An old wall

Doors to the Barrio Veijo. Photo by L. Asher


If you look at a map of southeastern Arizona, you can see faintly marked dots just north of Nogales with names like Harshaw, Oro Blanco and Ruby.  Just in case you were planning to stop at one of these places for lunch or even to spend the night, the map informs you in parentheses that they’re ghost towns.

But the biggest and strangest ghost town of them all is downtown Tucson. My friend Livia and I spent most of one Saturday there, walking deserted streets and happening only occasionally  on pockets of human activity.  It was like crashing a series of secret parties where the revelers haven’t noticed that everyone else has high-tailed it out of town.

Actually, most of the revelers were other tourists. The Tucson Visitors’ Bureau has made it extra-easy to take a walking tour of the downtown, the original  core of the “Old Pueblo.”  A painted turquoise line  zig-zags over sidewalks , across intersections  and past numbered landmarks keyed to an easy-to-read map.  Tucsonans might be elsewhere , especially on an overcast and windy Saturday, but no one can say the Bureau isn’t trying its damnedest to lure some life back to the “Centro.”

We started in the Presidio neighborhood, on the south side of the walking  tour area, mainly because that’s where the “Old Town Artisan” galleries are, and we were only posing as diligent tourists while secretly lusting after turquoise.

The original adobe fortification walls of the Presidio were demolished long ago, but the county has reconstructed a portion of them, creating a kind of museum-among-the-faux-ruins.   A few visitors, among them Australians and French, peered at dioramas depicting Spanish colonial  soldiers’ lives and poked through the modest gift shop.  In the dusty open area you could look down at the excavated foundation of a Hohokam “pit house,” a dwelling that was built here long before even the real Presidio walls.  Beside this ancient, eroded stone circle  a bare-branched fig tree, estimated, according to the sign, to be at least 100 years old, seemed of negligible significance, and the large rosemary bush next to it fragrantly ephemeral.

Things were livelier in the connected adobe row homes that house the “Old Town Artisans’” galleries.  But few people seemed to be buying, so the displays of pottery in esoteric hues, ornate tin picture frames and kachina dolls had the air of a museum with price tags. In one room a middle-aged woman in flowing hippie clothes gave us an informal seminar on her art work:  pictures that looked like oils but were actually manipulated photos shot with a vintage Polaroid camera.  We thanked her politely  and left the gallery without buying anything .  But in the last jewelry room before lunch we found some unusual earrings by a New Mexican artist — and a very determined and dynamic saleswoman, with an indeterminate foreign accent — and did our small bit for the local economy.

The galleries surround an internal courtyard that functions as the outdoor terrace for a little restaurant, La Cocina, but the winds were starting to blow up, so we ate in the charming ramshackle interior at a table made out of wooden legs and an old metal soda pop sign.  The iced coffee was weak, but the chairs were eye-popping shades of green and blue and the service was friendly.  After finishing our tilapia tacos it was time to leave this small, warm spot of humanity and venture back out onto the turquoise trail.

The trail leads you past the pastel pink Pima County Courthouse, one of the few graceful public buildings left in the downtown, which, starting in the late sixties, has been scarred by half-hearted attempts to turn Tucson into a modernist big-city contender.  Given that Tucson is not a “big city” in the financial-hub sense, the results are peculiarly  unsuccessful:  a smattering of timid high-rise office buildings  that look like  poor imitations of Brasilia or Lincoln Center, all outmoded white concrete pilasters and bronze plate glass. Poseurs jutting out of the desert, these latecomers fail to compose a city skyline, and even on weekdays they don’t seem able to create much bustle.  Scattered about the feet of the high rises is what’s left of the city’s commercial architectural history:  storefronts from the first half of the twentieth century, many of them empty, some of them serving temporary, ill-suited tenants.  But every now and then there’s a defiant burst of true, homegrown urbanism:  the Fox Theatre, a refurbished old movie house that now hosts name acts (that weekend featured a big Oscars night party); celebrity chef Janos Wilder’s latest hip restaurant “Downtown Kitchen and Cocktails”;  Maynard’s Market and Kitchen in the resurrected train depot; and, of course, John Dillinger’s old lie-low spot, the Hotel Congress.

