two fingers about 10 years ago to vascular disease, laments that she can't keep up her own place the way she once did.

But she doesn't sit around worrying about it. She's mobile, thanks to a motorized wheelchair she calls "Old Bessie." She flies Old Glory on it, her way of asking traffic, "Don't hit me."

Six days a week, you can find Reed at the Waverly Park nursing home where she volunteers.

"I go there, my own stupid self and being nutty and have 'em all laughing. They feel better; I feel better," she said.

"It's better than when I come here and get depressed looking at these dirty walls I can't clean anymore."

It was mostly all black people in this neighborhood. We're all mixed up now.

Leatha Mae Reed, 68,

talking about Sugar Hill when she moved there in 1956

● Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or tbeal@azstarnet.com.