Once upon a time in Tucson history, there was a regular phenomenon known as Downtown Saturday Night.
Thousands of people would converge on the city center to engage in loosely organized milling about. Vendors lined the streets; bands played in the alleys; shops and art galleries stayed open late; and—at least for one night per month—the downtown atmosphere was electric.
DSN really took off in the early '90s, just after I arrived in Tucson, and it was through this event that I discovered downtown. A big fan of milling about, I remember savoring many fine meals and glasses of wine at the old Café Magritte and then strolling the streets, periodically slipping into the galleries to be amazed at the variety of art and the people viewing it.
I remember some nights when I staked out table space among the slew of vendors to work the crowd for various causes. It was a great place to get signatures, hand out literature and generally proselytize. I also remember this was a point of contention with DSN organizers, who bemoaned what in their eyes became a ragtag scene that skewed the crowd's demographic toward youth, political agitators and "street folk"—in other words, people whose agendas did not necessarily include throwing down lots of money. I remember regretting the diminishment and eventual demise of the event as this conflict played out, and thinking how sad it was that the inhabitants of a city couldn't just gather once a month in a centralized public space for the inherent benefits of social cohesion and conviviality.
I was very pleased a few months ago when DSN was resurrected, more or less, in the form of Second Saturdays Downtown—a similar concept with a totally different style.
First and foremost, while it remains a public event, Second Saturdays is very much a private affair in terms of organization and financing, driven almost entirely by the donations and energy of downtown merchants and businessfolk. While there is certainly a good deal of civic-mindedness in the mix, it is also a simple matter of survival. Downtown has caught such a bad rap over the years that the very real Renaissance now occurring there risks being roundly ignored without a mechanism to bring people out to appreciate it.
I have to admit that when I hear the term "corporate sponsors," the hair on the back of my neck stands up. I cringed at a few gaudy, over-amplified displays of corporate advertising as I wandered through last month's Second Saturday. But I love this concept, and it's essential to the civic well-being of this city, so if this is what it takes to turn people out, what the hell, I'll bite the golden bullet and swallow my bias on this one.
Besides, my perspective changed a bit after talking to downtown guru Donovan Durband, who has been instrumental in keeping the DSN concept alive over the years, and Fletcher McCusker, of the Providence Service Corp., who put up the bulk of the money to get the latest effort off the ground. They both emphasized that Second Saturdays is focused more on permanent downtown attractions, in addition to the ephemeral street scene. After many years of bitching about how nobody ever comes downtown, and whining that it's impossible to stay in business there, a new wave of entrepreneurs is putting their money where their mouths are, and giving people more reasons to come. There is a lot more going on now than 20 years ago, and this ragtag poster boy found plenty of cool things on which to throw down his money.
Fletcher pointed out that every Saturday in Austin, Texas, is like Second Saturday, because they have such a well-established scene. With our great restaurants, clubs, musicians and artists, and new blood to focus attention and resources on the city core, Tucson could create a similar dynamic.
It's a work in progress, and I did hear some criticism last month—too much traffic on Congress, sidewalks bottlenecked in some places, etc. But Fletcher pointed out that handling big crowds is a good problem to have, and Donovan said he likes the energy of the cars cruising through. Personally, the anarchist in me would close Congress Street from Toole Avenue to Stone Avenue, and cede the space to pedestrians.
Regardless, people of Tucson: After many years of bitching about how there's nothing to do downtown, it's time to put your feet—and, yes, your money—where your mouths are, and get your booty down to the next Second Saturday, on Aug. 14. If you can't find something that excites you at this event, we should probably call you a paramedic.