Hip little Tucson heats up (San Francisco Chronicle article featuring Dunbar/Spring)

Here is an article about the arts and downtown Tucson. Dunbar/Spring is featured prominantly.


Alex Newman, Special To The Chronicle      Tucson is skewing younger and hipper with coffeehouses, restaurants, shops and an artists' neighborhood that boasts a remarkable bike shop without any attitude.

May 5, 2013

The local bookstore (an independent) hosts both a Steampunk book group and a Democracy and Dissent book group. The Food Conspiracy Co-op, way more crunchy than any Whole Foods could ever hope to be, carries gray toothpaste in little jars and shampoo that's formulated for dreadlocks. There's a guy at the Saturday Farmers' Market who roasts his own coffee - he learned from the founder of Peet's. And the local bike shop, Bicycle Inter-community Art & Salvage, shuts down every Monday for Women, Transgender and Femme workshop day.

Portland? Or perhaps, "Portlandia"?

Nope, Tucson. Yes,thatTucson.

This smallish southwestern town, better known as a jumping-off point for the Saguaro National Park, has turned into a surprisingly hip little burg. A kind of Portland without the rain. A Mission District without the attitude (and without the long lines for restaurants).

Partly it's the influence of the University of Arizona campus, which hovers on the edge of downtown. Partly, it's Tucson's low cost of living, which has tempted more than a few artist types into moving into its colorful adobe neighborhoods. Whatever the reason, Tucson as a destination gives you all of the cool for less of the cash.

Take the Hotel Congress.The Congress isn't for you if you want quiet (the first clue is the package of earplugs on the side of your sink), or consistent water temperature in your shower. But your room will have a rotary telephone that connects to a working switchboard in the lobby. And there will always be some kind of party going on, either in the retro-hip lobby bar, or out under the umbrellas on the street-side patio, or inside the raucous Club Congress (especially inside the Club Congress).

The pale brick Hotel Congress was opened in 1919 (bank robber John Dillinger was almost captured in room 214), and the vibe is Bonnie & Clyde meets Kurt & Courtney, with a little southwestern spice thrown in. Rooms have a 1930s period feel - old-timey radios, antique bedsteads (which are a tad short for those over 6 feet) - mixed up with framed posters advertising the Meat Puppets last appearance downstairs at Club Congress.

There's no room service at the Congress, but the excellent Cup Cafe (more of a bistro than a cafe), off the lobby, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And its "when worlds collide" atmosphere pretty much sums up the place. During my first breakfast, I watched the fresh-faced hostess seat a sprawling Native American family - from high chair-requiring toddler to white-haired grandma - next to a display of revolving pies and below a framed aphorism reading, "Sterilization is the weapon of the rulers," all while the speakers were blaring the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer."

Within walking distanceof the Congress is the Fourth Avenue shopping district - a favorite among U of A students, and anyone else with a fashion sense more evolved than Banana Republic. Tucson Thrift has clearly been curated for Greek house-theme parties. Racks are labeled '70s Skirts and Indian Blouses, but some of these items are so stylish, you don't need an invitation to a beer-soaked event to buy them.

Richard Cummins, Lonely Planet Images

Art dots the landscape of Tucson in expected - like here at the Museum of Art - and unexpected ways.

Fourth Avenue is where you'll find Desert Vintage, one of the best (and most reasonably priced) vintage shops I've ever seen, as well as Antigone Books, the independent that hosts the Steampunk book group (second Sunday of the month), as well as author readings. If you missed 1973 the first time around, stop into Hippie Gypsy. The smell (a mix of sandalwood and patchouli), the music (the Doors), the merchandise (bongs, long skirts made out of cheap Indian print cotton) - nothing has changed.

The Food Conspiracy Co-op, also on Fourth Avenue, is worth a stop. It makes Whole Foods look like 7-Eleven.

Because looking at art- especially photography - is always cool, wander over to the University of Arizona campus and stop into the school's Center for Creative Photography. The center owns the majority of Ansel Adams' negatives, plus work by W. Eugene Smith (I saw an amazing exhibit of photographs he'd shot from the window of his NYC loft), Paul Strand and Edward Weston.

On the first Friday of every month, the center lets you get up close and personal with unframed, archive photographs - some quite famous - curated around a particular theme. And it's all free.

Many of the artists who have moved to Tucson live in Dunbar/Spring, a quiet neighborhood of brightly painted adobe houses. This neighborhood is all about the street art, and the residents have turned most of the intersections into mini roundabouts and filled them with quirky sculptures. On 9th Avenue near university, there's a mural that stretches for nearly a block, filled with Day of the Dead clowns and Dr. Seussian birds.

The Dunbar/Spring Community Garden, at University and 11th streets, has a gate made from re-purposed bike pedals and a sundial made from a gear wheel. All the planting beds are named for birds - house finch, white-winged dove - and you're welcome to go in and wander as long as you close the gate.

Fred Hood, Tucson Convention And Visitors B

The Hotel Congress mixes a retro vibe (rotary telephones) with cutting-edge nightlife (it's home to a popular rock club). It's also just a stroll away from the Fourth Avenue shopping district.

