Churchill Brauninger is trying to make SoDoTo a thing. “South of Down Town … So-Doe-Toe,” he explains, obviously pleased with himself.
“This is Churchill’s ridiculous new hash tag. It’s utter nonsense, he’s obsessed,” says Elizabeth Menke.
Brauninger and Menke own and operate the young but old-feeling bar Saint Charles Tavern in South Tucson. Smart and sarcastic, the couple is fully aware that the branding of a developing neighborhood is just that, branding, the type of thing that savvy developers tend to promote as a prelude to rising condos, but they’re also well aware of—and sensitive to—the complicated politics of gentrification. As a result, they’ve committed to the simple ethos of creating a place where everyone is welcome.
“It’s effortless for us,” says Menke of the diversity of the crowd at Saint Charles. “More than anything, we hear our regulars comment on it, this diversity. We don’t have to fly the flag of ‘we love everybody!’—of course we love everybody—but it’s not necessary for us to say so. It’s just how we always knew we would run our bar, as a safe place for anyone and everyone.”
Menke was born in Tucson, left when she was 11, and, after moving around, eventually settled in San Francisco for a decade before returning to the desert with her sweetheart (“she brought me, too,” jokes Brauninger) with the intention of opening her own place. She struggled to find her place as “a big girl in her 30s” in the Tucson bar scene, but eventually found her way to La Cocina, where Brauninger was helping to reboot the restaurant and bar run by Jo Schneider.
While at La Cocina, Menke and Brauninger met the owner of another neighborhood spot in northwest Tucson. The owner, facing terminal cancer, was amiable to the idea of passing the mantel to Menke and Brauninger, but, after years of laying the groundwork, the deal fell through. Heartbroken, Menke and Brauninger ended up in the parking lot of the long shuddered Paddock Bar at Fourth Avenue and 26th Street—the future site of Saint Charles—after an evening with Jill Brammer, co-owner of the fabled Che’s Lounge. “We pulled into the parking lot and she told us the story of the Paddock Bar. It was her secret bar when Che’s was in the planning stage and she needed to get out of downtown and we were looking at it now with the windows blown out and in all states of disrepair, people squatting there. We were in here the following morning,” says Brauninger, his voice revealing wonder even still at how quickly and, in hindsight, smoothly the bar took shape.
The couple rebuilt the Tavern to be versatile, accommodating, and enduring— constructed from solid materials without too much conceptual spin. During the day—Saint Charles opens at 10 a.m. in true corner bar fashion—retired military and veterans hold court. They are a slow and steady drinking bunch who appreciate the consistent hours and low-key setting. Many of these veterans and retirees used to drive across town to now-closed bars like Famous Sam’s and are happy to now have a place in the neighborhood. In the early evening, Saint Charles fills up with the after-work crowd: teachers and city employees alongside blue collar, light industry workers. As the sun sets, truckers and bikers start to trickle in. The latter, pivotal to the Tucson underground in its various incarnations over the years, have largely disappeared from the downtown landscape and their presence here is a clear sign of the bar’s gritty authenticity.
At this point, on a recent springtime Sunday evening, a couple of Priuses are parked next to a handful of choppers and what appears to be a live-in Econoline. Around 10 or 11 p.m., a younger crowd of industry folk find their way in. They are getting off work at downtown cafés and restaurants, looking to get out of the area for a drink before heading home. Colleen Toshner, a part-time barista at Exo Roast Co. often comes to Saint Charles because of its unaffected atmosphere. “The service aspect is very humble and giving and generous, from server to what is being served to where it’s being served,” says Toshner. “You can have something fancy if you want it and you can have something basic, too. South Tucson isn’t very pretentious and everything they made in there feels very personal.”
When I asked if there was any tension between, say, the 26-year-old hipster and 65-year-old biker or third-generation South Tucson resident, Menke and Brauninger laughed. “The bikers think it’s fascinating, they love them [the hipsters]—it’s a window into a world they’ve only seen on TV,” says Menke. In a way, everybody is people-watching everyone else and that seems to work pretty well by way of introduction. On Wednesdays, Saint Charles pushes the main room’s immense, nearly Nordic tables aside to host a local tango group that gives free lessons. This happens at the same time that prominent biker organizations are holding court at the bar and a young gay professional drinking group is colonizing the patio. “This cross-pollinating of tribes is always happening here,” says Brauninger, pausing as Menke continues: “Everybody deserves a chance. We just made a space which is accommodating to everyone, which, of course, is the entire point of a neighborhood bar.”
Today, South Tucson appeals to a wide array of people: developers who are eager to work with the relatively less-regulated and more-accessible City Council; young restaurateurs hoping to integrate a new business into a historically vibrant community of Sonoran restaurants; entrepreneurs who hope to own their building; artists and musicians looking for studio space close to downtown with lower rents.
Tucson musician Gabriel Sullivan was recently scouting warehouses in South Tucson for studio space, surprised at the ever-widening radius around downtown with prohibitively high rents. He frequents Saint Charles because it is one of the few places where he can see his friends and also “run into my aunt’s boyfriend who is an older mechanic in the area,” he says.
