The Luis Gutierrez Bridge Spans the Santa Cruz River; It Also Links Both Parts of a Divided Community and Makes Connections to the Past

by Alice Whittenburg

At 8:45 on October 14, if a thin veil of high clouds hadn’t occluded the morning sun, a work of solar art commemorating the Tucson Pressed Brick Company would have appeared on the Luis Gutierrez Bridge on Tucson’s West Side. Because of those clouds, seven people, including myself, who had gathered on the bridge to see the ephemeral artwork were disappointed. The sign that greeted us as we walked onto the bridge was a warning that this might happen, and it reminded viewers that only “…if our glorious sun is shining,” would an event take place that “those who appreciate symbolism” would experience on that exact date and time each year. I do appreciate symbolism, and though the sun didn’t co-operate and the artwork didn’t appear, I left there determined to learn more about the bridge and its meanings, about the event that wasn’t quite commemorated.

The sign that greets pedestrians on the Luis Gutierrez Bridge.

Bridges are often symbolic structures, and this one is subtly and especially so. Built to replace the Cushing Street Bridge, the Luis Gutierrez Bridge functions as a symbol of connection because it links two parts of a divided community that was split up when Interstate 10 was built. What makes the bridge a particularly appropriate structure for Tucson is that it incorporates solar art, which is also what allows it to create links to the past. At twelve precise times each year, the sun shines through laser-cut images on one or another of the shade canopies that extend above the bridge, and an image formed by the sun’s light aligns with another image embossed onto the sidewalk. On October 14 the solar projection of the Tucson Pressed Brick Company’s stamp is supposed to align with an image of the brickworks on the sidewalk. October 14 was one of the twelve dates selected by a community ballot, according to the bridge’s designers, because it is the date of Quintus Monier’s death. He was the architect who founded TPBCo, and his achievements included building the St. Augustine Cathedral. He died in 1923.

Tucson artist Brenda Semanick, who died nearly a hundred years later in 2019, designed the canopy panels that project images onto the sidewalk; she also designed the leaves that perforate those panels (and are embossed on the sidewalk as well) and the bats and other clay creatures that decorate the pier that holds up the bridge. Her artist husband, David Johnson Vandenberg, drew the sidewalk images. In turn, the couple collaborated with architect David Dobler of Structural Grace, the local engineering firm that designed the bridge; it was Dobler who made sure that the sun lines up with the images on the dates and times listed. (See All of this painstaking work is what makes the Luis Gutierrez Bridge such memorable public art. In fact, it was named by Roads and Bridges magazine as one of America’s Top Ten Bridges in 2012.

Leaves embossed on the sidewalk of the Luis Gutierrez Bridge.

If you stand on the bridge and look down over the railing, you won’t see much of the Santa Cruz River, which the bridge was built to span; in fact, most of the time there’s no water down there at all, just some vegetation and a great deal of bare ground. These days the Santa Cruz River only flows through Tucson as a result of human intervention – here in the desert southwest the groundwater has been pumped so extensively that the river can’t flow unless effluent is released into the riverbed.  That effluent has helped make parts of the riverbed green and has created a home for some native fishes, but the Santa Cruz has nearly disappeared in most of the Tucson area.  Over the past hundred years, you could say that the river has been effaced by the activities of a growing city and the influx of new Anglo residents. It seems this is also what happened to the nearby neighborhood.

When the Luis Gutierrez Bridge was opened to pedestrian traffic in 2012, former City Manager Gutierrez said, “The people who have lived in the West Side of our community have for generations felt that when the freeway was constructed that they became separated from the community.” (Note that the freeway can clearly be seen from the bridge.) He added that the bridge provides a way for the community to be reunited.  Expanding on that, Brenda Semanick talked about the bridge as “…a span across time that reaches to our past.” This is brought home in a subtle and insistent way to anyone who stands on the bridge on October 14. As you read the text commemorating the local brickworks, if you know anything about Tucson history, certain connections come to mind. The period of time during which the Tucson Pressed Brick Company was located not far away from the bridge – that is, between 1894 and 1963 in the area south of Congress Street and west of the Santa Cruz River – was also a period of time during which there was a non-stop effort to change Tucson’s identity from that of a city with strong Mexican influences and important Mexican and Mexican-American populations to a city dominated by Anglo culture and people. Or as Lydia Otero says in their memoir In the Shadows of the Freeway: Growing Up Brown and Queer, “Race and place became intertwined early in Tucson’s history.”  (Otero, In the Shadows of the Freeway, p. 24)

Otero’s 2019 memoir is described on their website as follows: “The author witnessed how the steady expansion of Interstate 10 (I-10) separated and isolated a barrio of brown and poor residents from the rest of the city. Growing up 200 feet from the freeway meant more than enduring traffic noise and sirens for Otero and other barrio families. It introduced environmental hazards that contributed to the death of family members.”  Because Otero’s work is filled with serious depictions of human suffering brought about by conditions that prevailed during the time they were growing up, it might seem strange to focus on building materials as I intend to do in the rest of this essay, but In the Shadows of the Freeway is also about the way a neighborhood was destroyed as the freeway and convention center were constructed, so building materials are very much a part of the story.

