Blueprints for Circumnavigation
by Mari Gomez
One hundred and twenty years ago, El Paso becomes a city. The railroads compose an essential part of the city’s thriving economy, major jobs revolve around the industry, and there’s a burst in the population: the city blossoms. El Paso becomes the original Sin City, housing saloons and all kinds of Wild West shenanigans on its famous Utah street, including famous saloon brawls, whorehouse scuffles, and the famous death of John Wesley Hardin. At the turn of the century El Paso was deemed the most formidable city between San Antonio and Los Angeles, an important stopping point between Denver and Mexico.
El Paso was a commercial, manufacturing, and banking center for all of the Southwest. In 1925 El Paso set an example with its innovative City Plan put forward by George Kessler, a prominent city planner of the time. The plan outlined and addressed public spaces and various “aesthetic concerns.” It discussed the importance of providing clean water and encouraging public parks and spaces. The plan is still quoted today as an important document, a testament to smart comprehensive planning and urban development.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the city of El Paso has expanded considerably, growing further and further east, with a population of 862,638 and a rank of the 19th most populous city in the United States. Despite its population and the importance of the border and neighboring Ciudad Juarez, El Paso often gets sidelined among the other large Texas cities.
“One hundred years ago it was the railroads, cattle, and banking industries. Those things were sort of the high tech jobs. And El Paso was doing those things.” said Carlos Gallinar the director of City Planning for El Paso. I spoke to him on several occasions regarding the city, its past, and its current projects. “If you look at El Paso’s history from 1881-1950’s and you look at our development… We had a great downtown, we had a trolley system, one of the first international trolley systems in the world. So El Paso was the premier city of the Southwest and as a matter of fact in the mid 1950’s the income was at a 104 percent of the national average. In 2010 it went down to about 60 percent.”
The last numbers available in 2013 state that El Paso’s average yearly income is at about 39,873, while the Texas average is $51,704. Yet, El Paso has continued to expand since the turn of the century when it was a major stopping point in the Southwest. Fort Bliss is the second largest military installation in the country. Areas in North East and far East El Paso that were barren and undeveloped, have filled up with shopping centers, residential areas, gas stations, schools, and freeways. The city has three major international bridges, a few too many strip malls, way too many Wal-Marts, two art museums, one major theater, a giant fence demarcating the border, the downtown plaza under construction, a new baseball stadium, and an abandoned one. Needless to say, the landscape, infrastructure, culture, and political climate have changed considerably since Kessler proposed his plan in 1925. Yet some of the propositions of his famous plan seem oddly familiar with what many city planners around the country are now trying to advocate: a comprehensive plan that guides a city towards better policies for public health, environmental, economic and aesthetic concerns. City planners across the country are addressing problems in the way our cities have been laid out in the past 50 years, which have made our lifestyle one of excess, fuel consumption, and increasingly wasteful of natural resources. Several factors have contributed to the building of American cities. One of those is the car, which has so profoundly integrated itself into American culture and lifestyle that it presents challenges to cities now trying to make a change into a more sustainable walkable city.
A Pivotal Point-The Automobile
After WWII the automobile starts to become increasingly accessible and popular with middle class Americans. The car changed the concept of mobility. It impacted the economy, created industry, and made oil an integral part of our eveyday lives. It also allowed for the social classes to separate themselves by moving homes away from the city center and beginning what is now called the period of suburbanization.
During the mid fifties early sixties, the automobile became synonymous with the idea of freedom. The idea of discovery, the open road. The U.S began building long roads and highways. Now people could travel easily from coast to coast and experience America in its entirety. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 started the intricate Interstate Highway System of the United States, which began to interconnect various parts of the country, facilitating all kinds of travel.
“Prior to 1945 people lived in one of two areas: urban or rural. You either live in a downtown, in El Paso it would be Sunset Heights, Manhattan Heights, Kern place to some degree or you would live in Canutillo, Ysleta, or Anthony. This was true for all over the country. If you were rich, in El Paso, you lived in Kern Place. You can tell by the size of the homes. Someone working for minimum wage couldn’t afford to live in those neighborhoods so they lived in Segundo Barrio.” said Gallinar.
Before suburbanization economic activity was downtown. This is where people lived and worked. Everything was located at close proximity.“The freeways in El Paso were built in late 1950’s 1960’s…not that long ago…” he told me, “So those things facilitated people taking their goods and services from downtown to other areas.” This meant expanding the city outward, developing more and more land, in order to build these isolated communities.
This outward expansion is often referred to as ‘white flight.’ When whites of European ancestries, began moving away from racially mixed neighborhoods into suburbanized and homogeneous ones. This left the poor, low income populations to fill in the vacant spots in the downtown. By moving away into these isolated communities, it meant that people in these suburban neighborhoods began to depend much more on their cars and on the roads. Consequently making way for the development of more and more land.
Gallinar asked me to think about the houses in Kern Place, near the UTEP area. What is the single architectural characteristic they all share. I gave a few wrong guesses until he filled me in.
