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Living in History

Arizona’s historic districts are welcoming a new generation of homeowners. Will today’s New Urbanists continue preserving the old?

Jimmy Magahern | Jan 5, 2012, 9:34 a.m.

Gerry McCue may now be in his 80s, but the retired father of four knows how much the kids today love their 3-D. That might explain why he’s always seeing young couples slow down as they pass his beautifully preserved 1944 French Provincial Ranch-style home in the Fairview Place historic district of Phoenix.

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G.G. George, founder of the first historic neighborhood association in Phoenix, says her neighborhood has a Leave it to Beaver vibe.

“You’d be surprised how often it happens,” McCue says. “If I’m out front cutting the grass, they’ll be driving through the neighborhood, and they’ll stop and say, ‘I had no idea these neighborhoods existed here!’ I think for some people, this is like a three-dimensional look at the past.”

McCue, who, with wife Marge, has lived in the same house for 50 years, says that when most people think of Tucson and Phoenix, they think of all the homogenous “cookie-cutter” suburban developments built since the ‘70s that gave the cities their dubitable reputation as the birthplace of Sun Belt urban sprawl. Indeed, in Phoenix it was the carving up of downtown neighborhoods in the mid-‘80s to make way for the I-10 freeway expansion that motivated the couple to start the Phoenix Historic Neighborhoods Coalition, a grassroots group of residents in various old neighborhoods who have fought to protect endangered districts from the formidable Southwestern push of progress.

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This photo features an aerial view of downtown Phoenix in 1972.

“Freeway construction was already wiping out parts of the older neighborhoods, and the city was enticing people to move out to new home developments further north,” says McCue, who laments he saw many friends take the bait and move to 32nd Street and Shea — ironically, into neighborhoods similarly obliterated 10 years later to make way for State Route 51. “We felt our little neighborhood was worthy of preserving,” adds Marge.

Tucson, always more enamored of its past as one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in America (archaeological digs date life in the Old Pueblo back to 800 B.C., and its oldest surviving homes were built in the 1840s, when southern Arizona was still part of Mexico), has, much to the chagrin of its commuters, so far spared its older neighborhoods from the development of a comprehensive freeway system.

Nevertheless, the construction of the Tucson Convention Center in 1971 and its subsequent expansions, including the $246 million in additions scheduled for completion this year, have kept its city preservationists on guard, too.

“The big turning point in how people valued our older neighborhoods was during the period of urban renewal in the late ‘60s, when Tucson ended up replacing many square blocks of our city’s core with the new convention center and government buildings,” says Jonathan Mabry, head of the city’s Historic Preservation Office. “It was a classic case of ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.’”

Tucson established its historic preservation office shortly after the Convention Center’s opening, and Phoenix finally started its own after the completion of the first leg of the I-10 in 1986. Together, and with the efforts of various historic preservation groups that sprang up in both cities, advocates have since managed to get 29 neighborhoods in Tucson and 35 in Phoenix designated by the National Register of Historic Districts, and even more on the cities’ historic property registers, which not only protect the houses from unreasonable demolition but also provide a 30- to 45-percent property tax break to live-in owners — and up to $10,000 in matching voter-approved grants to fix up exteriors.

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