Tucson has been undergoing a long and sometimes arduous process in revitalizing it’s downtown. As someone who grew up here I can tell you that Tucson’s downtown has come a long way. I remember when I was a little girl and my dad took me to an event know as Downtown Saturday Night. A lot of towns and cities have these types of things. They pick a Friday or Saturday of the month and host a street fair type thing; with open art galleries, shops, restaurants and street performers. I remember the huge gyroscope ride that you could strap onto and whirl about in to your hearts content, though often to the discontent of your stomach. To me as a child it was great fun, but even then I remember the image of passing by a vacant shop front with broken display windows and graffiti, not exactly the type of downtown that encouraged repeat visits to the Saturday night shenanigans. Obviously folks knew something had to be done.
Enter the Rio Nuevo downtown revitalization project. This project has gone through many ups and downs, and plateaus. It has been a source of controversy, pride, red tape, hope, mockery, and political band-standing. I must admit there were times when I had my doubts, such as when “The crane” sat in the same spot for over a year seemingly doing nothing. Sure, there were some things going on that pointed in the right direction. The Historic Fox Theater got restored, a few new restaurants popped up, and they installed a new parking garage; but nothing really and truly “revitalizing” seemed to be happening.
(The Restored Fox Theater)
Then they finally finished the underpass. The underpass was a long awaited project that connects the fun and funky 4th avenue shopping district to storied Congress Street; site of the historic Congress Hotel and John Dillinger’s famous arrest in 1934.
Within a few short years of the underpass’s completion, and within the last two especially, the downtown district has really exploded into a picture of what revitalization can be!
One of the driving forces behind this is the Tucson Streetcar (which hosted it’s “Grand Run” two weekends ago), known as SunLink. The Streetcar actually connects four districts to each other. The University District (consisting of the U of A campus and immediate vicinity), The 4th Avenue shopping and business district, Downtown, and The Mercado San Agustin.
You can get a look at the route map
Officially classified as a light-rail (So please don’t call it a trolley) the SunLink boasts several features that are appealing to city dwellers and visiting tourists alike. One of which is that, unlike the city bus, you can actually take your bicycle onto the streetcar with you, instead of having to mount it to the exterior. It also offers an electronic card for fair payment and several stations along the route where you can easily purchase a pass or card with cash or plastic.
(A Bicyclist enjoys the Streetcar)
What you will see along the route is a thriving urban landscape featuring new and exciting beacons of Tucson’s cultural offerings. Some are institutions, standbys that have been a part of the old pueblo for decades, but many are new ventures that owe their existence to the entrepreneurial spirit of folks attracted to the type of environment the SunLink represents.
Businesses like “Flash in the Past Photography”. A wonderfully kitschy photography studio that specializes in shooting vintage pin-up photo packages.
Then there is “Bianco’s Pizza”, a much anticipated parlor that sits on Congress and actually compliments the long standing favorite “Brooklyn’s Pizza” down on 4th Ave. (Plus, I’m sorry Bianco’s, nobody will ever have Garlic Knots like Brooklyn’s.)
(Bianco’s Pizza on Opening Night, photo: Tucsonfoodie)
You will also see new art galleries and watering holes galore. Places like the very ‘hip’ JunXion Bar, which features a great place to people watch. JunXion sits on Congress St. across from the Playground, another unique pub where you can take in the Tucson sunsets on the rooftop patio, or if you want to feel a little closer to the the stars without the heights you can grab a view from one of the telescopes at Star Bar over near 5th St.
Plush, a long popular spot for the university and locals crowd got a face lift, The Chocolate Iguana still has the best chocolate covered honeycomb, you can grab ice cream to die for at The Hub, and be decidedly singular about your cocktails at 47 Scott before being selective in your wine with over 17 choices of it at the red-drenched interior of R Bar.
The point is, everywhere you look along the SunLink’s route you will find something to do, taste, see, and buy. Not to mention there are numerous musical acts and visual artists to take in as well (The historic Rialto hosts some pretty big headliners). The City has even rolled out a new program that invites artist submissions , on a rotating basis, for banners that line the sidewalks along the streetcar’s path.
All over the area things are changing for the better. The streets have been repaved, the outdoor landscaping has seen vast improvement, and people are coming downtown again. Not just to visit either. A plethora of new condos and renovated historic buildings are giving rise (literally) to a new way to live, work, and play all in the same space, and whether you love it or leave it, much of this is due to the SunLink.
(The SunLink moves through Downtown Tucson)
Downtown still has it’s Saturday Nights, but the days of vacant buildings are gone. In their place is a new community where established businesses such as the Old Chicago Music Store are able to keep their unique Tucson flavor while embracing new blood and giving young businesses a chance to carve their own niche in a town that prides itself on being creative.
This blending of the old and new is working hand in glove.
I will be going to the annual ‘All Souls Procession’, Tucson’s world-famous Dios De Los Muertos parade that is now in its 24th year. I will also be going to the annual Mermaid Parade, the first event of it’s kind here, that will culminate at the ‘pop up beach’, an actual beach that has been erected as a public space in the formally under-utilized MLK Parking Lot.
I will be enjoying all the wonder, culture and fun Downtown Tucson now has to offer and I’m sure I will sometimes remember those old broken windows as I appreciate the hope of revitalization realized, from my view through the sparkling glass of our shiny new streetcar.
For more information on where to stay while visiting Tucson and some of the hotspots to try that are mentioned in this article click on the links below: