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'Last holdout of a glorious golden age': Author Laurie Notaro remembers Mill Avenue's rockin' past

Mill Avenue is in the heart of downtown Tempe and still attracts people of all ages and interests. But it’s changed dramatically from a couple of decades ago, when independently-owned stores and an exciting music scene were on display seven days and nights a week.

The most recent change announced for Mill is the closing of the Irish pub Rula Bula.

That latest move prompted The Show to speak with humorist and best-selling author Laurie Notaro, who frequented Mill during its hottest period in the 1990s.

Full Interview

LAURIE NOTARO: Well you know, Mill Avenue … wasn’t just the heart, it was such a beating heart of Tempe. And the thing was that no corporate businesses had a hand in that. It was simply some students from ASU, but mostly the music and art scene that really made that what it was and made it such a hub of creativity and excitement and drew people down to a street that really didn’t have a whole lot going for it.

If you remember, even Restaurant Mexico, 6 East, Long Wong’s, Chili’s, Gibson’s, Edcel’s Attic. I don’t really recall that much of a stink being made about when all those things were torn down or closed upon as Rula Bula. And I think Rula Bula was the baby when I was of age on my avenue.

It had just come in. It wasn’t really there very long. It really wasn’t my place to hang out there. But it was still the last holdout of a glorious golden age in the beginning to mid ‘90s, where you could just literally walk down the street and see seven of your friends and seven different bands at seven different bars.

And if you’re lucky, you got on the guest list, so you didn’t have to pay for it. But it was just vibrant, and it just was such a sense of community. It was awesome. You didn’t have to drive anywhere. You could just walk and see this amazing display of really exciting stuff and creative music and great music and see all your friends. It was awesome.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Mill Avenue in and of itself, what should it mean to Tempe? Whether there’s a renaissance in great music or just local restaurants or whatever it is — why is that vital to a place like that?

NOTARO: Absolutely. Because ASU is so there, and Tempe is such an anomaly. Tempe is a a town near Phoenix that’s unlike any other. It is so young. And the creative stuff that comes out of there is — I don’t want to bash Phoenix, but I’ll tell you: It’s not coming out of Scottsdale, you know what I mean? It’s not coming out of our Ahwatukee or Gilbert.

ASU is there, which is where the sense of discovery is. And it’s where students are out on their own for the first time, experiencing the world and seeing things that are different, that they’re not used to. The Mill Avenue that was existed because of the people who were down there at the time.

It wasn’t the Gap. It wasn’t McDonalds. Iit was all homegrown businesses that contributed to the sense of place that we have completely lost by McDonald’s being the first one in there, and then Hooters following and then the Gap. And then Borders ate! Borders actually ate Restaurant Mexico and 6 East. 6 East was never resurrected.

And that was a bar where all the bands went to go hang out in between their sets at Long Wong’s. So if you are a fangirl or fanboy, you could go and hang out with your favorite bands and get to know them for a little bit. It was like the green room of Long Wong’s, if you will.

GOLDSTEIN: So you’re living in Oregon now? What’s it like to come back and see? Do you actually make your way down to Mill Avenue when you come visit?

NOTARO: I do. I was living in Oregon, came down. One, it was over Christmas time and I was taking my nana down to Mill Avenue with my husband so we could show her where we used to hang out, where we met, where we went on our first date. And lo and behold, when we got to Mill and University, I looked over and there was a wrecking ball knocking down the last wall of Long Wong’s.

I saw that. I was there in that moment, and I burst into tears. As melancholy as that and maudlin as that seemed, it was such a loss to that community and to that time in Tempe’s history and in my own personal history. And so many important things happened there to really put Tempe on the map.

And other people who came afterwards to really exploit it didn’t think twice about taking that history away. They just bulldozed it. So I do come back. It’s not the same. I used to work at Tower Records over in that parking lot, when Tower Records was over on Mill and University. I worked there for three days before I went to go work for Zia (Records).

That’s not there anymore, and now it’s a 55 and over residential skyscraper. It looks like it belongs in Dubai. It is hilarious to me. They knocked down a Chili’s to build that. And if anything, that’s what you want to keep when you, an older-age residential place. Don’t you want a Chili’s in your parking lot? I guess I hope that they’ve made room for the Hometown Buffet.

But yeah. I’m just like, “Wow, this really is the epitome of what Tempe is no longer.” It is no longer — well, it kind of is. I guess it’s the old-age home for people who used to get drunk and high on Mill Avenue in the late ’80s and ’90s. Now they go live and relive their youth in scooters and wheelchairs on the corner of Mill and University.

GOLDSTEIN: You talked about the great bands, of course, and seeing friends, but was there something really funny you saw back in the day on Mill that just strikes you as the epitome of what you saw on Mill Avenue, as like a great observer of the human condition that you are?

NOTARO: I think the classic epitome moment of Mill Avenue is that, a friend of mine, Sarah, had just eaten at Restaurant Mexico, and we’re walking across the street to get ice cream or whatever, and Sarah had wrapped up what was left of her burrito to take home. And she saw a homeless person who was there asking for help.

And so she said, “Hey, do you want my burrito?” And he said, “Yeah, I do.” So she gave it to him, and then he opened it up and he said, “Hey, you already bit it!” I mean, that’s kind of the epitome of Mill Avenue. It’s just, you know, it’s like whatever.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.