|NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION: BEHIND THE DEMOLITION PLAN
by David Dorado Romo
WHEN I FIRST heard about the Paso Del Norte Group plan to revitalize
Downtown El Paso, I was excited. Almost everything I've done in the
last two decades—as a historian, musician, cultural activist and
writer—has to do with bringing new life and energy to this part
of our city. Finally a group of people are willing to invest in this
dream, I thought.
Then I saw their map.
It was like being struck with a baseball bat in the gut.
I got ahold of a map ( labeled "not for distribution") that showed a huge chunk of land—127.5 acres in the Segundo
Barrio, old Chihuahuita and part of the Magoffin area—marked in a
series of bright yellow and orange squares. The area within these
squares, except for a few buildings here and there, is slated for
demolition. In old Chihuahuita-Union Plaza they want to build an arena.
In the Segundo Barrio they want to build a huge mall and upper-scale
apartment zone they call "The Lifestyle Outlet." The current
owners and residents inside these yellow and orange zones will be given
the choice to either sell or buy shares in the new Yuppie Super-Mall.
If they don't agree to this, their property will be stripped from them
under the threat of "eminent domain" to one of the most politically
well-connected developers in the U.S. Keeping their
buildings—even if the current owners are willing to adapt their
business and architecture to fit the concept of the new plan—is
not an option.
The working-class residents of the Segundo Barrio will be relocated
with the promise that their rent will be frozen for a short period of
time. After that, when their rents rise astronomically, they will be
relocated again (this time not by force, but by the real-estate
I JUST WROTE a book titled Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez, 1893-1923,
that documents the central role our city played in helping spark one of
the foremost revolutions of the twentieth century. I couldn't believe
that according to the Paso Del Norte Group map, several of the
buildings that I include in my book will be destroyed to build a brand
new Lifestyle Outlet and Arena.
The Pablo Baray Apartments, where the first novel of the Mexican Revolution, Los de Abajo,
was published in serial form by Mariano Azuela in 1915, will be razed.
(According to the Central Appraisal District archives, the building
that is standing there today was constructed in 1910.) On Oregon Street
alone, several historic buildings will be demolished. The building
where there is a plaque dedicated to "Mexican Joan of Arc" Teresita
Urrea—healer, newspaper editor, saint, revolutionary and beauty
queen—lived is going to go. That property was owned by the first
mayor of El Paso, Ben Dowell in 1877. The site originally housed a
Custom's House, a Lady's Hospital, and Aoy school. In 1907, it was
refurbished by a Frenchman named Pierre Cazenabe, alias Felix Robert,
from Marseilles. In 1919 and 1920, the El Paso city directory showed
that the first African American graduate of Westpoint, Henry Flipper
lived there. Abelardo Delgado, author of "Stupid America" lived on
Oregon street during the 40s when there was still a large African
American community there. On 203 E. 7th street stands the
birthplace of Don Tosti, a child prodigy who at the age of 9 played
violin with the El Paso symphony orchestra then went on to play with
swing greats such as Jimmy Dorsey and Les Brown and occassionally also
jammed with Charles Mingus. His album "Pachuco Boogie" which set in motion a whole new Chicano perspective on American pop music during the 40s and 50s. His birthplace will be torn down
to build a Wal-Mart. Ironically, his last recording was part of Ry
Cooder's Chavez Ravine CD, where he warned the barrio of the upcoming
demolition of a Chicano neighborhood. Also on Oregon street,
within the demolition zone, stands a beautiful structure that housed
the El Paso Times in the 1890s and then became the Labor Temple and the
printing press for the Labor Advocate newspaper from 1919 to 1962. In
the old Chihuahuita-Union Plaza district they will tear down a home
where Pancho and his brother Hippolito Villa hid during exile. Also under threat of demolition is a fire station that was built
by Henry Trost in the 30s. The Magoffin Street home of Dr. Ira Bush,
the author of Gringo Doctor
who established the Insurrecto Hospital during the Battle of
Juárez, is also threatened. The list of buildings that played a
huge role in our community's past that are scheduled to be pulverized
(as of February 2007) goes on and on.
If this mass demolition takes place, it will be commemorated as one of
the most barbaric acts of cultural destruction in our city's history.
The members of this City Hall will be remembered for generations as the
group who destroyed the heart of the Segundo Barrio—the Ellis
Island of the border—that played a crucial role in the history of
immigration, the Mexican Revolution, the Pachuco culture and the
Chicano renaissance of the 60s and 70s . They'll be the ones who traded our
birthright for a bowl of lentils and a cup of java, or should I say,
many cups of java. I would think twice before I became part of that
legacy if I were them. This history affects more than just the people
of El Paso. Our local cultural heritage belongs to people far beyond
our city limits.
In the past there have been similar acts of devastation carried out in
the name of bringing in new business opportunities to town. After the
railroad was constructed in 1881—for the sake of "progress" and
in order to "de-Mexicanize" the city's architecture—the local
Anglo newspapers called for the razing of every adobe building in
Downtown El Paso. By 1883, El Paso Times wrote triumphantly: "The
removal of the ancient adobe with all their bad associations means a
new life for El Paso."
