Is Tucson Getting Better or Worse?

The blog post that caused a minor shitstorm last week. Plus, your reactions, a reconsideration of the issue and a brief history of "Keep Tucson Shitty"

Editor's Note: Downtown Angst

By Dan Gibson

Downtown Tucson has been a big part of my life. When I was in high school, I'd ride the bus down to Congress as an escape from my eastside teen lifestyle. I bought postcards and trinkets at Yikes, books at Biblio, my first legal drink at Congress, saw some of the best shows of my lifetime at 7 Black Cats, and still bug Janos to reopen Wild Johnny's Wagon when I run into him. And, despite living on the eastside and the Weekly's offices by the airport (sigh), I'm downtown quite a bit. I DJ at Congress now and then, make time to see concerts when I can, work out of Gangplank a few times a week, and try to make excuses to eat at HUB, Diablo Burger, Proper, Reilly and the like as much as possible.

But yes, lately I've been feeling a little bit of unease about where Downtown might be going. Because I am old, I resent seeing as many college kids in clubs I used to feel were "mine" (and I do realize how ridiculous that sentiment is) and that's bound to only get worse when the student housing opens up. So, yeah, I feel like I understand the tension that some people are feeling between wanting stuff downtown and not wanting a hipper, youthful version of La Encantada for trust fund kids from California.

However, like our web producer, David Mendez, I've wanted to throw things when we post something about a new restaurant opening downtown and, inevitably, someone chimes in to say that they don't care about new places, that downtown was better when Grill was open, etc. etc. And that always happens. Always. And, perhaps unfairly, I've associated that mentality with the "Keep Tucson Shitty" slogan that Casey Dewey discusses the history of in this article. It felt like effective shorthand for the idea that Tucson would have been better off frozen in amber circa whatever year someone prefers. Clearly that's not possible, and whether you agree or disagree with Mendez's take on the situation, it'll be interesting to see what sort of Downtown Tucson we end up with and what cross-section of Tucsonans will be happy with the result.

The Original Post: "A Note To the 'Keep Tucson Shitty' Crowd: You're the Problem"

By David Mendez

Yesterday, we published a short item about Gio Taco, the latest venture from the folks at Metzger Family Restaurants, who are also responsible for Jax Kitchen and The Abbey.

The plan, according to the release announcing the forthcoming restaurant, is to move into the east end of Congress Street, in downtown Tucson, where Gio will be producing their own spin on tacos—apparently, tacos "without rules." I mean, why not? Seis, for an example, ventures away from the traditional Sonoran-style taco, working hard to create something that's fun and tasty as hell. I say that there's room for more than one place that doesn't want to serve simple chicken or carne asada tacos in this town.

But it seems that some of you would disagree. From the Tucson Weekly Facebook page:

Great, one more place trying to reinvent something that doesn't need to be reinvented and one more place I shan't be setting foot in, ever, along with everything else in the shiny, new downtown. Now get off my lawn. xoxox—Dave, part of the "Keep Tucson Shitty" crowd ...

This is exactly what downtown Tucson does not need. Seems like besides another "foodie" place on East Congress, someone would open a damn diner downtown, especially on West Congress, near The Fox Theatre, and fill a much needed niche left by the closure of the Grill.

Those are definitely opinions.

But here's the thing about downtown's dearly departed Grill, and all of its similarly departed, scruffy, "character"-filled places: They closed for a reason—and for many reasons, in some cases.

Let's focus on Grill: As great a place as it was, as much character as it had, and as good as the food was (particularly for being one of the few options that was open at 3 in the morning) it was, in fact, a shithole.

The food was, putting it nicely, inconsistent (a hamburger cooked to medium probably should not be dripping with blood). One of the things that people seemingly loved the most about the place, the tater tots, could easily be found in the freezer section of your nearby Fry's or Safeway. The bathrooms didn't lock. Spotting a giant cockroach crawling around wasn't an uncommon occurrence. And at one point in time, the sewer lines under the restaurant broke, filling the kitchen with sewer water.