For Parker Arriaga, who has been running a DIY venue up the street on the border of Tucson and South Tucson for years, the working-class aspect of South Tucson is its primary appeal. “There’s no pandering here,” he says. “When you open a business, you open a place where community is built and people come together, not a place where you manifest your ‘concept’ and then cater to whiny elites.” As polemical as Arriaga can be, this could, nonetheless, prove to be a meaningful way of distinguishing between community development and gentrification.
The neighborhood of the neighborhood bar. (Clockwise from top left): From left, Sal Hernandez, Manny Delisy, and Joe Palomino; co-owner Churchill Brauninger; from left, Fabian Delisy, Dorthy Campos, Pat Peralta, and Rachel Delisy; Joe, sitting at the bar.
The roadblocks and delays that Brauninger confronted when building out La Cocina and The Dusty Monk in Tucson were nonexistent here. “Dealing with the Tucson city bureaucracy is truly Kafkaesque,” says Brauninger. “The beauty of South Tucson is that the person you talk to is always the same person down the line.” From day one, Brauninger and Menke were at City Hall, discussing the needs of the community with City Council members and getting advice from a host of city officials who would all eventually find a welcome local meeting spot at Saint Charles. Still, in such a small community, there is a palpable suspicion of outsiders. “Because it’s such a microcosm,” says Jennifer Parlin of the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension in South Tucson, “the University and others have, historically, come in and said, ‘Here are the changes you need to make,’ or ‘Here’s a study we’d like to do,’ and then haven’t been there for the long haul. So in the beginning there is a lot of suspicion … and I think for good reason.”
The implication is that what Menke described as the neighborhood’s “absolute graciousness, patience, and support,” may have had an equal and opposite incarnation had the bar taken a less egalitarian and open approach.
Local developer Ron Schwabe, who has experience managing properties in South Tucson, compared the City of South Tucson to Barrio Hollywood, an enduring, majority Hispanic neighborhood north of Menlo Park, often prospected by regional developers as downtown Tucson grows. Here, rapid gentrification has been mostly thwarted by a communal hesitancy to sell property rooted in multiple-generation family businesses and home ownership. “It’s hard to get any critical mass in these communities,” says Schwabe. “You may buy one property but you’ll never convince the neighbors to sell.” This “is hard if you’re looking to put something together [as a developer] but is special, too,” he says. “It protects the neighborhood from gentrifying really quickly.” And while Schwabe acknowledged the buffering effect of strong community ties on major, top-down development, he also admitted that there was a certain inevitability to the changes happening as downtown continues to grow. “On the other hand, all you have to do is look at a map to kind of see where things are going.”
Parlin, who has been running a nutrition education program called The Kitchen Garden for the past five years, describes the residents of South Tucson as particularly proud of their community as a whole and defensive of how it develops. “It takes forming individual relationships to begin meaningful dialogues. The hope is to help guide the change that is going to come regardless,” she says. Echoing Arriaga, Parlin comments on the need to empower and support locally owned businesses: “Ideally those who have strong ties to the community are those with the opportunity to lift it up.”
At the end of the day, Menke and Brauninger took an abandoned, dangerous building and converted it into a fixed, viable, tax-generating business. And while Menke and Brauninger are not residents yet—they are planning their move to South Tucson—their “come one, come all” approach has allowed them to integrate into the community in an organic and meaningful way. “Owning this bar is the gift of my lifetime,” says Menke, and so, she says, it should be a gift to the neighborhood as well.
“The beat cops and sergeants, the chief of police: all of them asked if we were going to put bars on the windows and we said no, and they told us it was a mistake,” says Brauninger. “But the premise is that is if you treat people like prisoners they’re going to treat you like prison guards. In fact it’s the neighborhood people who are the most vigilant about taking care of this place. It’s respect, and it’s the reason that, despite being a freshly painted, big white building, it’s still the only place without graffiti on the block.”
(From left): Cli Gabbard; co-owner Elizabeth Menke.
This neighborhood bar is nothing less than a mindset and lifestyle for these career bartenders. The organic synergy between people and place that unfolds at Saint Charles requires work that is daily, intentional, and nonglamorous. Indeed, it takes dedication to the idea that a neighborhood bar is a deeply public space and must therefore both accommodate and reflect that community. “It’s the opposite of a shtick,” says Menke, “which, you know, becomes a shtick, but whatever.
“Gentrification is the magic bad word, and it sucks to be the supposed face of it,” says Menke, whose demeanor after a career of conversations behind the bar is ever-candid, giving and confident, “and I have to remind myself that we’re just local, we’re just entrepreneurial, we didn’t kick anyone out: we built a place for everybody.” ✜
Saint Charles Tavern. 1632 S. Fourth Ave. 520.888.5925. Facebook.com/SaintCharlesTavern.
Luke Anable is a Tucson transplant, natural wine protagonist, and beverage consultant for independent restaurants.