Downtown must fix its broken heart

Published 4:33 pm Wednesday, September 9, 2009

By Staff
Gary, I’m going to miss you terribly, but downtown Washington is going to miss you even more. If a downtown can have a heart, you were it.
When I learned about Gary Tomasulo’s death Monday, my immediate thoughts were about his family, which he had with him in recent weeks as his children and grandchildren paid visits, in part to see Gary’s newest venture, La Bella Pizzeria, which he made clear was a family business. Just check out the back of the menus. As Monday afternoon became Monday night, I reflected on what Gary meant to me, personally and professionally.
Who’s going to keep me company at 2 o’clock in the morning in the camper provided by Crisp RV Center for our use during Smoke on the Water festivals? Who’s going to consult with me about T-shirts for Music in the Streets? Who’s going to swap stories with me, stories about grandchildren, as Gary and I did as I interviewed him for countless stories about downtown issues?
My first recollection of getting to know Gary takes me back to the first year of Music in the Streets. A group of about 10 or 12 people met to plan the event. Gary was there, with plenty of passion, energy and opinions. Gary always had plenty of those three items.
It became quite evident at that meeting this man was passionate about downtown Washington, something I found intriguing. After all, Gary was a New Yorker. That was evident by his speech. Gary, a retired corrections captain who worked in New York City, adopted downtown Washington, making it home after leaving Brooklyn.
He and I often joked about him, a Yankee, coming to the South and, rather than burning Washington like some other Yankees did during the Civil War, wanting to build up and improve Washington, especially its downtown. Perhaps that’s why he served as president of the Historic Downtown Washington Merchants Association since 2002.
After many Music in the Streets events, Gary and I would sit in the Coca-Cola booth on Main Street, with Gary talking about the future of downtown, what he would like to see happen there and what others might do with downtown if given an opportunity. Gary was diligent in his effort to protect downtown’s merchants, shopkeepers and property owners.
During those 2 a.m. sessions in the camper during Smoke on the Water festivals, Gary would talk about the need to make city officials, prospective developers and others understand how their plans for downtown and its adjacent waterfront could affect the owners of mom-and-pop businesses trying to eke out a living as taxes, utility rates and government-imposed fees increased.
But Gary did more than just talk; he acted.
It was Gary who was instrumental in the effort to replace the wooden slats in benches in downtown Washington several years ago, obtaining the materials needed for the job and doing most of that job himself. Gary also pushed for cleaning up and improving the alleys in the downtown area.
Gary did not like seeing an empty storefront downtown. To him, an empty storefront was a challenge. He just knew there was a unique business out there waiting to find a home in downtown Washington.
Gary’s death has left a vast emptiness in the downtown community, but it’s also left an empty place in my life.
But each time I go downtown, I will be reminded of what one man can do with passion, energy and opinions. Gary’s legacy, at least a big part of it, is downtown Washington.
For now, downtown is suffering from a broken heart. It will recover and survive. That’s a fitting way to honor Gary’s contribution to downtown Washington.