A Plaza for the City
By Mary Jane Garza
JUNE 29, 1998: Plazas are the heart of a city. As public spaces, they encourage expression of ideas, business transactions, and participation in cultural events. They're also where people go to relax, eat, watch other people, or, better yet, meet someone.
Plazas are everywhere in Mexico. When the highly organized Spaniards reached Mexico, their ideas of how a city should be laid out were almost identical to what the indigenous people already had in place. The Aztecs had their temples around their grand centers, and the Spaniards had their plazas with the church on one side, government on another, and commerce on the others. Many towns along the Mexico-U.S. border have plazas, and what is important about them is that the plazas serve as architectural links to Mexico, visual reminders to Mexican-Americans of their roots.
The closest thing that Austin ever had to a plaza was the greenspace at Guadalupe and Fifth streets. Until the late 1920s, it was known as "Mexican Park" or "Chili Park" because it was across from the Walker Chili Company and was a popular spot for "chili" workers and their families to gather. Although the park was more of a place for fruit vendors to sell their produce, it also hosted fiestas with dancing, fireworks, parades, and speeches. And around it grew the same community elements as around a traditional plaza. Nearby, food vendors thrived. (Mexican food was as popular in Austin then as it is now.) The Austin Tortilla Factory owned by Crescenciano Segovia, located close to where Liberty Lunch now stands, produced 300 tortillas daily, some of which were sold as far away as New York. And next to the park there was even a church, the Catholic Mission church, which later became the Guadalupe Catholic Church and moved to Ninth and Lydia streets. That park became the center of Austin's first Mexican neighborhood, which was downtown.
But the City Master Plan of 1928 changed everything. It recommended that East Austin be designated a "Negro District," for African- and Mexican-Americans. Churches and businesses that were downtown were pushed to the Eastside, with the idea that residents would soon follow. Fruit was no longer sold at "Mexican Park." Now it is Republic Square.
"My grandfather used to live upstairs of what's now the Old Bakery Emporium downtown," recalls Cathy Vasquez-Revilla, a founding member of the Eastside community organization Olé Mexico. "Back then he had a restaurant downstairs -- where the store is now -- called Tony's Cafe. We have memories of our grandfather being bent out of shape because he had to move; his lease was broken. My other grandfather had a taxicab business, and they were upset because they had to find new places and start all over again."
This was part of the driving force that led to the creation of Olé Mexico, which was formed in East Austin in 1992. Vasquez-Revilla, along with her sister, Diana Varela, and representatives of other businesses in the community, organized to preserve and enhance the culture of East Austin. They realized that one of the best ways to accomplish that was to build a plaza.
"It's our way of not committing the same mistake of being forced to relocate," says Varela. "That there be a physical mark. When our grandparents came over here [to East Austin], they purchased land so they wouldn't be renters anymore and be forced out. We hope to have the history of some of the businesses and family names on benches [here]. To make it ours as much as possible."
But how do you build a plaza? And where? Normally, the plazas are built first, and the city or neighborhood grows around them. How do you create an environment that feels like part of Mexico? And how do you make it speak not only to someone from the neighborhood, but to anyone from anywhere about what it is to feel Mexicano? The project has been full of challenges for Olé Mexico.
"I've thought a great deal about how you imprint character on East Austin without calling it Little Mexico," says Juan Cotera, whose firm did the architectural designs for the plaza. "To people that grew up in Mexico like I did, this project is important, but to people that grew up here [in the United States], I think this is more important. This is terribly important. That we're able to claim a part of the city and say, This is like us. Just like we are."
After canvassing different government agencies to see what type of monies and improvements were available for the area, Olé Mexico learned about the Statewide Transportation Enhancement Program provided by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991. It allowed funding for enhancing amenities for multimodal transportation: bus stops, hike-and-bike trails, walking paths, vehicular traffic and light rail, and the like. But it also could be used to build a plaza.
Olé Mexico decided on a site owned by Capital Metro, one a block long and half a block wide off Fifth Street between Chicon and Onion streets. The light rail corridor was being tentatively planned, and the plaza could help attract tourists and money to East Austin, helping to revitalize the area. It would include a bus stop with restrooms, maintenance room, fountain, open air arcade for concession stands, benches, a bandstand, and sidewalks.
Estimated cost of the project -- named Plaza Saltillo after Austin's sister city in the state of Coahuila in northern Mexico -- was almost $800,000. In 1994, Olé Mexico won approval for almost $600,000 in ISTEA grants to pay for 80 percent of the construction costs, with the city committed to paying the other 20 percent. But then it got complicated. Capital Metro had purchased the land along Fifth Street with funds from the Federal Transportation Authority (FTA), which said that it must be used for transportation purposes in relation to the track next to it. For that reason, Capital Metro would lease the land to the city, but it wouldn't sell it. And a lease agreement for the use of the land had to be signed by the city and Capital Metro, then approved by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), which administers the ISTEA grants. But the lease agreement has been held up because the state is requiring that Capital Metro be paid for use of this land and the fee amount be 12 percent of the appraised value of the land. That appraisal process was scheduled to begin Monday and could possibly take up to 60 days to be completed. All this needs to happen before TxDOT will allow the project to be bid a second time. (When the project was bid the first time, both bids were turned down.)
