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Thanks to independently owned, small businesses, Congress Street is coming to life

Finding myself with nothing to do on a recent Saturday afternoon, I set out for a no-agenda walk downtown.

I used to know every crack in the sidewalk around here after years of living in the cheapest bogus rentals that Armory Park and the adjacent downtown neighborhoods have to offer. Those were the good old days. The year that I shared a place with my sister, our urban ambitions rivaled those of the Sex and the City women: picnicking with Alfred Hitchcock films at Cinema La Placita, visiting the Tucson Museum of Art on free-admission first Sundays, and napping on blankets at the Mariachi Conference. We even rented a piano from Chicago Music, and towed it down the street with a rope and help from strong friends the three blocks to our sweet hovel.

The only element missing from our downtown experience was a vital commerce scene. Too many empty storefronts haunted the streets between events.

Two years ago, I moved away, in the midst of the Rio Nuevo and downtown-redevelopment hubbub. Although these plans garnered a lot of attention, not much seemed to change, except for increased construction traffic. Today, however, I'm walking west on Congress Street past Fifth Avenue, and everything on this little city block shines and delights like a new penny. A coffee shop? Galleries? A theater? Independent boutiques? Oh my!

I pause at the open doorway of Tooley's Café to admire the funky paintings on exposed-brick walls and pastries crowding a polished countertop. Hurrah for an inviting space downtown dedicated to caffeine and hanging out.

Two doors down, I pop into the Central Arts Gallery, a collective representing approximately 40 local artists. The playful yet polished collection is a visual dim sum, with subjects ranging from dancing watercolor nudes to pinhole camera prints of cacti. The gallery attendant, co-op-member Elizabeth, tells me that she appreciates the gallery as a space to display her art publicly, which she had never done before.

Back on the sidewalk, a rack of handsome coats pulls me into Preen, an eclectic boutique specializing in vintage clothes, local designs and alterations. Whimsical touches abound, such as high-heel shoes displayed in an antique bird cage, and stuffed doves soaring on a dressing-room wall. I browse through the pants selection and am amazed to find affordable and wearable clothes. Used to be the only place to shop for clothes downtown was Hydra--and good luck finding something to wear to church there. Erin, Preen's co-owner, chats with me while sewing. I learn that Erin never really considered any other place than Congress Street to start her business, because of her loyalty to downtown.

After Preen, my wandering draws me into several more galleries down the block. Joe and Mykl of the Rocket Gallery, a space focused on inventive, grassroots and alternative art, invite me to stay for a printmaking demo. I even get to peek inside the 7-foot-high dog sculpture created out of cardboard and white glue.

Inside the sophisticated Eric Firestone Gallery, I feel like I am on a hike in the Santa Catalina Mountains, swallowed up by the immediacy of Douglas Denniston and Rick DeMont's watercolor landscapes. The knowledgeable and enthusiastic attendant gives me the inside scoop about the teacher/student relationship between the two local artists.

Then, just around the corner at Off Broadway Studios, Richard and his dog show off his one-man art gallery displaying ceramics, humorous paintings and hand-dyed silk banners.

When I think I don't have one more ounce of browsing in me, I walk into a David Bowie fantasy: the Rockin' Queen boutique, where '80s style meets 2008 in a punk clash of hot pink, purple and gold. Tucsonan Lizette Trujillo created this business with her husband, together remodeling and decorating the entire space. She's just put her daughter down for a nap in the back room, and tells me, touting each small-label designer she carries.

Back on the sidewalk, with the sun about to splash down behind "A" Mountain, I marvel at the inventiveness, individuality and quality bursting from this block. While the cracks on the pavement might still be the same, downtown Tucson is not. Who cares about a fancy bridge or the Gap? This is the downtown I want--the one run by the Lizettes, Erins and Mykls.

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