Barrio Viejo
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Elemental Architecture
Adobe streetfront: door...window...sky. Color. Much of Tucson, like most western U.S. cities, is devoted to strip malls and parking lots, but the historic core still has blocks of 19th-century Sonoran-style row houses. In the 1960s, acres and acres of the Barrio Viejo was razed, but fortunately not all of it. Today it's a combination of gentrification and the pleasantly decrepit: attorney's offices, student rentals, and family homes share this yard-less streetscape in a bilingual neighborhood. In reading about the history of the neighborhood, I came across this description, written back in the 1930s by Dr. James Harvey Robinson of Columbia University, who was visiting Tucson for the first time: "But this cannot be the United States of America, Tucson, Arizona! This is northern Africa - Tunis! Algiers! - or even Greece, where I have seen as here, houses built flush with the sidewalks with pink, blue, green and yellow walls, flowers climbing out of hidden patios and overall, an unbelievable blue sky. And the sweet-acrid smell in the air? Burning mesquite. Lovely! And the people - charming. But all this is the Old World, not America." The Barrio Viejo is perfect for a bike ride. You do feel as if you've left reality-TV-obsessed Gringolandia...if only for a few blocks...
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Doorways in the Desert: Tucson's Barrio Viejo
On the city's western edge is "Old Tucson," the TV/movie set theme park of ersatz Wild West streets. But the REAL history is here, surrounding the downtown core, in the blocks full of preserved and restored adobe houses just south of the Convention Center. The Hohokam and Tohono O'odham peoples lived in this area long before Europeans arrived. The year before the Declaration of Independence was signed on the other end of the continent, the Spanish set up a presidio here. By 1821, this outpost became a Mexican settlement; it wasn't until 1854, with the Gadsden Purchase, that Tucson became a U.S. territorial town. As with most western U.S. cities, strip malls that could be anywhere can sometimes detract from the mountainous setting...but seek history and you shall find; colors and stories in the desert abound. When I first walked around the Barrio Viejo, I felt as if I were in a Mediterranean village...later, I came across this description, written by a Dr. J.H. Robinson of Columbia University, visiting in the 1930s: "But this cannot be the United States of America, Tucson, Arizona! This is northern Africa—Tunis! Algiers!—or even Greece, where I have seen as here, houses built flush with the sidewalks with pink, blue, green and yellow walls, flowers climbing out of hidden patios and overall, an unbelievable blue sky. And the sweet-acrid smell in the air? Burning mesquite. Lovely! And the people—charming. But all this is the Old World, not America."
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