The Rebirth of an Urban “Dead Zone”?

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Photo by Bob Chessey

Downtown Ciudad Juarez bustles with a new, unmistakable vibrancy. After years of decay wrought by economic crisis, violence and the disappearance of cross-border tourism, the historic city center sprouts a new look and feel.

“Little by little” is perhaps the best phrase to capture the fledgling renaissance, as it described by some workers in the zone.

Weekends are especially lively in the downtown. A new, expansive plaza extends from the train tracks at Francisco Villa and Avenida 16 de Septiembre up the hill behind the historic cathedral and old city hall.  Where cars and noisy buses once belched exhaust, pedestrians stroll past stores booming loud messages from speakers and busy restaurants like the iconic La Nueva Central café, slated for demolition just two years ago, brim with diners, singers and wandering flower sellers.

Street vendors hawk elotes and cakes, while clowns, puppeteers and Puerto Vallarta-style “human statutes” entertain impromptu crowds. Street musicians like the young rock trio that belted out Creedence Clearwater’s “Born on the Bayou” on a crisp November day are an integral part of the scene. And Juarenses have found a new pastime in peering down the new underpass (which flooded in a downpour not long after its opening late last summer) that emerges onto Avenida Juarez.

The small plaza in front of the old city hall, grandiosely called “Plaza of the Supreme Powers,” is another magnet for varied activities-from jazz performances to pray-ins to wrestling matches and class sign-ups sponsored by the National Institute for Adult Education as part of a literacy campaign.

The wide plaza style of the re-emerging downtown, filled with formal and informal activities, recalls Mexican cities like Guadalajara or Aguascalientes.

El Paso border historian and writer/photographer Bob Chessey has been visiting Juarez for decades. On a recent visit, Chessey noted the dramatic difference in the contemporary downtown between both its pre-violence touristic and post-touristic periods. Chessey agreed that former visitors from El Paso and New Mexico will probably not recognize the redeveloping downtown district.

“It has nothing to do with tourism. It is totally indigenous,” Chessey said. “It’s similar to an interior city now, as opposed to a border town.”

Carlos E. Villegas Duarte, an architect with the HAD VD firm which is in charge of the re-design of the Avenida Juarez portion of the downtown redevelopment, told FNS in a phone interview that a new chapter is opening up for an urban space that many people had abandoned.

“Now you see more people walking. It’s a new face of Juarez,” Villegas said. “The idea is to make downtown Juarez transit easy for pedestrians.”

On one November Sunday, music boomed outside from the classy Border Revolution Museum’s sound system, while a beehive of action centered around the old plaza, which is now connected to the new one.
As a shoeshine man hustled passersby, another man addressing a small group of listeners through an improvised sound system denounced the alleged narco-corruption of governors.  Standing in front of the bandstand a bald man shouted a fundamentalist Christian doctrine to any passing soul.

“Fifty percent of Juarez is sick with stress! Fifty percent is sick with ignorance!” the preacher commanded. “But there is no sickness worse than sin…”

On the plaza’s opposite side a dance group made up of young female matachines shaked, rattled and rolled behind a Virgin of Guadalupe standard. Drummer Javier Trujillo told FNS his group is part of the local Catholic parish and dances to make life better. “We do this for miracles, for when we get sick,” Trujillo said.

With a bevy of bright-eyed dancers bunching around him, Trujillo said the dance group is seeking donations to upgrade its blazing red-white-green costumes. “We don’t have a sponsor but the will of god,” he affirmed. Downtown Juarez gets busy during the holiday shopping season, and like the U.S. the commercial frenzy begins earlier every year in Mexico, where the fourth edition of the Mexican version of Black Friday was held in mid-November.

In Juarez, as in the rest of the country, the economy functions on two levels: the formal or legal one, and the informal or illegal one.

An example of the latter is readily observed in the proliferation of “maquinitas,” or slot-like game machines that are placed in many downtown storefronts, notably businesses that attract children.

Asked if pesos can be won in the games, a clerk at one establishment answered in the affirmative. “How much?” the reporter asked. “300, 400, 500 pesos. They are like the slot machines in casinos,” the man assured matter-of-factly.

Oscar “Pony Man” Vasquez is among many people in the downtown area who makes his living on the edge.  A thin, young father who carries an 18-month-old son (also named Oscar) across his shoulder, Vasquez makes little kids happy.  He charges 15 pesos- a little more than a buck-for a ride on one of his three ponies-El Negrito, La Vallita and El Pinto- from his “stand” on the new plaza.

