There’s an optimistic spirit in downtown Tucson. Whether it’s about food, the music scene or the arrival of artisanal coffee, many Tucsonans say it’s about time, while business people rejoice. Returning to downtown after 12 years, Janos Wilder will open Downtown Kitchen & Cocktails next month in the former Barrio Grill location on 6th Avenue. “Downtown is now a destination,” says Wilder. “We’ll be part of that renewal, that rebirth. That’s exciting to me.”
Janos’ namesake restaurant first opened downtown at the Stevens House on Tucson Museum of Art property in 1983, where “we created our own excitement that was powerful for 15 years,” says Wilder. “I never lost my enthusiasm for downtown. To be part of something greater is even more fulfilling to me.”
In 1998 the restaurant relocated on the grounds of The Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa, where it continues to operate. The following year Wilder opened the adjoining J Bar.
“I’ve spent the entirety of my career focusing on foods of the Southwest,” says Wilder, who will be concentrating on foods that come from “other sunny parts of the globe” at the new downtown location.
Wilder notes his own diverse background — a grandmother who settled in Australia and came from what was then Palestine, his father who immigrated to the United States from Russia. “Our story as Jews is the story of everybody,” says Wilder, adding, “maybe that allows us to be more sensitive to other people.” And it’s a Tucson multicultural story that he plans to bring downtown: “Eating together is a joyous thing.”
Eating, or fressing, may be a joyful activity for us all, but “retail” has often been associated with Jewish business culture. Around 1915, when Mark Levkowitz’s grandparents opened a general goods store in Tucson, they had no idea their business would turn to selling guitars and Beatles’ sheet music. Clara and Harry Levkowitz had left Chicago for health reasons, says their grandson, who helps run the downtown Chicago Music Store and a branch at 7030 E. Broadway.
The family has also participated in the growth of Tucson’s Jewish community, says Levkowitz. His grandmother, Clara, was instrumental in establishing the first mikvah at Congregation Young Israel and his uncle, Jack Levkowitz, was a local dentist who helped start the Tucson Hebrew Academy.
In 1929, “a band leader came from Tucson High asking for musical supplies,” says Levkowitz. The business grew until it pioneered the sale of all kinds of musical instruments in Tucson. The store moved to Congress Street in 1965, where some of its earlier traditions continued. “A handshake is still good enough to make a purchase,” along with getting some papers signed, says Levkowitz.
Levkowitz is proud of the Chicago Music Store’s colorful past: “Many of the old wives’ tales are true,” he says, adding that around three years ago they found a pair of vintage Wrangler jeans from the ’30s or ’40s in the basement, and sold them for $600. Johnny Cash shopped in the store, and so did Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top.
Levkowitz’s son, Michael, 21, a University of Arizona senior majoring in political science and Judaic studies, works at the store part-time. “I don’t have time to play any instrument now, but feel an obligation to the city to continue promoting music,” says Michael. “It makes people happy, especially in hard economic times.”
Meanwhile, a key promoter of an alternative music culture downtown has been the Historic Hotel Congress, which was built in 1919, and has been rocking for the past 25 years. The hotel celebrated local musical groups of the past with performances by more than 40 bands over Labor Day weekend.
Owners Richard and Shana Oseran have played a huge role in Tucson’s downtown history since purchasing the Hotel Congress with business partners in 1985, later becoming the hotel’s sole owners and adding Club Congress and the Cup Café. Their daughter Dara, 24, who is currently the hotel’s manager, marks the fourth-generation of Oserans as Arizona Jewish business people. Richard’s grandfather, Jacob Oseransky, started the Arizona Furniture Store in Phoenix. His mother, the former Bess Samuels, was born in Douglas, Ariz., in 1916 — her father had emigrated from Russia — and moved to Phoenix in 1929, where she married Alan Oseran, then the proprietor of the furniture store.
