I’m sure as you were sitting down to your morning coffee or trying not to get work done and reading about our political woes on the blogs from afar, you assumed that we were just another bunch of homophobic rednecks from Texas. Yeah, that’s right. I read the comments.
We’re not. El Paso is an incredibly tolerant city. El Paso is about 90% Latino. Most of that 90% is Catholic. And I don’t think we’ve voted Republican in a gubernatorial election or a Presidential Election since Reagan. Seriously. We’re so blue in the veins Dem, we almost have two different Democratic parties.
And that’s where we really need to begin. There’s a back-story to all this. A narrative built on good intentions, and aggressive legislation, and decades of local apathy and brain drain. The new measures were implemented as part of a formula- an algorithm of how local government could act to rehabilitate a city long dependent on call-center and textile work that would attract young professionals. One that created wealth to spread around troubled neighborhoods. Through the first major initiative, the rest of the city’s solutions would fall into place.
If we really wanted to go back far enough, we could see the seeds of this current generation of political dogma being planted by Mayor Ray Caballero who served from 2001-2005. Two of the councilors listed in the recall were part of his election campaign: Susie Byrd- his campaign manager who later became an aide, and Steve Ortega who volunteered for both his election and re-election campaigns.
I’ll let Steve Ortega describe Caballero’s mission, and where El Paso was in the late 90’s, early aughts:
“I volunteered on his campaign and he was really inspirational because he had told a story about El Paso from 1900-1950 being a great American city. We had beat both the State of Texas and the country of the United States in per capita income in 1950. Fast-forward 50 years in 2000 and we’re at about 60%of per capita income and his allegation was, business leadership, political leadership in the latter part of the 20th Century sold this city as a low-wage, low-income Mexican city and we’ve got low-wage, low-income results.
“And his response was, we’ve got to set the bar as high as we can because we can be a leading 21’st Century City much like we were 50 years ago, 60 years ago. And I really bought into that. I was from here, I’m a fifth-generation El Pasoan, I decided to come back, and be part of a community that really set the bar very high for itself, and I think we’re realizing that. I think what forced us to realize that was NAFTA in the 1990’s before we had the outmigration of the manufacturing/ garment industry economy that really El Paso staked itself to in the 50’s and 60’s.
“So you had the departure of company’s like Farrah. Farrah had the largest single-story building in the State of Texas, here in El Paso it was the Farrah company. You had Wrangler that was here, you had Levi’s that was here. And again this is what we primarily based our economy on was the garment industry.
“So NAFTA in ‘94 forces us to re-think our economy as those jobs leave and you had great public sector leadership in the late 90’s- people like José Rodriguez. People like Elliot Shapleigh and then you had some visionary business leadership. People like Woody Hunt who said how are we going to rebrand our economy and one of the areas they said we need to focus on is health. And so together the public and the private leadership lobbied the State of Texas to create the first medical school to be created – actually the second medical school in the United States to be created in the last 35 years, so you have the Texas Tech school of Medicine in the middle of the Medical Center of the Americas which represents I think one of the key [components].
“Again, we’re setting the bar very high. We’re no longer saying, come to El Paso we’re slow, we’re cheap, we’re poor. We’re saying build our economy on something that has a higher expectation for ourself as a community. That’s one way we’re going to do it. That excitement, that kind of leadership, that kind of vision excited me, because I felt like it did justice to the people who live in this community and gives opportunity to those who want to prosper in this community. That’s what got me excited about running for office at that time.”
The election of ’05 felt like a huge milestone. It was, across the board, a young council, headed by a guitar-playing, folk singing mayor, and after the deep depression a lot of us were marinating in after Bush was re-elected, it was a refreshing change of pace.
The first factor in that algorithm was The Downtown Plan. I’ll be frank. I can’t be objective about this because I was deep in the middle of it. But from where I stood, it really set the tone for the administration, and I, and other progressives that, I guess, see themselves as beholden to the barrio- indebted to equality and justice, fairness and concerned with poverty, never saw this city leadership the same way.
We voted them into office, and I didn’t regret it because I felt like my former rep, Anthony Cobos, was a hostile machine Democrat who only cared about his neighborhood association and making money. But I was disappointed and disgusted, as were many others in the civil rights community, because we didn’t see this first step as a matter of alleviating barrio poverty or living wages. To us, it looked like we were just moving our poverty out of sight.
