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The Curley School in Ajo, Arizona


– It’s like a secret
nobody knows about ’cause nobody I know has every
heard of this place. – [Narrator] This is the
Curley School in Ajo, Arizona, a town of about 3300 residents,
120 miles west of Tucson, in the middle of
the Sonoran Desert. The school was
originally built in 1919 as part of the City
Beautiful Movement, when Ajo was a booming
mining community, but the town and school have
gone through many changes since then. The New Cornelia open-pit
copper mine closed in the 80s. People moved out of
town, unemployment and people living under
the poverty line went up, and, eventually, the
school and several other beautiful, historic
buildings went vacant. – There were also other
personal issues for me, as far as a tribal
member was concerned and being concerned
about the Sonoran Desert. – [Narrator] Lorraine
Marquez Eiler grew up just outside of Ajo. In the 90s, she helped found the International Sonoran
Desert Alliance, or ISDA. In the beginning,
their goals were all about the
environment, post-mining. – We decided to solve the
problems of the world, as the story goes. And so we talked about
saving the Sonoran Desert. – What we found is as
we met with communities again and again and again, the top priorities of
that community were not environmental in nature but were housing, economic
opportunity, jobs. We realized, to be
really sustainable in environmental impacts,
you’ve got to address the people living
in the environment. Seems obvious but it was
really an a-ha moment for us. – [Lorraine] Our goals,
you know, we’re looking at economic development,
revitalization of an area, protection of an
area, education. Ajo always said to us,
“Save the Curley School. “Save all these huge
buildings that were just “laying there.” – [Narrator] Through
a patchwork of grants, foundation support, and
individual donations, ISDA was able to
raise $9.6 million to purchase and renovate
the Curley School and in 2007, it reopened as 30 affordable
live-work apartments. The next year it was listed on the Nation Register
of Historic Places. – Everyone who moves
in does qualify as quote-on-quote low-income. We don’t believe in
aggregating poverty, per se, so we said, “Well, why
don’t we aggregate it “around something
else, to not say “everyone who lives
here is low-income “but everyone who lives here
is an artist or artisan?” – You know, all
I’ve heard is how you know, it’s
low-income housing and that’s all those
people went there for, they’re not really artists. But right now we’ve got
a huge amount of artists and there have been a
huge amount of artists that have come through here. – Ajo has some
interesting opportunities if you’re receptive to it. – [Narrator] Karen
Sucharski and Mike Henrichs live on the Curley
School campus. They came here specifically
because of the clay studio, but they also paint, sculpt,
make bread, garden, collage, sew, write poetry,
and make music. – I still make a living
as a ceramic artist but I do everything else. – Glad I already found this before all these
other storms here. You know, mom died and they’re
raising their rent in a lively neighborhood. – [Narrator] Army
veteran Arnold Alexander moved here from LA. To him, Ajo is
quiet and relaxed, which is a welcome
change of pace. Behind his apartment, he
makes Tibetan-style paper from recycled materials. Eventually, it
turns into postcards and other goods he sells
at artists markets. – I put it in Photoshop
and take everything off the photograph except the butterfly and just leave the
butterfly on there and transfer the
butterfly to my paper. (soft piano music) – The best way to describe
my style is kind of like movie music, it’s very
cinematic and very moody. – [Narrator] Bobby
Narcho moved here from the Tohono O’odham Reservation
about an hour away. He spends a lot of time
working on his music, photography, and video projects. – I wanted to try
something different. I was kind of just home all
the time, on the reservation. I thought to myself, “Why not
get out of the reservation “and live on my own?” Ever since then, it’s
been four years here and it’s been very cool. – I was able to move
out here and I thought, “I’m not looking
for a job, I have “a modest pension
that supports me.” – [Narrator] Zee Galliano
has always wanted to work on her
jewelry full-time. Her apartment at
the Curley School, which she loves, has
helped make that happen. – I want to really explore. This place gives me
the freedom to do that. I had no idea any
of this existed and the more I researched,
the more incredible it, I mean, everything they’ve
done here, the plaza, this school. – [Narrator] The Curley
School is basically an urban revitalization
effort in a rural area. The project garnered
several awards and recognition
across the Southwest. With the success,
ISDA has been able to expand and save more
historic buildings. – We rolled a developer
fee from that project into purchasing the
rest of the campus, which is now a
whole host of things but primarily, the
Sonoran Desert Inn
and Conference Center. – [Narrator] This
conference center was designed to
bring in large groups and retreats to the area. It started carrying
these javelina pillows designed and handmade
by Karen Sucharski and they’re a success
story for the organization. – The conference center
opening was huge. I made 600 of them last year
and I make them by hand. Saved all my javelina money,
put it in a separate account so I can keep track of it and
we went to Paris in March. – [Narrator] After
the conference center, ISDA was also
involved in preserving the historic town center. Each year on September
22nd, the organization hosts an international
day of peace. – I think it’s probably the most illustrative event
of our organization and our mission and our focus. – [Narrator] This
event brings kids from three nations together and hints at the potential
of this town and this region. – Every year, it’s the same. It’s just totally fun (laughs). – I’m amazed at the progress. It’s been a long struggle. Art and culture knows no
boundaries with people.

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