Segundo Barrio in El Paso listed on the National Register of Historic Places

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Segundo Barrio, the neighborhood of South El Paso where Mexican revolutionaries once ordered ice cream and immigrants got their first chance at the American dream, will soon be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The designation, which will be posted on the National Park Service Historical Register website on November 15, comes after decades of efforts by community officials and local historians. Places listed on the national registry are federally recognized as important cultural resources worthy of preservation, according to the Texas Historic Commission, which helped nominate Segundo Barrio.

“The national registry designation is the most prestigious and important designation a neighborhood can receive in the United States,” said historian Max Grossman, one of the most vocal advocates of historic preservation in El Paso.

Cyclists gather outside Sacred Heart Church in Segundo Barrio in 2016.  The neighborhood will soon be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the result of decades of efforts by historians and local residents.

Segundo Barrio is often referred to as the “Ellis Island of the Southwest”, although its history predates the famous immigration station on the east coast. The predominantly working-class immigrant neighborhood, which is located in the city center just across the border between the United States and Mexico, was founded in 1885, according to Grossman. Ellis Island opened seven years later.

Mexican revolutionaries like Pancho Villa and Francisco Madero planned battles and celebrated victories in the bars of the Segundo Barrio. Future leaders of the Chicano movement held their first meetings in the Sacred Heart Church gym. Famous residents of Segundo Barrio include Teresa Urrea, a Mexican healer who drew hundreds of patients a week in the early 20th century, and Nolan Richardson, a basketball Hall of Fame honoree who became the first black head coach in 1967 Bowie High School was. Many of the tenement houses that once housed Chinese, Syrian, Black, and Irish workers still stand today and are mostly home to Mexican-American residents.

“Many El Paso families in this country took their first step by living in tenements and doing modest jobs,” Grossman said. “Most of them have moved out of the barrio, but they never forget where they come from. With tears in their eyes they remember how hard their life was when they first came into the country.”

Overview map of contributing and non-contributing resources in the Segundo Barrio Historic District.

A quarter in danger

Segundo Barrio has suffered numerous threats and destruction during its existence; its buildings were demolished and its residents discriminated against. In 2016 the neighborhood was listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation among the most endangered historic sites in the US

“For a long, long time fronterizo History, especially Mexican-American history, was seen as second-class history, “said local historian David Romo.

In his book, Ringside Seat to a Revolution, Romo writes about how “Demolition Squads,” ordered by former Mayor Tom Lea in 1916, demolished hundreds of adobe houses in Segundo Barrio to eradicate exaggerated claims of disease in the area.

In 2006, a group of business and community officials proposed that hundreds of Segundo Barrio residents be relocated, if necessary, using a significant area in favor of a downtown redevelopment plan. The grassroots opposition and the 2008 financial crisis ultimately undermined efforts. The plan was to build an arena next to the El Paso Convention Center.

More:Read more about the Paso del Norte Group’s 2006 Urban Development Plan.

A national historical name does not guarantee neighborhood protection, but offers state and federal tax credits to incentivize business owners to redevelop their historic properties. The new listing does not include the nearby Union Plaza neighborhood known as Duranguito, which some low-income residents have already been relocated to by the city before building what is known as a multi-purpose preforming arts and entertainment center. The taxpayer-funded venue, also known as the arena, is currently being held up by a lawsuit from Grossman.

Hector Chavez inherited the Jalisco Cafe on E 7th Avenue from his aunt, who started out as a waitress in the restaurant and later became its owner.  Chavez hopes Segundo Barrio's entry on the national register will lead to improvements for the neighborhood.

Hector Chavez, owner of Jalisco Café on East 7th Avenue, grew up in Segundo Barrio and was raised by his aunt Antonia Chavez de Serrano, who owned the restaurant before him.

“When we first lived here, there was no indoor installation,” he said. “They had six toilets and a sink on the terrace, no running water.”

Chavez now owns 12 residential units near the Jalisco Café that he rents out to his employees, retirees, and construction workers with families. With the newly available tax breaks, he hopes to restore the original brick facade of his buildings and make his restaurant more wheelchair accessible.

“I think it’s great … it could be good for business,” he said. “Perhaps the federal money will help the community because it urgently needs to be repaired.”

City center owners oppose historical names

Recent efforts to create a federal historic district began in 2011 with Grossman and other conservationists.

The city of El Paso received $ 71,000 in government and private grants in 2015 to fund a downtown survey needed to track the national historical designation. However, a majority of city councilors at the time, including current MP Peter Svarzbein, voted against conducting the survey, citing concerns of city center owners about the regulatory burdens. The grant was lost.

The El Paso County Commissioners then took the matter up and funded the survey with taxpayers’ money. The consultants in charge of the survey recommended the creation of two historic downtown areas: one north of Paisano Street, which encompassed Duranguito and land around San Jacinto Plaza, and a second in Segundo Barrio.

More:Owner resistance kills the proposed Downtown El Paso National Register Historic District

In January of this year, more than 100 downtown property owners, with the help of local law firm Kemp Smith, teamed up to reject a historic designation north of Paisano Street. The area already includes several buildings with state historical designations, including the Cortez Building and the Plaza Hotel. No buildings in Duranguito are on the national register.

“There are a lot of people in the (developer) community who don’t want us to know or acknowledge the history of these neighborhoods … because it creates an awareness of the value and culture of these areas, which makes it difficult to get there going in and tearing down entire city blocks for example for big retailers, “Grossman said.

Joe Gudenrath, executive director of the Downtown Management District (DMD), a publicly funded agency that promotes downtown economic development, said diversity is key to a thriving economy. He said diversity encompasses both historic preservation and new investments like downtown.

“You really need a mix that reflects many different uses and welcomes many different population groups in the city center,” said Gudenrath.

The DMD rejected the historical name north of Paisano because it included Duranguito.

“The national register designation … could prohibit the continuation of the arena project, so we asked for these panels to be removed from the designation, and the county was not willing to do this,” said Gudenrath.

As for the naming Segundo Barrio, Gudenrath said the DMD was in favor. Most of Segundo Barrio is outside of the DMD boundaries.

“Anytime we can incentivize property redevelopment, we generally support it,” he said. “We hope it will bring new investment without undermining the fabric on which the community was built.”

A woman walks past a mural on Father Rahm Drive in El Paso's Segundo Barrio.  The mural shows the history of the Sacred Heart Church.

Current city representative, Cissy Lizarraga, whose district is Segundo Barrio, said she was delighted to hear about the entry on the national register. Lizarraga said both her father and her husband’s grandfather owned businesses in Segundo Barrio. She said her mother graduated from Bowie High School as a salutator and her mother-in-law was the first nurse at La Fe Clinic.

“Our families, like many others, entered the US through the Segundo Barrio,” wrote Lizarraga in an email. “I would like to thank everyone who has sought this recognition from the Segundo Barrio: well-deserved and perhaps even overdue.”

The national designation brings the number of Segundo Barrio buildings on the national registry to 685. Previously, Grossman said only one building in the neighborhood received this designation: an old brothel on South Mesa Street called the Silver Dollar Café.

You can reach Mónica Ortiz Uribe at [email protected]


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