"It's been a long process and every time something comes up, I just keep on until it clears up," says Dorothy Duran, Project Manager for the city of Austin. "Every day I pray for this project to la virgen. It comes really close to the heart. It's really impressive that the community can mobilize this way. This is a project that I can manage that is actually community driven. Having projects where you have city money, federal money -- this is what you need to build here or there -- the community is not always looked at in terms of how it's going to affect them. This particular project, the community came out and said, 'This is what we would like to see out here. We understand that you can build and this is what we ask that you have done.'"
Guadalupe Catholic Church priest Father Bill Elliot has given his support to this project and wants it to move forward. "If this project were located anywhere except where it's located, it would have been built five years ago when we got the money for it. This is a novel and creative idea. But Austin is not a Hispanic city, and I think that's part of the problem. The politicians don't take Hispanics seriously. If this was Corpus Christi or San Antonio, everybody would be supporting this."
Not only does East Austin want to build a plaza, it wants to build several plazas that would relate to different areas of Mexico -- Monterrey, the Virgen de Guadalupe shrine. The community feels that this idea will not only help it culturally but economically, with tourism developing small businesses and restaurants. "It could be an incredible tourist attraction and draw money to East Austin," says Father Elliot. "But we're stuck on Plaza Saltillo. We can't get Capital Metro to sign off on the land. The way they have been treating the Olé Mexico board -- delay after delay after delay -- is an insult. Just because it's not their plan to develop East Austin this way, it's the peoples' plan. It's very sick to see the way we over here are used but not listened to."
East Austin can't afford many more delays on the plaza. This year, appraisal values for many business properties in East Austin increased anywhere from 66 percent to 200 percent. It potentially marks the end of the many tienditas in the area and makes it difficult for new ones to be built. With land still available there and being in the shadow of the central business district, it is fast becoming the preferred growth area. Developers are pressuring owners there to sell. And soon Seventh Street will become a main thoroughfare to the airport and that is going to change everything.
More than anything else it may be linked to -- economic redevelopment, revitalization -- the plaza is about preservation and attempting to redefine development in East Austin so that it's in scale and culturally relevant to what is already there.
One way Plaza Saltillo will accomplish that -- and one of the things that's most exciting about the project -- is how it's going to look. Olé Mexico intends not only to import the famous tile and paving materials of Saltillo but to design the pavilions, lighting, and garden landscaping to create a historically authentic colonial plaza with Saltillo artists and craftsmen providing some of the work on it. And the organization wants the plaza to be an outdoor art gallery, including 15-20 pieces by local, national, and international artists.
Unfortunately, there's a major stumbling block to this vision. While the plaza project has money for construction, it has none for artwork to fill the plaza. And with the large amount of artwork that Olé Mexico is talking about, that could cost several hundred thousand dollars. That hurdle has made determining what artwork will go in the plaza difficult for the Plaza Saltillo Advisory Committee. It has struggled to find suitable work that it can obtain.
"There is a private group that is proposing giving us a Luis Jimenez sculpture worth about $200,000," said Juan Cotera, who is on the committee. "Of course we want it." But they don't have it yet.
And along with the funding challenges are challenges that afflict any artistic project: the ever-present creative differences. Artist Luis Guerra, who was born in Coahuila, Mexico, and lived in East Austin, withdrew from the project last week. "I go to Saltillo a lot," he says, "and I felt they were introducing elements (into the project) that are incompatible with a plaza in Saltillo. But I wish them the very best of luck. I had waited many years to work in an Art in Public Places Project and since I am from Coahuila, I really wanted to work on this one."
Yet for all the hurdles that have faced and continue to face this project, it remains an inspiration for East Austin. That may be seen most clearly in the story of Jose Treviño, the only artist born and raised here who submitted ideas for the project. Treviño was seriously ill earlier this year and was too weak to paint, but he was so inspired by the sketches he drew for a mural in the plaza that picked up his paint brushes again this month.
Living here all his life, Treviño says he hasn't seen anyone try to approach a project like this. "With this project, I feel that there is an opportunity where we can have something here that would be very Mexicano. And one thing you see a lot in Mexico is painted murals on the wall. Since painting is the best thing I do -- I've been doing it over 30 years -- I just felt my spirit was kinda drawn to this project. I knew I could make a really interesting marketplace scene because we have traveled all over Mexico and I've seen so many plazas and marketplaces where people gather, selling, buying, all kinds of smells and noises. I didn't have any difficulty doing the sketches because I already knew where everybody was standing and where the dogs were, and I could see the grandmother get out of the way because she's a viejita. I found a lot of inspiration in it. This project is coming up at a good time. Bring awareness to people. It's a shame Mexico is so close and we don't have much in Austin of it."
Treviño has started a scale model rendition of the mural that he hopes to paint someday at the plaza. Done in oil on canvas, he'll use a glazing technique where layers of paint are put on top of each other with varnish. Transparent, the colors show through and create an image of layers of glass and a vibrancy of color. It will depict a very festive atmosphere at a Saltillo plaza with lots of people, dogs, and movement.
Plaza Saltillo holds a lot of dreams for the future, and art is the key to those dreams. It's what helps people connect deep inside, to know who they are so they can know where they are going. Without funding for the artwork those dreams can't come true.
Unfortunately, due to design considerations, the wall at the plaza where Treviño was interested in painting the mural recently was changed to tile, a medium on which the artistdoesn't work. "To me, a tile mural is kinda cold, sterile," he says. "Things got all switched around. We'll see. But if it happens and I'm there painting, then it happened. If I'm not, I'll paint it at home. I'm still going to paint it," smiled Treviño.
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