A Big Showdown in El Paso

Community activists and elected officials in El Paso have bought more time in their fight to save a historic Chicano and border cultural center from demolition. El Paso Judge Thomas Spieczny issued a temporary restraining order May 21 that prevents the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) from moving forward with demolishing the Lincoln Center in south central El Paso, until a hearing on the matter is held on May 29.

Pro-Lincoln Center activists have organized a 24-hour encampment outside the more than 100-year-old building and are planning a large rally for late Sunday afternoon, May 25, Hector Gonzales, Lincoln Park Conservation Committee member, told FNS.  “Everybody is working on trying to save the center,” Gonzales said.

Pitting El Pasoans against the TxDOT, the conflict’s outcome will decide the future of a building that has variously housed a school, the offices of old community programs like Project Amistad and a Chicano cultural arts center.

“This is a significant location that reflects the cultural heritage of El Paso. The Lincoln Center was the first school for African-American and Mexican American children before desegregation,” said Sito Negron, communications director for Texas state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, who has worked on saving the center’s building for almost three years.  “This location and building have been central for the cultural development of the community.”

Currently owned by the TxDOT, the Lincoln Center was closed after it was damaged in the “Little Katrina” floods of 2006. Community members have continued to use adjacent Lincoln Park for events that include Lincoln Park Day, Cesar Chavez Day and the Day of the Dead.

Some call the Lincoln Center “El Corazon de El Paso,” or the “Heart of El Paso.”  But the property, which sits underneath a freeway interchange known as the Spaghetti Bowl, is also on the route of a major freeway expansion.

The TxDot contends that the Lincoln Center’s location is unsafe because it potentially exposes the building to a crashing vehicle that might veer off the freeway and onto the building.

Such a calamity has never occurred at the Lincoln Center, but the TxDot cited a nearby freeway accident this week involving a Coca Cola truck and an oil spill as the type of hazard that jeopardizes the public’s safety below the Spaghetti Bowl.

“This is why TxDOT plans to tear down the Lincoln Center. TxDot will not compensate on safety,” the agency e-mailed El Paso media this week.

The TxDOT also maintains that the flood damage inside the Lincoln Center renders the old building irreparable-a contention that is disputed by community activists.

In October 2013, the TxDOT gave city officials and community members who had long been struggling to preserve Lincoln Center one year to come up with a plan. But in May-only 7 months after theTxDOT agreed to a one-year stay- state Sen. Jose Rodriguez learned that a demolition by the TxDot was in the works.

El Paso City Councilor Lilly Limon called the news and subsequent appearance of a pre-demolition work crew at the Lincoln Center a “shocking” development that was “worse than a betrayal.”

On May 20, Lincoln Center supporters turned out to an emergency meeting of the El Paso City Council, where city representatives voted 5-0 to seek a temporary restraining order against a TxDOT demolition.  The action was supported by Mayor Oscar Leeser, state Sen. Jose Rodriguez and state Rep. Joe Pickett.

The next day, activists showed up in force at the Lincoln Center. Forming a human chain, the center’s supporters prevented a TxDOT contractor from completing a fence around the building.  The El Paso police department was called out, and state Sen. Rodriguez arrived to mediate a tense situation. No arrests resulted from the confrontation.

Later, after the temporary restraining order requested by the City of El Paso was granted, the TxDOT announced it would withdraw work equipment from the Lincoln Center.

Perhaps summing up the widespread community sentiment of a city that is nearly 80 percent Latino, City Councilor Eddie Holguin said El Paso “desperately needs a Hispanic Chicano cultural center.”

In a 2012 article published in Rio Grande Digital, author Miguel Juarez, Lincoln Park Conservation Committee activist and University of Texas at El Paso doctoral student, detailed the history of the Lincoln Center and its surrounding neighborhoods.

The border history scholar mentioned the names of prominent Lincoln School graduates such as the late state Rep. Mauro Rosas, who served as El Paso’s first Latino state representative from 1959 to 1963, and the numerous artists from both sides of the border who exhibited at Lincoln Center after it became a cultural arts center. Juarez noted how the murals on the freeway columns of the Spaghetti Bowl were inspired by similar art work at San Diego’s Chicano Park.

Murals likewise decorate the interior of the Lincoln Center.

In a May 20 op-ed published in the El Paso Times, state Sen. Rodriguez insisted that both the community will and available resources exist to keep the Lincoln Center a part of El Paso’s past and future history.

“There is wide-ranging interest in saving the building, and numerous potential partners-including public institutions, non-profits, and professionals-have expressed a desire to raise funds, assist in renovations, and occupy the building…,” Rodriguez wrote. “The Lincoln Center can become, once again, a vibrant center where children and young people can learn about the rich Mexican and unique Chicana/o culture which is vital to their wellbeing-and central to what makes El Paso so unique and vibrant.”

The coming days and weeks will be crucial ones in deciding the fate of the Lincoln Center. The issue is expected to be a major topic of discussion at the May 27 El Paso City Council meeting.

Additional sources:  El Diario de El Paso, May 22, 2014. Article by Juliana Henao. El Paso Times, May 16, 18, 20, 21, 2014.  Articles by Marty Schladen, Aaron Martinez, Jose Rodriguez and editorial board. KVIA.com, May 14, 20, 21, 2014. Articles by Ashlie Rodriguez, Stephanie Valle, Leonard  Martinez, and Maria Garcia. KFOXTV.com, May 20, 2014. Articles by Jesse Martinez, Jamel Valencia and Crystal Price.  KTSM.com, May 15, 16, 20, 2014. Riograndedigital.com,  January 13, 2012. Article by Miguel Juarez.

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