"Bad associations," of course, was a euphemism for "poor Mexicans."
In 1916—again in the name of "progress" and "cleaning up South El
Paso"— Mayor Tom Lea Sr., with the help of Pershing's troops,
sent the demolition squads to the Segundo Barrio hand-in-hand with
health inspectors whose job it was to delouse and fumigate the Mexican
American residents. When the residents of Chihuahuita rebelled and
began shooting at the demolition squads, Tom Lea provided rifles to the
health inspectors with orders to "shoot to kill." At the end of it all,
Tom Lea's administration demolished hundreds of adobe homes.
Photographs in the El Paso Herald of the Second Ward in 1916 show city
blocks that seemed to have suffered bombardments or the devastation of
war. In a sense, they had.
There have been
several other demolitions and relocations by City Hall that have gone
terribly wrong. In 1947, the Paisano Street project displaced 750
families and 6,000 people. The community had been promised great
benefits. One El Paso Herald cartoon showed a businessman sitting
behind a giant cash register ringing up immense sales; below him the
city of El Paso formed a huge bottleneck forcing business through its
downtown business section. Instead of great benefits for the
working-class community, historian Benjamin Marquez writes that "the
displacement of the people that came as a result of the Paisano Street
project also created what was known as a 'shanty' boom. Make-shift
shelters made of plywood, sheet-metal and cardboard sprang up in South
El Paso shortly after Paisano Drive was completed." Marquez continues:
"Of the major plans for project that were executed in the Second Ward
prior to 1960, all were introduced by the local elite. None of the
important changes at this time involved community input."
In 1974, La Campaña Pro Preservación del Barrio was
established to mobilize against the destruction of the Segundo Barrio
carried out in the name of what many today call "Urban Removal."
Predictably enough, some of the apartment buildings that this
grassroots activist group built after many years of struggle are also
in the demolition zone.
History repeats itself.
But I'm sure these aren't the kind of historical questions that
interest the San Francisco consulting firm that drew out the very
geometrical map with the bright yellow and orange squares of South El
Paso, Chihuahuita and the Magoffin neighborhood. What interests them
is—como dice la canción—money, money, money, money.
SINCE RINGSIDE SEAT TO A REVOLUTION came out I've taken locals and
out-of-town tourists alike to many of South El Paso's historic sites.
This tour through our city's incredibly rich underground history has
been featured in Latino USA and a few other national publications. In
the near future, people will read about the underground historical tour
of our city in the travel section of the New York Times written by
Maria Finn, whom I accompanied through the streets of Downtown and
South El Paso. The interest is obviously there. Why hasn't the
historical tourism potential of this zone been included in the Paso Del
Norte concept? These buildings, this history, this gritty underground
fronterizo aesthetic is what makes El Paso unique, what makes us, as
Cormac McCarthy puts it, "the last great American city." The Paso Del
Norte Group plans to destroy our city's greatest assets because, in the
words of one of their representatives, "it is cheaper to demolish than
to restore." (It also makes more business sense to tear down one
apartment for every new one you construct. That way you can keep the
rents high.) The study that determined which were the best zones to
tear down in El Paso was done by the SMWM consultant firm out of San
Francisco. From what I hear, they didn't even bother to consult any
previous studies—not by the historical investigation done by the
WPA in the 30s, or the Historic American Building Survey in the 80s or
even the excellent Union Plaza-Downtown study conducted by Dr. Stephen
Mbutu and Dr. John Peterson in 1998. (This study recommended declaring
more than 20 national registry landmarks in the Union Plaza district
alone.) And of course, no one bothered to ask me, although I've spent
the last four or five years researching this neighborhood.
One local official tells me that this San Francisco consultant firm
figured that anything that wasn't designated historic by the National
Register of Historic Places commission was fair game for demolition.
What they probably don't know is that less than .5 percent of all
National Register of Historic Places landmarks have anything to do with
Hispanic history. It doesn't mean Hispanic history doesn't have any
valuable landmarks. It's just that where we see gems, they see junk.
But after all is said and done, we know that the Paso Del Norte Group
doesn't give a hoot about the historical value of the buildings. All
they care about is the juicy piece of land beneath them. And believe
me, it's prime real estate.
I THINK MANY are rooting for the idea of a vibrant downtown. What
bothers many El Pasoans is that they have been completely excluded from
the decision making process by a very secretive Paso Del Norte
Group—as if they were second-class citizens, outsiders in their
own land. A few of the residents and activists I've interviewed have
used the phrase "over my dead body" when they talk about forcible
removal from their homes and property.
The residents and owners of the targeted zones have not been given the
opportunity to sit down at the table and discuss these very complex
issues as equals. Instead we've heard one very visible
multi-billionaire and a few multi-millionaires who are behind the plan
making glib statements like "You have to crack a few eggs to make an
omelet." You're not dealing with eggs here, you're dealing with
My father has a gas station in the zone designated for demolition. He
bought it in 1965 and has had some of the same clients for decades.
