(Phoenix, Arizona) — Like a desert in miniature in a city of almost one and a half million inhabitants, an unpopulated area in Southeast Phoenix draws attention due to its solitary appearance.
Surrounded by Buckeye Road, 16th Street, Grant Street, and Sky Harbor Circle, and between the Airport and the baseball stadium, this land represents the demand for growth of a large city, that to continue its development it must recover spaces no longer existent, and outline the future by erasing the past.
In that empty land, a popular and largely Mexican-American neighborhood arose and thrived during several decades. The area was distinguished yesterday and is today by a temple where in the name of God thousands of masses took place. But by the end of the 80s, in the name of expansion, the “Golden Gate” community was wiped-out completely.
Bulldozers dispersed almost six thousand families, pulverized their homes, created its legend, and forged a symbol of resistance. And as in the history of old civilizations, where no vestige is left, only a structure, the building of the Church of the Sacred Heart –defended of its destruction by the parishioners– remains standing today, as a material survivor of a community forever lost.
The fate of one of the biggest and oldest Latino neighborhoods was foreseen in 1935, when it was decided to permanently settle the airport just east of “Golden Gate,” without the residents being able to stop it. The barrio was then under the path, the noise and the smog of the airplanes of which would become the fifth busiest airport in the nation.
In the 1970s, the airport’s expansion began to dismantle adjacent residential areas, continuing its unstoppable march toward the 80’s. At the Sacred Heart, the parishioners attended the last mass on December 29, 1985. The gradual exodus happened during the next two years. Days before the final demolition, the last residents salvaged what they could, like A/C units and other objects. When the dust dissipated and the rubbish was removed, the neighborhood had disappeared; only the temple remained.
For the displaced population of “Golden Gate,” the direct and indirect consequences of progress were ambiguous. Some property owners had wanted to leave the area, because for years they lived under the noise and the pollution caused by the incessant and progressive air traffic. Nevertheless, they were affected when they received amounts paid by the City of Phoenix that were not equivalent to homes in other areas. The environmental quality of life and the threat of the inevitable expansion had caused a constant devaluation of the estates.
Uprooted from the place where they were born and grew up, the old-time residents had feelings not only of material loss; part of their cultural identity, their sense of community and their family history, was also reduced like the value of their homes. For occupants of rented homes, most of them recent immigrants, the effects were less harsh, although they were also forced to relocate. In the opinion of the Phoenix Mexican-American community, the complete destruction of this area demonstrated an abuse of authority. It also represented the urban and cultural struggle of a people against the methods and strategies of urban development.
The local economy was also devastated. Small businesses, franchises and corporations, were affected and gradually forced to close their doors. The businesses of the shopping center on the southwest corner of Buckeye Road and 16th Street, who depended mainly on the consumption of the “Golden Gate” community, today resemble a ghost town.
Thus, the gradual displacement of thousands of families, the subsequent demolition, and the time this land has remained empty, has given this segment of 16th Street a declining appearance and a desolate aspect. In the area between Buckeye and Jefferson Street, the industrial landscape remains.
Passing Grant Street, northbound, a bridge rises, allowing the passage of trains owned by the Union Pacific Railroad company, previously called Southern Pacific. When crossing Jefferson Street, toward Washington and Van Buren, a different economy and population are seen, in contrast to the solitary view of the south side of the bridge.
And indeed a bridge between the past and the future is what the City wants to build, thus turning Phoenix into a world-class metropolis. For several years, developers have had in their vision other old neighborhoods located between 7th and 16th Streets, Buckeye Road and Interstate 17.
Within that perimeter, thousands of families live under the same effects of the airport traffic that condemned “Golden Gate” to its disappearance. Residents of barrios like “Campito,” “Cuatro Milpas,” “Ann Ott” and Green Valley” do not ignore their situation, or the plans that are prepared by urban developers in public and private meetings. But the continuous deterioration of their homes, and the depreciation of value of their properties, oretell a situation of voluntary or forced sale and departure for them. They may follow the same fate as the residents of the 16th Street and Buckeye neighborhood, by seeing their homes disappear under the machinery of urbanization.
Ironically, some expansion projects for the airport remained idle for more than fifteen years. It was until March 3, 2004 that construction of the Sky Harbor Rental Car Center began, across the land where the “Golden Gate” community existed. The massive complex, Arizona’s largest and of multi-million cost, will begin to ease the passenger’s arrival and departure areas by the end of 2005.
On the contrary, the lot where the temple was left continues vacant. The plans for this structure are to convert it into a museum and cultural center, according to the mission of The Braun-Sacred Heart Center, Inc. –a nonprofit organization–, the desire of local politicians and former residents of the barrio. Their purpose is to preserve the memory of the life that once bloomed in the area, and to promote community ideals of involvement and belonging. Facing continuous economic development and the urban expansion of Phoenix, the fight to conserve the structure of the old church, represents a social symbol of resistance.
Encountered in that intersection, the future and the past face each other. One looks for advancement and change; the other, prefers tradition and cultural heritage. Thus, the horizon raises a dilemma, where urban reality suggests the idea of a renaissance, contingent on the destruction of barrios west of the airport and south of downtown. To destroy is the implied condition for progress.
Therefore, the price for advancement in Phoenix is the acquisition and subsequent demolition of great populated zones. On the other hand, the cost for the residents of those barrios could be to sell their properties for amounts insufficient to buy homes equivalent to theirs in other communities.
Almost no one would consider the economic boom as something objectionable for Phoenix and its metropolitan area. But the demands for growth projected must prevent the intransigent displacement, the disruption of lives, the unfair compensation for properties, and the disregard for cultural values.
In a city with dimensions and values like Phoenix’, the economic growth should be as important and indispensable as the welfare, the respect, and the just treatment of its residents.
© 2004 – 2016, Eduardo Barraza. All rights reserved.