Downtown Brown

Barrio businesses are flourishing, but not in downtown Phoenix

And if the heart of Houston isn't as minority-inclusive as Huebner would like it to be, he has great hope for the arterial communities that line the light-rail tracks. "Those that made it through the construction period are now set to prosper," he says.

But Houston's population is around 40 percent Hispanic, and growing quickly, says Carlos Lara, interim president of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Unlike Huebner, he says the city has supported Hispanic businesses.

It only makes sense, he reasons. "It's not about bringing Hispanics into the mainstream market," he says. "We are the market."

Liz Zamorano of Museo Chicano
Emily Piraino
Liz Zamorano of Museo Chicano

That's becoming more the case in Phoenix as well. Whether recent immigrants, first generation, or fully assimilated Hispanics, Phoenix's growing Latino population may soon equal that of Houston's, and strong neighborhood associations may be a good way to make sure the city pays attention to the increasing minority population.

As in Houston, downtown Phoenix's high rents and empty streets have caused many Latino business owners to remain on the periphery, closer to the clientele they serve, closer to neighborhoods like the Garfield District between Seventh and 16th streets, or Grant Park to the south between Central and Seventh avenues.

Silvana Salcido Esparza grew up eating pizza in the 16th Street restaurant that she reopened as Barrio Café in the summer of 2002. It was a sentimental location for her, amid the bustle of 16th Street, which has become a stronghold for Mexican businesses.

Barrio Café has been very successful, and Esparza says she has no regrets about her location, despite admonitions from friends and acquaintances that she would never get her upper-scale clientele to go anywhere south of Camelback.

Esparza said she originally conceived her restaurant as a neighborhood spot, a hole in the wall that would serve the workers from the nearby hospital and merchants along 16th Street. But her sophisticated take on Mexican cuisine has become a favorite of downtown's power brokers; politicians, lawyers and lobbyists fill her lunchtime tables. Dinner requires a lengthy wait for a seat.

Esparza is purchasing the building in which her restaurant's located, and has big plans for her neighborhood. Persistent calls to the police have managed to clean up the streets somewhat -- the hookers and drunks she used to stumble over in the back alley have moved on.

Esparza says she wants to unify the merchants along 16th Street and create a business association in January. "I want to get a sign that says Welcome to Calle Dieciseis.'" She wants her neighborhood to become a source of pride.

And she's ready to take a proactive approach. "I'm not going to sit back and wait [for the city to take notice]."

"I want to unify and then go to the city and say, What can you do to clean up our street?' I want trash cans, wrought-iron art. I want to see the street recognized."

She dreams of new commerce coming in, such as a bookstore with literature in Spanish. She imagines a day when 16th Street becomes a tourist attraction, a source of -- and testimony to -- Mexican pride.

There are other businesses owners with strong ties that choose to remain in their neighborhoods. When Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and her family opened El Portal down the street from their home at Fourth Avenue and McKinley, a central downtown location wasn't really an option, Wilcox says. The rents were too high, of course, but she also wanted to preserve the continuity and history of the location that has been an operating restaurant for 50 years.

Although Esparza's just getting started, Wilcox has been active for years in community-oriented projects in Grant Park, including an inner-city basketball league and a boxing gym. And Wilcox eventually plans to expand her restaurant and also create a community hall for weddings, quinceañeras and other celebrations.

Wilcox's neighborhood, like others that skirt downtown, is like another world.

The view of downtown Phoenix from El Portal, on the south near Grant Park, is similar to the view from El Norteño, on the northwestern edge. Despite the restaurants' proximity to the heart of downtown Phoenix, there's a distinct feeling of isolation at these humble eateries that are prospering in the shadows of the monolithic office buildings.

Still, whether they're in the heart of downtown or not, some of the businesses can't afford to stay open after dark.

Wilcox longs for the day when she can keep El Portal open at night, but for now there simply aren't enough patrons. She remains hopeful, because Wilcox remembers a different, bustling downtown Phoenix.

Although she grew up in Superior, trips to Phoenix were common. "In the '50s and '60s, we'd come down once every two months and everyone would come downtown to do their shopping. There were barbershops, department stores and small clothing stores, and low-cost hotels, so a lot of people were actually living downtown," she says.

Memories of what Phoenix used to be have helped her envision what it could be again, a "series of small communities that come together," a place where all kinds of people live and shop and interact.

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