By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
At the heart of the square was A.J. Chandler Park, shaded by enormous eucalyptus, pepper and palm trees. The park was bordered by streets lined with shops, eateries and banks. Directly to the south of the commercial area, in "south Chandler," a barrio sprouted up.
With the help of irrigation and electrically pumped groundwater, Chandler became a prosperous agricultural town, separate and apart from Phoenix, some 20 miles to the northwest.
Doc Chandler asked Frank Lloyd Wright to design a second San Marcos hotel. The new hotel was to utilize Wright's "organic" style and look as though it were part of the nearby Sonoran desert. Wright drew numerous plans for Doc Chandler, but the Depression hit and none of the Wright drawings was ever transformed into bricks and mortar.
(Kerski says he first learned of the Wright-Chandler connection when he was studying architecture at the University of Wisconsin. Since Wright's drawings for Chandler still exist, it seemed only natural to ask Wright's successor firm, Taliesin Architects, to draw plans for the new downtown, he says.)
Time passed. As Chandler grew--its population ballooned to about 143,500 in 1996--the downtown lost its panache. The nucleus of the downtown, A.J. Chandler Park, was bisected by Highway 87. The park's beautiful shade trees were cut down. Cool grass was replaced by concrete, making what was left of the park into a broiling heat island in the summer. Certain areas of the downtown have become transient havens, the concrete stained with beer and human urine.
Most merchants abandoned ship, and only a few old enterprises struggled to keep their storefronts open. Mannequins in cowboy garb still smile out the window of Saba's.
A few doors down--in a building built by Doc Chandler's son-in-law--Pete Jensen toils at the family-owned Boston Shoe Shop, a shoe repair and tack store that is more than 60 years old. Today, Jensen is the only person tending the dusty shop, manning the 50-year-old machines that stitch broken sandal straps and gashed saddles. Jensen says his business has been designated as a historic enterprise, so it can remain downtown. But Jensen doesn't know how long he can hold out.
As downtown Chandler deteriorated, vacant spaces were frequently rented by Latino shopkeepers catering to residents of the nearby barrios.
Rosalia Garcia, for instance, is a retired teacher who opened South Chandler Video on Boston Avenue two years ago. At Garcia's store, Spanish speakers can rent videos like El Corrido de Santa Amalia and Los Tres Animales. They can buy candy and pickles and snacks. If they are in need of office services, Garcia translates, sends faxes, sells photocopies. She won't say how much she pays for rent, but says she knows she won't be able to afford upscale prices once the downtown is redesigned.
". . . my clientele works as housekeepers, construction workers, landscapers and babysitters," says Garcia. "They work in restaurants; they do the cheap labor.
"Our clientele is not the clientele redevelopment people are looking for."
Garcia had hoped that the new downtown plans would include a mercado, or open-air market, for Latino merchants.
"What's wrong with having our wares hanging in front of the stores? What could be more colorful for tourists than Hispanic goods and Hispanic stores?"
When Michael Kerski arrived in Chandler 20 months ago, he did not share Rosalia Garcia's vision. A draft of the partnership's Business Plan and Implementation Strategy, released shortly after Kerski arrived, offered a much different point of view.
"Downtown will be the geographic center of Chandler, especially with new growth to the south," toward the barrio, the report says. ". . . the overall appearance of Downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods is a major competitive disadvantage over even nearby sites in Chandler."
So, will low-end retailers--and their clients--be welcome in the new downtown?
"Here's the problem you have in this downtown," Kerski says. "You have retailers who don't take retailing seriously. Or won't try and expand their market.
"I mean in America a good segment of the small retailers are hurting. I don't care whether they are Hispanic or any other origin. There is a major shift to big retailers in America. That's why we're not focusing on retail down here. If the retailer is down here and the property owner is happy with rent he's paying, I don't really care. But if there is a vacant building sitting down here, we're going to do whatever we can to get that space filled up, because it's not generating any sales tax for the city and it doesn't look good to have vacant windows."
Says Rosalia Garcia: "It's pretty evident to me that businesses they don't want will be moved.
"It's only a matter of time."
Rico, who also served as a school psychologist for Chandler public schools, says he has been pastoring in the barrio for 25 years.
"Twenty-five years ago, we were very comfortable here," he says during an interview in his church. "Now we are no longer comfortable. We feel pushed, pushed, pushed."
Rico has watched the barrio change, grow poorer.
"With Chandler's growth, those that have, have more. Those that don't have, have less. Most of the people who find themselves on the outside looking in are in this neighborhood."