• Well-preserved tenement blocks on South Mesa Street. - photo by William J. Palmore

The following encapsulates a presentation made at the AULA (Architecture and Urbanism in las Américas) symposium, held on March 29–April 1, 2018. The theme of that event was “porosity,” particularly that of national borders, and the tenements of El Segundo Barrio in El Paso were identified as a promising subject. The tenements, for the most part configured in long lines parallel to the nearby Rio Grande, were compared metaphorically to a “sand fence” (found on the beaches of the East Coast) that serves the purpose of slowing, but not entirely impeding, the passage of the blowing sand. Many thousands of tenants who have passed through El Segundo Barrio as a stopping point in their migration north would understand the metaphor completely.

Two external sources provided the bulk of the information used. The most important is David Dorado Romo’s love letter to a place and time, “Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893-1923.” Beyond Romo’s book, Fred Morales, a retired schoolteacher who has made the documentation of El Segundo Barrio and old El Paso his life’s work, provided a firsthand account of growing up in a barrio tenement.

The history of El Paso is complex. Land that would become modern El Paso belonged to the Mexican city of El Paso del Norte, built south of the Rio Grande and centered around the ancient Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe mission church. Following the Mexican-American War, which ended in 1848, land north of the river became part of the United States. The Juan Ponce de León plantation located there would provide the initial site of the American city. The annexed agricultural land of the plantation and other lands on the north side of the river, understood to be unstable due to regular flooding, possessed a loose scattering of haciendas, mission churches, and a presidio named San Elizario, all interspersed with fertile farmlands and a system of canals, or acequias. Visitors arriving from journeys across the hostile desert described the place as an Eden on the Rio Grande.  

A generation of American entrepreneurs were drawn to the opportunities of the pass, regarded as a place of lucrative agricultural and industrial potential and, most importantly, situated so as to be a significant national transportation hub. One of these men, Anson Mills, a civil engineer, a builder, and one of the founding fathers of modern El Paso, platted the blocks of a new city in 1867, envisioning a grid of streets that would extend north from the riverfront, notwithstanding the certainty of regular flooding. The plat defined what would become the core of El Paso, although the city would not be incorporated until 1873. The blocks closest to the river were established as the second district, or what is now referred to as El Segundo Barrio.

The platting delivered geometric organization, but the earlier housing standing in the newly defined blocks was chaotic and haphazard. Nineteenth-century photos document primitive squatter structures not unlike the favelas or colonias found at the edges of contemporary cities all over Latin America. Dwelling walls were made with adobe bricks, salvaged construction debris, or jacal framing, where site-gathered reeds and scrub branches are organized in a palisade manner, driven into the ground, and plastered with mud. Pounded dirt was the universal floor. Fresh water was provided by occasional shared wells or the river. Municipal sewage service would not reach El Segundo until the turn of the 20th century. The national press of the time found living conditions in El Segundo “horrendous,” noting: “Probably in no place in the United states could such crude, beastly, and primitive conditions be found.” Hygiene was appalling, as evidenced by high infant mortality rates and unsurprising general public health deprivation. Typhoid fever and other water-borne diseases were commonplace, as was tuberculosis infection.

The arrival of the railroads in 1881, composed of long, intersecting routes running north/south and east/west, made large-scale industry possible for the first time in El Paso. This development favored the well-located El Segundo, already burgeoning with a potential workforce and a magnet for an even greater one. New industries, such as an ore smelter, lumber mills, brick yards, metal foundries, dairies, slaughterhouses, clothing manufacturing, and the train yards, provided an abundance of jobs. Industry required cheap and reliable labor, and the need to house the workers in a more organized manner explains the building of the first wave of tenements. These barracks-like, one-story adobe buildings, which replaced the earlier ad-hoc housing, were tasked with maintaining a healthier and more regimented workforce. Photographs of the period show block after block of the new adobe buildings replicated by consensus; apartment units were one room wide and served by a single door and window. These floor plans would persist when the adobe tenements were replaced by brick versions. A partnership, or rather, a dependency, formed in these early decades between the manufacturing elite of El Paso, the tenement owners, and the low-paid workforce that was continually replenished by immigrants from Mexico. Two of the three would profit handsomely from the arrangement.

