EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – A century of history hangs in the balance as private citizens and government officials in Juarez are trying to clean up their Downtown and save some iconic buildings.
The City of Juarez recently established the Commission to Rescue Historical Downtown and tasked its members with coming up with a plan to make the area more attractive to visitors and locals alike.
“We are going to start with the basics such as clean streets, night lighting, public safety,” said City Councilor Joob Quintin, a member of the commission. “Such things are so basic and necessary and yet we don’t have them.”
He said the commission will recruit merchants along tourist strips near the border and those in the market district around Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral to keep locales and sidewalks clean. The effort will include residential neighborhoods west of Downtown, which need street repairs, lighting and more policing.
“We’ll be in touch with the small businesses and the neighbors because this goes beyond mere tourism; we’re trying to save Downtown and the neighborhoods, the (city’s) economy itself,” Quintin said. The city is currently renovating a pedestrian street next to the Plaza de Armas main square and the cathedral.
Separately, a private group continues to push the business community to save from destruction and disrepair several Downtown buildings that made Juarez and international tourist destination more than 70 years ago.
“We have a web page and a private Facebook group to tell people about our history so that those coming after us can preserve it,” said Jose Luis Hernandez, coordinator of Juarez de Ayer (Juarez of Yesterday), a history buffs club.
The group a few years ago saved from demolition a nondescript furniture store along Calle Mariscal, where the city leveled entire blocks of old residential and business structures in the mid-2010s.
The building was once called Salon La Fiesta and patrons paid a $100 cover to watch the top entertainers in Latin America perform there in the 1940s and 1950s.
“We had to set up a table on the sidewalk and collect signatures so they wouldn’t tear it down,” Hernandez said. “We didn’t want it to suffer the faith of the old army barracks Downtown, or the old Plaza Theater and the Victoria. Two retail stores now occupy the Plaza and they’re making holes in the walls to run electric cables and destroying the (bas-relief) statues. The Victoria is abandoned and falling apart.”
Hernandez said concerned citizens persuaded a businessman – one of the owners of La Nueva Central café – to purchase La Fiesta and restore its awe-inspiring interior.
He said Juarez was once an international tourism destination thanks to its border location and various turning points in United States history.
Prohibition brought hundreds of thousands of Americans to Juarez and all that revenue allowed local merchants to turn modest bars into opulent nightclubs. That was in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Then Americans found out about Mexico’s liberal divorce laws and kept coming after the repeal of Prohibition. The party played on during the 1940s and early 1950s as soldiers coming to Fort Bliss, Texas, often crossed the border before deployment to theaters of war in Europe, the Pacific and then Korea, Hernandez said.
“We had many iconic clubs such as the Follies, Molino Rojo, Crystal Palace, La Cucaracha, Café Rio Grande and the Chinese Palace. They tried to present the best shows and attracted wealthy people from Europe, Mexico City and the United States, including Hollywood stars,” he said.
Hernandez said Juarez became so prosperous that waiters and cleaning ladies often only took tips in dollar bills and above, leaving coins on tables or sweeping them out on the sidewalk.
But as wars ended and the glamour died down, those iconic buildings were doomed. Some became discos in the 1970s; others shut down the top floors and became pharmacies, boot stores and curio shops.
Some buildings closed altogether during the COVID-19 pandemic and now all that remains of their history is some 5,000 old photographs which Juarez de Ayer has digitized on its platforms.