April 1, 2006, the City unveiled a comprehensive Downtown plan as part of a bi-national redevelopment initiative spearheaded by Bill Sanders (one of the largest developers of commercial property in the nation) on the US side, and Carlos Slim (does he really need an introduction?) on the Mexican side.
I was there in the audience, as an op-ed writer and Downtown resident. And all of us downtown were blindsided. The historians, the civil rights community, the Diocese, Downtown business owners, attorneys for real estate holders. Everyone felt like they were left out of the process, and that the Plan had already been pre-approved by a cadre of developers and politicians. Here’s a distillation of the Plan, its actors, and opponents.
The designers of the Plan, SMWM, an urban planning consulting firm from SF, took a sharpie to the District 8 map and wiped out one of El Paso’s oldest residential neighborhoods- Segundo Barrio: the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution, the birthplace of the word “Chicano”, the birthplace of Pachuco. Segundo is not strictly-speaking Downtown. It is the Second Ward. A neighborhood just south of Downtown’s business and financial center, which directly abuts the river and, were it not for the river, the border check and the bridge, would seamlessly merge with Ciudad Juárez. It is primarily populated by the most recent of immigrants, and consequently, the very poor.
Community meetings featured pleas for Segundo’s residents- all concerns quelled with a promise that houses would be bought at market value and residents of Section 8 housing would not be thrown into the street- that they’d have interim housing and an opportunity to have rent stabilized housing in the new condo/apartment developments for 4 years (which is a load of horse shit. What person making about $11k a year-the median household income of Segundo- can afford to relocate a family twice within a short time frame? I don’t know if you’ve ever been married with kids and made that little in a year, but I have and it’s a pretty insurmountable proposition.)
There was brief talk about naming one portion of Segundo’s business district “Little Seoul” to appease the largely Korean shop owner’s contingency, but the Korean community wouldn’t get on board. Two streets, Stanton and part of El Paso Street, which both lead to international bridges, were not slated for demolition and, on the original map they were joined with the cross street Overland and given the name “The Golden Horseshoe”. Local historians were promised that properties slated by the original design for demolition (such as Teresita Urrea’s home on Oregon Street, or the building where Los de Abajo was written) would be exempted. Sacred Heart church was promised to be spared, as was the last original adobe structure that Tom Lea didn’t manage to “cleanse” from the barrio. The Farmworker’s Center, which caters to the needs of day laborers, was also promised amnesty.
The buildings in Downtown proper (which already had historic protection, some of which are on the National Register for Historic Buildings including the one I live in) were slated to become an incentive district. Property owners who committed to renovating their properties would receive matching grants and see their property tax valuations frozen for 10 years. (Something I totally agreed with.)
All of this felt very prescient to the civil rights leaders in the barrio, who after decades of watching the city leaders actively ignore Segundo, letting it’s streets crumble and slumlords rule unchecked, felt like- shit this is what they come back with? Segundo and Chihuahuita, though they are the oldest neighborhoods, have no special historic designation. And to say that’s a sore spot is woefully inadequate. Though leaders in the barrio have fought for decades to classify the neighborhood as such, they have been roundly opposed, and with a plan in place to house affluent young professionals in the works, their efforts felt like one more breath to the wind.
And then the conspiracy theories started. I’ve heard them all. The most popular theory that I’ve heard is that Segundo was deliberately left to deteriorate so the City Fathers would have a reason, other than just race and class, to expel the residents. And, then there’s the most troubling. I’ve heard people postulate that the drug war in Juárez coincided a little too neatly with Sanders and Slim’s redevelopment plan- that somehow the Cartels have colluded with business interests to drive business owners out of Downtown Juárez so the properties could be bought for pennies on the dollar and redeveloped without any resistance.
Seriously. This is what people were talking about immediately after the Plan was proposed, and not without basis. Because there is very little trust in leadership here. Because there were plenty of city leaders who were bigoted good ol’ boys who did nothing but try to profit from their political connections. And because we’ve continued to find ourselves embroiled in a mind-blowing amount of public graft.
One of the most prevalent charges was that Beto O’Rourke- the rep for District 8, which includes Downtown and Segundo Barrio-was colluding with his father-in-law, Bill Sanders. The Plan was approved by city council on the strength of the Byrd/O’Rourke/Ortega voting bloc, a vote, which O’Rourke didn’t recuse himself of. The Plan gave massive tax benefits to his father-in-law, and the allegation was that Beto stood to make untold amounts of money as an heir apparent.
