Segundo Barrio

The History of Segundo Barrio Fighting Against Gentrification (1963-1980)

Since 1963, Segundo Barrio has been facing the forced displacement of its residents by city officials to make way for revitalizing the city’s downtown. Because of its proximity to the border, much of the land in the Segundo Barrio had suddenly become “too valuable for low-income housing,” after the Chamizal dispute had been settled. [1] Much of the land in Segundo Barrio had been zoned as commercial property but the owners had left their properties as residential because the owners refused to invest money into them because of the “uncertainty” of the land titles caused by the dispute with México over the shifting river.

The river dispute was settled on January 14, 1964 when the Chamizal Treaty was ratified.

The Segundo Barrio had now become more valuable as commercial property now that the ambiguity over the titles had been resolved. Its proximity to the border made the land even more valuable. Because of the resistance by low income tenants to leave their residences, the owners moved to demolish the structures on their properties to make way for parking lots and other commercial development. The property owners resorted to evictions to remove their tenants.

Protests soon erupted as Segundo Barrio tenants resisted efforts to displace them. The protests included protesting at city hall and at the homes of government officials. The tenants wanted city officials to condemn the tenements, instead of the property owners, so that the tenants would be placed on “priority” lists for new housing.

Although city authorities tried to mediate the housing crisis in Segundo Barrio, eventually some families were evicted from a property on South Oregon by Omega Realty Corporation of El Paso on October 4, 1971. Because the evictions were by a private company, the evicted families did not have priority for new housing. Four of the 22 evicted families were left homeless. They established a tent city on Lydia Patterson property that the Methodist school had provided for them to use.

The tent city became the base of operations for activists demanding the stoppage of further evictions and resolving the housing crisis in Segundo Barrio. Although offers of alternative housing were made, the families refused them because they wanted a permanent solution to the housing problems they faced.

Two weeks after the tent city sprung up, the families were relocated to temporary housing.

This, first tent city became the model for addressing unrelenting housing problems at Segundo Barrio. Housing in Segundo Barrio remained dangerous and substandard.

In 1973, Fred Harvey, the then-mayor of El Paso, created the Tenement Eradication Program. It was a plan to eradicate hundreds of substandard buildings in Segundo Barrio leaving over 800 families without housing. As part of the program, the El Paso Housing Authority agreed to make 350 units available. By 1974, 68 buildings had been demolished and 2,961 individuals had been displaced. [2]

The Tenement Eradication Program was designed to commercialize the Segundo Barrio from the onset. On July 29, 1974, the City Plan Commission adopted the policy that Segundo Barrio would now be an apparel and electronics light industrial complex, to make clear what the plan for Segundo Barrio was. [2]

Part of the housing problem in El Paso was that public housing was not keeping pace with the displacement of families. Advocates for public housing argued that the housing authority refused to build on vacant land in Segundo Barrio to replace structures that had been razed.

On March 20, 1975, a second tent city was established to bring attention again to the housing crisis. About 50 people were part of this second tent city.

Carmen Felix

City officials offered to relocate the families into public housing, but they refused because the housing offered to them was outside of the Segundo Barrio. Carmen Felix, an activist for the tenants, argued that the families refused because they wanted “to keep their cultural identity and practices intact”. [El Paso Times, March 21, 1975]

The families wanted to remain in Segundo Barrio.

The second tent city led the Segundo Barrio activists to become focused on keeping the character of the neighborhood intact. Mayors Don Henderson and Ray Salazar looked to federal funding to help resolve the housing crisis in South El Paso. However, both insisted on moving the residents out of the neighborhood. La Campaña por la Preservacion [sic] del Barrio, a more formal and radicalized group took on the challenge of defending the Segundo Barrio residents from being gentrified to make room for commercial development in El Paso’s south side.

Between 1976 and 1980, the Segundo Barrio residents became more involved in fighting city officials by resisting evictions, squatting on empty properties and continued protests. Squatting on property became the most effective tool for the housing activists.

However, the squatters were not just trespassing on properties. They were turning them into homes. The 31 squatters invested time and money to secure the buildings they occupied. [3]

The standoff between the City and the squatters at 306 S. Tays ended in 1980, after the squatters obtained money from private investors. The money was used to bring the property up to standards. Once the building was renovated, tenants could apply to live there provided they met certain requirements, among them to be low-income and be living in Segundo Barrio, at the time they applied.

By the time the latest controversy was over, La Campaña had purchased the building and its headquarters had become the Centro Chicano.

By 1971 the City of El Paso was still pursuing a public policy agenda of converting Segundo Barrio into a commercial zone. Although housing was being developed in other parts of the city, no new housing was being built in the Segundo Barrio community. Although $3 million had been approved for housing south of Paisano, “nearly all of it was built far from the Old Second Ward where the residents had wanted it.” [4]

The Tenement Eradication Program left the Segundo Barrio with 1,201 fewer housing units and 850 fewer families. [4]

On October 5, 2006, the City of El Paso published the El Paso Downtown 2015 Plan. The glossy laid out the plan to what was to come next for the Segundo Barriothe displacement of residents to make way for commercial development as first envisioned in 1963.

From the beginning, the quest to transform Segundo Barrio into a commercial mecca has been because of its proximity to the border. As such, it is important to point out that William Sanders, architect of the Paso del Norte Group (PDNG), has been involved in the most recent efforts to gain control of the land on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Sanders has substantial financial interests along the border.

Sanders made this clear when he introduced the plan at the Plaza Theater on March 31, 2006. Sanders said that the “new” plan was going to be “very difficult for everyone in this room” and that all should have the “courage” to move the plan along. Only a few months later, the City Council adopted the Glass Beach Study.

This is part of the El Paso Politics series about Duranguito and Segundo Barrio. Further articles are forthcoming that will be delving deeper into the various issues affecting this community.

Footnotes:

  1. George Kinsinger, “El Paso Is Losing Ground In Attempt to Solve Low-Income Housing Problem,” El Paso Times, October 28, 1971.
  2. George William Towers, “Colonia Formation and Economic Restructuring in El Paso, Texas,” PhD diss., (The University of Arizona, 1991)
  3. Tom Butler, “EP Tenement Issue Left In Limbo,” El Paso Times, February 3, 1977.
  4. Ed Curda, “Abundance of talk covered housing ills in South Side,” El Paso Times, December 27, 1979

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