"The garage, he said.
And why is this important? Or significant?
The garage he explains, is often the most prominent feature in these houses. And that is not simply a question of aesthetics, but it has ripple effects. For example, he drew a small sketch on a piece of paper of a house with a large garage, a driveway, and a front door that was pushed behind the garage. Now, imagine all the houses here are all the same, he said. Because of the garage many people don’t have to use their front door, which means it might reduce any contact with neighbors, leading to people excluding themselves from the community.
“So just because you have a front porch,” he continued, “doesn’t necessarily mean you will be in your front porch all the time, but at least you have the option.” In theory then, it can facilitate it, encourage it, and therefore increase the chances of neighborly interaction. If there was, for example, in these suburban areas, a neighborhood supermarket, a neighborhood pub, people might run into each other on a regular basis, creating a sense of community (Neighborhood Wal-Mart doesn’t count just because it has neighborhood in its name). So a city planner is confronted with the reality that the way our houses have been/ are built, and the way our neighborhoods are arranged affect our sense of community, our relationship to our environment, and even our health. If one has all the amenities available at home: a washer, a dryer, a backyard, or a car to go in and out of the neighborhood, the opportunities to venture out of the house into a public space decrease significantly. The initial effects of this might seem insignificant: simply a tad of convenience, but these details add up; it slowly makes people isolated, strangers in their own communities, dependent upon their cars for everything.
The automobile began to alter the way we thought about everyday travel and mobility. This permeated into popular culture, driving itself deeply into the American psyche. The automobile became synonymous with travel, exploration, adventure. Suddenly the car and the highway system had opened up the possibility for mobility and freedom. Jack Kerouac’s classic novel On the Road, published in 1957, was in some ways, emblematic of this kind of vision: the open road. That is, America as a wide expanse of highways and as a vast place for self discovery, spiritual awakening, and personal transformation. In the book, the narrator travels from the West coast to the East coast several times, each time meeting new characters, running into old friends, discovering hidden worlds within pockets of the expansive terrain that is America. Down into the late sixties, films like Easy Rider, considered a quintessential film of its generation, played on similar ideas of the open road. Most of these stories didn’t end happily, but it became a staple of American thinking: this ability to get on the road and drive, to escape.
Meanwhile, within the American city, the automobile was inspiring a different kind of change: the suburban sprawl. Often thought of as a vehicle of freedom, now the car confines the typical commuter to a certain style of living, plus a dependency on what we all know is a limited, and not to mention controversial and destructive, resource:oil.
When I was seventeen having a car was freedom. It came with a feeling of independence. Your first car is almost a rite of passage. It is someone recognizing that you have enough sense and responsibility to control your own destination, to transport yourself, to start carving out your own paths. This rite of passage includes all kinds of experiences revolving around a car. It means you’ll likely have drive to your after school job you dislike, you’ll get home passed your curfew, you’ll speed to school, smoke cigarettes and burn holes into the seats, and go for drives playing your favorite albums.
Though I didn’t think of it this way back then, but that rite of passage also has another angle. It means you are now an active consumer. You are now part of the cycle: you drive to work, you pay for the car’s expenses because you must get to work to pay the car’s expenses among everything else. It means you enter the realm of the day in and day out. It means you are caught in traffic jams, follow detours, have to look for parking, get parking tickets or pulled over for going ten over. It means that at some point in your life, you will drive while intoxicated. It means your lifestyle becomes tied to your car and the comfort it provides you. In my early twenties I lived in England. I went to college, had a job, attended film club, went grocery shopping, all without a car. I took cabs, was caught drunk in a cab a few times (but that’s what cabs are for in England), carried a backpack to the grocery store, took the bus, took the Metro and walked and walked everywhere.
Thirteen years later, back in the States in cities like El Paso, a car can feel like an economic burden. I can’t really walk anywhere to get something I need and am constantly finding agression towards my fellow citizens. At the same time, the car offers certain luxuries and conveniences, mostly because a city like El Paso makes it very difficult to get around without one, though there has been some improvements on that front. The city bus service stops relatively early, so anyone wanting to use the bus after 9:30 is left hanging. Having a car however, is still kind of cool. People take their cars very seriously, installing all kinds of gadgets and expensive insurance plans.
Needless to say, during the period of suburbanization people began walking less and driving more. That’s still true today. If you can’t walk anywhere, you have to drive there. We were essentially setting ourselves up for what some people, especially city planners, see now as a big problem. It doesn’t take a hard look at the city to see how that suburban sprawl exists today. This constant development of land has given way to an abundance of gas stations, strip malls, fast food chains and a lack of parks, trees, and open public spaces.
