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for people who care about the West

What does a gentrifying city look like? Talk to the man who delivers the mail.

Tracing Tucson’s changes with a longtime postal service worker.

 

When mail carrier Dan Turrentine spies a geriatric, golden-furred dog on the sidewalk across a narrow street in Tucson’s historic Barrio Viejo neighborhood where he delivers mail, he pulls over immediately. “I have to say ‘Hi’ to Coco,” he says, turning off the engine of his grey truck and stepping into the street. Coco’s owners stop trimming their bushes and hand Turrentine a postal worker identification card. How, they want to know, did the substitute who recently covered his route manage to lose his ID in their hedge? The implied question seems to be, how could anyone replace Turrentine?

A few months previously, Turrentine — who prefers “letter carrier” over the outdated “mailman” when describing his profession — bid to change his route assignment, using his seniority at the U.S. Post Office to request a part of town farther away from Tucson’s revitalizing downtown district. Tucson’s latest redevelopment effort has been gaining steam, with local government, nonprofits, businesses, and the nearby university all pushing for high-density living and working. According to the Downtown Tucson Partnership, more than 1,400 new homes are proposed or under construction to be built in Tucson’s downtown and nearby neighborhoods by 2019, an area of just over four square miles. Downtown’s also projected to gain some 1,000 permanent jobs. But the impacts of revitalization efforts are always a mixed bag, especially for community oldtimers. In Tucson, revitalization has brought a tantalizing promise of development back to downtown — but it’s also pushed out long-term residents, marginalized renters, and led to outward ripples of gentrification.

Dan Turrentine delivers mail to an apartment complex in Armory Park. "In the summer between these boxes is the hottest part of my whole route," he said while delivering the letters.
J. Daniel Hud

A friendly man in his early sixties with hazel eyes and a quick laugh, Turrentine is beloved by many of the residents whose correspondence he's carried for a dozen years; one renter who has moved five times has made sure to stay on his postal route. Turrentine has watched neighborhood lives play out in a strangely intimate way, from the opening of new businesses to the slow processional of memorial services, some of which he’s attended. But as Tucson’s worked for decades to draw people back to downtown, mail carriers have had to contend with increasingly crowded routes. For postal workers such as Turrentine, who have walked through downtown every day with its concerns and purchases on their backs, this growth — and its ripples into surrounding neighborhoods — has been grueling. While more and more people work and live downtown, there’s been no increase in the number of mail carriers. Turrentine finally threw his hands up over working downtown when getting all of his assigned mail sorted and dropped off each day became overwhelming. For Turrentine, the thought of departing his route is distressing, but his choice is also a sign of how euphemisms like “downtown revitalization” can hide the mixed impacts of urban renewal projects in cities across the West.

The Postal Service has tried to cope with downtown’s growing liveliness, sometimes with curious outcomes. Turrentine shows me a deceptive mailbox on his route. It’s located in Armory Park, a wealthy neighborhood south of downtown where territorial-style homes are lined by mesquite and citrus trees. Curved on top, four-legged, sturdy and silver, the mailbox squats on the street corner looking like just the place to drop off a birthday card or an important bill. But it’s actually a cluster box where renters get their mail — the whole front swings open, revealing shelves of boxes. It’s an old relay box, Turrentine explains, where carriers on bicycle would drop off mail for carriers with vehicles to pick up. Years ago, as the historic homes of Tucson’s Armory Park neighborhood morphed into rental units, the neighborhood used this relay box instead of the typical rectangular cluster box, masking this block’s slide into higher density housing.

Today, the camouflaged cluster box straddles the dividing line between Turrentine’s mail route and another carrier’s mail route. Both he and the other carrier have addresses in the box. “We are both stopping at this same box every day,” he says. That’s because the post office has redrawn routes, sometimes in strange ways, trying to compensate for downtown’s increasing postal demands without adding more staff — growing pains that the box also camouflages. The mail carriers scramble to keep up with increasing housing density.

In downtown, all of that mail corresponds to a city that’s emphasizing mixed use once again, especially through more housing, businesses, and walkability – though planners also lament a parking shortage. There’s a struggle between preserving historic buildings that rarely stand more than a few stories tall and represent modernist or mission style architecture — and which give Tucson a sense of “character” — and constructing high-density structures. Newer buildings do more with less land, but nudge Tucson toward blandly resembling any other mid-sized metropolis.

Locals and developers spar over whether affordable housing units should be required in new development projects. The Ronstadt Transit Center – named for the family of Linda Ronstadt — is a tile-bedecked bus hub that’s essential for downtown’s carless class, which includes a fair number of homeless travelers as well as working day commuters. In downtown’s scruffier days, it served as a defacto axle to the community’s transportation spokes, connecting residents to greater Tucson. Now, the center’s being redeveloped to include an open market, residential housing, and a boutique hotel.

Communities are often defined by who lives in a place, but Tucson’s revitalization is drawing a line between property owners and renters, and between new arrivals and oldtimers. Turrentine has noticed low income residents in downtown-adjacent neighborhoods disappearing as the effects of revitalization have rippled out. As downtown becomes trendier, there’s economic spillover into surrounding neighborhoods, which include the oldest parts of Tucson. This isn’t a new phenomenon: According to University of Arizona historian Lydia Otero, the tension between renters and owners goes back to urban renewal efforts a half century ago, when Tucson voted to knock down much of downtown’s adobe neighborhoods and construct a convention center. Only property owners, not renters, were allowed to vote on the project, though many of the people whose homes were destroyed were renters.

