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.

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

"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.

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."

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.

"You have to create an atmosphere where you have a lot of small shops, where you have restaurants, and small booths in a food court. You need to go out and look and see [which businesses are] working well, create a small retail atmosphere and bring those people in."

The Hispanic community, she says, has "wonderful small business people, jewelers, restaurants. Why not give them an opportunity to come [downtown]?" As development occurs, Wilcox would like to see the city actively recruit minority-owned small retail.

According to Liz Zamorano, there is little opportunity for Hispanic businesses downtown. "Have you priced commercial space downtown?" she asks, clearly frustrated.

Zamorano is the director of Museo Chicano, a nonprofit gift shop and gallery that has been in various locations downtown for the past 14 years.

Museo Chicano moved into its current space at 147 East Adams four years ago and is struggling, Zamorano admits. "We haven't seen the traffic," she says, "even though we are in the center of Convention Alley."

Like El Portal's Wilcox, Zamorano would love to keep the museum open at night, and she's tried, but revenues didn't justify the extended hours.

Affordable housing would help, she argues. But that's not easy. "It's a chicken-and-the-egg situation. To have a viable business downtown you need to be in business seven days a week, and you have to have the traffic to sustain that."

Not all Hispanic-owned businesses are service-oriented. Millie Gonzalez, who chairs the Valleywide United Latino Business Coalition, an association formed in 2001 to find and promote business opportunities for its members, says the face of Latino business is slowly changing. "More and more Latino businesses are crossing over to another market," she says, moving into white-collar positions.

Gonzalez says there is a growing number of companies like hers that would benefit from a downtown location. "People have a notion that Latino businesses are mostly labor-intensive, like cleaning services or landscaping," she says, adding that that's not true.

Gonzalez runs a high-tech staffing company, Minority Information Technology and Engineering Solutions. After operating successfully from her home in Scottsdale for years, Gonzalez is considering a January move to central Phoenix, closer to downtown, somewhere with conference space, a receptionist, and a more appropriate place to receive clients than her living room. Gonzalez can't afford it on her own, and is partnering with two other Latino businesses that will share the expense and space.

A handful of club owners seem to have been the most successful at enticing Hispanic people downtown -- to party.

Taking a cue from the immensely popular nightclubs along 16th Street and Van Buren, club owners are luring substantial numbers of Hispanics downtown with weekly Latin nights. Clubs like Sky Lounge, Club Downtown, and Jackson's on 3rd see huge crowds of young Hispanics. Even the Hard Rock Cafe has dedicated Thursdays to Latin ladies.

Steve Glum, senior director of marketing for the chain, says the Latina nights have "been real successful" since their inception a year and a half ago. "We teach salsa, we have a DJ in there, sometimes a band, but mainly a DJ. . . . We get two, three, sometimes four hundred people."

But at the end of the night, clubgoers head straight to parking garages.

And then to places like El Norteño, the perfect spot to unwind after a night of music and dancing.

On a recent Friday night, couples gathered at the tiny restaurant, eating and laughing as they absorbed the sights and smells of the street, the soundtrack an irrepressible urban rhythm thumped out by the throbbing bass of a car stereo, punctuated by an occasional squeal of tires.

Perhaps it's the empty banks and law firms to the east that make nights at El Norteño seem special. Out of the clutches of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, with no ambassadors to protect tourists from the grit and color of the street, El Norteño doesn't just thrive, it sings.

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