The best way to exploreDunbar/Spring (named for two prominent Arizonans, African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and the state's first - in 1872 - bilingual public-school teacher, John Spring) is by bike. Actually bike is a good way to explore all of Tucson, if it's not scorchingly hot. The city is flat and filled with bike lanes.

You can get a bike for $8/day ($40/week) at Bicycle Inter-Community Art & Salvage, better known around Tucson as Bicas. These guys have the best politics and the least attitude of any bike shop I have ever been in. They recycle everything they can from every bike they get. And if they can't use it on a bike, they turn it into art.

They contributed most of the pieces that make up the Bike Church, a building-size memorial made entirely from white-painted bike parts and stained glass that sits like the skeleton of a church at the side of St. Mary's road. Bicas offers Build-a-Bike classes, Bike Maintenance Workshops and Earn-a-Bike programs for people who can't afford to buy one.

There are no shopsor restaurants (save for the Tasteful Kitchen, a raw food vegetarian place that's only open for dinner) in Dunbar/Spring, so if you want lunch, best to head to neighboring Barrio Anita and Anita's Street Market. This Mexican market inside a house is where locals line up for still-warm tortillas (I watched a woman rapturously clutch her bag to her nose) and fresh-made burritos.

You can get your food to go or pull up a plastic chair under the green awning in the side yard. Yeah, it's not fancy. It's like sitting in somebody's backyard and having their Mexican mom make you lunch. How cool is that?

The Saturday Farmers' Market takes place right across the street from the Hotel Congress. Different things grow in the desert, so you never know what you'll find. The morning I went, a group of U of A agriculture students under a Wildcats awning were selling tomatoes in February, a gray-haired couple with leathery skin were offering bottles of dried chaplet chili flakes, and I got to meet the owner of Rocket coffee, a Bay Area transplant who'd learned his roasting technique from the venerable Peet's, before it became a chain.

I grabbed a Rocket coffee and Southwest-style tamale (and unlike when I go to the Farmers Market at the Ferry Building, I didn't wait in line for either of them) and took them to the back of the market where I could sit in the sun and watch the trains go by.

As I sat there, I am quite certain that if Fred and Carrie had been over on the other bench, debating whether to pick up a potted cactus from the market or head over to the Food Conspiracy for vegan cat food, I wouldn't have raised an eyebrow.

If you go

Getting there

Direct flights from the Bay Area to Tucson can be expensive and infrequent. Instead, fly into Phoenix and take a shuttle from the Phoenix airport, or rent a car and do the two-hour drive yourself. (Though you might not need a car in Tucson; by fall, Tucson should have a streetcar that will run right past the Hotel Congress and connect you to nearly all of the sights mentioned in this story.)

Where to stay

Hotel Congress:311 E. Congress St. (800) 722-8848. hotelcongress.com. If you don't mind noise (those earplugs only do so much) and you're not attached to the idea of strong water pressure (or a TV), this is the place. It's got hipness and charm to spare, you're right in the middle of the action and it's not expensive. Rooms range between $89-$149 per night, depending on size and season.

Tucson Marriott University Park:880 East 2nd St. (888) 236-2427. marriotttucson.com. More conventional hotel, practically on the U of A campus. Rooms begin at $209.

Where to eat

Cup Cafe:311 E Congress St. (520) 798-1618. hotelcongress.com. Open 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Lunch entrees average $11. Dinner $17.

The B Line:621 N Fourth Ave. (520) 882-7575. blinerestaurant.com. Open 7 days. Good stop when shopping Fourth Avenue; the menu is a mix of Southwestern-style Mexican and Italian. Nothing over $10.

The Hub:266 E Congress St. (520) 207-8201. Cool restaurant within walking distance of the Congress serves Southwestern comfort food till late - really late.

Maynard's Market & Kitchen:400 N. Toole Ave. (520) 545-0577. maynardsmarket.com. More of a date restaurant, fancy but not fussy, and locally sourced when they can. Entrees hover around $25.

Cafe Poca Cosa:110 E Pennington St. (520) 622-6400. Sleekly stylish restaurant (chicken mole made with Godiva chocolate) doesn't print menus, it writes its offerings on a chalkboard because they change twice a day. All the entrees are one price, depending on when you go. It was $22.95 the night I went.

What to do

Club Congress:(Inside the Hotel Congress.) Named "one of the 10 best rock clubs in the country." For listings and tickets:www.hotelcongress.com/calendar/category/music.

Shopping Fourth Avenue:www.fourthavenue.org.

Center for Creative Photography:1030 N. Olive Road. (520) 621-9489. creativephotography.org. Open weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekends 1 to 4 p.m. Free.

Dunbar/Spring neighborhood:dunbarspring.org.

Bicas (Bicycle Inter-Community Art & Salvage):44 W. Sixth St. (520) 628-7950. bicas.org. The address might say W. Sixth Street, buy you will never find it that way. It's actually tucked down Ash Street, an alley off Sixth. Closed Monday.

Anita's Street Market:849 N Anita Ave., (520) 882-5280. Open Monday through Saturday till 5 pm. Closed Sunday.

Saturday Farmers' Market:400 N Toole Ave., outside Maynard's Market. 8 a.m. until noon.

Author Janis Cooke Newman lives in San Francisco. E-mail:travel@sfchronicle.com

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