And you people who supposedly loved this place, who wish it was still around, who wanted it kept shitty, so you can continue living your artsy, bohemian, arrested adolescence? You're the reason it closed:

If we had more nights like last night, maybe we wouldn't be closing. Keep it coming, the countdown continues.— Grill Tucson, from Facebook, Nov. 21, 2011

That was from the first night after Grill announced its impending closure. (A personal note: My then-girlfriend and I were among the last people to be served before the place finally shut down, because I just had to spend a little more time at the first part of this city that I fell in love with. I stole one of the newer paper menus that replaced the amazing laminated turquoise menus. It still sits on my desk at home.)

Grill, and its ilk, are and were great places. They were accepting, they were comfortable and, most important, they were convenient.

But they failed, because they treated customers terribly. Because nostalgia has a shelf life. Because "shitty" should be an ambiance, not the reality of the place.

Tucson should not be burnt out, filled with cracks, crawling with roaches, covered in drunken, paint-marker-and-chalk scrawls, just because that's what we remember.

Tucson is a vibrant, passionate, scrappy community. We shouldn't be tearing down the local people who love the soul of this city, who are trying to build up new, interesting projects to tie into the hardworking, local feel that we love. The heart of this city, the grit, will always be here—partially because you can never completely get rid of sand and dirt—but the shittiness doesn't have to be.

Y'know, that might just be it. It's not that Tucson is shitty, and that we should keep it that way. It's that the crowd that wants Tucson to remain shitty is, in fact, shitty in and of itself.

Well, you might want to get out of the way, guys. Whether you like it or not, Tucson is changing—the skeletons of developments rising around town are proof of that. So you've got a few options: work to maintain the grit in Tucson's soul as the changes happen, or stay shitty.

You might want to be careful though if you take the latter path, because shit tends to get stepped on, scraped off, thrown away and crumble into dust.

A Selection of the (unedited) Responses

"David, I find your argument belittling of the broad and serious implications that gentrification has on a community like downtown Tucson. You're right. The Grill closed for many reasons. Who cares? But gentrification displaces less fortunate and marginalized members of the community, that are the very reason Tucson is what it is today. The Grill closing is not the potential problem with what is happening in downtown Tucson. When important cultural establishments can no longer operate due to high costs or their perceived "shittiness" that is a problem, and will continue to be so. When families that have called the downtown area home for many generations are viewed as making an area "shitty", that is a problem. And that is what is happening in Tucson, whether you want to admit it or not."

"How old are you kid? Do you even remember what they had to do to build the convention center, what they tore down? Keep Tucson Shitty is just a euphemism, it doesn't mean keep it crawling with roaches, it means that we should preserve Tucson's character as a scrappy border city with a lot of HISTORY and character that stems from that history. I too enjoy many of the new places downtown, but let's not overlook the effects of rampant development now that everyone's trying to jump on the bandwagon. It's sweet and all that after years in effing Oro Valley the Jax owners decide they want to capitalize on the new trend, but are they really "contributing" or just trying to get their piece of the pie? 

Keep Tucson Shitty means don't develop for development's sake. Perhaps a better slogan would be "Don't Phoenix Tucson"."

"The point that is being missed is that locally-owned establishments that represent the financial interest and uniqueness of our town are being bullied out of business. And I do mean bullied, out of their leases, literally. 

Big money out-of-towners are being offered lots and lots of financial incentives. Sure, their places are nice and they're not chains. But they diminish the character and local flavor of Tucson. 

And some of them are pretty pricey, pricing me out of having lunch downtown even though I've worked and lunched there for 15 years. p.s. take your shitty accusations and stick them up your @SS."

"I was born, raised and have now bred in this town. How many of you 'keep Tucson shitty,' fans can say that? I even LOVED the Grill, and I mean LOVED, oh iced tea gods how I love you. I watched my friends grow up and become Grill employees, and I watched the Grill become more and more inconsistent. Still I loved it like no other greasy diner, and I doubt I ever will love another as much. This said you "kts," need to REALLY rethink your decades old priorities. This is NOT a new problem for this city. For decades a very small minority has fought tooth and nail to keep downtown Tucson ... Shitty. 

