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Friday, September 22, 2006 

The Gentrification of El Paso's Historic El Segundo Barrio

How do you whiten US communities that have been historically minority (Hispanic, African-American Asian-American) populations? Right now, El Paso, TX and other major cities throughout the US are being turned into living social experiments: turning its backs of its cultural identities that brought character to certain neighborhoods, which made them unique all in the name of profit. Neighborhoods that had their own flavor that made them unique.

I just got word from my friend Jesús Ochoa by email that the City Council of El Paso is planning to destroy its historic El Segundo Barrio to make way for the corporatist from Paso Del Norte Plan to set up retail outlets, upscale boutique stores, an arena, and a public parking facility all in the name of "downtown redevelopment."

Truthfully, this is not a new phenomenon. It used to be cool to live in the burbs, but when people realize that living far away wasn't cool any more, they started moving back into the inner cities.
Opponents call it “vertical sprawl” — and argue that it brings many of the same problems to communities as traditional sprawl.
Forget the white picket fence; people are trading them in for loft-style apartments, condos and townhomes. All of these cities have been inspired by the theories of Richard Florida, Hirst Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, a senior scientist with the Gallup Organization, and a Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution and author of the bestselling book, The Rise of the Creative Class whose notion that cities must become trendy, hip places in order to compete in the twenty-first-century economy is sweeping urban America.

In his book, Dr. Florida argues for cities to flourish they must attract gays, bohemians, and ethnic minorities because they are not only the new economic powerhouses but also additionally the places where creative workers want to live. The creative worker Florida talks about are what he calls "the creative class". Dr. Florida defines Creative Class as a group of people that are the key driving force for economic development in post-industrial cities around the nation. He breaks the Creative Class into two sections - Super-Creative Core and Creative Professionals. The "Super-Creative Core" includes those in the fields of computers and math, architecture and engineering, the social sciences, education, arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media. The "Creative professionals" encompasses financial planners, doctors and lawyers.

If the Creative Class are to include ethnic minorities then how is would they destroy El Paso? The problem with fluorides ideas it brings about a new form of class warfare because his opinions only benefits the "haves" and not the "have nots." For example, my city I live in Houston. Florida talks about saving the cities historic areas but it comes with a hefty price - gentrification because to create these hip new cities, the city itself have to institute policies - such as tax abatements for homebuilders - that target thousands of zero income to low income minorities.

It used to be that gentrification was associated with coastal cities such as New York and San Francisco, but now with the new "Creative Class" concept, inner-city neighborhoods from Milwaukee to Raleigh-Durham to Albuquerque are all rushing to become the next new hip city. In Houston, homebuilders have blanketed the city close to downtown with three-story town homes and lofts, significant area being broke such as Houston's historic Freedman's Town, the oldest Black community in this city. Freed enslaved Blacks planned and developed a five mile encircled area in 1865 and confirmed it Freedman's Town, a small community that catered to Black culture and independent existence from a Caucasian society that excluded them.

What was a "proud, self-contained neighborhood," is no longer in existence because of the city's urban renewal project. Instead of putting money into the neighborhood, the city split the area in half and sold the land closest to the new hip downtown to private developers to build subsidized homes at prices low income families could not afford in what remained of the Fourth Ward. Now, Freedman's Town is inhabited by "style-conscious empty nesters and young urban professionals."
The sense of division that Johnson is struggling to overcome also is apparent in the area’s architecture. The eastern edge of the Fourth Ward — the part sold off to developers — boasts block after block of postmodern town houses. They feature corrugated metal siding in vivid shades of red, blue and "desert sand," and stunning views of downtown. Most of these buildings are inhabited by style-conscious empty nesters and young urban professionals. Crossing over Buckner Street into the zone designated for affordable housing, the architecture shifts to two-story suburban-style houses on postage-stamp lots. Every now and then, the vista is interrupted by a block of soaring, pastel-colored town houses, blocks [Reverend Elmo] Johnson sheepishly admits his nonprofit had to sell off to raise funds. The old-fashioned shotguns that once gave the neighborhood its character are almost entirely gone.

For Mayor White, most members of the city council and preservationists, the Fourth Ward’s fate represents a signal failure in planning and a cautionary tale for what to avoid in the Third Ward. "It could have been done in a way that retained some of the pluses and had fewer minuses," says White. Members of Houston’s black community are even more pointed in their criticisms. "This is about erasing the history of the community," contends [Garnet] Coleman.
Houston lost its opportunity to save part of American history, but El Paso still has a chance to save its historic Segundo Barrio. Like the City of Houston, El Paso is also targeting low-income families - roughly between 5 to 10 thousand low-income families consisting mostly of women and children will be displaced.

In order to lure the new hip crowd, El Paso’s city planners feel they need shed some imaginary racist image of being an old, dirty, lazy, speak Spanish town to some cultural elitist image by branding it as the "New West" with the false notion that Penelope Cruz and Austin's own Matthew McConaughey are now currently residing in El Paso.

From the email I received:
In the final analysis, the barrio is or has been the home of thousands upon thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, people who have forever marked it with their living culture; for many, it is the home of the Chicano movement, of people who migrated north and west to create the Latino barrios of Los Angeles and Denver, it is the home of gifted muralists and poets, it is the home of political activists, and it the home of many of the first Chicano writers. As the saying goes, the barrio is old, it is proud, it is brave, and it is not for sale.

Nor are its memories of families like mine, and there are thousands of us. Unfortunately, many of us have indeed forgotten our roots: instead of Melitón, the name of choice is now Milton: Jesús has become Jesse, and instead of María, Marie or plain Mary is in vogue. The politics of the now correctly named have also shifted to the right. But surely they must from time to time remember, and to doubt. Or at least, one would so hope.
Let's help save El Paso. Jesús Ochoa is asking for your help; don't let El Paso's Historic El Segundo Barrio become just a distant memory, like Houston's Freedman's Town. Please visit his web site - The Boboland Crónicas - or Paso Del Sur for more information on how you can help save El Paso's Historic El Segundo Barrio before it is too late.

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