These five Tucson neighborhoods offer everything from eclectic architecture to historical connections to walking-distance amenities.
There is an old Russian proverb that says, “Don’t buy the house; buy the neighborhood.” Neighborhoods mean so much more than the physical buildings that spring up over time. They are as much about the people who inhabit those structures, as well as the community spaces in between. In addition to their inhabitants, neighborhoods encompass the businesses, architecture, flora and fauna, and overall vibe of a place. In Tucson, there are dozens of historic neighborhoods and districts. Says Demion Clinco, CEO of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, “One of the wonderful things about Tucson neighborhoods is that they have their own distinct identities that reflect the values of the people who live there, whether you are talking about the street lights in Armory Park or the water harvesting in Dunbar. These places are a testament to Tucson’s progressiveness and neighborliness.”
Different people look for different things when seeking a neighborhood in which to live. Some want to be within walking or biking distance to urban style amenities. Others prioritize good schools or parks and/or trails for gathering and recreating. For many, good medical facilities or reliable public transportation rate high on the list. Read on to discover the distinctive character of a handful of area neighborhoods.
Just east of the University of Arizona lies the Sam Hughes neighborhood, a one square- mile residential area bounded by Speedway Boulevard, Broadway Boulevard, Country Club Road, and Campbell Avenue. Constructed between the 1920s and 1950s, the neighborhood takes its name from Sam Hughes Elementary School, built in 1927 and designed by Roy Place in a Spanish Colonial Revival style. The school was named after Welsh immigrant and education advocate Sam Hughes. The school continues to educate almost 400 elementary students a year. Former City Councilwoman Molly McKasson attended Sam Hughes when her family moved to the neighborhood in the late ’50s. She moved back there more than 35 years ago after stints in Chicago and New York. Although she didn’t expect to find herself back in her old neighborhood, “I love my neighbors and the feeling that I’m surrounded by people who care about other people,” comments McKasson, who raised her two children, now grown, in Sam Hughes. “The neighborhood was perfectly planned with a public library, Himmel Park, a public swimming pool, and tennis courts. I still love picnicking in the park, meeting people there, and hanging out.” On any given day the 24-acre Himmel Park hums with activity — from ultimate frisbee games to kids soccer, outdoor movies to Shakespeare in the Park, where families sprawl on blankets atop Hippie Hill to enjoy the show.
Sam Hughes is a great walking and biking neighborhood, with 3rd Street being a dedicated bike route. With its proximity to the university, it’s common to see students, professors, and others heading west toward campus or downtown. And although there are more than a dozen architectural styles found throughout the neighborhood, the dominant design of the earlier homes is Spanish eclectic, a style that eventually ceded to Ranch, with Traditional and International styles in between (think Craftsman, Pueblo Revival, Mission Revival, and Moderne). Get a peek inside some of the area’s gracious homes on the neighborhood walking tour offered every other year. Insider tip: When walking, head off the beaten path and cut through an alleyway. “I just love the unpaved alleys,” says McKasson. “They have always been a place of a little bit of wildness in terms of plant and animal life. It’s relaxing and I feel like I’m suddenly off the grid.”
Sam Hughes’ periphery is dotted with local restaurants such as the ever-popular Rocco’s Little Chicago, Miss Saigon, and Zemam’s. At 6th Street and Tucson Boulevard, you’ll find a quaint commercial block, which sustains newer restaurants such as Café Tumerico, as well as old favorites like Bob Dobb’s, where locals gather to watch sports and enjoy a pint. Other businesses along this small strip include a teahouse, tattoo shop, ballet school, salon and more.