“My great-uncle [Isadore Illitsky] was selling guns to Pancho Villa during the [Mexican] revolution,” says Richard. “He was arrested but the charges were later dropped.”
Richard grew up in Phoenix, where his uncle, Lou Samuels, helped found Congregation Beth-El. He moved to Tucson in 1963 to attend the UA and the UA James E. Rogers College of Law. He and Shana, a former school administrator from upstate New York, married in 1979.
Richard’s stories of his Arizona family clearly intrigue Shana. “When Richard’s parents talked in front of the children and didn’t want them to understand what they were saying, they spoke in Spanish instead of speaking in Yiddish” as many Jewish immigrants did, she says.
Hotel Congress, she says, “is the longest continuously operating alternative music club west of the Mississippi. We didn’t lead the way as much as we guided the urban artistic community. They gravitated to us and we gravitated to them. We were the stewards of that creative effort.” Downtown’s deterioration began with the flight to the suburbs and the opening of the El Con Mall in 1962, says Shana, noting that when she first came to Tucson, downtown was a haven for prostitutes and junkies.
By the late 1990s, the Rio Neuvo downtown revitalization project and city leaders had differing ideas about how to proceed. There was an effort to create a La Encantada-like shopping center downtown, she says, with stores like Victoria’s Secret and Armani. The Oserans preferred to maintain the unique flavor of downtown Tucson, recalling that in 2000 a local Jewish singles group promoted “Meet us at Club Congress.”
The Oserans established Maynard’s Market & Kitchen in December 2008, after the city of Tucson had restored the historic railroad depot. “Putting tax dollars into the building, the city had good intentions but didn’t know what it would take to activate them,” says Shana. Everything at Maynard’s was built by local craftspeople, including a long community table constructed from a pine tree that had been destroyed in the 2003 Mt. Lemmon fire.
“We live what we believe,” says Shana, noting that she and her husband usually walk to work from their home near the UA. “There should be a greater connection between the university and downtown Tucson. Plus, we still need the demographics of people living downtown,” she says. “People ought to be able to eat, work and play where you live, not have to drive 20 miles.”
Julie Glaser Ray, a graphic designer and owner of Julie Ray Creative, who moved from Los Angeles to Tucson in 2004, harbors a similar goal to the Oserans: “I wanted to see downtown Tucson become a more thriving center.” As a young professional in LA during the late ’90s, she saw that “everything was constantly changing. There were new stores downtown and lots of events. There was always something going on. Tucson seemed kind of sleepy by comparison.”
When Ray started walking around in her new city, “I saw that there actually was so much going on that I wasn’t aware of. So much of Tucson’s downtown image is about perception.”
So Ray took action. In 2007 she created the Burrito Files, combining marketing research with performance art by asking 150 people how they felt about downtown Tucson. “I learned there’s a huge emotional connection for native Tucsonans and downtown,” says Ray, adding that people would tell her, “I went to the soda shop at [the former] McClellan’s Department Store, had my first date downtown, my first kiss … I talked to so many people who got married at the court house.”
Her research spurred her on, and in 2009 Ray helped design art installations for display in empty buildings. She took part in a planning meeting for Downtown 2nd Saturdays, which now attracts thousands of people downtown to art and music venues. Ray has also become the marketing and design consultant for Tucson Meet Yourself, an annual folklife and ethnic diversity festival on the city government plaza, which drew more than 70,000 people last year. This year, the festival will take place Oct. 8-10, with triple the number of artists and vendors, she says. “I like being part of a community with people who all have the same goal,” says Ray, adding that it was growing up in a Jewish family that taught her that “you have to help other people and contribute.”
Ari Shapiro, another Jewish urban transplant, has a straightforward vision for Tucson: “I believe that every great city should have a great downtown.” A self-professed “smoothie addict,” Shapiro came to Tucson in 2001 from San Francisco, where he owned a clothing company and raced mountain bikes. His life changed after he improved his mountain biking performance by downing a smoothie instead of eating a bagel before a ride. XOOM Juice was born.
