Stranger in a Strange Land: The Traveler's Guide to Central Avenue, Part II

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Traveler's Guide to Central Avenue, Part II

As we continue our Central adventure, we start by sliding around the concrete-snake known as The Central Curve and enter the heart of the street. It is here, in the midst of the crowded and chaotic middle blocks, that Central emerges as a street in transition.

On the one hand, there’s the classic Central of dive taverns, dusty antique stores and congested pawnshops. Take for example, Tony’s Place, a narrow and dimly lit bar accessible through a squeaky hinged-door more commonly found on the front of a screened-in porch. “It’s the original, neighborly atmosphere that makes this place comfortable,” says owner Chuck Steffen. Not to be outdone by the numerous surrounding bars offering Karaoke, Tony’s ups the ante with its weekly rendition of Extreme Karaoke. “It gets a bit wild in here,” Steffen laughs from his perch atop a torn, black leather stool standing at the far end of the bar. Price of a PBR: $2.25

The theme of neighborly comfort runs deep on this “older” side of Central. Many of the establishments have been around for decades, some serving the same patron families through generations. “Big John” of Big John’s Used Furniture and Appliances has been selling used appliances and furniture from his homey storefront for 22 years. Surrounded by antique T.V. trays, dial televisions and yellowed editions of Playboy Magazine, John reclines on his rust-colored recliner and reminisces, “Things have been slowing down a bit over the years.”
Paul, of 17th Street Pawn, feels the slowing down of business is a result of used equipment not being worth what it used to be. “Today you can buy new electronics for so cheap, the market for used equipment is shrinking by the day.” Yet, looking around at the shelves and walls entangled by a jungle of electronic wires and colorful cords, one gets a privileged glimpse of the under-appreciated history of the entertainment evolution. There are original Nintendo systems and a library of VHS cassettes, not to mention the several thousand vinyl discs tucked away in the musty basement. Although new may be cheaper, can a price tag really be put on the feeling of accomplishment one got after beating Super Mario Brothers for the very first time?

One thing that will never get old is enjoying a cold beer from a frosty mug in the company of friends. This is exactly what Noonan’s has been doing for, according to several memory-impaired regulars, somewhere between “forty and sixty-eight years”. Noonan’s is like having a drink in your Uncle’s basement circa 1982. The décor is dark and shadow-ridden and a collage of classic bar signs and mirage of dust-smoked mirrors break up the wood-paneled walls. The pool table glows with a purple velvet cover that would make Prince cry and such random items as an overstuffed Tigger are tucked into cobwebbed corners. “Our customer’s are pretty regular… almost like family,” says LeAnn, the bartender who, according to one patron, “is the real reason anybody comes here”. Next door at Brett and Pam’s Instant Replay this same comfortable and friendly atmosphere has been happening for exactly “nine years, two months and twenty-three days”. “Everyone comes here and has fun, plays darts and cards or just watches the game,” says Brett. Going rate for a bottle of PBR at either establishment: $2.25.

However, Central has outgrown its stereotype of pawnshops and townie bars. As new populations move in and the cultural landscape continues to evolve, so do the storefronts. Whereas the old-guard stores see business slowing down, the new generation of retail is enthusiastic about the street’s growing potential. “Business is so good, we’re about to expand and double our size,” says Kiyada Sanders of Jetsetters. With a focus on urban styles, Jetsetters saw the entrepreneurial opportunity to sell clothing and shoes that people were driving all the way to Chicago to get. “We just figured why waste all the gas and time going to Chicago when you can buy the same clothes right here in Dubuque?”

Cultural-niche stores seem to be the new direction on Central. Like Jetsetters and its focus on urban wear popular with the African-American population, Cindy’s New You sells hair extensions and wigs for all occasions. In a store lined with crypt-like Styrofoam mannequin heads adorned with curls and waves running the color spectrum from brunette to florescent pink, one customer tries on a new style and exclaims in mock-horror, “I look like Diana Ross!”

The Hispanic population is also contributing to the burgeoning Central scene. La Espiga Mexican Bakery sells freshly baked cakes and cream-filled pastries from within its small shop permeated by the aroma of crystallized sugar and fresh brewed coffee. Across the street, El Paisano grocery focuses on both Latin American and local products and produce, although owner Eli Rubio says the main attractions are their “money wiring services and Mexican phone cards”.

The culture curve of Central is getting a significant boost with the recent opening of the Cultural Arts Center and its Works In Progress program. “My vision is to create not only a gallery, but a place where artists can create, perform, project, teach and write,” says developer David Young. A transplant from Chicago, David is attracted to the Central location because he sees it as a street in transition. “Neighborhoods change and small things will begin to happen as artists and young creative minds begin to act.” Some of the ideas David sees happening in this as-of-yet spacious performance area brightened by mismatched Turkish-style rugs and abstract art include a small café, the showing of movies and plays, regular classes, and a place for people to come and “re-discover how to create”.

The final stop on our journey is Gin Rickey’s. On your way across the street, take notice of the irony of having a skateboarding store named The Dark Side situated next door to the Dubuque Church of God, whose window proudly proclaims, “Jesus is Lord!” Amen.

A drink at Gin Rickey’s is the perfect place to conclude your Central epic. This remodeled townie-bar-turned-nightclub is as different from the surrounding taverns as one can get. With leather, speak-easy booths, neon lighting and an elevated dance floor alive with D.J. spins, mixes and thumps, Gin Rickey’s brings Central’s gradual transition from townie to hipster full circle.

Sitting down at the shiny-wood bar, I try to pick a cocktail from the numerous top-shelf liquors proudly displayed like trophies on the wall when a red-white-and-blue blur down along the floor, on the bottom shelf of the beer cooler, catches my eye. I smile and shake my head in disbelief as I order a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer at the inflated price of $2.75. As the thirst-quenching chill of this Union-made, Milwaukee-styled hops cascades down my parched throat, I can’t help but think, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”


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