The Dunbar Spring neighborhood lies northwest of downtown, bounded by 6th Street, Main Avenue, Stone Avenue, and Speedway Boulevard. You’ll find an eclectic mix of homes, diverse residents, and an active neighborhood association — all sitting atop the former Court Street Cemetery, where thousands of people are thought to remain buried. (Skull and crossbones signs in the traffic circles pay homage to this bit of history.) The neighborhood draws its name from two different people — John Spring, one of Tucson’s first teachers, and African- American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. The neighborhood gives off a gritty, urban vibe, due in part to the work of several social service agencies that reside there, including the Salvation Army Hospitality House, and Holy Family Catholic Church and Caridad Community Kitchen, which has a long history of feeding those in need. Resident Meg Hagyard acknowledges that, “There are always going to be a lot of different folks coming through the neighborhood, as these well-established organizations continue serving members of our shared community. If that doesn’t work for someone, they don’t choose Dunbar.” The Hagyards remodeled the 1960s former Carpenter’s Union Training Center into their unique family home. Several former markets and even a church have been converted to residences or businesses.
Various members of the Haller family have lived in Dunbar for almost two decades. With daughter Michelle and her son living two houses down from her father, Bill, they carry on the multi-generational tradition that was once a hallmark of the neighborhood. Both families lend a hand to Lucille Caldwell, their 96-year-old neighbor who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 60 years. Part of Dunbar Spring’s cultural identity comes from being the first African American neighborhood in Tucson, and several black families have lived there for generations. Caldwell reminisces, “I was sad when my neighbor Lilian Miller passed away. Her kids went to school with my kids. Back then there wasn’t anyone here but blacks, and everybody knew everybody on this street.” That’s something Hagyard still appreciates. “When my kids were small, there was a standing potluck at the playground. I see that still happening with younger families that have come into the neighborhood more recently.” Her kids both attended nearby Davis Bilingual Elementary Magnet School in Barrio Anita. “It was amazing to walk them to school and I could hear the student mariachi program practice in the afternoon from my house.”
Many of the homes in Dunbar were built in the late Teens and early 1920s and there remains a mix of architectural styles. Walking around you’ll spot Victorian, Territorial, and Bungalow styles, among others. Artistic expressions pop up in both private and public spaces. Revitalization is an ongoing process. Its proximity to downtown has elevated housing values but also brought higher taxes, which can be a hardship to some. Thanks to the work of resident water-harvesting expert Brad Lancaster and a passionate and active neighborhood association, literally thousands of trees have been planted since the 1990s and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water are harvested each year through traffic circles, street side basins, and chicanes, which also serve to slow down through traffic.
The neighborhood hosts a number of businesses including Originate Natural Building Materials, a CrossFit gym and artist studios in the former Axel Automotive building, a vegetarian/vegan restaurant and cooking school called The Tasteful Kitchen, and on Stone and Speedway, The Royal Sun Lounge at the Best Western, which plays host to a popular karaoke scene three night a week. Rumors of a grocery store swirl around from time to time. For some, the neighborhood’s location is ideal: close to downtown and Fourth Avenue, but out of the general fray. “We don’t get the bar traffic even though we are close to downtown,” says Hagyard. Lucille takes a longer view, “I don’t want to say anything bad about the neighborhood. I’ve had some fun here. It’s better than it used to be but could still be even better.”
Bounded by the Santa Cruz River and Silverbell Road, Speedway Boulevard and St. Mary’s Road, Barrio Hollywood’s name remains somewhat of a mystery. Some say it’s because a number of residents were employed at Old Tucson as extras in Hollywood movies back in the day; some insist residents were known as fancy dressers or the women looked like movie stars; still others posit that the name derives from a sarcastic insult leveled at the workingclass neighborhood. The neighborhood even has a tagline, “Where Everyone’s A Star.”
The twin beating hearts of the neighborhood include Manzo Elementary School, known for its innovative ecology program including its onsite gardens, greenhouses, and animal habitats; and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Roman Catholic Church, with masses in English and Spanish and an annual fall Fiesta that’s been running for more than 70 years. St. Margaret’s has long served as a gathering hub for much of the neighborhood.
