The Class and Cultural Cleansing of Downtown Tucson Nears Completion

In his January 13 column for the Arizona Daily Star, “Downscale spots in downtown Tucson in danger of disappearing,” Tim Steller makes two important points: 1) It’s possible that soon there won’t be any places downtown “that don’t cater to moneyed people”; and 2) The overuse of tax incentives offered by the city of Tucson and the Rio Nuevo district are helping to create this reality.

I would like to expand, indeed greatly so, on these two points, and argue that, first of all, in addition to making “businesses serving working-class people” unsustainable, the downtown redevelopment scheme has also made a whole cultural scene of galleries, clubs, and alternative and counter-cultural elements that once characterized downtown unsustainable as well; and, secondly, that this class and cultural cleansing of our downtown is only one example of a global phenomenon of downtown redevelopment that utilizes a variety of mechanisms, including tax incentives, to create, as one author put it, “faux downtown lifestyle centers.” And, in spite of the protests of Steller and some city council members, we are therefore unlikely to see any changes in this investment program until this process has been fully and irrevocably completed.


The cultural cleansing of downtown Tucson

As the lead-in for his column, Steller uses the January closing of the Shot in the Dark Cafe, whose rent would have doubled in February (before, in rapid succession, trebling and then quadrupling). He also discusses the concerns of the owner of the nearby Iguana Cafe that a possible increase in rent when the lease expires later in the year might also force him out. Steller worries that the many incentives being offered to bring upscale businesses to the downtown “are helping accelerate the increase in property values, turning marginal businesses serving working-class people into unsustainable failures” that could create a situation in the coming years in which “all the restaurants downtown will serve $25-a-plate entrees, and all the cups of coffee, or tea, will cost $5.” This sounds bad enough, but Steller doesn’t mention a further element disappearing from our downtown. This was shown by his description of the Shot in the Dark solely in terms of its being a “marginal business” primarily catering to low-income clientele. In my long experience with this worker-owned cooperative, it also catered heavily to the alternative music scene (especially in its evening and night hours), artists, political types (many working groups of Occupy Tucson, for example, met there), neo-hippies, neo-punks, denizens of tattoo parlors, students, and yes, lower-income people, including the lowest income group of all, the homeless. In fact, for the whole of the twenty years that I have been going to that cafe space (when I started going it was the Cafe Quebec, then the Cafe Q, before it become the Shot in the Dark Cafe), it was always exceptional for the richness and diversity of people coming and going from it; a diversity that included, by the way, the more than occasional, “respectable” middle-class person or businessman or woman who wandered in – especially on Thanksgiving of Christmas Day, when it was one of the few cafes open in the entire city.

But it had become apparent in recent years how Shot in the Dark’s base of customers was declining as its various constituencies had less and less reason to come downtown. The closure of Access Tucson, whose building was directly across the street, eliminated one group of regulars, the closing of the many downtown galleries and reduction of the artist spaces in the old warehouses eliminated or reduced another, while the expunging of the alternative clubs along Congress no doubt hurt Shot in the Dark’s evening and night business. And so with a declining customer base and increasing rents, the end was seemingly inevitable (though they are trying to re-open elsewhere).

So, in addition to the disappearance of working-class people from the downtown that Steller rightly laments, I would additionally like to lament the disappearance of a whole cultural scene and the déclassé group of people who participate in it as well. And not only from downtown, but potentially from Tucson itself  – a cultural scene made up of artists, musicians, activists, and the like is highly urban by nature and will not easily relocate to strip malls out in the vast sprawl of Tucson.

Indeed, so bad is the situation becoming, especially given the continuing efforts to gentrify 4th Avenue (leading to Revolutionary Grounds Books and Cafe being forced out), that I can now see the great wisdom of the bumper sticker displayed behind the counter at Shot in the Dark. It read: “Keep Tucson Shitty.”


The global phenomenon of the “faux downtown lifestyle center”

This is not to say that, in the late 1990s, I didn’t lament the state the downtown was in. I thought the Rio Nuevo project a good thing,but, along with many others, I had assumed that in all the talk about revitalizing the downtown that they had meant a real downtown.