Gentrification? Yes, because it was so much better when the downtown barrio was SCARY, for real scary and ALL of us who have always been here, we remember that and are glad it's gone to the art hipster crowd. Heck, I'd love to live downtown just as much as I did when I was a child only now it's not got the added bonus of being super sketchy. Perhaps people are referring to the explosion of AMAZING restaurants. Heaven forbid we get independently run non corporate eateries downtown. People, 25 years ago, we'd have rejoiced at WINNING the battle against the fears of a corporate downtown! We got the Gap out and we moved the local indie businesses in, and STILL, as true as the chance of a sunny day around here, the KTS crowd is angry. 

This crowd has ALWAYS been and sadly I think they always shall be. They've ruined so much good potentials downtown. Downtown is turning into the truly rad, urban hot spot minus big corporate America I always hated. It's an amazing thing happening, and unique. Example, I LOVE San Francisco, but even their downtown is a montage of corporate enterprise. We're creating something REALLY special here folks. Something truly atypical. We ARE keeping Tucson WEIRD! This is everything we hoped for and better! I dreamed and dreamed as a young teen that the day would come when we'd have a "modern," respectable downtown. I was an angry punk rock / goth kid and didn't want corporate downtown, I just wanted a downtown that was hustle and bustle, exciting! Here it is, and as I have grown to just know is as true as tomorrow being hot, the Keep Tucson Shitty crowd is crying tears about how awful anything but desolation is."

"So, when downtown Tucson is a paved and glazed sheen with cash registers fronting where doorboys used to check ID's, you'll remember this li'l article, and realize that it's partially your fault.

I remember a downtown was filled with a neighborhood of friends. I knew more people working and walking around downtown than I did in my own neighborhood. I could walk into almost any eatery and ask my waiter who was cooking. And then to tell the cook that I was there and that I trusted their judgment. Send me food.

From the Congress Grill to Janos, Tucson had a mood and a feel. 

Most of that is on its way out, and THAT is what makes a city; not the menu or it's pedigree."

"I am a 34 year old essentially Tucson Native. I moved here at the age of 4 and have lived in the downtown area for most of that time. I grew up on Granada and 6th, then for middle school moved to 1st Ave. just behind the buffet. In my adult life I have always lived walking distance to Congress. I will say this, most of the downtown "scene" is people not from downtown, or people who even live there, but they love it none the less and I give them props for supporting most of my jobs with their patronage...But other than a filler afterthought, Grill is not what this piece is about. This piece is about gentrification. 

I don't pretend to know about the Keep Tucson Shitty scene I am just a local and a long time resident. I know plenty of people but don't tend to get sucked in to the whole hipster subcategory, but of our hipsters I will give them this, they aren't out buying $15 martinis on the regular and flooding our streets with money pushing out the locals, that is the cities doing. Unlike the hipsters of New York, ours won't buy a PBR for over $2, most want cheap drinks and friends and nothing more. It isn't a "scene" like you see on TV it is a collective of art crazy, fun kids. 

We have to face some facts, Tucson is a transient and immigrant city, not to say homeless people and foreigners, but college students and military. Most of the cities time the military kept to the suburbs and the University students rarely strayed further than 4th avenue. Now what is happening is Tucson is trying to create a vibrant downtown, which hey in theory I am all for, I like options. But what will the cost be. Soon every place willing to charge $20 for a burger and $8 for a local craft beer will be willing to wait on a lease to be up and pounce on it (this is what will likely happen to The District in 2 years) which makes me sad, because I don't want to have to travel for my local stuff. What makes it even sadder is when those places will still employ the same kids working for at best $9 an hour who can now no longer afford to live or play in this downtown but rather will travel and live in the suburbs. We have some good local spots that offer slightly higher than mid-tier dining and frankly we don't need much more. All the newer local spots are still somewhat affordable for occasional treats and then there is still the place for every day gathering. So I say finish your damn streetcar, protect the existing businesses, and keep Tucson Shitty (whatever that means)."

