What’s in a Name?

Reading Dolores Hayden this week got me thinking about a local situation back in Tucson and the fact that sometimes, even when there is some intent to incorporate “bitter” or negative history, it can be challenging given the current preservation framework and tools.

Today, at the heart of Tucson’s downtown sits a concentration of oppressive, concrete and smoked glass municipal buildings typical of 70’s brutalist architecture. Weaving between them is what many design-minded individuals in town have come to recognize as a hidden gem: a series of waterscapes comprising one of the few surviving Modernist landscape designs in Arizona, designed by the internationally known landscape architect Garrett Eckbo. Of course, this was also once the heart of Tucson’s Mexican American community, an area called La Calle, that was nearly all razed during Urban Renewal.

The landscape itself is in desperate need of attention: trees and plants have died and never been replaced, pavers and slabs have been lifted and cracked by tree roots, and the canyon-like fountains that tie the landscape together haven’t been operational for years. Additionally, incompatible public art, xeriscaping, and a “vibrant” color scheme have been introduced over the past decade, masking the cohesion and intent of the original design. Given that it is some of the only public space in a rapidly “rejuvenating” downtown and that the property is owned by the City, it has become a liability as well as an embarrassment.

This fact has not been lost on the City, but dealing with the space is tricky. Tucson, especially downtown Tucson, is an intimate community. People and families affected and displaced by Urban Renewal are still nearby and the space carries strong negative associations for a large percentage of Tucsonans. To many, the loss still feels fresh. Prominent architects and public figures have suggested the site be demolished and restored back to private housing, including affordable housing options, to right the wrongs committed. Arguably the preferred solution, the sheer cost of demolishing of the multi-acre site to prepare it for development would be, literally, prohibitive. This leaves the option of restoration.

Not surprisingly, a group of motivated individuals, spearheaded by an enthusiastic landscape architect transplanted to Tucson from the East Coast, has taken up the cause. The Eckbo Landscape National Register Nomination Form was approved last month. While the group is aware of the conflicting social dynamics and painful public memory embedded in the site, they are using the recognition of the site’s historic value as leverage to rehab the space and make it usable again. Multi-million dollar improvements to the site are included in an upcoming bond election and the national recognition undoubtedly adds legitimacy to the cause. Others, however, feel that recognizing the site as the “Eckbo Landscape” (as it is now referred to in any agendas or literature associated with the bond) unduly emphasizes and glorifies the Urban Renewal period and fails to recognize the site for what it should be remembered for.

This case points to some of the glaring flaws in national preservation policy, namely, its lack of provision for recognizing multiple narratives related to a particular site. Because of the requirement to adhere to the four NR criteria, I assume, the authors emphasized the connection to the famed designer in order to have the best chance at getting the property listed. Though I have not read the nomination, I imagine they may have also included the Urban Renewal story under Criterion A, though the way significance is framed is, to a degree, left to the author’s discretion, which in a case like this is troublesome. Apropos of nearly any of the future-oriented readings we have done for class, this case demonstrates a number of the challenges that the field is grappling with and calls for a more creative solution.

eckbo historic view

The Tucson Convention Center landscape circa 1970

eckbo today

The landscape today.

Meyer Street

Typical barrio streetscape circa 1870 (Meyer Street)

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