I know for a fact that Downtown Kitchen is hopping on any given evening, there’s a steady stream of diners at the Congress’s Cup Café, and I expect the Oscars party was a success.  But this afternoon Tucson’s public spaces are deserted.  A few skateboarders and homeless men drift around in El Presidio Park, the plaza opposite the courthouse.  The Sosa-Carrillo-Fremont House, a mid-19th-century Sonoran row house and now a museum, is closed.    The plazas connecting the Convention Center with the Symphony Hall are completely deserted and the avante-garde fountains dry (as perhaps they should be, given that there is no one to enjoy the waste of water).  When Jim and I first arrived in Tucson, the annual Gem Show was buzzing around the Convention Center, but now these “cultural spaces,” which replaced most of the Old Barrio in the sixties and seventies, look like the day after space aliens empty the earth of its bothersome humanity.

Then Livia and I cross Cushing Street into a different kind of empty. I spot the El Minuto Café on the corner of Cushing and Main.  It’s in a low-slung white adobe building, and the name of the café is painted on the wall in old-timey lettering with vaguely cartoonish murals of stumpy saguaros and desert suns.  There are lights on inside, so we step into the low, covered patio entrance because I’d like to do some reconnaisance for a future dinner.

In a dark corner of the patio an old Mexican or Native American woman – it isn’t clear to me which – is mumbling behind a table covered with cheap bead jewelry.  She seems to have grown out of the wall, still be part of it.  I feel as if I should buy something from her; it isn’t as if I can’t afford a beaded bracelet after spending many more dollars on the earrings from the Old Town Artisans gallery.  Instead we mumble something in our turn and go inside.  Even though it’s now well past noon the restaurant is crowded, as lively as the surrounding streets are dead.  A Mexican-American auntie surveys things from behind a stack of menus in plastic covers on the cash register counter.  She isn’t exactly welcoming, but somehow this fits in with the convivial din and damp warmth of the little dining rooms.  We’ve just dropped in, invisible spectators from some other world.

Outside we resume our turquoise trail quest.  We dutifully pause to look at the faded pink Carrillo Elementary School, a sober example of southwest 30’s architeture, and to ponder its aesthetic opposite, El Tiradito, a shrine whose origins involve  a 19th-century romantic triangle, a dead lover and the unconsecrated resting place of his “castaway” corpse.  Down the block from this tiny chaos of candles and photos of loved ones is the former Elysian Grove Market.  The Market has long since metamorphosed into a bed and breakfast and finally a private home, but “Market” and “Grocery” compete for ghostly space over the much-photographed front door.

Unrestored Barrio

The ghostly face of the Barrio Viejo. Photo by L. Asher

The Elysian Grove neighborhood was built on the site of a former amusement park that featured an artificial lake and fountains:  hence its mythic name.  There are neither groves nor fountains here now, but there is a neighborhood and not just by dint of its being on the National Register of Historic Places, though that probably helped.  Next to decaying facades and passageways boarded up with corrugated steel are freshly painted doorways, glimpses of tended courtyards, bouquets in a window.  Two young women cross the street kitty-corner, an older man walks his chic little terrier, a couple of hipsters park their bikes outside a repainted rowhouse.  A young man cruises down the street in a beat-up sedan and turns the corner into silence.

It feels like if you knew the magic words and could speak them out loud, everything would come to life again.


In another era, Spanish-speaking plays were performed here. Photo by L. Asher

Everything including  the bright mustard-colored façade of  the Teatro Carmen, the old Spanish-speaking theatre (now an Elks’ Club) .  Or the rooms of the Ferrin House, the home of the family that established Tucson’s first synagogue  and now a restaurant.  Or, just a little farther away,  past the drab parking lots and drive-through liquor stores, the grand, Spanish colonial Temple of Music and Art, now the home of Tucson’s theatre company.

Restored Barrio houses

Colorful gentrification. Photo by L. Asher

Except that part of the Barrio’s seduction is its eerie quiet on this dusty gray afternoon, the fact that it might come to life but hasn’t yet.  A friendly painter emerges from a new townhouse styled to look like the surrounding 1850’s adobes.  Yes, the Barrio is being gentrified, he agrees; it’s banking on continued hopes for the downtown:  for example, the new U of A residences and classrooms under construction on 6th Avenue.  Meanwhile, the Tucson Weekly reports that a Barrio booster who’s been restoring homes has run into major structural problems caused, he asserts, by ancient, leaking underground waterpipes that the city won’t repair.  The Barrio may be passing away, invisibly, as water erodes its adobe walls.

Turquoise door

The Barrio imagined. Photo by L. Asher

The Old Barrio, and for that matter the rest of downtown, seems like one of the Polaroid photos in the Old Town Artisans’ gallery: about to take on color from indistinct, sepia-toned origins.  Outside a small restored adobe house there’s a brand-new “For Sale” sign.  I’m curious what the sellers are asking.  I can imagine moving in.