Shapiro opened his third XOOM Juice store in October 2009 at 245 E. Congress Street; the other locations are at 6222 and 2739 E. Speedway. “I knew I was going in a little early but I had a lot of requests to move downtown,” he says. “I’ve been successful with our two other stores. I’m patient. As a small businessman who thought the time was right I wanted to do my part to help the dominoes start falling. I did it looking toward the future.”
Shapiro says he would like to see a UA extension campus downtown, and with the planned light rail providing a conduit, moving part of the UA School of Architecture would also be desirable. In addition, he says, “if Trader Joe’s opened a store downtown, that would change the whole dynamic.”
In early 2011 Shapiro will open Sparkroot, a café offering single-cup production of “very good, artisanal coffee.” The café will be two doors down from his newest XOOM Juice outlet on the corner of Congress and Fifth Streets.
Café 54, which opened at 54 Pennington St. in April 2000, serves lunch Monday to Friday. The brainchild of Mindy Bernstein, executive director of Our Place Clubhouse, the café affords valuable job training for Tucsonans recovering from serious mental illness.
“It’s a downtown venue with great food and a great environment that educates the community about people recovering from mental illness,” Bernstein told the AJP. If a number of Tucsonans gain a better quality of life, are able to pay taxes, have fewer distressing symptoms, better self-esteem, and don’t require as much crisis intervention or hospitalizations, she asks, doesn’t that help the entire community?
Back on Congress Street, west of Café 54, is one of the restored jewels of downtown Tucson, the Fox Theatre. “As a Jewish person, I really want to see more Jewish community events like the David Brosa concert that the Israel Center had here in March,” says Executive Director Craig Sumberg, adding that the “Jewish community doesn’t have a big role downtown. I would like to play a role to bridge that gap if I can.” Sumberg says that the Fox is also reaching out to the Hispanic community and other faith communities to hold events there.
Attracting business to downtown seems to be in Carlotta Flores’ DNA. “Since I was a little girl, I’ve been running El Charro with my
family,” says Flores, now 64. The restaurant’s present Church Street location is in the house built in the 1800s by her grandfather, Jules Flin. It was converted into a restaurant when urban renewal arrived in the 1960s.
“There isn’t a downtown board I haven’t served on,” says Flores, who is currently on the Rio Nuevo board. “We need this downtown revival desperately. Today we fight a lot of antiquated rules and regulations. People don’t want skyscrapers. I can understand that,” she says. “We’re not New York City. We need to be our own city. We need some guidelines for preservation.”
Meanwhile, Flores notes her family’s persistence and perseverance in contributing to downtown growth. “Everything has to change,” she says. “We have to relish the fact that we’re all different but have to work together to stay whole.”
Flores’ family history includes a Sephardic Jewish background dating back to the Spanish Inquisition, she notes. Growing up, “I remember that we had candles burning for the saints on Catholic holidays and we also had candles burning on the Jewish holidays.
“As a little girl I knew aunts who were of the Jewish faith,” says Flores. “If I wasn’t Catholic today, I’d probably be Jewish.”
If downtown Tucson is experiencing a revival, as many of this story’s interviewees claim, it has taken a lot of commitment. “The government has gotten out of the way and individuals have taken over,” says Eileen Warshaw, executive director of the Jewish History Museum.
“I’ve been in Tucson eight years, and right now downtown Tucson is having its most exciting time ever. Personally, we’re looking for a place to live downtown,” she says. “I want to be part of it.
“The museum’s visitation has tripled in the last three years. I attribute that to downtown progress and the Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau’s new campaign, ‘Imagine Greater Tucson,’” she says. Warsaw also notes that the museum is involved with so many cultural activities, and we’ll have a booth at Tucson Meet Yourself.” “I think,” says Warshaw, “Tucson is kickin’.”