But, when a vote came to establish the TIRZ- the financial vehicle with which the Plan could be implemented, Beto did recuse himself, citing his wife, Amy’s involvement with Clinica Familiar de Salud La Fe (a network of health clinics which also runs the charter school La Fe Preparatoria where Amy currently works) and their potential for benefiting from the reinvestment zone.
This was not the only personal relationship that was dragged into the fray. Susie Byrd’s father Bobby- publisher at Cinco Puntos Press had to defend his daughter’s decisionwhile alienating a friend of many years. There were many awkward and bitter moments. I haven’t really spoken to them about the matter in years, but I’ll assume that time has healed the wounds as best it can.
Even I ended up in a big fight with my husband, a recording engineer, who was freelancing with a Two Ton, a local ad agency, at that time, and who agreed to help with the City’s re-branding presentation.
What this Plan did, though, was drive a fissure between two sides of the progressive community. The wealthy, upper-middle class, and progressive middle class, as well as a lot of young voting age students got behind it. Conversely, much of the civil rights crowd as well as the subsection of the student class we’d now think of as the Occupy crowd found ourselves on the wrong side of the issue. And that’s wholly separate from the other, conservative-leaning establishment Democrats, who seem to completely disagree with every issue that’s come out of this council.
This was six years ago, so I’ve been having a very hard time finding the same forums or blogs where I can copy paste quotes and links. But if you really want a taste of the condescension, here you go. And rhetoric became equally charged on the other side of the isle.
What almost immediately happened after the Plan was proposed was an issue both republicans and democrats could be appalled by- a doubling of property valuations Downtown at the height of the real estate bubble, as well as city-wide revaluations adjusted to more closely reflect the nationalmedian home price. The doubling of property valuations Downtown was said to be a matter of leveling out the tax burden with regard to commercial properties, helping to fund the Plan, while also raising the value simply on the basis that they hadn’t had a revaluation in ages, and surely theymust be worth more now in this market.
The valuation also seemed designed to encourage tax delinquency, opening a route to seizure. Most of these buildings only have the street level spaces rented out to bodegas and stores. Unless a landlord is also doubling rents on street level shops, I doubt their income would be able to handle the new tax burden.
And then the threat of eminent domain became a reality. The city, in a move that most saw as making an example of a delinquent landlord, seized the historic Fall Mansion. Billy Abraham, for those of you not in the know, is this Oscar-winning actor’s nephew. And almost everyone in El Paso would say Billy is El Paso’s most delinquent landlord. Okay, the bees weren’t his fault, but something about it makes for a nice analogy.
The building where my apartment is located is sandwiched in-between two of his, and in the 14 years I have lived here I have had to call him an average of once a year to inform him that squatters are staying in his buildings, windows are newly broken, or -most recently- that the side of the Confiteria Elite building became a waterfall after a bad cold snap burst the pipes attached to the swamp coolers on the roof. Well, I called him after I called the fire department. But you get the idea. He was a really easy target for the city, and I don’t blame them one bit.
In the middle of all this, the City started spending money on all kinds of image enhancement measures. Like this, and this, and most infamously, this. Go ahead. Let’s all say it together- THAT’S RACIST! Wow, what a colossal waste of $100,000 that was. Sanders Wingo- a major ad agency that caters to minority markets shopped that out. Nice. Oh, I should also mention that the “Sanders” in “Sanders Wingo” was Bill Sanders’ father. You get the idea. It’s really not hard to see why people are paranoid in this town.
After the Glass Beach debacle, the city hired Two Ton Creative to craft a branding strategy. They came up with this.
These controversies served to overshadow the other really great things that were being done. Like our new curbside recycling program. Like the privatization of our public transportation administration (yes, that’s what I said- service has improved immensely). Street improvements, new storm water drainage (which came out of a 100 year storm that flooded many neighborhoods, and which became a throwdown in its own right), securing an ArtSpace development, more funding for the arts, libraries and education. We’ve seen a lot of great quality of life initiatives.
But the conservative Dem’s will continue to moan about property taxes and not being pro-business enough, and the far-left Dems will continue to keep the stink eye on who’s making hay for big business, and the progressives will tell the two on either side to stop whining- isn’t it so much nicer here, now? We know what's best for you.
But, needless to say, we’re stuck with three groups in one party that can’t trust each other with something as bland as a bond measure for a new school project, let alone fundamental infrastructure changes.