El Paso City Hall will be demolished this weekend to make room for a baseball park. (Photo courtesy of VisitElPaso via Flickr under Creative Commons license. Licence terms below)
Kent Paterson | Commentary
The towering smokestacks of the old Asarco smelter in west El Paso will be demolished this weekend. (Photo courtesy of Russell Neches via Flickr under Creative Commons license. Licence terms below)
In the Paso del Norte borderland these days, an interested observer gets the distinct impression of the world being turned upside down. And the Great Upheaval isn’t necessarily due to immigration, drugs and border security-the flashy topics media typically pounce on to paint a caricature of a complex place. Here, the issue is much more basic: money- either lots of it or very little of it.
Avenida Juarez in downtown Ciudad Juarez is crammed with foot traffic detoured from Avenida 16 de Septiembre, which is getting a major make-over. As the downtown revitalization project lurches forward, the laying down of new infrastructure and the construction of train underpasses has streets blocked off and vehicular and pedestrian flows diverted. Slated for the chopping block, merchants in the block adjacent to the historic plaza in front of the Cathedral still hold out against the official plan.
Most notably, the popular Café Nueva Central continues serving delicious and bargain-priced food, though with less workers noticeable on a recent visit. State and city leaders wager the downtown project will inject new economic life and bring back visitors from the United States who quit coming in droves as violence overwhelmed the city.
In anticipation of a new dawn, the emblematic Martino’s steakhouse on Avenida Juarez, which shut down when violence reached a fever pitch a few years back, has reopened and is eager to serve diners at immaculately arranged tables every evening.
Big changes are underway across the Rio Grande in El Paso as well. This coming weekend, two important symbols of the Sun City, the Asarco smokestacks and City Hall, will go down to graves of dust.
Both demolitions have evoked great controversies (readers can check the FNS website here for recent articles on the Asarco battle), and in the case of City Hall, the blasting will clear the ground for the publicly-funded construction of a baseball stadium meant to field a new Triple-A League team purchased by oil refiner, billionaire and now sports promoter Paul Foster and his fellow private investors.
The baseball stadium-city hall deal prompted public outcry, lawsuits which were later dismissed and oodles of questioning of how the city is governed and for whom. It inspired a new citizen informational initiative, chucoleaks.org, a website that offers a frequently penetrating –and always irreverent- look at local politics.
El Paso’s city fathers and mothers envision the baseball stadium as a key element in the overall economic detonation of a sleepy downtown.
A maze of road work and the pending openings of a new Walgreen’s branch and a Starbuck’s outlet are other hints of a new chapter in the city’s old downtown, where the names of Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Banamex USA and United Bank already loom large.
“Downtown El Paso is certainly looking up-be a part of it,” urges an ad for the upscale Mills Plaza office and retail complex.
Local hotels and media are going hog wild over the demolition of Asarco on April 13 and City Hall on April 14, with package deals, viewing parties and live video feeds in the works. Primed to have the best observation perch possible, some locals are ready to break out the champagne for the moments when the Asarco stacks come tumbling down and City Hall collapses. It’s been dubbed “Demolition Weekend,” and surely one for the history books.
Yet it remains to be seen if El Chuco has the economic base to support a new baseball team and flourishing downtown entertainment district. El Paso’s unemployment rate hovers above national averages, as does it poverty rating. In the real estate market, El Paso also had the distinction of ranking among the five U.S. metropolitan areas that actually had more unsold homes in February 2013 than a year earlier, according to the border business journal Juarez-El Paso Now.
All over town, “For Lease” signs dangle from vacant commercial properties.
Two streams of money that kept the city chugging along during the Great Recession-Fort Bliss expansion and Ciudad Juarez refugee dollars-are slowing to a trickle. On Mesa Street above UTEP, a night spot appropriately named Old Mesa Street which once packed a heavily Juarense crowd, stands empty.
For financially strapped Pasenos, soda is a safe bet for pinching pennies-Michael Bloomberg notwithstanding. On the border, Seven-Eleven offers its Big Gulp drink for a price cheaper than the bottled water sold at the store.
An ambitious campaign of grassroots economic development in south-central El Paso has suffered a major setback. Inaugurated in an old garment factory in 2009, Mercado Mayapan once employed dozens of people in a business that consisted of a small grocery, restaurant and Mexican arts and crafts stands.
Although Mercado Mayapan struggled to attract customers, it was the scene of political forums, dances, poetry readings, film showings, and musical performances. A hugely popular Day of the Dead celebration became an annual event drawing thousands.
Founded by La Mujer Obrera, the non-profit formed by garment industry workers (overwhelmingly women) displaced by free trade, Mercado Mayapan housed a community media center that offered Internet access in a low-income community; a small book outlet for local authors; and a museum, Museo Mayachen, which featured exhibits of the forgotten bracero guestworkers who kept the U.S. fed and clothed, the struggles of garment workers in a city once known as the “Jeans Capital” of the U.S., and eye-grabbing splashes of Chicano art.
In an era when Texas history books were being rewritten, Museo Mayachen’s display of the alternative Chicano press of the 1960s and early 1970s offered priceless snapshots of a history some would like to bury: the struggles of students in Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, the New Mexican land grant movement, the prosecution of “Los Tres del Barrio” political activists, and much more.
All this is practically now gone. In a bankruptcy action, Mercado Mayapan’s furnishings were auctioned off on April 7. A tour of the abandoned facility the day before the sale witnessed metal racks, computers and all sorts of restaurant equipment lined up for auction. A walk through the aisles was almost like a ghost dance in a chamber of resistance, rebellion and reaffirmation, the echoes of which somehow never die out and even gather new force.
A lonely sign proclaimed “Comercio Justo” (Fair Trade), and the names of the various Mexican states adorned the empty merchandise booths. A poster advertising the documentaries “We Will Always be Here” and “And the Dead Shall Rise” invited an audience to the grit and determination of El Chuco’s old garment district.
A scaled-back version of the Mayapan project, Café Mayapan and Lum Metik Trading Company, survive on 2000 Texas Avenue close to the old Mercado Mayapan, with business hours posted from 11 am to 3 pm Monday through Friday.
Have a memorable Demolition Weekend!
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
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