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This historic Tucson neighborhood is exploding with works of art

This historic Tucson neighborhood is exploding with works of art

Barrio Viejo is home to more than colorful adobes

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When fall comes to Tucson, Tucsonans come to Barrio Viejo.

They come to take photos — families in holiday attire for Christmas cards, kissing couples for engagement announcements, and young women in bright gowns for quinceañera invitations.

Occasionally there are models on catalog shoots or a musician posing for an album cover. I once watched a child photograph two adults brandishing skillets in mock battle. What that was about, I did not inquire.

The adobes are my neighborhood’s big draw. They give photos a sense of place and make for colorful backdrops.

But the adobes have more and more competition. Art is now a reason to visit Tucson’s second-oldest neighborhood. Some of it has been around for 100-plus years, but recently there’s been an explosion of art, especially murals.

So come downtown and have a look at some of my favorite pieces of barrio creativity.

If you are driving to the barrio, a good weekend place to park is in front of Carrillo School, 440 S. Main Ave. Elsewhere, beware of permit-only parking on some streets.

Let the art tour, and a bit of barrio history, begin.

Walking tour of the historic Barrio Viejo neighborhood south of downtown Tucson. Text by Bobbie Jo Buel. Photos by Mamta Popat. Produced by Rick Wiley / Arizona Daily Star 2020

Stop No. 1: A mural on the south wall of La Pilita Cultural Center, 420 S. Main Ave., is on its second life. It was first painted in the 1980s by Martín Moreno, assisted by youth, including some from the neighborhood. The mural was taken down about 2010 during restoration of the building and then re-created by Moreno in 2011. He kept the main features and added new detail.

Stop No. 2: Directly east, there’s a huge mural featuring a young woman, backed by what appears to be Saint Augustine Cathedral in Tucson sunset hues. The piece, by Isaac Caruso, is on the north wall of La Suprema Works & Events, a recently renovated co-working and events space. The building, at 319 W. Simpson St., was first a Chinese market and then for many years a tortilla factory. I remember kids sitting on the curb eating free tortillas the business sometimes gave away after school let out across the street. After the factory closed in about the late ’80s, the building fell into great disrepair. Katina Koller restored the building, and she and her business partner, Gina Catalano, opened La Suprema Works last winter.

Mamta Popat / La Estrella de Tucson

Kellie Kongnso, propietaria de Lash Factor Studio, encargó al muralista J. Keegan Rider que creara este pequeño mural en la esquina sureste de Simpson Street y Meyer Ave.

Stop No. 3: Walk a block east on Simpson to Meyer Avenue. The barrio’s newest mural, finished this month, is a splash of color in the form of a cacti and flower garden on the short wall at the southeast corner. Kellie Kongnso, owner of Lash Factor Studio, commissioned muralist J. Keegan Rider to create something bright and happy. His desert garden attracted neighborhood admirers who regularly checked on his painting’s progress this summer.

Mamta Popat / La Estrella de Tucson

Stop Nos. 4 & 5: Turn north and head to 369 S. Meyer, which has been guarded since 1973 by a large metal owl and secured by a turtle-shaped latch. There’s more delight next door at 363, where delicate animals, including a bighorn sheep, longhorn and tiny mouse are part of the rejas (window bars). The animal affair was the brainchild of the property owner, the late Kelley Rollings, and master blacksmith Tom Bredlow.

Stop No 5: A rabbit is part of the window bars at 363 S. Meyer Ave.

The building at 363, by the way, is one of the oldest in Tucson. UA tree-ring examination of the the ceiling beams shows they were harvested in the Santa Rita Mountains in the 1850s. The building went up around 1860.

Stop No. 6: Keep going north to the end of Meyer where the Tucson Convention Center hotel is nearing completion across the street. Turn east, stopping in front of the yellow office at 124 W. Cushing St. Look up. The barrio has many whimsical canales, which are tin pipes for carrying rainwater off flat roofs and away from mud-adobe walls. These, which seem to depict woodpeckers, were another ’70s-era Rollings inspiration.

Stop No. 7: A metal art installation also serves as fencing at WomanKraft Art Centers, 388 S. Stone Ave.

Stop No. 7: Continue east on Simpson to Stone Avenue, then turn right to WomanKraft Art Centers (aka the castle) at 388 S. Stone. The art installation, which also serves as a fence, is titled “The Intimation of Victorian Wings,” and mimics shapes of the house it protects. Metalsmith Josh Smith created it about seven years ago. The entry pillars were tiled by WomanKraft volunteers nearly 30 years ago.

Stop No. 8: “Peggy Sue,” a mural by Danny Martin was painted at a private residence, 25 W. Simpson St., but can be seen from public view.

Stop No. 8: At the south end of WomanKraft look west, down the driveway. That’s “Peggy Sue,” the creation of Danny Martin, a UA alum and prolific muralist. Inspired by Day of the Dead imagery, the mural is among many distinctive skeletal portraits created by Martin. Peggy Sue is actually on a residence around the corner, but this is the best public vantage point. Go to that house next — at 25 W. Simpson — to see a second terrific mural. Tucson native Joe Pagac created “Tribute Mural” to honor the original homeowners, Andres and Guadalupe Herrera, who built the home in 1906, as well as Frank Bone, who resided there for more than 40 years.

Stop No. 8: “Tribute Mural” by local artist Joe Pagac painted at a private residence at 25 W. Simpson St. The mural was created to honor the original homeowners, Andres and Guadalupe Herrera, who built the home in 1906.