In the first chapter Otero talks about their neighborhood with great affection, but with an acknowledgement of some of the negatives, as in the following description: “When I call up my earliest memories, I think of dirt. We lived in a house surrounded by a yard of dirt, and our house was built of adobe blocks that my mother and her sisters had constructed with their own hands. We lived at the intersection of unpaved roads, and when cars drove by, at whatever speed, they created clouds of dust that eventually found its way into the house and into my hair, skin, eyes, and sometimes teeth.” (Otero, In the Shadows of the Freeway, p. 6) The image of dust finding its way into hair and eyes and teeth is a strong and troubling one, and it makes you wonder why the city didn’t do something to dampen down all that dirt. However, also embedded in that quote is a more complex and benign role for the dirt, which involved hand-made adobe blocks that were used to build the house. Otero cites the relationship between the dirt beneath their feet and the house in which they lived, and in fact many homes in Tucson were built of adobe blocks – or bricks – made from clay and mud, especially in the part of the city where Otero lived.

In another of Otero’s books, La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City, the author shows the ways that building materials in Tucson changed as Mexicans and Mexican Americans were being displaced. Otero states, “In 1883, practically every building in Tucson was made of adobe, and it remained the primary construction material for Mexican Americans well into the first half of the twentieth century,” but they quote architects Anne M. Nequette and R. Brooks Jeffrey who say that architecture was used to express Tucson’s “American” identity. Otero expands on that: “Anglo Americans intentionally began to build their structures in styles and with materials that marked them as distinctive. These new forms also served to assert Anglos’ spatial and social dominance. Brick replaced adobe (emphasis mine) as Tucson moved ‘well on its way toward developing the appearance of an American town.'” Beginning in the early 1880s, according to historian C.L. Sonnichsen, “Brick and lumber were in; adobe was out” for Anglos in Tucson. (Otero, La Calle, p. 47)

But Tucson was a growing city and because adobe was deprecated by the new Anglo arrivals, when the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1880 (another of the events commemorated on the Luis Gutierrez Bridge), Tucson builders began to use lumber and bricks brought in from El Paso and Los Angeles. By the late 1800s brick became the preferred building material, and architect Quintus Monier founded Tucson Pressed Brick Co., or TPBCO, located below Sentinel Peak at 800 W. Congress St., a few blocks from the current location of the Luis Gutierrez Bridge. Monier used bricks produced there in the building of the St. Augustine Cathedral in 1897 and in the Santa Rita Hotel. The company produced both pressed bricks and firebricks, and the sand along the edge of the Santa Cruz River was used to temper the bricks and the clay was taken from the Santa Cruz floodplain.

Image of brickworks and explanatory text on the Luis Gutierrez Bridge.

Though the Congress St. location of TPBCo has been closed since 1963, Michael Diehl of Desert Archeology, Inc. not only excavated the brickyard but also interviewed people who worked there and lived nearby.  In an article called “The Tucson Pressed Brick Company at Work and at Rest,” he describes the process of making bricks at TPBCo, which was more of an industrial operation than the process of making adobe blocks had been. Though materials were sourced locally, such as clay from alongside the Santa Cruz River and “red shale” from the hills near Kennedy Park, machines were an important part of the process – there was a two-story mixing and grinding machine known as a “pug mill” and scove kilns for firing bricks. The workers interviewed by Diehl were not represented by a union, though the men described their difficult work as better than cleaning molybdenum-bearing mud from equipment at Pima Mine or doing agricultural work. “It was nice work making bricks,” said Henry Machado, one of the TPBCo workers. “It was nice because I got out of the cotton fields working like this [indicates hunching].” (Diehl, p. 177) Undoubtedly, the racism inherent in the work life of a Mexican-American laborer of the time contributed to this positive attitude toward the hard work at the brickyard, but Diehl does describe a strike that took place in the 1940s during which the company at first tried to replace the men with scabs, but then, “After one day of chaos, the expertise of Frank Rodriguez Sr. and his other colleagues was recognized and rewarded with an increase of two bits. The next day all the regular brickyard men were back on the job.” (Diehl, p. 177)

The TPBCo stamp from the Luis Gutierrez Bridge.

Diehl also interviewed Adela (Varelas) Mejias, who lived near the TPBCo, and she described helping her mother wash clothes in boiling water because when her father came home from work, his clothes and skin were covered in red brick dust. And even after the dust was washed out of the clothing, it had to be hung to dry and was often covered again by red brick dust given off by the kilns. (Diehl, p. 180) This assault by dust was similar to what was happening to Lydia Otero’s family in the shadows of the freeway not far from where TPBCo operated.

In the Shadows of the Freeway contains other references to bricks and adobe, the most surprising of which is the fact that the adobe that was once so deprecated is now worth a lot of money. Otero describes walking through the streets of a neighborhood where their mother once lived and realizing that though their mother, who was a low-paid maid, was able to rent an adobe house there, a university professor like Otero couldn’t afford to live there. Otero says, “Now the area is dominated mostly by white families willing to pay hefty sums of money to live in adobe homes with a history. Since the 1980s the property where my mother once lived has sold five times. In 1986, the house sold for $25,000. Ten years later, a new owner forked over $325,000. In 2012, it soared even higher, netting $516,000. After the house was subdivided, one apartment is currently worth $262,900.” (Otero, Shadows of the Freeway, p. 45) In the 21st century, Tucson is no longer a city where brick is much preferred over deprecated adobe; it has again become a place where old adobe buildings have great cachet and desirability. Though many people in Tucson are unaware of this shift in values, these rising home prices make it clear that building materials can have cultural and political significance and changing meanings.

Solar events that also take place on the Luis Gutierrez Bridge include a commemoration of the Southern Pacific Railroad on March 20 at 8:30AM and a commemoration of the Historic Streetcar on June 1 at 12:00PM. Though clouds can prevent the Tucson sun from completing the solar art, the bridge’s shade canopies will still be there showing off their carefully placed laser-cut images, and the text and embossed images on the sidewalk will still give the viewer a lot to think about.

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