Keeping Tucson Gritty: A Response to the Responses

By David Mendez

As he shook my hand, he said to me, "So you're the guy who's been selling me a lot of T-shirts."

Despite what one may have surmised from my vitriol toward the "Keep Tucson Shitty" slogan, which he helped popularize and which was displayed across his chest at the time, artist Donovan White, surprisingly, didn't have anything bad to say about me.

"I mean, I actually agree with 90 percent of what you wrote," he told me when I met him at Che's Lounge, where he was tending bar on a quiet Saturday afternoon.

A longtime Tucsonan (though, like many, including myself, not a native), he loves the new growth downtown. "I've eaten at Proper four or five times," he told me, though he's not crazy about places such as Diablo Burger, thanks to a high price-point that doesn't match his perception of quality.

We had a decent conversation, exchanging thoughts and reflecting on the bewildering fact that people assumed I was insulting him personally. But what struck me was a story he told me about community meetings that were held a few years back, when Rio Nuevo was in full swing.

The meetings were led by developers who said that they wanted to revitalize downtown Tucson, telling him and other local artists that they want Tucson's arts community to thrive.

That was all well and good, White thought, but his issue was logistics: Namely, "If there's no cheap rent downtown, there's not going to be an arts community."

Which seems to be the key problem in the Keep Tucson Shitty conundrum—as conditions improve, foot traffic increases, business thrive and rents are raised by landlords seeking to capitalize. Ultimately, the existing community, forced out by those rents, suffers.

But what's the solution?

I honestly didn't figure that the post, "A Note to the Keep Tucson Shitty Crowd: You're the Problem," would receive as much attention as it did, underestimating the uproar that railing against the gone-but-still-beloved Grill would spark two years after its closure.

The post blew up, attracting all sorts of discourse, pleasant and vitriolic alike. One commenter, a Mr. Patrick Karnaykeso, promised that if I were to walk into a restaurant that he's working in, he would "grind up cockroaches and mix them with (his) own SHIT and put them on your medium burger you send back because it's too pink."

Apparently, I hit a nerve.

But of all the comments I received, the one that struck me most came in person, from a bartender I hold in high esteem.

He felt personally attacked by the article, telling me that there were many people who "spent years of their life at places like Grill, and felt that their lives had just been invalidated."

So let's clarify.

The problem with "Keep Tucson Shitty" lies with those who scoff at every new business that crops up on Congress Street, sneering at the opening of Pizzeria Bianco or Proper or Gio Tacos sight unseen. They claim that they're overpriced, run by people who haven't paid their downtown dues or that they're forcing out local business owners. They are forgetting that they're filling empty storefronts, providing jobs, and that restaurants such as Café Poca Cosa have offered quality cuisine at premium prices downtown for the better part of a decade without (much) incident.

They look past the fact that small businesses, by nature, tend to come and go; that a down economy and an absurdly long streetcar build has taken a toll; and that some people are just bad business owners.

They ignore that, in worthy cases, the community will rebuild a place with a cleaner image while still retaining some of its old spirit, as Black Crown Coffee did after the Safehouse closed.

Most of all, they can't face the reality that all things, loved and hated, good and bad, must one day pass.

The loud minority, the ones who hate because they can't (or won't) cope, are the shitty ones.

Most people who wave the "Keep Tucson Shitty" banner don't want downtown to revert to a ghost town. Many are business owners, workers or residents concerned about a loss of culture, or families being forced out of their homes.

To them, it's a tongue-in-cheek way to say that they want to keep the spirit of Tucson alive. Those are the people who want to remember the past as Tucson evolves. For it to grow properly, they just, as White said, "want intelligent people running the city (they) live in."

