Don't Call It a Comeback

The Underestimated City brings streetwear, Tucson pride and defiance to Fourth Avenue

The closure of The Underestimated City's downtown store at 117 E. Broadway Blvd. came as a surprise to those who've seen the brand's designs floating around Tucson on hats, shirts, jackets and backpacks.

According to TUC owner Israel Zavala, the problem was simple: Downtown Tucson had become a tough place to run a business.

Between ever-present street construction clogging Broadway and new restaurants pushing out customers by filling nearby parking ("no one parks to eat at HUB for five minutes," Zavala said), the shop wasn't pulling in as much money as it had in previous years and something had to change. It had to close.

An announcement came in mid-July, after three years of operation. The end came with a closing sale on July 28, during which all of TUC's gear was sold off in a sale that people began calling a "going out of business sale." The Underestimated City, for all intents and purposes, was dead—which is just what Zavala wants people to think.

At least, until The Underestimated City opens up its new location on Fourth Avenue on Saturday, Sept. 21.

The Underestimated City got its start four years ago when Zavala came up with what would become the first design for The Underestimated City, borrowing from the underground design culture by taking famous logos and designs and reappropriating them.

"I did a rip of the Run-DMC T-shirt that said 'Rep-TUC,'" Zavela said. "I wore it out to a club, and some guy said to me, 'Man, that shirt's dope. Where can I get it?' I tell him 'I made it.' Sold my first shirt the next day for 10 bucks. I realized then there was a demand for it, and started working on designs."

Then came the interlocking TUC logo on T-shirts and hats, which began selling in streetwear shops such as the university-area Finally Made—and selling big. Soon, they had the best kind of problem: Gear was selling out faster than they could stock it.

"One day the owner (of Finally Made) gave me a call, saying that (former Arizona basketball star and NBA player) Richard Jefferson asked them for one of our hats, but they didn't have the right size. That's when I started to think, if Richard Jefferson wants a hat, everybody wants a hat," Zavala said.

From there, Zavala and his brother, both on unemployment and both out of full-time military obligations, began scraping together money for a storefront, eventually settling on the former location on Broadway, paying the deposit with a $1,000 windfall. The thing is, neither was pulling in regular income.

"So we would save our first three (unemployment) checks every month and pay the rent with that. With the last week, we'd pay for renovations. We did that for five months until we opened. We had no business loans, no investors—it was just me and my brother winging it, saying 'If it works, it works; if it doesn't, we're nobody right now. No one will remember it.'"

Turns out, it worked, thanks to the strength of their designs and the brand's pride in its home city—pride that, admittedly, took a while to develop.

Zavala, a Tucson native, grew up wanting bigger and better things. But as he got older, he realized the secret to this city: If you want something here, you have to dig for it—and failing that, you have to make it yourself. It's not like Tucson's large neighbor to the north, where practically everything is laid out for you to find.

"When I would tell people that I was from Tucson, I'd get all these questions: 'Is it like Phoenix? Do you guys still ride horses there?' Everyone thought it was some little, piece of shit town," Zavala said. "I started seeing that Tucson was underestimated by people who weren't from here. But even (locals) would tell me, 'You can't sell Tucson.' And at first, I couldn't sell a hat for $20. Now I can get a run of hats and sell them for $40 to $50 a hat.

"I don't like to give myself too much credit—talking myself up, being one of those people saying 'I made this shit'—but people have come up and said to me 'Thank you for giving us something to be proud of.'"

That civic pride is something that's central to the idea behind their new shop at 402 N. Fourth Ave., which was chosen for its status along the most famous street in Tucson—and because they won't have to deal with the city's attempts at helping businesses cope with the construction.

"I thought the city of Tucson could help me here, and they didn't. I have my own personal beefs with the government, but I decided I would go and do something I could control, and that's move my business to a better location. Bitching and moaning about the construction wasn't doing anything, and I did that for a year and a half."

Now, after about six week's worth of work on the new location, The Underestimated City is looking to bring something new to the avenue—the type of high-end boutique built around a culture that's generally unheralded in this city.

"We're not too big on gimmicks or trying to bring in a celebrity to be the main attraction of the shop. Our main attraction is selling good clothes. People are going to go because they want to see a dope shop, they want good merchandise, and because of the quality of the shop itself.

"This new shop isn't about money. We wanted to instill pride," Zavala said. "Our old shop, that's what we could afford at the time. Now, we're going to bring something that Tucson's never had before."

Comparing his shop's opening to HUB opening downtown, Zavala says that he knows that there's going to be a pushback from the traditionalists of Fourth Avenue, that TUC's style will clash with what people expect from Fourth Avenue. But he welcomes the challenge.

"People are going to love us, or they're going to hate us, but we're going to do our thing down here."