There’s a debate unfolding in El Paso about the future of one of the city’s oldest downtown neighborhoods, known to some as Union Plaza, and to others as Duranguito. Its historic structures include a frontier-era brothel and an early Chinese laundry.
Until recently, it was also home to several dozen people. But last summer, the city relocated *many of them. El Paso’s now planning to bulldoze Duranguito to make room for a new multipurpose arena. Proponents of the arena say it will bring business and tourists downtown. But opponents say the city is destroying history, and hasn’t been transparent about its plans
It’s a bright winter afternoon in Duranguito. 89-year-old Antonia Morales sits in a folding chair, keeping watch over her quiet street. She says she’s used to fighting for her neighborhood.
When she first moved to Duranguito in the 60s, there was a lot of crime. Morales describes abandoned cars and used syringes lining the road. So she and her neighbors organized. They swept up those syringes, got streetlights installed. She says they worked hard to build a clean, safe community. Now, she’s at it again.
“I’m guarding my community,” she says in Spanish. “So they don’t throw us out. So they don’t destroy us.”
Morales is one of just two people still living *on her street in Duranguito and says she plans to stay.
“Aquí estoy y aquí me voy a quedar a defenderlo,” she says.
One day last fall, a demolition crew sent by local property owners punched holes in several buildings. That wasn’t supposed to happen – a local historian who’s trying to preserve the neighborhood won a protective order blocking demolition.
Now those buildings are boarded up, with bricks spilling out the sides, surrounded by chain-link fencing.
The seed of this standoff was planted in 2012, when El Paso voters approved a quality of life bond. It included funds for a children’s museum, a Mexican-American cultural center, and a performing arts and entertainment center.
Claudia Ordaz was excited to vote for the bond. She’s currently on city council. But in 2012, she was an ordinary citizen. Ordaz saw these projects as steps towards solving a major problem: keeping young people in El Paso.
“People used to call this place- and I hate to even repeat it, but they used to call this place Hell Paso,” Ordaz says.
She says there wasn’t a lot to do when she was growing up here, partly because you could just walk into Juarez for entertainment. Many of her friends left after college.
“A lot of my classmates moved away because one, of lack of job opportunities and two, of entertainment options,” she says.
Ordaz wants them to come back. She hopes the arena attracts big name performers, who now sometimes bypass the city on tour stops. Ordaz doesn’t think one arena will totally transform the city, but it’s part of the puzzle. And, she says, it’s something people voted for in 2012.
But others, like Citlalic Jeffers-Peña, feel misled.
“Nowhere in the ballot that the citizens voted for did it say destroy Duranguito in order to build an arena,”Jeffers-Peña says. “How did we go from building a performing arts facility somewhere in the city to a sports arena in Duranguito?
Jeffers-Peña advocates with the activist group Paso Del Sur, which is fighting to preserve the neighborhood. To her group, this isn’t progress.
“Our vision is to preserve Duranguito and then also to bring economic development in the form of historical tourism and cultural programming,” Jeffers-Peña says.
Jeffers-Peña says there’s lot of empty land the city could build on. But Jessica Herrera, El Paso’s director of economic and international development, disagrees. She says the arena is part of building a vibrant downtown, so it has to go downtown. Herrera acknowledges these decisions have consequences.
“They do disrupt neighborhoods…It happens every day in economic development,” Herrera says. “But I think what happens is that we need to decide what do we want to be as we continue to move forward? As we continue to compete for people?”
Because of lawsuits, the project is on hold. But since one judge ruled the location is OK, the city is starting to solicit bids.
El Paso City Council Member Alexsandra Annello finds the whole situation disappointing.
“There really has to be an equitable solution for both sides and unfortunately I already think that we’ve lost in that regard,” she says.
“You have a community that’s now divided. And they no longer trust their city government. This multipurpose center could have been something that people were really excited about and supported,” Annello says.
Now, she says, there are many people who will never feel that way.
*Edited slightly to reflect a broader definition of the Duranguito neighborhood.