With its corn-on-the-cob street vendors, sizzling Sonoran hot dog stands, Mexican meat markets and bakeries, 12th Avenue is Tucson's quintessential Latino immigrant business enclave.
Still, despite some attractive scenes, the avenue is littered with eyesores, including broken sidewalks and blurry bicycle lane lines, and offers little or no trees to shade pedestrians from the blistering sun.
But now, a group of businesspeople and community leaders is banding together. They not only want to revitalize the area, but dream of turning the south-side corridor into something like Los Angeles' Olvera Street.
Spearheading the movement is Tucson Vice Mayor Regina Romero. The 2.4-mile corridor along 12th Avenue from Ajo Way to Drexel Road falls in her ward. She wants to beautify the area with trees, fix the sidewalks and decorate the district of locally owned businesses with functional art.
A newly formed group of local merchants, the South Side Business Coalition, is working with the councilwoman to unify and support 12th Avenue business owners as well as those in the surrounding area.
One of the key goals of the new organization is to help local government to beautify and promote the area, said Benjamín Galaz, owner of BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs and president of the coalition.
Some of the most unique, immigrant-owned small businesses in Tucson call 12th Avenue home, Romero said. Some, like Guero Canelo and BK, have grown into small chains. Other merchants have products like handmade piñatas, and some stands offer Latino delicacies, she added.
"It's something real," Romero said. "It's a cultural corridor."
Pima County and the city have previously tried to improve the 12th Avenue corridor, Romero said. But lack of funds has prevented it.
Last year, she fell just short of getting a federal grant to help with the effort, Romero said. Among the supporters of 12th Avenue is county Supervisor Richard Elías, and Romero is hoping that Pima County will include improvements for the corridor in a 2014 bond measure.
Seeing that the area needed an overhaul, a group of 12th Avenue merchants formed the South Side Business Coalition in 2012. For Galaz, BK's owner, creating the coalition was somewhat of a spiritual awakening.
Galaz's success story is the stuff of south-side legend: In the early 1990s, he started out as a hot dog street vendor on 12th Avenue. With hard work and a fanatical adherence to authentic Mexican food, he transformed his hot dog stand into several successful restaurants. But not everything was well in BK paradise, he said. During the recession, he started looking for ways to get out of the economic mess.
He understood that it behooved him to not only look out for himself, but to share his success with other local business owners who were sweating to get by. Also, he noticed that there were many new merchants who desperately needed help.
His soul-searching led him to realize that though for decades he had been living and doing business in Tucson (Galaz is born in Tucson but was raised in Sonora, Mexico), he really never felt part of 12th Avenue, partly because of cultural differences in how to run a business.
It was last year that it finally dawned on him that Tucson and 12th Avenue were home, and that he belongs here, he said.
"We have to be less selfish," he said, taking a break at his 12th Avenue restaurant. "We have to stop thinking only about our own business."
Made up of everything from self-starters, lawyers, engineers and longtime merchants, the coalition is there to help anyone who wants to start a business on 12th Avenue and the surrounding areas, no matter the ethnic or cultural background, Galaz said.
And though they dream of bringing a kiosk from Mexico or that someone starts a curios store or a Salvadoran restaurant, the coalition would like to turn 12th Avenue into a beautiful part of Tucson and not into an ethnic ghetto.
"We are not looking to build our own little Mexico," said Rogelio Dávalos, owner of Proconcepts, a Tucson marketing and design company who belongs to the coalition.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva has been working with the South Side Business Coalition almost since Day One. He said the group is one of the organizations that has grown "organically" and that he will help it with small-business loans and will look for ways to improve the avenue.
"Their best days are ahead of them," he said.
With its legit immigrant street cred, some work and money, 12th Avenue can become what Olvera Street is to Los Angeles, Romero said. In time, a cultural district could turn into a thriving corridor that could attract visitors, which would be good for Tucson, she said.
The city has put some shade covers on at least three bus stops within the corridor and more are on the way, Romero said. But much more is needed, she added.
She said: "It's an uphill battle. But we are not going to stop. Twelfth Avenue is a precious resource. It has a precious content now, but it needs investment."
Los Angeles' Olvera Street is located in the El Pueblo de los Angeles Historical Monument on the general site of the city's 1781 birthplace. It officially opened as a Mexican marketplace in 1930. Time magazine calls the tourist block one of "10 Things to Do" in Los Angeles, citing its souvenir shops, Mexican restaurants and, not least, its caramel-filled churros.
On StarNet: View more photos of 12th Avenue at azstarnet.com/gallery
12th Ave. honors
In their "Eat Street" column in Saveur magazine, nationally known food critics Jane Stern and Michael Stern recommended the restaurants, bakeries and food stands along Tucson's South 12th Avenue in 2010.
Contact reporter Joseph Treviño at email@example.com or at 807-8029.