Off the Rails
My ancient house gently rains dirt down around me as the weeks turn into months turn to years. Fine, ultra-dry adobe dust sifting softly through the ceiling eventually covers everything in a delicate, powdery silt. When the front door closes, tiny crumbs of hundred-year-old brick sprinkle down from the edge of the ceiling and gather along the back of the couch. I’ve given up trying to keep pace with it. It’s never-ending, so fine and dry that sweeping just sends it back into the air to resettle in a finer, uniform layer.
I walk the two blocks down to Empire Market to buy an Arizona iced tea. Walking through my neighborhood is a study in contrasts, the new and the old all mixed up and on top of each other. The store is on the far end of a three-unit building. On the end closest to my house is The Buffet, the oldest bar in Tucson. I’ve never been inside. I just walk past, ignoring the men smoking outside the front door.
*Winks* “Where’s your smile?” *Whistles*
Loud music, raucous voices, and the clink of glasses spill out from the inside. So not my style. The front windows are blocked out with plywood, painted with different scenes of smiling pickled eggs and happy bar patrons. There’s a “Use Your ATM Card Here” sign. A few months ago, a mural went up on the east side of the building, depicting a train – a nod to the history of the neighborhood. Previously, the wall had been almost blank, a two-toned brown wall with a “NO LOITERING” sign that some enterprising person had changed to “KNOW LOITERING” with a can of red spray paint. The altered sign made more sense, as it was directly above three heavy, wooden benches.
My neighborhood, Iron Horse, is one of the oldest in Tucson. Many of the houses were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including mine, which was built in 1900. The neighborhood took shape around the workers who lived there and worked on the railroad. Even the name of the neighborhood, Iron Horse, invokes images of railroad engines chugging along, moving cargo from place to place. Back in the day, it was standard practice for railroad workers observe the “One Mile Rule,” which meant they had to live within one mile of the tracks, so they could hear the “Whistle Code.” The railroad company used the Whistle Code as a means of communication before telephones were available. Today, more than a hundred years later, the trains still scream past on the south-west side of the neighborhood, announcing their presence with whistles that are no longer codes. After living in Iron Horse for a period of time, you come to the realization that you no longer hear the trains. Not being conditioned to listen for a Whistle Code, they fade from conscious thought. Afterward, when you actually do hear them, it’s like remembering an old friend.
The writing on the mural says,
in large letters against the background of an Arizona sunset. The sky is yellow streaked with red and below are rugged, brown, desert cliffs. A black steam-engine is chugging down to a valley with saguaro cacti, white smoke belching from the engine car in a giant cloud. This new mural is part of an attempt to “revitalize” old neighborhoods. The revitalization started downtown and has spilled over to adjacent districts, sweeping out the old and unwanted and replacing it with the shiny and new.
My house is only the second place that I have had completely to myself, having lived with parents, the ex-husband, then a progression of room-mates, then parents again. After having had to move home after the recession hit, being able to move out into my own place was liberating. The place I found was perfect for me and my two cats: four rooms in an adobe-style, old-fashioned house with high ceilings and eighteen-inch-thick walls. The floors were cement in the two front rooms and tile in the kitchen and bathroom. It appeared nearly indestructible – perfect for someone with multiple cats.
Between The Buffet and Empire Market is the Empire Laundry, a laundromat run by the same family that runs the Market. Four years ago, it was amazingly funky and eclectic. There were several couches, comfy armchairs, a television, an organ, a Pepsi soda machine (complete with an “I Love Mary Jane” sticker and the old 1980s style large push buttons in a row across the top), and a dummy of an old man with long white hair that sat in the front window and gave the impression that he was always there waiting for his clothes to dry. The interior wall between the laundry and market had a mural depicting saguaro cacti and other desert plants. It was also lined with several bureaus and book cases – all crammed with old paperback western and romance novels – and an old video game machine from the 1980s. There was an old man who would talk to me while my clothes washed and give me change – there was no automated change machine. We would watch drag racing or America’s Dumbest Criminals or 1000 Ways to Die on the television. One evening, the owner brought the attendant dinner – chicken and rice. “You want some?” the owner asked me. It was that kind of place. Since the new student apartment complex was built on the other side of Empire Market, the character has slowly been leaking out of the laundromat, the new taking the place of the old. Pieces of furniture have gradually disappeared. Most recently, the laundromat has closed, pending repairs on their ancient washers and driers. A glance through the plate glass front windows shows a sad, less cluttered version of the laundromat, odd pieces of furniture scattered around, waiting to be used again.