“We clean it up,” Vasquez swore, in reference to the poop that inevitably graces the ground. The pony professional admitted he doesn’t have a permit for the business and, accordingly, engages in regular verbal skirmishes with city inspectors.

“They don’t want us to work, but we have the necessity of making a living,” Vasquez said. “The only permit I have is from the one above.” On a weekend day, Vasquez was a popular man with the public, as a steady trickle of families brought their children for a pony ride up to the railroad tracks and back.

Vasquez said the logistics of his enterprise are anything but simple. The entrepreneur said he and his family walk miles with the ponies back and forth from Anapra, a low-income section of Juarez bordering Sunland Park, New Mexico, along a trail of noisy buses, honking cars and the occasional ambulance. At the end of each work day, Vasquez said he takes off his worn tennis shoes to soothe a pair of aching feet. Like dance group drummer Trujillo, the pony man asked for the public’s helping hand. “We need people to help us,” he appealed.

Downtown Juarez was mentioned as among the city’s “dead zones” in a recent article by Cinthya Avila in the local El Diario newspaper. In a different part of the city covered by Avila, another bustling scene once prevailed near the old U.S. Consulate on Lopez Mateos Avenue.  Yet after the Consulate moved to Juarez’s Golden Zone in 2008, business collapsed for the low-cost hotels, visa-related businesses, taxi services and other enterprises that serviced-and some said fleeced- the crowds of visa-seekers.

In one way or another, the rise and fall of specific city quarters has been linked to U.S. policies and the broader commercial and social relationships between Mexico and El Norte.

For decades, downtown Juarez revolved around U.S. tourism. Already facing a decline in visitation by the 1990s because of mounting crime and insecurity, downtown took a huge hit after the 9-11 attacks and the resultant tightening of the border, which frequently translated into hours-long waits to cross back into the U.S.

By the middle of the last decade, plans to redevelop Juarez’s historic downtown began to take shape when the city began buying up and demolishing decrepit properties, especially in the old red-light zone on Mariscal Street that parallels Avenida Juarez. The project has since lurched forward in fits and starts, delayed by violence, economic downturn, contentious negotiations with business owners, public controversies, and numerous political transitions in the municipal, state and federal governments.

Guided by a master plan crafted by Ciudad Juarez’s Municipal Planning Institute and publicly unveiled last May, the downtown revitalization operates as a state-municipal project with federal financial support.

Though still in its initial phases, the redevelopment has made more visible headway in 2014 than during previous years.

Architect Carlos Villegas said the new public infrastructure being constructed in a polygonal design will include new parks, museums and rehabilitated historic buildings.  The goal is to create a new urban dynamism, draw fresh business investment and diversify commerce, he said.  As spelled out in the city’s 2013-2016 Municipal Development Plan, the downtown makeover is one piece in a city-wide plan to revive other “dead zones” such the old Consulate neighborhood and the Pronaf district.

Onetime U.S. visitors who gave up on Juarez but resolve to revisit the city will immediately be struck by the new look of Avenida Juarez, the gateway to Mexico, that begins at the foot of the Santa Fe Bridge between El Paso and Juarez.

On the Avenida’s first two or three blocks, widened sidewalks front freshly and uniformly painted buildings, all of which are distinguished by generic signs set above the doors. The style is nearly a replica of the downtown redevelopment of the Mexican coastal resort of Zihuatanejo a few years back.

Villegas said the concept wasn’t directly influenced by Zihuatanejo’s project, but is instead rooted in a “very common” architectural style in Mexico. The objective, Villegas continued, is to give Avenida Juarez an orderly image, “purify it” and remove the remaining “visual contamination” that clutters the street. Villegas projected that a remade Avenida Juarez would be completed sometime early next year.

Currently, work crews are remodeling Avenida Juarez to its termination point at 16 de Septiembre, where the new plaza sits. For now, visitors must navigate around a jumble of improvised walkways and uncovered holes, some of which are more than two feet deep and could snare an unsuspecting pedestrian. But most local merchants and workers interviewed for this story said they were glad the redevelopment is moving ahead.

“We hope it increases the business and more people come from the U.S.,” said dentist Rosa Alviderez during a chat at her office on Avenida Juarez.

Rebecca Gonzalez also wagers on a new day. A young artist with a talent for capturing facial expressions, Gonzalez sketches instant portraits at her outdoor “artist studio” on Avenida Juarez.  Lately, the pickings have been few, she said.

“There’s no work. I think it’s a good they’re remodeling, Gonzalez said. “We hope there is more tourism.”

-Kent Paterson


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