Showdown in the Battle for El Paso


A battle pitting downtown developers against neighborhood residents and community activists is nearing a climax in El Paso, Texas. Defining the future identity of a growing city on the US-Mexico border, the conflict centers around a city government plan to demolish a 158-year-old neighborhood popularly called Barrio Duranguito and build a $180 million dollar sports arena on its ruins. The planned arena is located near the spot where city hall was torn down and a polemical baseball stadium constructed in its place in 2013.

If developers win, upward of 150 residents and small business people will be displaced from the predominantly Mexican American neighborhood. Members of the Paso del Sur organization and other community groups have held rallies, marched, collected petition signatures, staged a religious procession, and retained legal help.

On June 27, downtown arena opponents turned out in force to the first meeting of the new city council, where newly-elected Republican Mayor Dee Margo attempted to limit public comments to one minute per person instead of the traditional three minutes, but was temporarily overruled by the city representatives.

“That was the very first act that guy did as mayor,” observed Paso del Sur activist Dr. David Romo, border historian and author. Margo and several city representatives were elected in a June run-off in which less than 10% of the voters bothered to cast a ballot.

Despite allowing more time for public participation, the city council delayed action on a validated petition presented by arena opponents that would declare Duranguito a historic district and prevent the neighborhood’s demolition.

Under existing city rules, the city council’s denial of a validated citizen petition can be overcome by a second petition that puts the issue directly before voters, something Romo said the community movement was immediately commencing.

For Duranguito’s supporters, lowering the wrecking balls on the oldest continually inhabited neighborhood of El Paso means destroying much of the border city’s rich history.

Dr. Max Grossman, art history professor and coordinator of the El Paso History Alliance, recently led a tour through Duranguito, where old Victorians and rare tenements still stand, some displaying “Save Duranguito” signs. Grossman sketched the histories of properties that once housed a notorious brothel, a boxer who fought Jack Dempsey, and a workshop that made uniforms for Pancho Villa’s troops, among other notable historical facts.

The cultural historian termed an old laundry building the “surviving relic” of the early Chinese community in El Paso, which numbered about 1,200 people around the turn of the 20th century. “It is among the last buildings of an era, and that era is when the railroad arrived in El Paso,” he said.

A 1998 city government study recommended that 7 buildings in Duranguito should be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Grossman said. “Look at how beautiful this neighborhood is,” he told visitors. “Do you want it to be like Phoenix? This is what makes us unique.”

Reminiscent of the epic 1950s fight of the Mexican American residents of Los Angeles’ Chavez Ravine against forced relocation from homes where Dodger Stadium was ultimately erected, El Paso history professor Dr. Yolanda Leyva compared Duranguito with low-income, working class communities confronting gentrification in El Paso and elsewhere.

“I think what’s happening in Duranguito is a larger process of what’s happening in the south side barrios,” Leyva said. “It’s the same thing that happened in Austin, where they moved people to isolated areas...”

Paso del Sur traces the arena project to a 2006 downtown development plan crafted by the now-defunct Paso del Norte Group, an organization of big business people and public officials from both El Paso and neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, that later merged into the Borderplex Alliance.

“If you see their actions it’s about bringing in the upper class entertainment crowd and throwing out the poor and elderly,” Romo said. “That’s what the city is trying to do: get rid of the working-class and replace it with a kind of European looking, fun-loving crowd.”

Situating the sports arena in Duranguito instead of another site like the existing Cohen Stadium would allow the City of El Paso to receive at least $25 million in state tax rebates over a period of ten years, according to a city estimate based on the Texas Comptroller’s Office. The money could then be used to develop a convention center-private hotel zone.

Leyva and Romo both described how individuals representing wealthy landowners who stand to cash in on the arena pressured Duranguito’s tenants and small business vendors to relocate by enticing them with financial incentives ranging between $1,500 to $14,000. An 85-year-old woman resident became “so stressed” from constant knocks on the door that “she literally ended up in the hospital with a heart attack,” Romo said. “It’s been vicious, the whole process. That’s’ the kind of pressure people are under.”

Simultaneously, legal sparring between the city government and arena opponents is underway in an Austin court hundreds of miles away, a venue the city obtained in order to make it more difficult for arena opponents, Romo contended.

The case centers on the language, purpose and legality of a 2012 quality of life bond approved by voters that provided for a “multi-purpose performing arts and entertainment” facility. Yet neither the ordinance that facilitated the bond election nor the election ballot used the word “arena,” much less stated that historic buildings would be razed and residents forcibly relocated.

“Our argument is that it isn’t just semantics. It’s a materially different thing the voters approved,” Romo said. Considering that 40% of Duranguito’s residents are immigrants, arena opponents will also argue civil rights violations are taking place, he said.

In a preemptive strike against a planned lawsuit by arena opponents, the City of El Paso filed for declaratory judgment in May, arguing that the 2012 bond election results allow arena construction to move forward. The case is expected to be heard July 18 in Austin. “People are still kind of resisting. The morale is high. We actually have the stronger arguments, legally,” Romo added. “I think we have a good chance to legally invalidate the illegality of the bond.”

Kent Paterson is a freelance writer who divides his time between Mexico and the southwestern US.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2017

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