Although the population of El Segundo is almost exclusively Mexican-American now, this was not always the case. A Chinese community found itself in El Paso with the completion of the railroads and decided to stay. The American Exclusion Act of 1882 put the Chinese El Pasoans in the business of assisting illegal Chinese immigrants coming in through Mexico, providing an early example of illicit migration exploited for profit. Beyond the Chinese, a significant African American community, refugees from the degradation of the post-Civil War South, immigrated to El Paso and found a welcome in El Segundo. Their community flourished for a time, with a dedicated school and a church. Hardworking and industrious, the African Americans appear to have been well respected, enjoying a status unique in Texas at that time. Even the Japanese, drawn to El Paso with the notion of producing silk, found a home in El Segundo, if for a very brief time. Street life of the era was described as raucous and colorful, owing to the intriguing mix of its people, who were served by numerous saloons, opium dens, gambling halls, theaters, and houses of prostitution.

Newcomers brought to El Paso the optimism and manner of thinking of the age. One of these, Henry Trost, an itinerant architect with origins in the Midwest, was attracted to El Paso by the chance to build on a grand scale. He and like-minded others felt that El Paso had the potential to be the most important city between the Gulf and the West Coast. It is not surprising that a new image was longed for, an American image, that called for the rejection of Spanish Colonial or Mexican architecture. Adobe buildings, the original structures of the pass, did not complement this image. Trost and other architects would replace these earlier structures with an up-to-date architecture that the ambitious city could be proud of.

A widespread campaign against adobe was championed by the El Paso newspapers, preoccupied with connecting the adobe buildings with hygiene risk. Two famous and influential men — a mayor, Tom Lea, and a general, John Pershing — are remembered for their efficacy in ridding the city of the adobe tenements. The predilections of the two made for an effective team: Lea could muster the health authorities to condemn structures on grounds of lice and rodent infestation, while Pershing’s men were often employed in demolition. With impressive speed, the 19th-century adobe architecture of El Paso was nearly completely eradicated, carried forth with an inflated righteousness. The health and hygiene concerns were correct in intention. The overt racism propagated by the press was another, and unfortunate, matter. The newspapers found it just as easy to condemn the inhabitants as they did the housing, blaming entirely the wrong party with guilt.

Brick and stone were the endorsed materials of the new El Paso of the first two decades of the 20th century, and therefore, all new buildings in the redeemed El Segundo would be constructed of brick. That the new buildings adhered so closely to the planning and thinking of their adobe predecessors is telling. The new ones looked more orderly and respectable, but living conditions scarcely improved. Units in the new buildings remained impossibly cramped, and water and toilet access continued to be shared. The uniformity of design and construction of the brick tenements is striking. It is as if one planner or one set of rules guided the design of all of them, although this is not the case. Development and construction remained private and speculative. It is known that diverse construction crews built them. Armenian or Jewish masons are credited by folklore. With brick construction permitting more than a single floor, the tenements attain a degree of stark dignity with their simple forms and predictably ordered spaces.

Opinion about El Segundo and its old adobe buildings was not altogether dismissive. The nationally renowned landscape architect and urban planner George Kessler made recommendations in his “Kessler Report” of 1925 that called for the then-surviving adobe El Segundo buildings to be preserved as a “quaint” destination for tourists, and the adjoining riverfront to be developed as an urban park. In rejecting his recommendations, El Paso forfeited the opportunity to benefit from the history-driven tourism that is a vital part of the economies of Taos, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and San Antonio.

For both the earlier adobe and later brick iterations of the tenement building design, the module of one apartment unit, a single room in depth, is replicated to achieve the desired building length. The resulting typical tenement “bar” is made up of back-to-back rows of units, each achieving external circulation by way of the ground level or by narrow, uncovered wooden porches that run the length of the building. The “bars” were configured both parallel and perpendicular to the street. When two bars are placed parallel to each other, an interior courtyard is created by adding a third, modified “bar” that faces the street. The shared water source, a spigot, is typically found in that courtyard. The flush toilet privies, numbering perhaps four per tenement building, were built away from the street and against the rear alley. A cookstove was the only provision for heating within the apartments, ignoring the fact that El Paso can experience extremely cold winter weather.

A desire to correct ills associated with adobe tenements by adopting brick as a material led to revised construction strategies, most notably in the raising of the wood-framed first floor above the ground plane and the creation of a moisture-isolating crawl space. The passage of 100 years conceals that important detail today because the street levels in El Segundo have been progressively elevated over the decades. Common red and brown bricks are the predominant wall materials. Lintels are of precast concrete. Top of facade wall embellishment is created with brick laid up to imitate a stone cornice. Double-hung, two-over-two wood sash windows were the norm when the tenements were built and remain plentiful, if in a somewhat petrified state. An annual rainfall of eight inches goes a long way to preserve buildings. 

