I faced the street and watched people walk by the window at Pizzeria Bianco. Some are hurrying to catch the jazz show at the Rialto Theater. People strolled by, young men and women decked out in their Friday fancies. Older people walked up to peer in the door to see if there was a waiting line at the restaurant. It was a steady stream of humanity and I couldn’t be happier.
When I moved to Tucson in 1979, I worked downtown. It was a vibrant place during the day. Jacome’s Department Store, Walgreens, Woolworth, Harry Horowitz Jewelry, Lerner’s, Café Poca Cosa, Wig-O-Rama, Crescent Tobacco Shop, the Chicago store, Johnny Gibson’s Gym Equipment, Ronstadt Hardware, the Downtown Coffee Shop, and so many more businesses that I can’t remember. Over the years, the shops closed and disappeared. Buildings were neglected and a couple were turned into parking garages. Downtown died. There were still shows at the Tucson Community Center, but the night life was scarce and it wasn’t a place I wanted to walk at night.
Nightlife in downtown Tucson languished for years and years. I grieved. I wanted the lively place I remembered and I couldn’t have it. It didn’t exist.
Over the decades, a few places opened here and there. The Congress Hotel started having music events. The historic Rialto Theater opened in 1995 as a music venue, but still, downtown wasn’t an exciting place to be unless there was an event. In 2005, the Fox Theater opened on New Year’s Eve featuring Bruce Hornsby. Still, downtown wasn’t what it could be. A couple of art galleries opened, a couple of small restaurants opened. Café Poca Cosa moved to its current location on Pennington and changed from the quaint Mexican themed restaurant in the Santa Rosa Hotel to an urban gem serving the same fabulous food. Most of the businesses were open during the day and there were and are quite a few lunch places catering to the daytime working people, but most of the lunch joints close after the lunch rush.
In 2008 and 2009, I worked as a phone company engineer. My assigned area was downtown Tucson. Old buildings were being gutted or demolished and aerial phone cables needed to be buried. Some of the buried cables had to be removed because the building was scheduled to be demolished like the Santa Rosa Hotel. The building was obliterated from the corner of Broadway and Scott and a new multistoried office building took its place. This was the visible beginning of downtown Tucson’s rejuvenation.
I heard Tucson was getting a modern streetcar. I can’t even begin to tell you the controversy involved in that. Even though some of the funding came from federal grants, some came from private sources, and yes, the city pitched in some money, people grumbled about what a waste it was. I heard complaints that no one would ride the streetcar, no one went downtown but college students, and there was nothing to do downtown. I didn’t care and I wouldn’t let other’s negative attitudes dissuade me. I was excited about the streetcar. I knew it would be good for Tucson.
The roads downtown were torn up, roads closed, businesses were inconvenienced, and people complained. You never knew where you would be routed on a day to day basis when you drove through downtown. Parking was disrupted and a couple of parking lots disappeared. While they were laying the tracks, I noticed other building going up. Some were new buildings taking the place of my favorite parking lots and other buildings were transformed.
In July of 2014, Sun Link, Tucson’s modern streetcar opened its doors to the public. The first weekend, all rides were free and we made an event out of it. I and my friends rode the streetcar from end to end. The route is only 3.9 miles going from the Mercado district which is west of Interstate 10 to the University Medical Center on Campbell and Helen. The streetcar travels through downtown, 4th Avenue, the University of Arizona Main Gate area and through campus. There are many places to get on and off and it runs until 2:00 am on the weekends. I think it’s a perfect way to travel if you want to get a snoot full and not drive home.
Every time I go downtown, I discover new businesses. Many are restaurants, but there are some gift shops, art galleries, an olive oil vendor, a kitchen gadget place, and I suspect over time, the jewelry shops will return, as will a clothing stores, a card shop, and all the other shops that make living in a downtown area possible.
Did I mention all the student housing downtown? The old Greyhound bus depot was replaced by an apartment complex of gleaming glass where all you have to do is walk downstairs to find the World of Beer and pizza. Young people fill the area, some watching the numerous televisions filled with sports while others are out walking their dogs. The Rialto is right around the corner and Club Congress is across the street.
Who knows how long it will last, but for now, nightlife in downtown Tucson lives again. I am pleased.