Adrian and Ramona Martinez purchased their lot in Barrio Hollywood for $250 in the early 1950s. Adrian and his brothers-in-law fashioned the adobe blocks in the yard and, as each batch dried, they stacked them up and built their house. One of their sons, Paul, has fond memories of growing up in the barrio. “We used to play baseball and football in the street,” he reflects. “We rode our bikes everywhere. After baseball practice my dad would give me a quarter and we would bike to Pat’s Chili Dogs for a bag of French fries and a Coke.” Today, you can still get fries and a Coke at Pat’s, as well as one of their famous chili dogs. Martinez recalls his mom shopping at long-defunct El Grande Supermarket, where Victory Outreach resides now. After his parents passed, Paul purchased the family home from his siblings and in 2004 returned to the house he grew up in with his wife Malena. “We remodeled the house from front to back. I built a big garage in the back. We used every square foot of the lot,” says Martinez.
If you drive through Barrio Hollywood, take note of the black-and-white tile murals along North Grande Avenue. Begun in 2002 and completed seven years later, these public artworks are based on historical photos of area residents and lend a sense of continuity, as well as beauty, to the neighborhood. You’ll also notice front yards dotted with religious shrines and outdoor fountains.
One of the hallmarks of this small barrio is the vibrant family owned restaurant scene along Grande Avenue and beyond. In addition to Pat’s, you’ll find a plethora of excellent Mexican food restaurants, including Mariscos Chihuahua, Barrio Barista, Tania’s 33, St. Mary’s Tamale Factory, Taco Giro, and more. In the summer months residents line up at seasonally open Oasis Raspados, for shaved-ice treats, then stroll along the nearby Santa Cruz River Bike Path. “Our grandkids love going there in the summer,” notes Martinez.
The proximity to downtown, as well as to hiking and biking trails in the nearby Tucson Mountains, make this barrio attractive to homebuyers. “We like being able to go to the Mercado,” says Martinez. “I still see people here who have lived in the neighborhood their whole lives. But now you have a mix of people who have grown up here and those who have moved in. It’s very diverse. The neighborhood is definitely on the rise. It has a very homey feel to it. People say hello. I know people in other neighborhoods who don’t know the people who live on their street. I’d much rather live here.”
Bordering downtown to the south you’ll find the neighborhood of Armory Park. The Military Plaza and Armory, in use from 1862 to 1873, lends the neighborhood its name. The arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1880 saw the rapid construction of housing for prominent railroad workers and their families. White-collar workers lived in the fancier Victorians while laborers inhabited the more modest structures found along the alleyways. You’ll find a variety of architectural styles represented, from Greek Revival to Victorian, Anglo-Territorial to Queen Anne, many popular in the East and built here for the first time with materials (bricks, pressed tin, milled lumber) brought in by the railroad. The neighborhood also features pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and wide north-south avenues so horses and carriages could more easily turn around.
A centerpiece of the neighborhood is the Children’s Museum Tucson, designed in 1900 by Henry Trost as a Carnegie Free Library in a striking Neoclassical Revival style. Frequent museum visitor and Armory Park resident Megan Marcello Noli moved into the neighborhood 20 years ago, when her then-boyfriend delivered a pizza to a house with a for rent sign in the window. They’ve since married, had two boys, and bought the house they were renting. “We just love the proximity to everything — our workplaces (both she and her husband work downtown), the university, restaurants, and the Children’s Museum.” In addition to the neighborhood’s prime location, Noli also appreciates the character of the houses and variety of people they come across. “I like the fact that my kids are exposed to many different lifestyles. And yes, that includes people who may have mental illness or are homeless. Life is made of all types of people, and living so close to downtown teaches them awareness and compassion.” In addition to the Children’s Museum, other architectural gems include the Scottish Rite Cathedral, the Temple of Music and Art, Stone Avenue Temple, and Safford K–8 School, built in 1918, in addition to many private homes.