Mutability is a strong explanation for the continued use of the tenement buildings: The basic unit was the single room, but this could be expanded on. Combining one in the front with its companion on the back of a “bar” would yield a two-room apartment and a configuration that would allow cross-ventilation. Combining the two side-by-side “floor-through” units would yield four rooms and a not-unreasonably-sized apartment, although El Segundo apartments might shelter four or more people per room. Interior walls between side-by-side apartment units could be constructed of brick or built of wood studs and plaster, though neither of these methods have been documented as prevalent.

The brick structure permitted a limited architectural development of the type. A few examples reach three stories in height. Alternative means of egress, such as enclosing stairs within the building volume, were not explored. Perhaps due to the stability of the brick structure, the inclusion of modest ornamentation became possible. Concrete building name plaques or even concrete cornices are to be found. The majority, however, were built with a frank indifference to iconography or decoration. Colloquial reference to the buildings as forts (“presidios”) is understandable. Although “bare bones” does not go far enough to describe the buildings, the outdoor spaces created are often human-scaled and agreeable. One can well imagine the vibrancy of place these buildings fostered in their heyday.

Guilt over the conditions in the tenements finally coerced a reluctant city government to take action in the 1970s. Welfare of the tenants was finally addressed, and tenement owners were required to add running water, heating, and private toilet facilities to each apartment.  

The years of the Mexican Revolution made El Segundo Barrio a nationally famous place. Due to the porosity of the border and the transient nature of tenement occupation, refugees from the fighting found a temporary place of safety there. Americans of Mexican descent, wishing to join the conflict, used El Segundo as a portal to the fighting. A fascinated national press reported on the engaging conditions found and the colorful cast of characters living there in those years. Perhaps the most sensational character was the beautiful Teresita Urrea, a Mexican national of mixed Mexican and indigenous descent, who lived in El Segundo for a year before the turn of the century. No less than The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle reported on her dramatic career as a political activist — she was referred to as the “Mexican Joan of Arc” — and on her stature as a woman of God, one gifted with celebrated healing powers.

El Segundo Barrio was a welcoming home to Mexican writers living in El Paso during these turbulent times and writing from their “ringside seats.” Mariano Azuela wrote the foremost novel of the revolution, “Los de Abajo,” from his tenement apartment. His novel and works, among those of other writers, established a literary tradition in El Segundo. Men, either fighting directly in the hostilities or inspiring others to do so, were people of note in El Segundo, if not actual residents of the tenements. Of these, the anarchist Enrique Flores Magón is perhaps the most famous. He established connections with national anarchist figures like Emma Goldman, who spoke in El Paso in 1910 at his instigation.

Almost from the beginning, church and philanthropic organizations sought to improve living conditions in El Segundo, achieving in many ways what the city would not. A determination to bring education to the urban poor was exercised by institutions such as the Mexican Preparatory School, founded by Olivas Villanueva Aoy, and the Lydia Patterson Institute, founded by Lydia Patterson with the Trinity United Methodist Church. The Institute continues to thrive as a private Methodist high school, offering bilingual education to students of El Segundo, as well as students traveling from Juárez. Education and self-improvement have been hallmarks of El Segundo culture from the beginning. 

The fact that so many of the El Segundo tenements are not only standing, but still occupied, is unexpected. What explains their survival? The answer is complex but can be condensed into four main factors: one, all of the tenements are privately owned by landlords who profit from ownership (a two-room apartment can rent for $500); two, many residents of the tenements are transient and temporary and, as such, do not exercise proprietorship over the place in which they live; three, recent alternative housing types built in El Segundo are not well regarded, because the designs are largely ignorant of the district’s urban living patterns; and, four, the politics of the Barrio have led to pride in the tenements, promoted by such political action groups as La Campaña Por La Preservación del Segundo Barrio, that will not permit the destruction of any standing tenement, negative associations aside. In what can only be regarded as a stalemate augmented by a confederacy of seemingly incompatable parties, an odd sense of security surrounds the future of the buildings. Very little is happening at present, and, in architectural preservation terms, that is a very good thing.