According to government statistics, Iron Horse has a significantly lower median income and higher crime rate than the rest of Tucson. Oddly, this doesn’t translate into an obvious police presence. Walking through the neighborhood, I don’t usually see police cars cruising the streets. But I know they are there, just out of sight. One afternoon, while reading in my living room, I heard a loud crash outside the front door. Startled and curious, I jumped up and walked the five feet to my front door to see what was going on. There, just to the right of my house, a blonde man was being pressed to the ground by two police officers. Already, there was a police car and two bicycle cops on the scene. Apparently, the guy had really pissed someone off, because they had him lying face down on the hard, rocky dirt between the sidewalk and the chain link fence of the artist co-op next door to me. Two police officers were on top of him, knees in his back, grinding his body into the ground. His bicycle laid on its side a few feet away, front tire spinning idly. Within seconds, three more bicycle cops showed up and joined the fray. Then two more police cruisers arrived. Within two minutes, at least eight police officers (three cruisers and five bicycle cops) were on the scene, arresting one man on a bike. As soon as they had him cuffed, he was shoved into a car and taken away. One officer stayed behind to deal with his bike. In a few minutes, there was no sign that anything had ever happened.
Next to the community garden on Tenth Street are several giant rusty iron constructions that appear to be made of railroad parts. They are obviously meant to commemorate a time when the neighborhood was populated with railroad workers. Maybe these parts were once common, their purposes known throughout the neighborhood. Now, joggers run under and around them, passing behind the community garden to access the snake bridge through the park, not giving a thought to the history behind the art.
The dust began to invade my house when the neighbors moved out and the landlord went in. My house is a duplex. One day, I came home and found the landlord working on the newly-empty other half. “Come over and look at this,” he said, his booming voice causing my cats to scatter. I walked over and looked into the living room. The entire floor was gone. I was standing on the threshold of a pit that went down two or three feet. There were wooden supporting beams going across the room at the level where the plank floor used to be. I looked up and saw that part of the ceiling was gone, showing a dark recess. The handyman looked down at me from the massive hole. “The roof was leaking and they never told me about it,” the landlord said. He was breathing so hard, I was worrying (not for the first time) about his heart health. “The ceiling was rotting, so we had to tear out this whole section and when we did, we found out there’s about four feet of dirt up there in the attic.” Apparently, the dirt had to go. The handyman removed load after load of dirt from the attic and put it down into the floor, creating the foundation for a cement floor like the one on my side. The white mask on his face gradually changed from white to tan to brown as he became covered in a layer of hundred-year-old dry adobe dust. Once he had filled the foundation inside the house, he raised the level of the driveway several inches. Then, he raised the level of the dirt area on my side of the house.
Empire Market’s been there forever…well, since 1930. I enter through the old wood and glass door and step back in time. Almost everything is vintage. The floor is made of wooden planks worn down by decades of shoes, coming and going. To the left is the large, square counter area. At this time of day, Mrs. Lee, one of the owners, is behind the counter. Her short, thick hair is still black, even though she’s got to be pushing seventy. She wears blue nitrile gloves while she rings up people’s groceries. As usual, she acknowledges me, then goes back to talking to her friend and watching the evening news on an old thirteen-inch color television set perched on top of a bookcase crammed with candy. The big open area of the store is filled with old, wooden shelves where people can shop for groceries and household goods. Fans turn lazily overhead and the swamp coolers blow. Around the perimeter are the cold cases. The ones in the back look like they’ve been taken directly from the 1950s, their white metal and glass doors still gleaming in the harsh florescent lights. Newness has begun to creep in, however. There’s a new, stainless steel table and new outdoor sign, courtesy of the new student apartment high-rise next door.
What began as revitalization of downtown Tucson in 2012 has begun to spill over into adjacent neighborhoods. Historic neighborhoods like Iron Horse, Pie Allen, and Armory Park are seeing an increase in development. About a block to the east of my house is another apartment complex. When I moved into my house, the apartment complex was owned by a little, white-haired, old man. I would sometimes see him out caring for the property as I walked past on the way to school or work. At one point, he painted the trim on the front of the building several different neon colors. The paint was thin and the result was less than brilliant. Imagine watery neon green, yellow, and blue trim...not the best choice. Several months ago, he sold the place. It now has a snazzy new black-and-white paint job and a title: “The Station at Iron Horse”. Apparently, developers are big on history.
Iron Horse’s community garden sits east of Iron Horse Park on Tenth Street. As I walk by it in early September, it is overgrown, the plots having served their purposes for the year. The gate is padlocked and it appears that no one has visited in some time. The recent rains have produced a cacophony of green inside the iron fence, volunteer plants springing up everywhere in defiance of the harsh desert climate. The gate and fence of the garden are decorated in true Iron Horse style: colorful, quirky, homemade, and artistic. There are hand-made iron flowers on each side of the ornately decorated gate, which says “Iron Horse” above it in iron letters. Most of the flowers appear to be made from recycled metal objects such as gears. On the fence facing Tenth Street, an artistic sign reads “Iron Horse Community Garden”. It’s surrounded by ceramic flowers. Someone has left their hat on the fence above the sign.
