Downtown Brown

Barrio businesses are flourishing, but not in downtown Phoenix

Diversity thrives in the shadow of downtown. From the tiny eateries that draw late-night crowds, to the power lunches at El Portal and Barrio Café, Phoenix's Hispanic presence is decidedly left of center.

Mercedes Gamez, for one, is exactly where she needs to be. Besides the brisk lunch business at El Norteño, a favorite of downtown Phoenix workers, the tiny taco stand also enjoys a boisterous after-work crowd that ebbs and flows late into the night, something the more centrally located (and decisively bland) Baja Fresh can only dream of.

"I like to be where the action is, where the people are," Gamez says on a sultry summer evening, surveying the cars zipping in and out of her parking lot. Scents of carne asada and cilantro mingle with exhaust.

"I love it here," she says with a backward glance at the dark, empty office buildings that dominate the Phoenix skyline behind her tiny taqueria. This corner of Seventh Avenue and Roosevelt, just outside the downtown core, has become a neighborhood favorite. "There are not other places like this at night."

She's not too far wrong. There are places like El Norteño in the area that rings downtown Phoenix. But not as many as the city's large Latino population could support, especially in the core downtown area that already draws many young Latinos to popular club nights.

East of downtown, carefully groomed young men gather on the corner of 34th Street and Van Buren, in the parking lot of what by day is a car wash, watching Don Francisco on a grainy television as they down tacos and tortas before and after dancing at El Capri.

Weekend nights, couples and families flock to Mariscos Ensenada on North 16th Street for seafood and micheladas, filling the tables inside and out as they are serenaded by roving trios of street musicians.

Cancun, at 19th Avenue and Broadway, is a people-watching multiplex whose rodeo, nightclub and restaurant draw hordes of patrons who linger for hours.

In fact, quietly prosperous Latino businesses encircle downtown Phoenix -- you can find them anywhere. Just don't look for life in the heart of downtown Phoenix, which, with a few exceptions, closes when the office buildings empty for the day.

The Hispanic hot spots that dot downtown's periphery are thriving in their respective barrios, and they're doing so pretty much on their own. There's no incentive to move deeper into downtown because, for the most part, downtown comes to them.

Besides, it's not as though the city has made anything easier for them. According to several Phoenix officials, the city has no programs encouraging new minority businesses to move into downtown. Beyond that, small downtown entrepreneurs are generally struggling. The businesses need residents to support them, but not many people want to live downtown because there are no businesses -- restaurants, clubs, grocery stores, retail shops -- to serve them ("Sorry, We're Closed," Paul Kix, November 6).

And while the city is beginning to help developers build more "affordable housing" downtown, the minimum $160,000 price tag for a loft-type condo is out of reach of many working Hispanic families.

It's a problem that has plagued other cities with significant Hispanic populations whose officials and civic leaders have tended to overlook Latinos when revitalizing their downtowns.

Houston, for instance, which has enjoyed a downtown renaissance in recent years, not only didn't make much of an effort to weave minorities into the fabric of downtown but actually saw some Hispanic businesses pushed even farther out as property values increased in the core city.

At least that's the way Richard Huebner, executive director of Houston's Minority Business Council, sees it. Huebner says when it came to minority-specific programs, the city had concepts, but no action resulted. "The city made it clear that they would be particularly excited about [diversity], and beyond that, well, they had their hands full," Huebner says. "There's more that could have been done."

In fact, he says, some of the smaller minority-owned corporations that had managed to come into downtown Houston before revitalization found themselves forced out by skyrocketing property values once the changes took hold.

In hindsight, Huebner says he wishes the city planners had "more financing in place, and organizations to do some hand-holding and walk people through the process. I wish we had been more active in our outreach into affected communities."

Huebner says Houston could have and should have tried harder. "We haven't come close" to creating a diverse downtown, he says. "It doesn't happen naturally."

Inclusive or not, downtown Houston is currently an exciting place to be, Huebner reports, largely enthusiastic about the growth.

Seven years ago, "there were no small businesses," he says. "At 6 p.m. everything closed."

Now at 6 p.m., Houston's just getting started. With a brand-new $300 million light-rail system nearly in place, it appears the city has effectively implemented an urban renaissance, the same sort of metamorphosis many hope to see in Phoenix.

Despite the lack of minority incentive, Huebner praises Houston's approach to redevelopment, which he describes as thoughtful and well-researched, requiring, for example, that a hotel being converted into loft apartments provide services such as a restaurant and retail at street level to cater to its residents.

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