A positive artistic development in the El Segundo story is the proliferation of wall murals. These have served a need by recalling historical events and people, such as the legendary bicycle priest, Father Harold Rahm, while reinforcing local political pride. Careers have been made, here — with that of muralist Jesus “Cimi” Alvarado serving as a prominent example. Building upon the earlier work of Francisco Delgado, David Flores, and others, Alvarado, who grew up in a Segundo tenement, continues to work in El Paso and has expanded his audience nationally. His murals contribute a needed vitality to El Segundo, grown too quiet in recent decades. 

Yolanda Chávez Leyva and David Dorado Romo make the celebration of the life and history of El Segundo Barrio central to their work. Leyva is the director of the Institute of Oral History at The University of Texas at El Paso. Both teach in the history department. In 2010, the two instrumented the creation of the Museo Urbano, a small exhibition space dedicated to the El Segundo story. A central goal of the Museo is to illuminate the considerable historical importance of El Segundo within Mexican-American politics. Beyond the Museo, Leyva and Romo employ university graduate students to document the physical aspects of tenement buildings.

Long overdue national recognition was finally achieved in 2016, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Chihuahuita and El Segundo Barrio to its 2016 “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” list. The designation proved timely and assisted in thwarting the most recent campaign by developers, who continue to eye El Segundo with commercial redevelopment ambitions.

The historic tenement buildings survive with hardball authority that impresses, and they continue to serve their tenants as they always have. Buildings more worthy of protection are hard to imagine. Their importance to El Paso’s identity goes without question. El Segundo Barrio, with its scruffy old buildings, makes up the heart of a city that knows where it came from. The tenements are indeed irreplaceable artifacts, as Leyva and Romo have established. Fortunately, they appear immune to such pressures as preservation, renewal, and gentrification. What they are and what they do confounds conventional preservation methodologies. They have taken pretty good care of themselves without municipal or professional intervention anyway. So, where can things go beyond the good works of the Museo Urbano? What can be done?

A possible model can be found in the Tenement Museum of New York City, where extant tenement buildings on the Lower East Side have been preserved and apartments furnished to illustrate immigrant life at the turn of the 20th century. Conditions of living, as documented there, are very much like that of the El Segundo Barrio of nearly the same time frame, albeit involving a very different building type. The Tenement Museum is a success. Tourists go to see what life was like and come away with interest piqued by the cramped apartments and unthinkable hygiene conditions described. Cockroaches and rancid milk! The Lower East Side has been a place of passage for countless families of Jewish, German, and Irish newcomers, each having endured its deprivations. New Yorkers, many descendants of these very immigrants, enthusiastically return to a place that remembers and honors their own histories. That so many El Pasoans regard El Segundo Barrio with much the same reverence suggests that El Paso needs its own Tenement Museum.

Beyond being the artifact, El Segundo Barrio needs to do more if it is to retain its importance in El Paso. Affordable housing is in short supply, as it is nearly everywhere, and the vacant or underused sites in El Segundo cry out for new housing. But what kind? Using the historic tenement “bar” building type and accepting its limited expressive potential seems the obvious answer. The typology provides a useful repertoire of form- and space-making strategies. Certainly, there is a market for microunits, comprising one or two rooms, as there is for multi-room units with access to the courtyards, the latter ideal for large or extended families. The new buildings would be cheap and easy to build, and with this in mind, rents could be kept to a minimum.

Could such a strategy, contrasting starkly with contemporary, good-intentioned low-income infill urban housing built elsewhere, be dismissed as patronizing or even condescending? Undoubtedly, yes. Most architects and planners would see it this way, but El Segundo exists within its own system of rules, rules validated by economy, utility, and perseverance. 

It need not be a place for everyone, and it shouldn’t be. What would this look like? The question is answered readily by examining the earliest photographs of El Segundo, where seemingly every parcel of land is occupied by a tenement building. The photos make it easy to imagine the vitality of a time and place that has been largely lost in the present. Championing this strategy — that is, actively promoting the construction of new apartment buildings using the tenement typology — the city can make a convincing play on the side of preservation while fostering El Segundo’s historic role as the home of low-cost, high-density, low-scale housing in El Paso. Such action could very possibly make El Segundo the destination Kessler envisioned a hundred years ago — one that tourists and El Pasoans alike can be proud of.

William J. Palmore is an associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology, where he teaches design and history. His research focuses on the architectural history of El Paso, his hometown. 

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