For decades, I've known about the El Fenix restaurant on the north side of Woodall Rodgers Freeway in downtown Dallas. To me, it always seemed like a bad location for a restaurant, cut off from downtown as it was. I shamefully admit that, until reading Collin Yarbough's book, I wasn't even aware of Dallas's "Little Mexico." Now I know why El Fenix was built where it was.
I'm reading "Paved A Way: Infrastructure, Policy and Racism in an American City" by Collin Yarbrough. The city is Dallas, Texas. I'm blogging as I go, using whatever parts of the book catch my attention. Today, we look at how infrastructure development destroyed "El Barrio."
First, one thing I learned doing additional research after reading Yarbrough's book. Little Mexico wasn't the first ethnic community in that location. Peter Simek, in "D Magazine", writes that "A Polish Jewish community gave way to thousands of immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s, and 'Little Jerusalem' all but transformed into 'El Barrio.' " Yarbrough picks up the story there, telling us what happened to Little Mexico. As usual, infrastructure development played a key role. It's not entirely ancient history. Little Mexico took some of its last breaths as recently as last year.
The last two remaining homes in Dallas’ largest barrio (neighborhood), known as Little Mexico, were demolished in early 2020. A small plaque and a few buildings are the only remaining evidence of the former neighborhood amidst the tall skyscrapers, the American Airlines Center, and Victory Plaza.Paved A Way
In its heyday, Little Mexico thrived, helped ironically by the same Jim Crow laws that hurt individuals so badly.
Bit by bit, road construction and urban renewal chipped away at Little Mexico. Who remembers Turney Street?Farming, cotton picking, and service work in downtown businesses and hotels provided the bulk of employment opportunities in Little Mexico, while entrepreneurship proved to be a wide-reaching legacy for the community. The community, isolated from the remainder of the city due to Jim Crow laws, was forced to develop communal infrastructure on its own, and it did. Bakeries, beauty salons, movie theaters, photography studios, restaurants, and tortilla factories helped create a vibrant and textured life in Little Mexico.Paved A Way
It wasn't enough to demolish homes and divide the neighborhood by widening the road through the community, the city had to add insult to injury by renaming it after, not a well-regarded leader of the Little Mexico community, but a Texas highway commissioner.Like a new land, the Turney street project paved the way for unexplored Little Mexico to be "opened up" and improved.
A year after completion of the widening, Turney Street was renamed Harry Hines Boulevard, honoring the former Texas highway commissioner and signaling change in the neighborhood.Paved A Way
If Harry Hines Boulevard didn't cause enough damage to the small community, soon there was another highway to contend with.
In 1959, the decision was made to build the Dallas North Tollway along the route of the old St. Louis Southwestern "Cotton Belt" railroad route running north out of downtown. As was common practice for Dallas highways, railroad right-of-way would be converted to highway use.
Eminent domain was the land acquisition tool utilized for connecting the Tollway to Harry Hines. Little Mexico homeowners were forced to sell their homes for an average price of $10,000, which at the time was arguably not enough to cover relocation expenses. Remaining residents in Little Mexico were forced to contend with the precarious position of a neighborhood divided by a heavily trafficked six-lane-wide street no longer easily crossed.Paved A Way
And if Harry Hines Boulevard and the Dallas North Tollway didn't chop up Little Mexico enough, there was yet another highway the community had to contend with.
And that's why El Fenix looks so out of place. An expressway was built on its south property line and, to its north, the community it catered to was slowly pushed out, until, today, El Fenix stands alone.Land acquisition for Woodall Rodgers in the 1970s decimated the southern edge of Little Mexico, where the Klyde Warren Deck Park stands today. The Luna Tortilla Factory (now Meso Maya) and El Fenix Mexican Restaurant, once part of the fabric of Little Mexico, now face a wall of concretePaved A Way
There's one footnote to the story of Little Mexico that's right out of the Summer of 2020's "Black Lives Matter" movement.
When Santos Rodriguez, a twelve-year-old boy, was murdered by Dallas Police Officer Darrell Cain in 1973, the community turned to Pike Park. It became the rallying point for protests and vigils, and the recreation center now bears his name.Paved A Way
Putting the victim's name on the rec center, which a half century before, boys like him were barred from using by Jim Crow laws, was the least the city could do. But the city wasn't yet done disrespecting Little Mexico.
The community is now gone, but Pike Park is still there today. It was named a Dallas city landmark in 2000. The park underwent a $650,000 renovation in 2013, but that wasn't enough to renovate the rec center, which remains closed. Mark Cuban donated $1.5 million to build a little league ballfield adjacent to the park. But any little leaguers arrive by car because the surrounding Little Mexico community is no more.In the heart of the economic recession of the ’80s, the City sought to get rid of the eighty-four-thousand-dollar line item in its annual budget for Pike Park. Arguing for residents to use nearby Reverchon Park proved unsuccessful as the dwindling Little Mexico community fought for the final time to save the heart of their community.Paved A Way
Prior excerpts of "Paved A Way":
Paved A Way: "Dallas Doesn't Give a Damn About its History"
Paved A Way: Extermination as Government Policy
Paved A Way: The Battle of Village Creek
Paved A Way: Redlining
Paved A Way: Boulevards and Parks
Paved A Way: Freedman's Cemetery
Paved A Way: Deep Ellum