The Lincoln School Neighborhood. The Chamizal Neighborhood. The Buena Vista Neighborhood. Downtown from Missouri Street to Prospect. Delta Street north to Pershing. Geronimo west to Campbell. Santa Fe west to Schuster.
Streets on a map? Yes, but more. Thousands of homes, hundreds of businesses, tens of thousands of residents. Vibrant, living sections of El Paso – just as sure as any home or park or neighborhood that exist today; except for one common trait.
It is called progress. What was once a tree-lined neighborhood is now a concrete-lined, 8-lane highway. A squat, 4-room adobe house overlooking cotton field is now a visitor’s center in the middle of a National Park.
That back yard tree-top view of Union Station and Mexico beyond? It’s an cement embankment now. Those places exist only in the memories of those who lived there and – perhaps – a photo or two.
Progress. Time marches on.
In each of the instances mentioned, the fate of each building, each block , each tree and view, was determined by person or persons outside of El Paso. Them. Engineers from Austin. Lawyers from Dallas. Negotiators from Washington D.C. Each selling a similar vision and plan. Progress.
Here comes the Interstate, we’ll need your homes. Here comes the new Rio Grande, we’ll need your neighborhood. And – of course – you will be paid a ‘fair amount’ for your property. All will be well. Trust us.
Carpetbaggers with visions of multi-lane highways, overpasses and free-flowing traffic though the Pass of the North. Of course, not always free-flowing. But in each case, it was always us versus them. We lived here, we rented here, we shopped here. And they didn’t.
They swooped in, took measurements and left appraisals. The next they had the checks and the lawyers. Just in case.
We knew – even if we didn’t want to acknowledge it out loud – that some fellow residents were going to benefit big from the progress, and the rest, well…the rest would just find a way. But we would keep a keen eye out for them…those outsiders wouldn’t come in and fool us again.
So we busied ourselves with the marvels of strip malls and freeways, moving merrily along with the flow of time and progress, deluding ourselves that it was all worth it; Downtown receding in our mirrors, while we drove over the ghosts of neighborhoods now gone.
But still keeping an eye out for them.
And while we were busy stretching out and building across a seemingly vacant (and ‘useless’ desert) an entire quadrant of El Paso’s railroad hotels and row houses became a unique convention center and theater, as well as a city hall that left many cold.
At the same time, investors bought classic buildings like classic cars, only to let them fall into disrepair and condemnation, all the while saying “I’m preserving history and someday I’ll fix it, you’ll see.”
For some buildings, preservation meant transformation into parking lots for the convention center and city hall. For others, restoration ended up being flames and front-loaders, removing debris; leaving the survivors to stare at us through broken windows – unblinking and pleading: Is there nothing you can do?
We watched the flames, then the dump trucks and finally the empty lots. Still watching out for the next they, we cleaned up the mess.
Then baseball. Then the rush. Then the subdued hate for the old city hall…that ugly building…its gotta go. Now. A city’s elected officials moving quickly; progress. Trust us. We did.
And while we stared at the beauty in the form of an emerald diamond amidst grey concrete and black asphalt, we stopped looking for the next they.
And that’s when they evolved from us.
Emboldened by a public vote, and in a rush to once again declare progress, they emerged fully formed and educated by the ballpark’s rush.
They knew best, they would take the permission granted in bond form, and move to do something for us, but not with us. Trust us. Progress.
Site Selection Teams. Appraisers. Lawyers. Planners. PowerPoint Jockeys with Google Map Goodness. They were Us.
From a Thursday to a Tuesday it all became clear; four years begat four days and a familiar refrain…re-phrased: Here comes the arena, we’ll need your homes. All will be well, all will be paid a fair amount…
Now another entire neighborhood – still vibrant and living – teeters on the abyss that is history. A push one way and only memories and photos remain.
With increasing numbers, the community – the us – is pushing back hard, all to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, visited upon all of us by the notorious, destructive them.
But this is more than a story of history, it is a lesson on how to avoid the mistakes of the past, while still declaring progress.
If our leaders truly want to revitalize downtown specifically – and the city as a whole – they need to expand their vista beyond the shadows of the original heart of the city.
For example, less than two miles from their location is an area of town dominated by recyclers, warehouses, auto scrappers, underused streets and a few empty lots. The strip of homes along Ladrillo Place would continue to stand, unaffected.
Framed by Cotton Street on the west, by Paisano on the southside and Alameda plus I-10 a couple blocks removed to the north, the location is prime for redevelopment and revitalization. Access is not an issue, and neither is space. This is but a quick example, drawn up in about 15 minutes, not 4 years.
By revisiting the area where the arena can be placed (and still being true to the ballot language) the city can avoid the issue of being the notorious, destructive them, increase the footprint of what is considered to be Downtown, and open up a whole new corridor of opportunity for all of us – not just a select few.