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.

Marge says that during the early days of the city’s Historic Preservation Office, most such research was done by the city. “But by the time we approached the city, there was no more grant money available to do the survey,” she says. “So ours became one of the first do-it-yourself preservations.”

Today, the couple, whose four grown children also live in historic neighborhoods within about a one-mile radius, are proud to have saved their district from the path of progress.

“You can go all around the Valley, and you will not see any other neighborhoods like these,” says Gerry. “You’re looking at houses that you do not see being built in the same manner anymore. When these houses were built, there were craftsmen who apprenticed with a carpenter or a mason, and they put in little artistic features that demonstrated their skills. Nowadays things are put up very quickly with new technology and new materials. But they don’t include those little touches you would see on an old house, like a niche in the wall, or hand-hewn corbels and canales coming off the roof. You don’t see window sills anymore!”

But preservationists feel they’re safeguarding more than just inset doorways and multiple layers of brickwork by securing one of those little blue signs. They’re also preserving vintage values.

“This neighborhood is still very friendly,” says Marge McCue. “If there’s an illness in the neighborhood, people bring food over to the house and mow your lawn for you. They’re not nosey, they’re not into your business, but if they see a need, they step right up, immediately. And it’s been that way in all the 50 years we’ve lived here.”

“When we first moved in here, it was a real Leave It To Beaver neighborhood,” says G.G. George. “And it still pretty much feels like that. I’ve always wondered, is it the people who make the neighborhood, or is it the neighborhood that makes the people?”

“We have values,” says Donna Reiner, who has lived in Phoenix’s artsy Coronado district for nine years. “We value the buildings we live in, and we see ourselves as caretakers of these buildings. But we’re also caretakers of the community. I see my neighbors. We chitchat. We trade things — if I’ve got extra vegetables from my garden, I know several people on my street who’ll be more than happy to take them. It’s that kind of place.”

Jane Powers, of Tucson’s Blenman-Elm district, says she sees that same kind of old-fashioned neighborliness even in the young renters, who are attracted to the district because of its proximity to downtown and the University of Arizona.

“A lot of them will help the older people in their homes,” she says. “And we all get to know each other.”

Though Powers and her husband have lived in the same house since the mid-‘70s, she says she’s confident the new kids on the block will retain the spirit and soul of her beloved old neighborhood.

“They get it,” she says. “I think it’s in good hands.”

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