Such urban neighborhoods were a fixture of American life for more than a century. These ethnic cauldrons, equally marked by community as by intolerance, often served as the first stop for immigrants who filled America's factories and who helped create the wave of unprecedented prosperity following World War II. And no city was more emblematic of the new America than Detroit.
It was in that dynamic metropolis where fate stepped in to nudge 14-year-old Vince Pardo in the direction of his life's work. As Pardo tells it, he was walking by a shoe-repair shop when his curiosity led him to stick his nose in to see what was going on. "I got hooked," he says, describing his early fascination with what the shoemaker was doing. "Before you know it, I was working for him."
That was 62 years ago. Today, Pardo is one of a dwindling number of cobblers left in Tucson. Once a craft taught by father to son or master to apprentice, shoemakers have largely gone the way of other artisans whose handcrafted wares were supplanted by the mass production of everyday items from shoes to bowls.
When Pardo arrived in Tucson in 1961, there were at least 30 or 35 shoemakers practicing their trade, and "every single one knew what they were doing," the loquacious craftsman recently said at his midtown shop. After two years as an employee, Pardo opened his own business in El Con Mall under unfavorable circumstances.
"We opened the day (President) Kennedy was shot," he said, adding that the mall emptied within minutes after shoppers heard the news from Dallas. Despite this inauspicious start, Pardo's business thrived.
Even with the current flood of cheap footwear, the shoemaker continues to provide needed services for a wide-ranging, loyal clientele, and even some newbies.
A young woman walks into Pardo's shop, takes off her shoe, and asks if he can repair her high heels. No problem. And he can do it while she waits.
"I really hate the mall," Brittany Tennyson says, explaining why fixing a comfortable pair of work shoes seems the better option than "cruising for new shoes." Cost for her repaired heels? Four dollars and about 10 minutes.
Though some work can be done while the customer waits, plastic shoes take longer to repair, because of the type of glue required. But fixing footwear is only a part of what a cobbler does. "There are a lot of things a shoe repairman can do, and nobody else can do," Pardo said.
He names mending torn luggage, dog-chewed shoes or ripped handbags, and dyeing shoes for special occasions such as proms or weddings, as services a good shoemaker can provide. And though 75 percent of shoes are plastic these days, there are still customers who prefer having their shoes repaired to having them replaced.
He is passionate about the quality of his work, but what provides the most satisfaction are the customer relationships developed and sustained over decades. Some of his patrons bring their children to the store and tell Pardo it was their parents or grandparents who years earlier introduced them to El Con Custom Cobblers. Now it's the next generation's turn.
Pardo is philosophical about the future of his craft. On the one hand, he says he would counsel anyone considering shoe repair as a career to look elsewhere for a way to make a living. There are only six cobblers left in Tucson, and he sees that number dwindling over the coming years.
On the other hand, Pardo says decent shoes are still being made, and they will continue to require upkeep that only a shoe repairman can provide. At least for the foreseeable future, "Someone out there is making good shoes, and someone is going to buy them."