A look at the Peter Howell Neighborhood

Advanced Reporting Assignment 1: Neighborhood Profile


TUCSON, Ariz. – Security signs are everywhere. Young Alarm. CCS Systems. Central Alarm. ADT. Protection One. Upon first impression, you’d think that Peter Howell was just another neighborhood living through the common belief that midtown Tucson is a crime-ridden area.


Its residents however, don’t feel like crime is any more predominant in their area than anywhere else in Tucson.


Chris Brooks, the president of the Peter Howell Neighborhood Association, says that the belief of there being a lot of property crime in the area is just a misconception.


Commercial areas surround Peter Howell along the edges. According to Brooks, that is where most criminal activity takes place. “When you get inside the neighborhood, it isn’t so bad,” said Brooks.


Peter Howell became a neighborhood in 1951. Evo DeCancini, attorney general of Arizona and a Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, decided to develop suburbs on land he owned in Tucson to accommodate a boom in the population.


“What really boomed Tucson was World War II,” said Jim Turner, historian and former resident of Peter Howell. The bases and factories brought many people to Tucson. After the war, returning GIs and the baby boom continued to contribute to a huge housing shortage.


Turner moved into the neighborhood in 1951 when he was two years old. In the 50s, the community was full of young people and their families. “With the baby boom they couldn’t build grade schools fast enough. Almost every house had kids my age,” he said. “Halloween was just nuts. It was like hundreds of kids came by your house at Halloween.”


Turner, who also spent some time working as a journalist, recalled an interview with his grade school principal Al McQuary six years ago. McQuary used to warn his teachers about being impressed by their students’ high test scores. “He told them that ‘it’s not the quality of your teaching. These kids all come from upper middle class professional families. Their parents are lawyers, judges, engineers, dentists.’ ”


The neighborhood Turner remembers was full of highly educated, predominantly white, middle class families.


Peter Howell does remain predominately white, with 80 percent of residents being Caucasian, about 3 percent higher than the rest of Tucson.


However, it isn’t as young as Turner remembers. According to data from the 2010 U.S. Census, only a fifth of homes in the neighborhood have children. In comparison, nearly a quarter of homes in Tucson have children.


Though Turner no longer lives in the neighborhood, he hasn’t moved far from his childhood home. The small Scotts pine tree his grandfather planted in the 50s now towers at nearly 60 feet, marking his old home. When asked about his thoughts on the neighborhood today he said, “Rundown.”


It no longer has the same pristine up keeping that he remembers from his youth. Where there was desert landscaping in medians, now there are weeds. Where the streets were smooth, now they’re cracked.


Josephine Thoman has lived in the neighborhood her whole life. She, too, has watched it change and grow through the years.


Thoman has many fond memories of living in the neighborhood. She remembers the old YMCA, when there was only one drugstore in the area, and “when El Con was really a mall.”


She gestures down the street. “The way the streets were built, when it rained there would be so much water.” The children took advantage of that and floated down the makeshift river in whatever they could find. “Some kids went all the way to the river but I never did that. I stopped at 5th Street because I had to walk home.”


She points to a house across the street. “The woman that lived there, when we were trick-or-treating made us sing a song for candy.”


“Everyone knew everyone,” she said. “It was a lot of fun growing up.”


Beneath the idyllic sounding conditions, Peter Howell does have a history with crime. Elizabeth Quinn, the neighbor Thoman remembers, was murdered in her home. Quinn was found beaten to death in her home on East Kilmer Street in 2007. The case was never solved.


The Pied Piper of Tucson, a famous serial killer, also left his mark on the neighborhood.


“Charles Schmid was known as the Pied Piper of Tucson because he had so many followers. And he and his followers were wild. He decided he’d like to know what it was like to kill somebody,” Turner said.


According to Turner, in 1964 Schmid tricked Alleen Rowe into going into the desert under the ruse of going to a party. Instead, he murdered her.


Schmid’s girlfriend Gretchen Fritz witnessed the crime. During a messy breakup between the two, Fritz threatened to expose Schmid. He then took Gretchen and her sister Wendy to the desert and murdered them.


Though his victims lived just outside of the Peter Howell neighborhood, many of the residents still knew Gretchen and Wendy Fritz. “My girlfriend at the time was a good friend of Gretchen’s,” Turner said.


“We thought they ran away to California because in 1966, everyone was running away to California,” Turner said. “Kids would go away in the summer and they’d come back with surfer haircuts.”


Schmid was eventually sent to prison for the murders. Despite successfully escaping once, he was caught and upon his return to prison was stabbed to death.


Despite past instances of violence, residents today are happy with the state of their neighborhood.


Rick Woodruff, 52, has lived in the area for 11 years. He was attracted by the central location but over the years, he’s appreciated the quiet neighborhood and amiable neighbors.


“It’s a good neighborhood to walk in,” Woodruff said. Though Peter Howell lacks sidewalks, the streets are wide and the neighbors friendly. “Once the sun goes down people come out to walk their dogs.”


As the sun sets, some residents emerge from their houses with their dogs leashed. The sun no longer beats down and the light breeze makes the Tucson heat bearable. Most smile and wave as they walk by.


“There is something that makes Peter Howell unique but I can’t quite put my finger on it.” Woodruff said. When asked what he would change about the neighborhood he simply replied, “Nothing.”