They're not shitty, and they're not the problem—they're the solution we're looking for.

As White put it, the trend lines are starting to cross: The divey aspects of downtown are diminishing and the cleaner aspects are growing. But at some point, the intersection of those trend lines will be left behind almost entirely and gentrification, a fact of life in growing cities, will sadly take hold.

I think that passionate Tucsonans can agree that growth is unavoidable, that the biggest concern is a potential loss of local culture, and that local business owners aren't the problem. They end up filling the storefronts that failed businesses leave behind.

The discussion we need to have is one where we determine the best way to keep Tucson's grit intact without stymying growth.

I just want those in the discussion to agree on one more thing: That "Keep Tucson Shitty" is a too-goddamn-ironic-for-its-own-good rip-off of another city's superior catchphrase, that it disrespects a city that we supposedly love and cherish, and that it should be beaten to death with its own smug hipsterdom and buried in an unmarked grave next to the foolish attempt to replace "the Old Pueblo" as Tucson's nickname.

Some changes just need to happen.

Keep Tucson Shitty: A Brief History

By Casey Dewey

Recently, there's been a lot of ballyhoo surrounding the phrase "Keep Tucson Shitty" and what it exactly entails. To most people, it's a fun saying that nobody really takes seriously. Or, at least they shouldn't. I always figured it was a boastful kernel of pride, a way of staking our independence from the corporate sheen that glosses over our sister city up north.  I also gathered it was inspired by Austin's motto "Keep Austin Weird."  Turns out I was on the money, but there's more to the story.

The first time I heard and saw the phrase was about five years ago. At the time I was hanging out with garage-punk band The Okmoniks quite frequently, and while attending one of their numerous house parties, I saw a few of them and some mutual friends wearing homemade, silk screened T-shirts with "Keep Tucson Shitty" emblazoned on the front. I thought it was hilarious, especially the font they chose. It took me a few seconds to figure it out, but then it hit me like a ton of art-crafted driftwood. The staggering, cartoonish font meant to invoke a sense of creeping dread had to be from the goofiest roadside attraction our state has to offer: The Thing.

I recently talked to Samuel Claiborn, the guitar player from The Okmoniks who now resides in San Francisco.  Claiborn and the band thought of the phrase after leaving Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival in 2008.

"(Keep Austin Weird) was the inspiration, along with The Buffet, The Chicago Store, Plush, May through September in Tucson," Claiborn says.  "We hadn't heard it before and we thought it was very, very funny. Funny enough to see it through by designing the shirt in several iterations."

Claiborn and the rest of the band might have been the first to turn the phrase into clever T-shirts, but it turns out the phrase has even murkier origins. After last week's brouhaha over Tucson Weekly web writer David Mendez' blog post calling out the "Keep Tucson Shitty crowd", one "Dapper Gatsby" had much more info than I had previously heard before. "Gatsby" posted this on several threads sharing the controversial article:

The ORIGINAL "Keep Tucson Shitty" originated on the 4th ave tunnel circa 1992. I should know since I was the 2nd one to tag it.

The legendary "Do Bongs" was finally painted over & someone replaced that with "Keep Tucson Weird aka Austin. Someone crossed that out & tagged shitty & when that was also painted over. I made it my Situationist duty to keep that tag alive as well as my more popular "Crush the State" & "Revolution Now!" hah later did some punk luminaries co-opt as they damn well should.

I saw it as a warning or at least plea to all the drunk college kids & "bridge & tunnel" crowds as i called em slumming it downtown

So, there you go. I'm willing to bet pesos to empanadas that the origin of the phrase has even murkier beginnings, but so far, the above post from "Gatsby" remains the earliest I've seen. No matter what the origins are, I can assure you this: "Keep Tucson Shitty" has nothing to do with a diner that was once a rallying point downtown, and it has nothing to do with wanting to turn our town into Mudflap, Arizona.  Calm down and take a deep breath, but don't ingest that air wafting from the nearby sewage plant. Now, that's shitty.