Walking Tour Reveals Past and Present Retail Shopping Scene on Congress

May 30, 2012

By Teya Vitu

Retail is back with a force Downtown.

The 1870 map of Downtown.

Walking is the only way to get a sense of how much and how unique shopping Downtown has become in just the last year or two or three.

At the same time, Downtown has a retail history stretching back 150 years.

You can get a full sense of the Downtown retail story – past and present – on the new Downtown Retail Walking Tour, staged by the Downtown Tucson Partnership.

Free tours will be given every Saturday in June at 9:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., starting at Pennington Street and Scott Avenue near the Pennington Street Garage. To reserve a spot, contact Caitlin Jensen at 837-6516 or via email.

Your tour guide will be Ken Scoville, a staunch defender of Tucson’s history since moving here in 1983. Any time a historic structure is in jeopardy, expect to see Scoville in the City Council Chambers mounting a defense.

Scoville is not just the self-appointed historic preservation watchdog. He’s also given walking tours of Downtown neighborhoods a couple times a month since 1984.

The Downtown Tucson Partnership brought Scoville on to explore the history of retail Downtown.

“We will visit a few ghosts, the ghosts of Montgomery Ward, Cele Peterson’s, Jácome’s, Steinfeld’s.”

Tucson has a largely intact Downtown east of Stone Street, with many buildings in place since the early 1900s and evidence of the 1940s-1950s retail still plainly evident with the numerous entryway tablets announcing bygone businesses: Nathaniel Shirt Shops, McLellan’s, Franklin’s, Daniel’s Jewelers, Kelly’s, Dave Bloom & Sons, Angels from Heaven, and Betty Gay.

“There is still enough left to tell the story,” Scoville said. “I sorta know where everything used to be.”

The street has always had a West Congress and East Congress divide, whether 130 years ago or today’s 1960s government setting vs. the 1920s retail, dining and entertainment scene.

“I’m the most curious about Tucson before the arrival of the railroad in 1880,” Scoville said. “I sometimes like to think I lived here 140 years ago.”

Back then, all the action was on what we call West Congress. That 1860-1880 history vanished entirely with the 1960s urban renewal that brought us government towers and the Tucson Convention Center complex at the cost of Tucson’s original barrio.

At the heart of that stretch, a street called Maiden Lane angled toward Congress a century ago. At the wedge, where the two streets met stood a cigar shop with lead Indian maiden, which is on display at the Arizona Historical Society Museum-Downtown, 140 North Stone Avenue.

Maiden Lane was the red light district.

“I like to point out that our red light district was where government is now,” Scoville chuckled.

The late 1960s wasn’t the only time West Congress reeled from cataclysmic change. The first time came in 1880 with the arrival of the railroad way at the eastern edge of town. All of a sudden West Congress was nowhere and business gravitated closer to the railroad on East Congress.

“The death knell for the west side of Congress was the opening of the Rialto Theatre,” Scoville said. “I like to point out to people that theater and shopping is nothing new.  West Congress merchants returned in force with the opening of the Fox Theatre in 1930.”

Scoville has lived and breathed history all his life. He was a history major in college, taught middle school history to gifted students for 15 years at Amphitheater Public Schools and took on his historic watchdog role soon after moving to Tucson.

“When you get passionate about something, it’s just something you have to do,” Scoville said.

He was the strong advocate behind saving the Ghost Ranch Lodge on Miracle Mile. He realized the demolition of the Santa Rita Hotel was a “fait accompli” but he still mounted a public defense. Student housing impacting historic neighborhood has been his latest cause.

The tour will include Scoville’s historic recitations as well as visits to many of today’s retailers, where you can find merchandise you’d find hard to turn up elsewhere in town.

“It’s sort of a story of survival, the bad decisions city government has made over 100 years and the speculators,” Scoville said. “We still have the possibility of having a real Downtown.”