Relocation will absolutely kill my father's business. And to tell you
the truth, my father—who in his late 60s—is too old to
start all over again in a new location. Recently an anonymous buyer,
through a real estate agent, offered him an incredibly large sum of
money for his business. My father said no and the nameless buyer kept
raising his offer. The unsolicited offer was so high that we all
thought it smelled very fishy. But my father is not interested in
The whole affair smells very fishy. The leadership of the
behind-the-scenes group that is pushing for this plan is made up by a
very small elite class that is not representative of most people in our
city, much less in the areas targeted for demolition. According to some
reports, there is a group of about 360 businessmen and women who've
paid $1,800 each yearly membership dues to be part of the Paso Del
Norte Group. These figures are hard to verify independently because
everything has been kept pretty much in the hush-hush. The list of
names of this core group of members is also a matter of intense
secrecy. The public decision-making process has all been top-down; even
within the Paso Del Norte Group many members complain that all the
major decisions are made from the top down. Sure, the rest of El Paso's
citizens can attend public meetings for the next 50 days where they can
gripe about the Paso Del Norte plan as much as they want. They might
even be invited to sit down at their largely cosmetic Task Force
committees. But they shouldn't be surprised if many don't consider that
full participation in the decision-making process, especially when
their plan is going to obliterate the historic heart of the South El
Paso community. The urgency of the Paso Del Norte Group—and this
ridiculously short period of time that City Council has given itself to
makes its decision (by July 1)—leads many El Paso citizens to
believe that they intend to railroad this land grab of theirs no matter
what the Segundo Barrio, Chihuahuita and Magoffin inhabitants and
business owners think.
As one El Paso Times editorialist put it, the Paso Del Norte people
"have money and know friends who have money … who have friends
with even more money. It's called rubbing your palms together as
visions of easy-money investments dance in a speculator's head …
[After the demolitions] they'll be on the land faster than Christmas
shoppers on new Sony Playstations."
Maybe the Paso Del Norte Group should put that in their glossy brochure.
* * *
David Dorado Romo
is a native El Pasoan. Three generations of his extended family have
either lived or worked in the Segundo Barrio since the turn of the
century. A version of this article first
appeared in Newspaper Tree.
* * *
"Where we see gems, they see junk."
Photographs by Bruce Berman.
These are just some of the historical buildings mostly in the Segundo Barrio
neighborhood that are targeted for demolition under the Paso Del Norte
Group redevelopment plan. Dozens of other threatened sites in the
Magoffin, Chihuahuita and Union Plaza district are not included.
The El Paso Times-Labor Temple—(223. S. Oregon Street)
This building housed the El Paso Times in the 1890s and then became the
Labor Temple and the printing press for the Labor Advocate newspaper
from 1919 to 1962.
Teresita Urrea-Henry Flipper site (Third & Oregon Street)
is now at this site where healer-saint-revolutionary Santa Teresita Urrea lived
in 1897. It was also the site of the first customs house, a Ladies
Hospital, Aoy School and a Chinese Laundry. In 1907 it was
refurbished by a Frenchman named Pierre Cazanabe, alias Felix Robert.
The building that is standing there today was the home of Henry Flipper
in 1919 and 1920. Flipper was the first African American graduate from West Point.
El Paso Del Norte press—(609 S. Oregon Street)
The first novel of the Mexican Revolution, Los de Abajo by Mariano
Azuela was published here in serial form by the Villista doctor
in 1915 when it housed the El Paso del Norte printing press. According
to the El Paso County Appraisal District, this building was constructed
in 1910. It became the Pablo Baray Apartments in the 30s.
The Ira Bush Home—(809 Magoffin)
Dr. Ira Bush was appointed by the Maderista revolutionary as head of
their medical corps. He established the Insurrecto Hospital where the
wounded were taken during the Battle of Juárez in May 1911. He
helped steal the McGintty band canon for the rebels during this period.
He was a good friend of Pancho Villa. His revolutionary activities are
documented in his memoir, Gringo Doctor.
Baptist Temple—(801 Magoffin)
This beautiful church was built in 1907. Today it is owned by the Catholic Daughters of America.
Chinatown—(212 W. Overland Street)
Site of a 19th century Chinese Laundry
. Oregon and Overland streets were the heart of Chinatown in El Paso.
Henderson Baby Clinic-(South Mesa Street)
The Henderson Baby Clinic was first established in 1919 as the Freeman Clinic by the Methodist Church in the Segundo Barrio.
Baptist Printing House- (Virginia & Myrtle Street)
The Baptist Publishing Home bought this building for $40,000 in 1925. By this year it had already published 1,250,000 copies of numerous magazines, booklets and leaflets including literature for Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. The Baptist Publishing Home was founded in Mexico City in 1904.
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