Dan Turrentine tosses a package on his delivery route in Armory Park on Dec. 14. "I try to make sure they're in the safest place I can," he says about the mail he delivers.
J. Daniel Hud

But new technologies have changed the winners and losers of revitalization. Short term rentals replace long term rentals, in part thanks to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. Barrio Viejo, where adobe rowhouses line narrow streets, is one neighborhood that’s walking distance from downtown. Median home values increased 42 percent from 2000 to 2013. Turrentine suspects, based on mail delivery patterns he’s observed, that some properties are being used solely for Airbnb-style rentals. A recent study found that in cities where hosts rent out entire houses on Airbnb — as is the case for about 70 percent of Arizona Airbnb listings — a housing shortage can develop and bump up rent prices for long-term renters. Nonetheless, in 2016, Ducey signed a law that prevents cities from banning short-term rentals such as Airbnb. Meanwhile, Turrentine has seen rents increase, leading to evictions or house sales.

Turrentine and I drive through one of the older, still primarily Latino neighborhoods where he delivers mail. He idles his truck on a quiet street, and a man emerges from a nearby house. It takes him a moment to recognize Turrentine, who’s out of uniform. Turrentine explains that I am interested in how the neighborhood is changing. “Gentrification!” he responds. “The white, rich people are putting it hard on us.” On blocks to the east and west are listed whole houses for rent on Airbnb.

Other neighborhoods are zoned for mixed use, which leads to battles between property owners. Along one area of Turrentine’s route, art galleries, restaurants, hotels, apartments and houses all jostle together on the same few blocks heading south from downtown. Property owners have tried to buy each other out, consolidating land ownership in order to consolidate votes on zoning issues. One hot issue these days, Turrentine explains, is being able to build multistory apartments and hotels in areas where the tallest buildings are only two stories high.

Still, some of the old connections yet remain. Turrentine attended a funeral service for a woman on his route. “She was well loved, and from what I understand she was a magnificent singer,” he says. “She actually died at home. There were all these people there doing the rosary.” I found her obituary after Turrentine showed me her small, tidy house, which has been sold since her death; her family arrived in the area in the 1800s from Mexico — before Arizona was a U.S. state — and fought the development of the Tucson Convention Center.

Perhaps one of the lasting effects of revitalization will be gentrification. Gentrification is a fraught term, bringing up local history and complicity that can be hard to untangle. “People may be informed about the tax bill, but they don’t think it’s important to know what led to living where they live,” Otero says. Although many people think of gentrification as simply a neighborhood’s getting more expensive, Governing defines gentrification by also looking at education level, because the first wave of residents to “gentrify” a neighborhood — such as artists or young professionals — often do not have high incomes, but do have high education levels. Later, property values increase and many of the neighborhood’s original inhabitants move out.

In the 1970s, Turrentine played softball in a park in a lower-income, mostly Latino neighborhood just under a mile south of downtown. Tucson gave tax breaks to professionals who moved into neighborhoods like that one which were considered blighted -- and that led to the gentrification of the area. According to Governing, between 1990 and 2000 – when neighborhood level information became available – that neighborhood gentrified, with median home value increasing by 73 percent, to just over $100,000. By 2013, mean home value had increased to $153,000. The population dropped by more than 500 people, while the number of people with bachelor’s degrees in the neighborhood doubled.

Dan Turrentine cuts across a porch during his delivery route in Armory Park on Dec. 14. "I try to take as many shortcuts as possible," he says. As downtown Tucson urbanizes, nearby postal routes get busier.
J. Daniel Hud

Turrentine witnessed the departure of many of the neighborhood’s original inhabitants. Today, he has mixed feelings about the city’s efforts to revitalize the area. “I mean, I think it’s a good program and everything, building the neighborhoods back up,” Turrentine says, “but I also worry about what’s happened with the low income people.” Even the park doesn’t exist anymore — it’s been built over for residential development.

As shopping malls die slow deaths across the country and water is more and more a limiting factor to the Southwest’s urban sprawl, Tucson’s revitalization efforts mean, in some ways, returning to what downtown had in the past. Many, including Otero, saw Tucson’s streetcar, which began running from the University of Arizona’s campus to downtown in 2014, as Tucson’s way of putting a ring on it: By spending many millions of dollars on the streetcar, the city signified its commitment to downtown’s revitalization. There’s also hope that the Santa Cruz River — a perennial river to the west of downtown that lost its flow following years of groundwater pumping — will flow again in the coming years, thanks to a greywater recycling enterprise.

A couple of weeks after he shows me his route, Turrentine turns 63. He’s decided to keep his route, albeit a modified version. After several of his customers asked the post office to keep Turrentine delivering their mail — and after Turrentine himself, who is active in the union, made a fuss — the post office trimmed downtown out of his route, keeping only the portion south of downtown that he previously covered. Downtown Tucson now has two dedicated letter carriers. “I really feel for them,” Turrentine says. Meanwhile, according to the last official count, Turrentine still covers 579 addresses, although he cautions that that number is deceiving. One of those addresses, for example, corresponds to an apartment building of about 100 residences.

I imagine Turrentine’s retirement can’t be too many years in the future. Whoever replaces him on his route will have to learn a dizzying assortment of addresses: For one thing, his assigned part of Tucson used to be big ranches that stretched to the river, which were haphazardly subdivided into communities and assigned postal addresses over time. And at one point in Tucson’s history, when people moved, they took their street numbers with them.

More than numbers and names, though – more than bicycle parts for the man who has an eBay bike business, or front-door delivery for the elderly woman who no longer leaves her home — Turrentine’s carrying information, histories, that he’s accumulated over the years in his mail bag. It’s a letter from the neighborhood’s past to its future about what building and sustaining community means: important correspondence, as neighborhood oldtimers move on one way or another, for newcomers to read.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor with High Country News.