Steller: Once dead, downtown Tucson has a strong pulse

2013-08-23T00:00:00Z 2013-08-23T08:32:05Z Steller: Once dead, downtown Tucson has a strong pulseTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Riding the bus into downtown Tucson for work Thursday brought me back to the early 1980s.

Then, I was a middle- and high-schooler who loved to ride the bus downtown in Minneapolis, my hometown. I’d go there on occasional Saturdays, with friends or alone, just to look at records and maybe play with the stereos in the department stores.

The mixture of life was the allure — the seedy and the cool and the classy, all jumbled together among towers. I even enjoyed the cold winds howling between the buildings.

Now I’m a middle-aged dad whose job brings him back into downtown — Tucson, this time — for the first time in 11 years. I worked down here for the Star when I first arrived in Tucson, from 1997 to 2002.

The deceased downtown Tucson of that time had nothing in common with the downtown Minneapolis of my youth, which had faded but was not near death. Today, downtown Tucson is getting a familiar vibe.

It’s a vibe my family also felt on our recent mega-car trip: from Tucson all the way to Victoria, British Columbia, and back through Washington, Oregon and Southern California.

In Tucson on Thursday, the bus was quite full, with some people choosing to stand. Then, as we approached downtown on North Sixth Avenue, we passed actual open retail businesses, in some places on both sides of the street! At Sixth Avenue and East Seventh Street, for example, you’ve got old-school retailer Miller’s Surplus on one corner, across from the hipster enclave that includes Exo Roast Co., the Old Market Inn Tile Shop and the Tap & Bottle craft-beer spot.

Then in downtown, high-rises are multiplying away from the old core of government towers on West Congress Street: There’s the new nine-story UniSource Energy headquarters at 88 E. Broadway, the seven-story Pima County courts building at North Stone and East Toole, the seven-story commercial-residential building, 1 E. Broadway, and the six-story Cadence student-housing towers at the eastern entrance to downtown.

Plenty has been written about downtown Tucson’s restaurant scene, which is truly vibrant, if a bit pricey for me. I spent $15 on a delicious lunch at Proper. But for me, the great thing is that even with development going upscale and spreading outward, the grittier side is still there, the smoke shops and tattoo parlors and social services.

The actual density and volume of activity of downtown Tucson now doesn’t really compare to the Minneapolis of my youth, or of Victoria, Seattle or Portland, where we also spent time in downtowns this summer.

The four of us — my wife, Patty, son Benjamin, daughter Claudia and I — tried to bike downtown Victoria’s waterfront on a beautiful weekday evening and simply couldn’t make it through the tourists. We locked the bikes and walked to our destination — a Salvation Army store and a nearby Value Village. (Not big spenders, us.)

In Seattle, we hopped the light rail downtown twice, along with a friend who lives there: Once, we headed to CenturyLink Field for a Seattle Sounders soccer game, and the other time to the Pike Place area for lunch and a look at Seattle’s infamous wall covered in chewing gum. In both cases, the place was packed.

In Portland, we drove with friends to downtown’s Pearl District for a browse through Powell’s City of Books, which covers an entire city block and was crawling with shoppers.

Even Olympia, Wash., where we stopped for lunch at a central Thai restaurant, had a nice, busy downtown, with a bit of a Flagstaff feeling and a cool (weather-wise) waterfront at the southern tip of Puget Sound.

Downtown Tucson doesn’t have to grow as busy as these Pacific Northwest cities — or Minneapolis, for that matter — to have had a successful revitalization. In fact, in my experience downtown has always had a relaxed feeling that’s characteristic of Tucson.

But now, unlike the doldrums of 15 years ago, it has a pulse that brings people like me back.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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