Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Tale of Two Towns.

I spent a couple of hours yesterday afternoon strolling around Fourth Avenue and downtown Tucson in an attempt to clear my head of all the work-related crap that had me pondering a career change earlier in the day, starting at Epic Cafe and working down 4th, over on 7th Street across the tracks, to Toole and the train station. 4th Avenue was bustling as usual on a very pleasant, breezy late afternoon that drew people to the sidewalk tables outside Epic, and Magpie's, and Caffe Passe, and the corners outside Che's and Hippie Gypsy. Most of the shops kept their doors propped open for the fresh air and the foot traffic.

Downtown bustled as well, although the bulk of this was made up of people in cars trying to maneuver out of parking lots and dodge construction barricades to get the hell out and go home. Cutting into Downtown via one of those side streets from the north provides a pretty depressing view of how much has been lost there. In a spasm of early 1970s urban-renewal fervor, the city of Tucson obliterated most of its historic core and the surrounding neighborhoods to create a sterile pebbled-cement labyrinth we're still trying to feel our way out of thirty years later. A vacant, five-story block of low-income housing thrown up on Congress Street has been stripped to its concrete and steel skeleton, draped with orange construction fencing, surrounded by a pod of roll-off dumpsters. Viewed from the north, it stands in jarring relief against the backdrop of what remains of historic Downtown, an incongruous hulk looming over the Hotel Congress and Rialto Theater and their two-story strip of tenuously brave brick-faced shopfronts, a stark monument to the failure of a vision of the future that had no room, no time for the past. The blocks to the west on Congress Street are a patchwork of original buildings, once-new construction, and gaps left by the demolition of buildings whose decay outstripped the interest in preservation that didn't surface in force until maybe the 1990s. There are a few bars, a few art galleries, a couple of grills, a lot of vacant real estate.

There was a lot of potential there, once. The Hotel Congress block is still standing, anchoring the eastern entrance to Downtown with a rejuvenated Rialto. The newly renovated train station has Congress' back, but is woefully empty and awaiting a tenant that will attract profitable traffic. The restaurant on the east end of the building failed despite city rent subsidies and dedicated parking, perhaps done in by the demolition of the 4th Avenue underpass, perhaps by a downtown vibe that still isn't strong enough to draw people in droves. I stuck my head into the restored and historically correct waiting room to see the original wood benches, but was too overwhelmed by the silent crossfire of the bored Amtrak guy and the bored Hertz woman staring blankly into the empty space to stay. Retreating outside, I cut around the fenced-off outdoor patio that would be a nice spot to linger over a coffee or beer, had Central Bistro managed to stick it out, and wandered over through the apron of the train station with its lovely trees and shrubs and historic luggage carts to see the steam locomotive on display. This is the engine that was oddly, if delightfully, planted in front of the Himmel Park pool for years; it's much more in place in its corral between the tracks and the freight house, but lonely. I said hello to the engine and spent a few minutes examining a sign showing the spot where Wyatt Earp gunned down some poor bastard who pissed him off in 1882, and then I walked over to stand next to the bronze statue of Wyatt and Doc and wondered if this was where they were standing when the fatal shot was fired, and if it was as nice a day then as this one was now. Beyond the fence, the tracks started singing faintly, a quiet high shimmering ring that crescendoed and then was eclipsed by the sforzando blast of a Santa Fe freight's horn. I leaned against the steam engine's corral and watched the freight rush by with clacks and squeals, pushing a staccato breeze against my face, until it was gone, echoing down the tracks, and all was quiet again.

It is curious to be in the middle of a city and have an entire space to yourself in silence.

Walking back around the station building to Toole Avenue and its traffic, I wondered how different Tucson might have been if just a little more had been spared the wrecking ball. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered much in the end. Plan after plan for revitalization has been floated and failed. Maybe they should have put the baseball stadium down here. Maybe a brewery would have worked if the Nimbus guy hadn't proved to be such a numbnuts with the finances. Maybe there's still a chance if they put the market in the train station the underpass is completed on time and the streetcar is a big hit with the suburbanites. Maybe.

The rapidly eroding historic character made me think of the little town in Illinois my family's from. It has very little in common with Tucson save for train tracks through the middle of downtown and civic leadership that never met an historic structure it couldn't blow up fast enough. It used to be a charming little place, with a downtown centered on two streets meeting in a T that were flanked by two-story 1800s storefronts with ornate pressed tin facades. Late in the 1960s most of those came down in the name of modernization to be replaced by truly hideous frame-and-shingle facades with no discernible architectural heritage beyond postwar dreck. There were still a few holdouts, although as the years have gone by they declined to the point that it made more sense to demolish than try to preserve. Then the current mayor took office and went on a total fucking rampage--yes, Tom Fehrenbacher, I'm talking to you--taking down every historic structure he could personally buy and convert into a parking lot.

Lot of parking lots in Olney now. Not much to see once you've parked. They had a cool little train station once, much like any other small-town station built in the late 1800s. Would have made a nice coffee and sandwich shop. It's gone now.

What would it take to bring some of the Fourth Avenue bustle to Downtown, to keep it from falling deeper into the abyss that's been gnawing at it for three decades? The two areas are separated only by the tracks and joined by the underpass but might as well be worlds apart. I am drawn there by the bricks and wood and the scraps of sense of place that remain, by the however fragile connection they provide to the old buildings I remember from my childhood half a continent away. Buildings need people in and around them to stay alive. I do what I can and walk back across the tracks toward home.

No comments: