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Possible development highlights Southside neighborhood's civil rights history
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Possible development highlights Southside neighborhood's civil rights history

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The Mayor

The Mayor's previous location at 409 S. San Francisco St. featured an outside bar located in a converted Airstream trailer.

Reverend Shirley Sims was just 14 when she and a group of NAACP youth members walked into the El Charro Café on 409 S. San Francisco St.

At the time, September 1960 according to the Arizona Historical Society, the Mexican restaurant had a policy not to serve black customers, Sims said.

“So it came through the senior NAACP to use the youth,” Sims said, adding they had all been given a little money so they could order dinner.

The group of students who walked in that day were not served, Sims said.

“But because we initiated that, then it came back to the NAACP and the resolution was [the restaurant’s owners] would integrate and allow African Americans to be able to frequent the restaurant,” Sims said. “So it was not something that was very hard to accomplish, it just needed someone to stand up and say, ‘This is not OK.’”

That restaurant eventually became The Mayor bar, but the structure may be lost due to development.

Although the project is still in the planning phases, a developer has proposed to turn a large section of the block containing The Mayor into an apartment building.

The 42,682-square-foot lot could include a six-story building, the first two floors taken up with space for parking and commercial businesses and the four floors above containing residential units.

But while the structure might be lost, the history may be preserved as the city looks to updates its historical narrative of the Southside as part of the Southside neighborhood plan.

That plan, which is in the midst of its 60-day public comment period, may shape the future of development and infrastructure projects in the Southside for years and addresses issues from parking, property rights and parks.

But the plan also addresses historic preservation, specifically targeting Phoenix Avenue, Agassiz Street north of Butler Avenue, Humphreys Street, Mikes Pike and South San Francisco Street.

As a member of the Southside Community Association, Sims has been one of many community members weighing in and helping to guide the city’s Southside plan.

Now that the draft plan has been completed, Sims said community members will just have to see how much change the neighborhood may see before the plan is passed and implemented.

“This is what’s happening all over the Southside,” Sims said regarding the possible redevelopment of The Mayor. “We really don’t have a good understanding of how much change is going to take place on the south side of town.”

Sims said just as black residents of the Southside fought segregation in the 1950s and '60s, working to preserve the neighborhood today is another kind of civil rights action.

Ricardo Guthrie, director of ethnic studies at Northern Arizona University, is on the team working with the city to update the city’s historical narrative for the Southside and agreed with Sims.

“It seems to me that when people talk about what is civil rights, they just think of the marches and the sit-ins, and that certainly happens here,” Guthrie said. “But there are a lot of activities people don’t appreciate as being part of the civil rights struggle.”

Guthrie said community members have long recognized the history of the Southside, but for the most part, the municipal government has largely ignored that history and often the Southside as a community.

“Quite frankly, it was a legacy that was ignored for so long and it was never included as part of the city's genetic code that actually the most racially diverse, inter-generational communities were in the Southside,” Guthrie said.

Throughout much of Flagstaff’s history, because of segregation the Southside was a sort of city within the city, Guthrie said. Before 1950, Flagstaff's population was less than 15,000 and about 5,000 of those residents were people of color living in the Southside, he said.

Social and economic practices of segregation forced black, Native American, Basque and Hispanic residents -- many working in the lumber mills, service industries or as sheep herders and ranchers -- to live south of the tracks, and those populations formed strong communities, Guthrie said.

“Forced segregation was turned around into a type of congregation,” Guthrie said. He added that although the El Charro sit-in represents a time when there were conflicts between some populations within the Southside, as they do research and speak with residents, a picture of a vibrant and diverse community becomes ever clearer.

“If we build up the Southside without the things that made it a community before, [we’ll have] lost a lot. So the history will show us even if it didn’t have all the resources it needed, the Southside was one of the more vibrant parts of this city from every standpoint,” Guthrie said.

Adrian Skabelund can be reached at the office at askabelund@azdailysun.com, by phone at (928) 556-2261 or on Twitter @AdrianSkabelund.

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