Instrumental to Tucson’s development was the Southern Pacific Railroad, which first rolled into Tucson in 1880. In a nod to this history, Pagac incorporates a soaring train along with a row of more typical adobes homes. These two barrio-centric “characters” twist like strands of DNA between Pagac’s brilliant Sonoran sunset and desert landscape. Feel free to take a few steps down the driveway for a better view. If the property owners are at hand, they will open the gate to afford you a closer look.

Stop No. 9: On the northeast corner of Simpson St. and Convent Ave. an old grocery store has ghost art of the items it used to sell.

Stop No. 9: Continue west on Simpson to Convent Avenue. Look closely at the south side of the building at the northeast corner. In faint blue lettering it says “Las 4 Esquinas” — the Four Corners. This ghost art is a glimpse of the barrio long ago. Grocers or general shops were at three of the four corners as far back as 1888. I don’t know when this building was first called Las 4 Esquinas, but it carried that name by 1917 at the latest. It was operated by Don Wah and his wife, Fok Yut Ngan, both Chinese immigrants. Sitting on the wood curb, their daughter Esther used to pan for sand rubies in the rush of runoff down Simpson after summer storms.

More faded paint advertises some of what the Dons sold — yerbas Mexicanas, remedios, abarrotes, postales and novenas. The sign (translated as Mexican herbs, remedies, groceries, postal supplies and prayer devotionals) is a reminder that the barrio back then was primarily a neighborhood whose residents had their roots in Mexico. Indeed, Tucson was part of Sonora until the Gadsden Purchase in 1854.

Las 4 Esquinas seems to have closed in the 1950s and has been part of a complex of residential rentals ever since. Renovation recently started on two of the buildings along Simpson.

Stop No. 10: Most of the buildings on Convent Street were demolished in the late 1960s to make way for the Tucson Convention Center.

Stop No. 10: Walk south on Convent along a stretch that in 1884 was home to a rancher, miner, laborers, grocer, trader and machinist. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had fallen on hard times, no thanks to governmental neglect (such as irregular trash pickup) and the refusal of insurance companies to provide coverage homeowners needed to obtain mortgages. When my husband first moved to the barrio in 1977, he couldn’t get insurance from a U.S. company. Lloyd’s of London finally sold him a policy.

Construction of the Tucson Convention Center wiped out the commercial heart of the barrio by 1971, and more would have been demolished for a freeway if not for neighbors and preservationists banding together to stop it.

There are “new” houses on this block of Convent as well, built in the 1980s.

Stop No. 11: A home at Convent Avenue and Kennedy Street is adorned with names and love declarations carved into the brick.

Stop No. 11: At the next intersection, Convent Avenue and Kennedy Street, stop to look at the walls of the large brick house at the southwest corner. I am of the opinion that most graffiti is vandalism, but the sheer number of names scratched into the soft brick over many years throws this into the category of art.

Stop No. 12: Keep strolling west on Kennedy to Meyer Avenue, then turn south. The newly restored house at 505 S. Meyer was the boyhood home of the barrio’s most famous resident, Eduardo “Lalo” Guerrero, the father of Chicano music. Though he eventually moved to Los Angeles, his heart remained in Tucson, and he later wrote a song called “Barrio Viejo.” The Lalo Guerrero apartments, a nonprofit complex for seniors at Convent and 18th Street, were named in his honor when they opened in 2003. They are on the site of the original Drachman School, which he attended. He died in 2005.

Stop No. 13: Another ghost sign was revealed during a home renovation at 508 S. Meyer Ave. in the early 2000s.

Stop No. 13: There’s another wonderful ghost sign at 508 S. Meyer, uncovered during a renovation in the early 2000s. It advertises root beer, cimarrona (snow cone) and soda helada (iced soda) for five cents. Neighbors say the shop operated in the 1950s. The same building was home to La Costa del Pacifico bakery in the 1920s.

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

Stop No. 14: A mural by Johanna Martinez featuring Lalo Guerrero can be seen at 600 S. Meyer Ave.

Stop No. 14: At 600 S. Meyer, Lalo Guerrero pops up again on this 2009 mural by Johanna Martinez. The building, now an office, opened in 1912 as Lee Ho’s general store. It was one of dozens of Chinese-owned markets along Meyer between Broadway and 18th Street. He eventually turned over operation to his son, Jerry Lee Ho. Father and son are part of this mural, as is Jose C. Moreno, the operator of Pacifico bakery. The building was last a grocery in 2002.

Stop No. 15: At the intersection of Meyer and 17th Street, take a brief detour east. Look high up at the west wall as you approach the yellow building at 219 W. 17th St. Notice the big metal ants marching four by four.

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

Stop No. 16: A monsoon inspired mural by Jessica Gonzales is painted on the wall of a private residence at 592 S. Ninth Ave.

Stop No. 16: Turn back west on 17th and head to Ninth Avenue. It’s a bit confusing because the avenue jogs, but keep going west until you can hang a right. There’s a terrific monsoon-inspired mural by Jessica Gonzales on the south wall of a year-old house at 592 S. Ninth Ave. Ninth is another street with a large mix of old and new homes.

Return to 17th Street and walk west a half block to Main, the street where this tour began.

If you visit on a weekend in October or November, during photographers’ favorite “golden light” hours of early morning or late afternoon, there’s a good chance you will spot little kids in Christmas clothes, a bride or a teen in a huge party dress. BYO camera.

Walking tour of the historic Barrio Viejo neighborhood south of downtown Tucson. Text by Bobbie Jo Buel. Photos by Mamta Popat. Produced by Rick Wiley / Arizona Daily Star 2020

Bobbie Jo Buel, a former editor of the Arizona Daily Star, is a Barrio Viejo resident of nearly 40 years.

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