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Home | Opinion | Op-Ed+Gallery: Self-Inflicted – How the City Went from Us to Them
Courtesy: El Paso County Historical Society

Op-Ed+Gallery: Self-Inflicted – How the City Went from Us to Them

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.

All Gone.

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.

Courtesy: El Paso County Historical Society
Courtesy: El Paso County Historical Society

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.

The targeted footprint is bounded by West San Antonio Avenue, South Santa Fe Street, West Paisano Drive and Leon Street || Map courtesy Google
The targeted footprint is bounded by West San Antonio Avenue, South Santa Fe Street, West Paisano Drive and Leon Street || Map courtesy Google

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.

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Map courtesy Google Earth

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.

 Photo gallery courtesy Jon Eckberg

About Chris Babcock

Editor in Chief: El Paso Herald-Post, horizoncity.com Chris began his long journey in Journalism back in the early 70’s. Armed with a Bell and Howell 8mm camera and tape recorder. Chris would go on to document such events as the great plastic dinosaur attack on Tornillo, GI Joe’s dramatic rescue of Barbie from a backyard mud pit and a massive toy train derailment caused by Godzilla. FULL BIO

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4 comments

  1. I had to leave The Sunplex of El Paso in 1950 to get a ‘real’ job as a broadcast journalist in St.Louis, but the city at that time was a city with a ‘historical past, and antiquities to show for it! Then progress…now my home town looks like a ‘bad rendition’ of LA! “Progress’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!

  2. Build the downtown arena where the city said it will be built,those buildings above look pretty rundown and dilapidated within a blighted neighborhood.Nothing there that is really worth saving and about the second photo that is framed by Cotton street Paisano, Alameda and I-10. That is Not Downtown and an arena would not look good in another blighted run down neighborhood.
    The arena needs to be built next to the Civic Center and those buildings need to come down and the sooner the better.The people that will be relocated should move into this neighborhood mentioned above and at least they won’t have to worry about having to ever move again. Max Grossman should be helping them relocate and help them find a home.BTW! the last time the whole city expanded its vista, they got us Cielo Vista Mall and look what that mall did to downtown? It turned it into a ghost town!
    Let’s not ever repeat past mistakes but rebuild and make downtown El Paso better and bigger,besides, El Paso seems to be on a roll. And it’s about time that downtown El Paso is getting some serious attention,we will never have the great stores that we had back in the late 1950’s and 60’s.But we can probably do better and attract new modern stores that would be located in old revitalized vintage buildings.

  3. We have a new beautiful state of the art triple A baseball stadium, a nice looking Civic Center and Convention
    Center side by side. Then across the street from San Antonio Avenue there is a slum of old dwellings,few houses and dilapidated buildings.And now from out of nowhere comes the Historical people claiming to want to derail the voter approved downtown arena. My take is that this area is not even a neighborhood but more of a rundown eyesore.A new downtown arena could really upgrade this entire area,I’m sorry that it will displace a few citizens and maybe some down’t want to move.But to them I say: When one door closes another one opens and maybe they’ll end up in a much better environment.

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