The kind of downtown, in fact, that I had come to know when I lived, worked and went to school in the south part of Chicago’s famous Loop during the early- and mid-1980s. Contained in that part of the Loop, within an area roughly the size of the whole of downtown Tucson, were numerous hotels ranging from the exclusive Conrad Hilton (flagship of the Hilton chain) all the way down to the Leland, a classic flea-bag hotel if there ever were one. And there were numerous places in-between, including the Harrison Hotel where I lived for the better part a year for $65 a week (or what would now be $130 a week). And if places like the Leland were too expensive, there was always the Pacific Gardens Mission on South State Street, which had been serving the needs of the homeless at that same location since 1923.

Businesses were similarly diverse. The next block up from the Pacific Gardens Mission was the ten-story tall, city block-long Sears store, the next street up was the similarly large discount department store Goldblatt’s, and then the next street up was the then quintessence of the nickel and dime store, Woolworth’s; but then, still moving north on State Street, came the huge, flagship stores of the upscale chains Carson Pirie Scott and Marshall Field’s. Cafes ranged from a place near the Pacific Gardens Mission that, like Shot in the Dark, was open 24 hours a day (but not with any alternative culture feel to it; it was where police on night patrol, security guards on night duty, and janitors came to get a late meal or early breakfast on their break or where the homeless tried to stretch out a cup of coffee for as long as possible) to establishments, far out of my price range, that served the guests of the luxury hotels along Michigan Avenue.

In this way, Chicago’s Loop, though larger than most downtowns, was typical of the downtowns of the time, including Tucson’s – it contained a wide range of businesses that served all classes of people. I don’t think it would have occurred to anyone in 1980, much less in the true heyday of the American downtown in the first half of the 20th century, that these downtowns should somehow get rid of their poorer establishments because, well, how could they? These downtowns were transportation hubs, retail centers, service centers, as well as seats of government and the legal system; and, both within them and immediately adjacent to them were the great warehouse districts through which a vast amount of goods were processed as well as, usually, the theater and entertainment districts of the respective cities. They were the focus of the economic, governmental and cultural life of the city and were therefore of necessity representative of the diversity of the city in all of its aspects.

So it was only reasonable to think that the “downtown redevelopment” that Rio Nuevo promised would result, if successful, in some 21st century version of the downtown described above. But few of us had realized that deeper forces were at work, forces that had no intention of recreating anything akin to the downtown Tucson of yesteryear.And this is where the tax incentives come in. As Steller notes, “almost all the projects that have occurred downtown have happened with the benefit of tax incentives offered by the city of Tucson or the Rio Nuevo district.”

And so who gets these tax incentives, how they are handed out, and what specific market forces are poised to take advantage of them, become key questions. And a long-time, key player in the downtown tax incentives game, Rio Nuevo board Chair Fletcher McCusker, makes it pretty clear in his comments to Steller that the diversity of a traditional downtown is not at all a part of the game plan of the city planners who are doling out the incentives. So, when countering Steller’s argument about the over-use of tax incentives, McCusker stated that they are going to keep using these tax incentives, even if they play a key role in chasing out more affordable restaurants and cafes. “We’re in the incentive business till we’ve maxed out our geography,” he stated bluntly. And what about lower income options? McCusker shed a few crocodile tears about the loss of these downscale businesses before getting to the real point of things: “Hopefully what happens is as downtown becomes more robust, that the fringes pick up some of these things, places like Five Points, and north on Stone (Avenue) and even east on Broadway. So you still have, within walking distance, some lower-priced options. But downtown proper is going to become San Diego. You can see it heading in that direction.”

In other words, if we read between the lines, McCusker is essentially saying these people are screwed. Because his is a false argument, and we all know it: there are no reasonable buildings (even when there are still buildings standing at all) on North Stone adjacent to downtown to move into; Five Corners proper is already occupied by some pretty gentrified businesses, thank you very much, and the buildings around it have limited potential to take up the slack; and Broadway east of downtown (where they moved the Greyhound bus station in an early act of class cleansing) is not at all easily accessible to downtown. And, of course, he doesn’t even mention the area west of downtown as it has already been reserved for Caterpillar and the Mercado for development

McCusker’s answer then is simply a smokescreen to gloss over the question that Steller asks earlier in the article, and which I will rephrase in light of McCusker’s statement: Why exactly is the city giving away all these tax incentives and tax abatements to create an area of the city in which the majority of the city’s residents can’t afford to eat or get a cup of coffee, and doesn’t even seem to give a damn that they can’t?

