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Streetcar helps Tucson's birthplace grow
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Streetcar helps Tucson's birthplace grow

Here, where the All Souls Procession ends and the memory of the Mission San Agustín survives as a garden, the streetcar has arrived.

Nestled near the base of Sentinel Peak, the courtyards, public market and streetcar tracks of the Mercado District beckon Tucsonans to experience an area that’s sustained communities for 4,000 years.

The district, planted in the midst of the Menlo Park Neighborhood just off West Congress Street, has long awaited its streetcar connection to the east side of Interstate 10.

“The real jewel is you’ll live in a truly walkable and sustainable community with fun things to do,” said Jerry Dixon of Gadsden Co., one of the main developers of the area. “Hopefully we’ll convince you to get rid of your car.”

Dixon’s daughter, Kira Dixon-Weinstein, executive director of the public market Mercado San Agustín, made the move with her family two years ago. She, along with husband Adam Weinstein, both work with her father at Gadsden Co. The family of five owns one car and walks or bikes most places, taking advantage of the nearby Loop trail that coasts alongside the Santa Cruz River.

“Tucson is awesome, where you can still connect to nature but still have this urban experience and these nature moments all outside your door,” Dixon-Weinstein said.

She hikes Tumamoc Hill several mornings a week and often walks to the Mercado San Agustín on Thursdays for the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market to grab fruits and veggies for weekend meals.

In the winding avenues of the new development, where prayer flags stretch between masonry construction buildings and wind chimes ring in the breeze, the streets follow ancient canal paths — tribute paid to the area’s rich history.

In three to five years, Gadsden plans to build 700 to 800 additional residences, both high- and low-end, Dixon said. Some of that construction should begin in the fall. More retail and a boutique hotel are also planned.

“What is happening here is this great combination of new business and innovative business with the cultural depths and history that is Tucson,” said Kelly Fryer, the executive director of the YWCA, which has been at 525 N. Bonita Ave. for eight years. “It’s good business, great food and great products.”

But to see all the area has to offer, venture off the shiny track.

Historic growth

At the site of the original garden of the Mission San Agustín, Mission Garden, 929 W. Mission Lane, breathes life into history with a good dose of water and sunshine.

The gardens make up part of the Tucson Origins Heritage Park, operated by the grassroots nonprofit Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace.

Timeline Gardens showcase agriculture from various eras of Tucson’s history, including pre-Hohokam and multiple stages of Tohono O’odham agriculture. Other eras to be planted include Mexican and territorial periods, said Dena Cowan, garden supervisor and community outreach coordinator.

The gardens are open to the public from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays until hours change in November. For more information on visiting or volunteering, visit or call 777-9270.

For garden-goers of another sort, the Garden of Gethsemane, 602 W. Congress St., hidden along the Loop trail, cultivates the inner artist.

Quinceañeras and weddings often join the garden’s concrete sculptures that represent moments in the life of Jesus Christ, which were restored in February. After surviving the battlefields of World War I, Felix Lucero created the sculptures after his 1938 arrival in Tucson, following through on his battlefield promise asking God for life in exchange for a future of service. The Garden of Gethsemane was completed in 1946, according to Tucson Parks and Recreation. The garden is free and open to the public from dawn to dusk. For more information, call 791-4873.

Courtyard cuisine

Get it fresh on Thursday evenings at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market in the Mercado San Agustín courtyard, 100 S. Avenida Convento.

The 20-plus vendors sell local food from 4 to 7 p.m., and a consignment program run by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona gives backyard gardeners a spot to sell their organic, pesticide-free produce and eggs, said community foods consignment coordinator Audra Christophel.

Musicians provide the background while children play in the grass, and free workshops and cooking demonstrations such as the Desert Harvester series add variety. Look for a prickly pear fruit workshop on Aug. 14. For the month of August, various vendors will give discounts for streetcar riders.

And don’t be put off: This isn’t just fruits and veggies. Expect goodies just baked by Bavier Bakery in the Mercado’s commercial kitchen or prickly pear popsicles from Aravaipa Heirlooms.

When the market packs up, worthy eats still abound, from local watering hole Stella Java to Agustín Kitchen, run by chef Ryan Clark, where summer festivities continue with a streetcar happy hour from 10 p.m. to midnight on Saturdays and Sundays. To make reservations, call 398-5382.

Community center

The cafe at the YWCA, 525 N. Bonita Ave., serves up fresh food with local ingredients, “legendary” aguas frescas and job training, said YWCA executive director Kelly Fryer. The cafe delivers to the Mercado District and downtown area.

The community center will kick off its free speaker series this fall, covering topics such as health issues, financial literacy and career development, and a small art gallery and gift shop highlight local artists.

“When we moved here, it was the edge of nowhere,” Fryer said. “We’re excited that the streetcar is helping this side of town come into its own.”

For more information on programming and services, visit or call 884-7810.

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at or 573-4357. On Twitter: @JohannaWillett

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