There are signs of progress downtown; you just have to look past the broken dreams

When Petula Clark's "Downtown" was a big hit in the mid-1960s, America's downtowns were completely different places than they are today. As the song says, there were pretty neon signs, movie shows and little places to go.

Today, downtown America has been hit hard by malls, Wal-Marts and suburban sprawl. Since 1999, efforts have been underway to revitalize downtown Tucson. We have all experienced the frustrating construction, but some business owners have been more directly affected by the efforts to revive our central city.

Meet barber Bob Garcia.

Garcia, 70, originates from the Oakland, Calif., area, where he was a professional baseball player. In the 1940s and 1950s, he says, he played with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, as well as Billy Martin, who would go on to manage the New York Yankees. In the late-1950s, Garcia played minor-league ball in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization.

In 1960, Garcia began his career as a barber. He made his way to downtown Tucson about 20 years ago and worked at Johnny Gibson's Barber Shop before opening his own in 1999--Bob's Bullpen Barber Shop, at 27 S. Fifth Ave. Garcia decorated the shop with autographed athlete photographs, baseball hats, balls and posters.

In 1999, Garcia also started a tradition of dressing up as Edward Scissorhands on Halloween. His photo has been in the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Citizen, and he's been featured on the local TV news. He lights up when discussing his yearly role.

"Scissorhands and barbering just seem to go together. I watch that movie every year. It seemed like it really fit in, him trimming the hedges, and me trimming the heads. ... And I can have hair once a year, too. I like that part," he quips.

However, the conversation turns bittersweet as he discusses his old shop.

"I built up my business with people who came downtown. I had memorabilia galore. The walls were filled. ... I had a great business. The shop was crowded all the time. It was a great place for the kids."

Garcia's longtime customers also have fond memories of the shop.

"He tried to make it like you were in a bullpen. It was a comfortable place to go. ... It wasn't uncommon for you to wait one or two hours to get a haircut. He had dedicated customers," says Ruben Lopez, a weekly customer of Garcia's since 1993.

Brian Fatura, a customer since 1991, recalls the mixture of people who visited Garcia. "You went in there and talked to Bob about sports. ... Whether it was kids, families or old people, everyone had fun. It was a regular melting pot."

At the end of 2004, Garcia was asked to vacate his shop, because the building's owners had plans to renovate. Today, the space is still boarded up.

Garcia says he spent more than $20,000 on his own renovations while at 27 S. Fifth Ave. Financial limitations prevented him from reopening elsewhere, so he has since worked for other barber shops. Now he works at Alt Fashion Barber Shop on the northwest side.

Garcia laments the loss of his business and his income--he says he used to make double the money he makes now. He's also disappointed that nothing has happened with the building where he once worked. He suggests a Mexican restaurant with live mariachi music might be a good business there.

"Ten years ago, I did what downtown Tucson wants. I put up a great shop. ... I had a great thing going. It's hard not to think about it. What can you do? I'm just a barber. I had a great business. There's really nothing I can do."

Garcia's story is one of the more unfortunate tales regarding downtown revitalization efforts. In October, the Star reported: "A comprehensive Star analysis of the $63 million in taxpayer dollars paid to outside vendors since voters approved Rio Nuevo in 1999 shows that much of the money has been spent to plan projects that stalled." A whopping $1.2 million was spent on public relations.

Just as PR people might spin a story, we can spin Garcia's story and learn from it: His shop is gone, but there still are small businesses downtown that are trying to survive.

If we look hard enough, we can see promise downtown. New establishments are opening, and events continue to roll on at Hotel Congress, the Fox Tucson Theatre and the Rialto Theatre, just steps away from Garcia's old shop.

With continued support and activity from all of us, our downtown may become like the one Petula Clark sang about--no finer place, for sure.

More by Irene Messina


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