In part, I would answer, it is because it is part of a standard downtown redevelopment model that is playing out in city after city all across the world, and has little to do with what the majority of a city’s residents want or don’t want. McCusker himself signals this connection with his reference to downtown San Diego. Indeed, as far back as the year 2000 a first-time visitor to downtown San Diego (such as I was) could hardly be blamed for being more than a little bewildered by the sight before them. It, after all, looked like a real downtown, with a number of older, substantial buildings, and yet the feel was all wrong: exclusively middle-class and better off people swarming around the streets, going in and out of the kinds of restaurants, cafes, and boutiques (and not a single, simple downscale diner in sight) that I might associate, at least superficially, with an upscale urban neighborhood, such as Chicago’s Gold Coast, rather than with a downtown. But what might have seemed at the time to be an oddity of the city of San Diego has now shown itself to be an early, successful example of what is now the almost universal model of downtown re-development (though “alteration” might be a better word).

Indeed, downtown San Diego can be seen as a prototype of what the editors of the 2009 book, “Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neo-liberalism,” have called faux downtown “lifestyle centers,” which represent the rump end of a global phenomenon in which the better-off increasingly isolate themselves from the worse-off. In its more extreme forms, this phenomenon is realized by way of massive construction projects that create science-fiction-like worlds in which “consumption and inequality surpass our worst nightmares,” as in Dubai, where a gilded archipelago of private islands known as “The World” is literally being added to the ocean, or in Hong Kong and Cairo, where “burgeoning communities of nouveaux riches have taken shelter in fantasy Californias, complete with Mickey Mouse statues, while their maids sleep in rooftop chicken coops.” In its less extreme forms, these are realized through the transformation of existing areas, such as we are seeing in downtown after downtown, often fueled by capital from international real estate conglomerates that were recently condemned by the United Nations for contributing to the global crisis of affordable housing.

This pattern is evident even in our biggest, most iconic cities, as exemplified by the transformation in the last 25 years of New York City’s Times Square from a squalid but fascinating manifestation of various urban sub-cultures into a Disney-version of the Big Apple. And in the case of Chicago the downtown I described above is simply no more. The area is now filled with the kind of middle-class restaurants and pizzerias we now see in downtown Tucson, as well as boutiques, yoga centers, high-rise dormitories, and private colleges whose satellite campuses now occupy the former Sears and Goldblatt’s buildings. The Harrison Hotel where I once lived for an inflation-adjusted $130 a week is now a Travelodge hotel, charging $180 a night with no weekly rate available; indeed, the cheapest room anywhere downtown (and it is a dorm room at that, only available when school is out) is $150 a night. The Pacific Gardens Mission? After eighty years at their South State Street location, it was forced out of downtown entirely by the city, in a controversial and harsh sequence of moves. And so the class and cultural cleansing there too would seem to be nearing completion, and another faux downtown lifestyle center created.

These are not then intended to be real downtowns, real hubs of economic activity. There may be small parts of these “downtowns” that still fulfill such functions, where the government offices, courts, banks and the occasional headquarters of a corporation are located, but the rest of the real estate in these downtowns are to be transformed into the playthings of the middle-class and better off. They are Potemkin Villages of prosperity in cities that, overall, may be experiencing very little prosperity – such as is the case in Chicago, large stretches of which are called “Chiraq” by its residents because of the widespread violence and poverty. They are places where better off people can escape some of the boredom of suburban life by having a pretend urban experience without having to deal with the (for them) distasteful diversity of urban life and urban people.

And so, whatever wise thoughts are given to the curbing of these tax incentives and abatements by the likes of Tim Steller, Regina Romero and Steve Kozachik so as to maintain some diversity in the downtown, the fact that it goes against the interests of the powerful investors and businesses that are creating it in the first place – indeed, goes against their whole, post-modern concept of a “downtown” – makes it unlikely to happen to any significant degree. Or at least until, as McCusker said, the geography is maxed-out and such top-down devices are judged to be no longer necessary because there won’t be any places left for anything that isn’t upscale to move into.

When, in other words, the class and cultural cleansing of downtown will have finally and irrevocably been completed.


Privatizing the Old Pueblo

Class Cleansing? Downtown’s Future Demographic in Pictures

Revolutionary Grounds in Danger of Grinding to a Halt

Ronstadt Transit Center Redevelopment

Photographs of Shot in the Dark Cafe by the author, taken in January of 2019.

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