South Tucson, Arizona, public parks, Primavera Foundation, families, low income, Latinos, Marguerite Casey Foundation, journalism, Southwest, Debbie Weingarten, open space, poverty, photography
While the city of South Tucson, in Arizona, built two "pocket" parks, they're often inaccessible to residents. Photo by Debbie Weingarten for Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice News

Equal Voice News

Left Without True Parks, Arizona Families Build Their Own

March 21, 2019

By Debbie Weingarten

The Primavera Foundation and families in South Tucson, Arizona are organizing to open the only full public park in the city. Families in the city are joining people nationwide to say it’s time for more open space, especially for youth.

SOUTH TUCSON, Ariz. – On a spring morning, Alonzo Morado peers across a vacant, triangle-shaped lot. The property is empty – just a flat expanse of dirt and rocks – but Morado can imagine the future: South Tucson residents sitting beneath shade trees. Kids laughing on a playground and dribbling across a basketball court. Families cooling off in a splash pad.

After nearly two decades of red tape and bureaucratic delays, that vision is finally manifesting. Morado, the community engagement coordinator for the Primavera Foundation, says that the barren lot is slated to become the only accessible public park for the entire city of South Tucson.

South Tucson is known as “the pueblo within a city,” a 1.2-square mile area surrounded by the much larger, wealthier city of Tucson. Decades of disinvestment and a foreclosure crisis have plagued the community of more than 5,600 residents, and now big-box stores and student housing are creeping in, threatening to further marginalize and even displace residents.

While Tucson, with more than a half million residents, is dotted with parks, splash pads and bike paths, there are no such green spaces in South Tucson – where, according to the city government, 84 percent of residents are Latino and 51 percent live below the poverty line. On brutal summer days, there are no shady public places to gather, or even a single public swimming pool.

South Tucson, Arizona, public parks, Primavera Foundation, families, low income, Latinos, Marguerite Casey Foundation, journalism, Southwest, Debbie Weingarten, open space, poverty, photography, El Paso and Southwestern Greenway, mural, art, Indigenous, Mexican American, students, Tucson
Along the newly constructed El Paso and Southwestern Greenway, student artists from South Tucson designed and installed a series of murals that honor the Mexican and Indigenous roots of the region. The Greenway goes through the cities of Tucson and South Tucson, Photo by Debbie Weingarten for Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice News

It’s no secret that green spaces support community health in myriad ways. A park provides opportunities for exercise, and greenery reduces air and noise pollution. The addition of trees can lower the ground temperature – an important feature here in the desert, where summer days routinely surpass 110 degrees.

The community has long hoped for a park, but Morado says multiple misguided or stalled efforts by the city and county left residents doubtful that such a space will come to fruition.

The city of South Tucson installed two “pocket parks,” featuring a basketball court and colorful play equipment – but they’re almost always empty, and for good reason. The parks are locked behind a looming, steel gate about 20 feet tall. In order to use the pocket parks, residents must go to City Hall and request a key.

“It’s inaccessible,” says Morado. “Nobody is going to take the time to get a key.” He has repeatedly asked the city to unlock the parks during daytime hours so they can be used, but the city officials have refused, citing a lack of resources.

In 2004, Pima County passed a community reinvestment bond to fund neighborhood projects, including a park in South Tucson. But while most of those countywide projects are now completed, the South Tucson park remains unfinished.

“We’re the very last step,” says Morado, although he commends the county’s recent work to pave over an old rail line, creating a bicycle path that connects to a 130-mile loop around the city of Tucson.

Tired of waiting for officials to build a functional public park, the community took the issue into their own hands. With guidance from a landscape architect, the Primavera Foundation hosted a series of neighborhood meetings for residents to provide input into the park design. Elderly residents expressed wanting a shady place to sit and a green space of their own. Students advocated for a BMX jump park, public restrooms and a drinking fountain.

Now, the Primavera Foundation is committing to raise $1.5 million to plant 6,000 shade trees and to finally construct a park based on the expressed needs of South Tucson residents.

Morado stands uphill from the future park and gestures to the median, which is filled with spring weeds. A few months ago, he threw handfuls of wildflower seeds there, and he’s waiting eagerly for them to come up. The seeds mirror his hope for the project and for the greater revitalization of South Tucson. He imagines vibrant small businesses, improved health, safer streets and a stronger community voice.

The sun beats down on the empty lot, and the sound of the highway is a low, incessant roar.

“We’re hoping that this green space sparks everything else,” Morado says.

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Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter @cactuswrenwrite. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

2019 © Marguerite Casey Foundation

Left Without True Parks, Arizona Families Build Their Own

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