The Fountains of Farah, funded by Paul Foster, simply added a new mall right across another mall we have had for years. I’m not about to drive halfway across town to go to a mall. I’ll tell you what I’ll drive across town for: a new performance arts theater, a new museum, an art gallery, maybe a badass park or music venue, or a downtown that houses entertainment and local cafes and restaurants. It’s nothing less than embarrassing when a new Chick- Fil-A with a drive thru opens on the Westside and people camp out over night for the possibility of a free sandwich. It’s moments like these a proud El Pasoan lowers her head in shame. Are we really that hungry? Are we really so void of culture and fulfillment that the opening of a new Chick-Fil-A becomes an event? More people were out in front of that Chick-Fil-A than were out on election day.
El Paso is currently undergoing a tremendous highway extension project while at the same time trying to revitalize downtown and invest in new Smart Code communities like Montecillo (Smart Code is a smarter way of building to be explained in Part II and III). I can’t help, but feel that some of it is contradictory. There are different forces at play here. One month you hear of a new $100 million dollar Smart Code community on the North East going through city council and then a new highway pops up, or a new mall, or a new Sam’s Club with a parking lot the size of two football fields. In the desert terrain on the outskirts of West El Paso, one runs into the ugly pink and purple pastel colors tainting the landscape near the mountains with its neon signs and trademarked logos. It’s a surreal sight at night coming from the West, like an alien space ship with massive lights surrounding it, in the midst of otherwise relatively peaceful desert. Developers like River Oaks, who specialize in housing major retail chains (because only they can afford it) have turned El Paso into a loop of Papa Johns and Subways and Family Dollars. This is because Smart Code projects, or a deviation from the traditional way of building, is a complex process, as is anything that fights the norm.
There’s no easy solution to reversing decades of building and planning around the automobile. There’s no simple way to construct a city plan that is economically viable for the future because there are too many factors and opposing interests. It seems to be an economic and structural, but at its very root, also a cultural problem. We are a country that likes to consume and our landscape encourages it. This is why El Pasoan’s get excited over the news of an H&M store addition to the Outlet Shoppes. We are used to convenience. The car is still tied to our ideas of freedom and we have grown up needing a car, depending on one, seeing it as this ultimate rite of passage into adulthood or as a symbol of independence.
More progressive cities have attempted several alternatives like Car Share and public bike rentals, which seems a step in the right direction. Urban developers throughout the country are implementing Smart Code and trying to change communities to be more walkable, more self sustainable, precisely in an attempt to slow down this ferocious development of land.
A city is a complex beast and no urban designer controls laws, city council, or special interests. And if a developer with a fat wallet owns some land, chances are they will want to capitalize on it and build another mall or a new hotel or a new Wal-Mart. The solution to this would require a massive overhaul in how we think about our lives and our cities and an awareness of who owns what and what their agendas are. River Oaks, a giant retail developer, is not going to rent its property to a mom and pop vintage shop or a locally owned deli. No start up business could afford making deals with River Oaks; their tenants are large national retail chains and banks. They own so much of El Paso already and have turned it into a loop of Family Dollars and Papa Johns and Subways. They have made their way downtown and will continue. There's very little room for small businesses to survive in that environment. There's a strange dynamic when countless unused properties downtown, like the ones owned by Billy Abraham for example (you’ve seen them), that have potential, can sit abandoned for years collecting trash and dust as developers like River Oaks build around them.In the same vein, it is not profitable to give artists a performance space, or to open up a gallery or a community theater so El Paso's arts scene has no where to thrive and it sits in stasis, feeding off scraps and the occasional bone it is thrown.
During my conversations with Carlos Gallinar, one of the biggest doubts I had was figuring out where the politics ended and his job began. Surely, as a city planner he encountered, in some form or other, the politics of the current city council and their fluctuating agendas and priorities. A project like Montecillo, was and is a great idea, but it still required investors and approval by the city. A comprehensive city plan like Kessler’s 1925 plan or the 2012 Plan El Paso, which received recognition for its innovative ideas, can lay down guidelines and visions for the city that extend through a fifteen year period. However, throughout that fifteen year period there will be changing city councils made up of politicians with varying agendas, interests, priorities, and dare I say, friends in high places (i.e campaign donors). There will be developers with money signs in their eyes. So how does a city plan survive? How do these great creative ideas of a new way of building, an implementation of the new Smart Code emerge on the other side of the political system? Especially in a city where voter turn out is so embarrassingly low, as to suggest that most of the people in office might not even necessarily represent the interest of all El Pasoans? (Alas, that is our fault. )
Our environment shapes us; it affects decisions we make everyday. If we lack connection to nature and each other and if communities are simply identical houses and shopping malls and Taco Bells and Burger Kings and Wal-Marts instead of parks and culture and open spaces, perhaps that says something about the modern American condition, which is one of internal claustrophobia and spiritual vacancy. That is, trapped in a labyrinth of consumption and monotony. The automobile and America’s roads have shifted from that symbol of freedom, exploration, and discovery to a representation of a life stuck in traffic, the windows rolled up, the radio on high, slowed by detours, moving ever so slowly, with a repeating landscape, to a destination that is uncertain and perpetually under construction.