Artist Janet K. Miller has called Armory Park home since the mid-’80s. “Years ago I organized a neighborhood tree-planting project. We planted more than 500 — mesquites, palo verdes, ironwoods, and more.” She loves walking through her neighborhood and chatting with other residents. “Now, you can walk in the shade,” she says. “The neighborhood has changed so much in 35 years — as every place has — with the trend to move back into downtowns and live an urban lifestyle.” Real estate prices in and around downtown have increased dramatically, especially as downtown continues to grow. “It’s mind boggling how expensive Armory Park is. I couldn’t afford it if I were moving here now,” observes Miller. But not everything has changed. “There are a lot of heritage families that were in the neighborhood when I moved here who are still here and are very much a presence in the neighborhood, passing their homes on to the next generations.”
Armory Park residents have their pick of downtown restaurants, bars, yoga shops, salons, and cultural amenities, including Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, Etherton Gallery, the Owl’s Club, and the Red Light Lounge at the Downtown Clifton.
FORT LOWELL HISTORIC DISTRICT
Named for the 1873 army post Fort Lowell, this neighborhood is dotted with landmarks of the past. Abandoned in 1891, the fort once had dozens of adobe buildings, including a commissary, hospital, trading store, and officers’ quarters. However, the neighborhood’s history traces all the way back to the Hohokam people. In the late 19th century the fertile flood plain of the Rillito and Pantano Rivers attracted Mexican farmers and ranchers who began moving into the area, calling it El Fuerte (the fort). They constructed Sonoran-style adobe homes that still stand. Mormons also arrived, and an irrigation system they built for moving water from Tanque Verde Creek to their farms remains visible. “I was born and raised in the Old Fort Lowell neighborhood,” says Demion Clinco. “The neighborhood has always had this strong rural feel. We would follow little walking paths across private properties to an old acequia (an irrigation ditch that still ran), where we’d find old gun shells and Hohokam pottery shards. It was a really beautiful and blissful place to grow up with a timeless quality and a bohemian sensibility that was so Arizona and quintessentially Tucson. My parents still live in the house where I was born.”
The neighborhood’s fertility extends beyond agriculture, and it has a long history as a creative enclave attracting painters, sculptors, anthropologists, writers, and intellectuals. Famed novelist Jack Kerouac spent time in Old Fort Lowell and included a reference to the neighborhood in his novel On the Road.
In the heart of the Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood sits the picturesque San Pedro Chapel, built in 1932 atop older church ruins and purchased by the neighborhood in 1993 in order to restore and enhance it. It now enjoys City of Tucson Historic Landmark status and serves as a community meeting spot, as well as being rented out for weddings and private events. The former fort commissary is now owned by the city, which further fosters a sense of place and the wider community commitment to preserve and restore the shared cultural resources.
Of course the neighborhood has changed over time. Some of the “old guard” has passed away and Clinco sees the next decade as an opportunity for rebirth and new ways for the area to express itself that are more public-facing. Properties on the Old Fort Lowell annual La Reunion Tour are some of the city’s best examples of Pueblo and Territorial style. According to Clinco, the tour provides a peek into “what Tucson was like 80 years ago.”
When Mari Thompson and her family moved back to Tucson after a stint in Paris, it took them a while to find the right house. A friend told her about a newer development in the Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood called The Parade Grounds, where houses don’t often come up for sale. They took one look and made an offer that same day. Says Thompson, “I loved the fact that our house has an open concept with a lot of natural light, and that we are surrounded by old mesquite trees. You are a part of the neighborhood, but you are in your own oasis. We are close to the Rillito Bike Path. The neighborhood is really quiet even though it’s in the middle of the city. We have a big grassy loop around the Parade Grounds and people bring their dogs and socialize while the pups romp around. A lot of people from the Old Neighborhood walk around our loop, which is great.”
When asked how he feels about the changes in the neighborhood, Clinco is quick to respond, “The world is not a glass snow globe. This neighborhood is part of a living tradition. Places change and the city’s involvement has created more opportunities for people to value the historic part of the neighborhood.”
From the neighborhood, it’s a pleasant walk to Plaza Palomino on Swan Road, where you’ll find restaurants and cafes, as well as boutiques such as Maya Palace and specialty stores like Dark Star Leather.