Class Trip Downtown

So many, it seems, are concern with the Tucson’s “downtown”. The Rio Nuevo boondoggle was passed overwhelmingly by the people to fix, revitalize, save, promote, or otherwise help the downtown area. More recently, the Regional transportation Authority (RTA) included, as part of its draft plan, a trolley connecting the University of Arizona to downtown. What’s the deal? Is downtown Tucson in trouble? Is it under a spell? Has it been commandeered by space aliens? To find out, I took a field trip.

Heading west on Broadway, the big buildings of downtown loomed large. I passed the Snake Bridge (also known as the Bridge to Nowhere), and admired Steve Farley’s giant black and white images of people walking downtown – Mr. Farley really should avoid transportation issues and stick to art. I then swerved around the bus station and passed the Hotel Congress.

Many moons ago, a friend of mine took a second floor apartment across the street from Hotel Congress. He was very excited about living downtown. He liked the “energy”, he told me of the hot women with orange hair that lived in the building. He claimed that his location, with respect to the guest rooms of Hotel Congress, provided him with the occasional voyeuristic opportunity. He did not live there very long. He had a job, and found the ‘round the clock noise, both in the building and in the street, tiresome. There was no place to park his car, and voyeurism became boring.

I continued on past the Wig-O-Rama and the Chicago Store (nice mural), and crossed Stone Avenue into the land of the big buildings. As I neared I-10, I studied the gigantic new federal building. The best thing about the building is that, even with its immensity, it’s easy to ignore.

Shortly after passing I-10, the west side of which has a row of motels representing every cheap chain known to man, I crossed the Santa Cruz River with its linear park. A less appealing linear park would be hard to find; but then, the park is not there to be a park, the park is there to please the Army Corp of Engineers so they would give us permission to stabilize the river bank. If you’re not grinding your teeth in anger and resentment, you should be.

I then found myself in the Menlo Park neighborhood, and I took a right onto Grande. Grande is a wide affair that is primarily residential until you get up around St. Mary’s where one can find many fine dining opportunities.

Turning right on St. Mary’s, I did not travel far before turning south on Granada. There I saw some exquisite old homes from the early part of the last century. This is where the rich folk lived. The homes are currently being preserved and maintained – at no public expense – by a number of law firms. Further south I found relatively new luxury apartments.

Eventually the apartments gave way to vacant land to the west, with the convention center to the east. I still think those triangular roof things on the convention center make it look like some set from a sci-fi movie – they just don’t look real.

Turning left on Cushing Street, I passed El Minuto and slowed down before the Cushing Street Bar. Gosh, I haven’t been in the Cushing Street Bar for over twenty five years, though I do recall meeting a woman there who wore bright red lipstick and smoked Picayune cigarettes.

I turned south on South Meyer Street. I looked for the building in which I stayed for a short time back in the late seventies. At the time, I needed a place to stay for a few days, and a friend of a friend named James let me crash in his livingroom. James worked for a woman who owned a department store. She owned the building which was originally built as a large home, but had been converted into three apartments. She lived in the largest unit, James lived in another. This was in the early days of the “gentrification problem”.

James and I traveled in different circles, and I did not see him again for a couple of years. When I did run into him, I asked if he was still living on South Meyer. He said “no”, there was some disappointment in his voice. I asked him why he moved and he explained, in a somewhat exasperated voice, that since there was no place to park his car, he had to park on the street. He said that his car was struck by other vehicles while parked almost weekly. He also said that he got tired of stepping over drunks every time he left his house, so he moved.

I continued down South Meyer and saw a bumpersticker on a front door that read “Dead Cops are Good”. I stopped and backed up to be sure that I read it correctly. I did. Next to it was a small “Not in Our Name” poster. Hmmm, a radical leftist living in a downtown barrio, how trendy!

I slowly continued down the street. I made eye contact with a man sitting in front of a doorway. He said, “Hey!” I stopped and said, “What?” He lowered his voice and said, “Just a minute.” He was in an electric wheelchair which he navigated away from the house, into the street, and up to my window.

“Hey, remember me? It’s Manny; how’ve you been, man?” he said.

“Do I know you?” I responded.

“Yeah man, don’t you remember? Hey, I need a few dollars to take the bus so I can get my medications, you know?” he said. Manny was a young man, in his mid-twenties in my estimation. He wore a polo shirt and one of those bucket shaped hats the retirees wear when they play golf.

“You live here?”, I gestured toward the house.

“Yeah man,” he said.

“How long have you lived here?” I queried.

“Hey, I lived here all my life, man,” he answered.

“Have you seen a lot of changes over the years?” I asked. At this he winced, and shook his head from side to side.

“Yuppies, man,” he said with marked disgust.

“What did you say your name was?” I asked, having already forgotten.

“Manny, what’s your name?”

“Sammy”

We shook hands through the window. I handed him two dollars, for “the bus”, and bid him adieu. “God bless you man, man,” he said before we parted.

The neighborhood is mostly old adobe houses. It’s primarily residential, with a few small offices. Many are freshly painted in bright pastel colors, very quaint. I imagine that it’s much like the neighborhood that existed where the Convention Center is now. As you may recall, it was a popular among city fathers nationwide in the 1960’s to designate a neighborhood as “blighted”, thereby seizing the land, scraping it clean, and building all sorts of silly structures – you know, for the good of the community, man. Manny’s actually lucky he only has a few yuppies coveting his neighborhood.

I looped around and drove back through the city center by the small park next to the library that was supposed to be an internet hot spot. I suppose they needed to make a downtown park a hot spot so the homeless folks could logon with their laptops and surf the porn sites. I drove by slowly and saw lots of homeless folks with packs and bicycles, but nobody had their laptops out – perhaps they’re yet to be informed.

These are just the high points of my field trip. I traveled downtown Tucson far and wide and found great diversity in both the people, buildings and businesses. It appeared a dynamic environment full of both creativity and tradition. So where’s the problem?

Now, I’ll concede that I could not tell the “organic” (market evolved) from the “genetically engineered” (government created or subsidized) homes and businesses; but, moving forward, do we want a downtown in the image of a bureaucrat’s wet dream, or do we want the expressions of Tucsonans captured in their homes and businesses like Steve Farley captured their images in his mural?…..C’mon, be honest.