El Rio holds symbolic history for west side residents - Inside Tucson Business: News

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El Rio holds symbolic history for west side residents

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Posted: Friday, May 24, 2013 12:00 am

Like other communities in the U.S., Tucson has its own history of racial segregation.

The reminders of that era can be seen in places like Dunbar School, 300 W. Second St., opened in 1918 as an all-black school, and in the on-going desegregation issues at Tucson Unified School District, which has operated under desegregation court order since 1974.

For residents of Tucson’s west side, El Rio Golf Course stands as a reminder of the segregated past and a triumph over unjust treatment.

In the late 1960s, El Rio Golf Course became the focal point of Tucson’s growing Latino activist community.

Residents in adjacent Barrio Hollywood and Barrio El Rio had grown frustrated with a lack of concern by city officials for their neighborhoods and what they saw as pandering and condescension from politicians.

A young student and activist named Salomon Baldenegro was among the frustrated Barrio Hollywood residents and became a leader in the movement for change.

Recalling the situation in a 2011 interview for an oral history project called “Perspectives on the Past,” Baldenegro said barrio streets in the 1960s remained unpaved, had no sidewalks and lacked many of the services found in other areas.

Residents agreed to get out the vote for a slate of Democratic candidates for Tucson City Council in the 1967 election in exchange for improvements for their neighborhoods, especially a park.

Once the Democratic candidates were elected, residents wanted their due but the politicians weren’t delivering on the promises.

“It came to the point where they actually denied having made that commitment,” Baldenegro said in the 2011 interview.

Neighbors and activists took to the streets, protesting in front of El Rio Golf Course on weekends and demanding that the course be converted to a public park.

The golf course had become a symbol of the unequal treatment in poor parts of Tucson such as Barrio Hollywood.

The city formally acquired the course in 1968. Previously it had been a private country club. Among the complaints were that fences surrounded the course. City officials said they were to protect houses from errant golf balls. Residents, however, saw them as a way to keep poor neighbors off the property.

Baldenegro was among organizers who brought more than 200 people out to occupy the course and disrupt golf play.

City officials retaliated by having protesters arrested. The city imposed a “greens fee” on anyone who entered the property, even those who went to the course’s restaurant.

After a series of negotiations with the neighbors, the city agreed to set aside enough space for a park but the golf course would stay. That deal resulted in Joaquin Murrieta Park, 1400 N. Silverbell Road, and El Rio Neighborhood Center, 1390 W. Speedway. The latter was the first of what would become a series of neighborhood centers.

The course and community center have since become symbolic of the struggle for equality.

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