Sometime, during all the moving of dust and dirt from the attic, the handyman put his foot through my living room ceiling. I was at home, lying on my bed, studying, when I heard what was to become an all-too familiar sound coming from the living room: small particles and clods of dirt falling down onto the floor. The first few seconds of sound were intriguing; as the sounds continued, they became disturbing. I got up to investigate. It didn’t seem so bad. There was a small hole in the ceiling, and the wood still covered most of the hole, hanging down from the left side. As I watched, more and more dirt started to fall from the ceiling onto the bookcase below. The dirt quickly began falling from the bookcase to the floor and collecting in a growing pile. I retrieved the landlord from next door and went to class, leaving him and the handyman to sort out the mess. When I got home, the ceiling was fixed, a new piece of wood nearly blending in with the rest of the wooden ceiling. “Look at this wood we took out of there! Termites have nearly eaten it through,” the landlord says. “We cleaned up all the dirt for you.” That night, I reclaimed three bookcases full of books from the dirt, removing them from their shelves and dusting each volume. The dust infiltrated every nook and cranny in the living room, including between, behind, and under each book.
I get my iced tea and decide to walk around the neighborhood a little. Instead of turning right from the door of Empire Market and going home, I turn left and walk past the new student housing. It’s huge, smug, new, and – judging by its name – trying to play up the history of the neighborhood. The tall, tan walls are dotted with windows and there is a large breezeway that opens up onto the corner of Ninth Street and Third Avenue. There’s an iron fence around the entire complex. I turn left on Third Street and walk beside the behemoth, feeling dwarfed by the four stories of students. It looks so new, so spotless, so hopelessly modern, it practically glistens in the setting sun. It’s beautiful, but in a totally alien way.
On PBS’s website for their show POV, gentrification is explained in depth. “Gentrification tends to occur in districts with particular qualities that make them desirable and ripe for change. The convenience, diversity, and vitality of urban neighborhoods are major draws, as is the availability of cheap housing, especially if the buildings are distinctive and appealing. Old houses or industrial buildings often attract people looking for ‘fixer-uppers’ as investment opportunities.” Iron Horse is teeming with old houses, fixer-uppers, and distinctive buildings. Not to mention the fact that it’s next door to Fourth Avenue, downtown, and the University of Arizona. It’s so conveniently located that it has a walk score of 85. A walk score is a measure of how “walkable” an area is. The scale goes from 0-100. Zero means you can’t walk anywhere. One hundred is a walker’s dream come true. The national average is 43.
On First Avenue, between Eighth and Ninth Streets, there is a mural painted on a stucco wall. Various people, animals, plants, and other objects comingle on top of a sky blue background. The drawings are more crudely done than the new mural on the side of The Buffet. While the new mural looks like the work of an artist who is trying to realistically portray the neighborhood’s history with true-to-life images, this mural is more primal, more imaginative. It has dinosaurs, volcanoes and ancient-looking plants. At one point, a boy plays with a fire-breathing dragon. When drawing many of the pictures, the artist cut into the wall, scaring the stucco, giving the mural a decidedly different look than the one on The Buffet.
As soon as the handyman removed the dirt from the attic, the edge of the ceiling on the outside wall of my house began to leak dust and dirt, the crack between the ceiling and the wall growing slowly wider and wider as time went on. Small clods of old adobe and fine, fine dust would rain down whenever the door closed. Sometimes, dirt would just fall for no reason. I’d be sitting in the next room and hear a load of dirt come down from the ceiling and hit the couch. “We took all the dirt out of there,” my landlord said when I pointed it out. He looked genuinely perplexed, as if the sight of actual dirt coming down from the ceiling made no sense.
Iron Horse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic District along with 35 other neighborhoods in Tucson. The title of Historic District is basically honorary, although, according to the National Park Service’s website, there are also “financial opportunities”. The website does not, however, tell what those “financial opportunities” are. Historic districts are made up of both contributing and non-contributing properties. Contributing properties are those that add historical value to the district. They are a fundamental part of the historical context and help define the district culturally. Conversely, non-contributing properties do not add historical context or cultural depth to the historic district. They are simply there.
I turn left on Tenth Street, go over to First Avenue, and turn north, still drinking my tea. I’m almost home, but I always walk slowly on this street to look at the Victorian house. The sign on its wrought-iron gates reads:
“126 N. 1st Ave.
Iron Horse District
High Victorian Queen Anne
Home of the
The house is amazing. It’s painted the usual Tucson colors of beige and salmon, but the architecture is superb. The main entrance is over a large porch, complete with porch swing. The roof of the porch is an iron-rimmed balcony that opens off the second floor. There is a circular, two-story tower to the left of the porch that I can actually see from my kitchen window. Compared to the new student housing three blocks away, this house is a relic, a throwback to a different time. I turn left next to the empty warehouse that used to be an artist co-op and go home.
Copyright 2016 Pamela Israel
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