PHOENIX — There’s a movement afoot to bring new money into urban areas all over the country, and surprisingly Phoenix is part of that movement. The city has long been famous for its suburban sprawl. But now plans are moving ahead to link high-rise downtown with a neighboring Latino barrio that wealthy developers have mostly ignored for the better part of 100 years.
With a good arm, you could probably pick up one of the empty beer bottles on 14 acres of land set aside for the proposed development, give it a good chuck, and clear the railroad tracks that separate Grant Park from the polished office buildings of downtown Phoenix.
“This is a condition that predates statehood. We have a historic opportunity to rethink 'place,'” said Feliciano Vera, the developer who intends to bridge this divide between rich and poor.
In Grant Park, trees and good sidewalks are scarce. Decades of industrial use have polluted the soil. In 2012, median household income – at about $19,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau – was less than half what of it was citywide.
“For our community to go over the railroad tracks and for the downtown people to come on this side of the railroad tracks, it’s like going to China,” said Eva Olivas, CEO of the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation, a group that works to improve the local neighborhoods.
But Olivas said the area is also rich with Latino history. In the 1970s, the now famous saying “si se puede” was coined just a few blocks from here when Cesar Chavez embarked on his historic fast for farmworker rights.
“We have been waiting and learning and preparing for this moment,” Olivas said. “This community wants to support something.”
That something could be up to 800 new apartments and townhomes – a third of them set aside for low-income residents. There’s room, right under an airport flight path, for another 300,000 square feet or so of commercial and retail space.
But with such long a history of disinvestment in this area, what makes the developer think he can pull it off?
“The timing,” Vera said.
Indeed, from Las Vegas to Detroit, American inner cities are revitalizing. “On the macro level, nationally, we are going through this period of intense urbanization,” he said.
To gauge the community’s support, Vera is hosting a series of meetings for residents. At these meetings, he drops Spanish phrases into conversation, and reminds people that he has family in the nieghborhood.
Vangie Muller and Nenette Parra fantasized about this idea of urbanization at a recent gathering in the Grant Park gym. For both women, something as simple as a grocery store would be a huge improvement.
But "urbanization" may just be another word for gentrification. Para said developers could put her neighborhood at risk because “they cater to those that are more educated, that are able to speak up. Everything that our neighborhood isn't — that's what they cater to. That's what we don't want.”
So even though a grocery store, and much more, may be needed, residents worry the neighborhood’s past as a Mexican-American working-class stronghold will be whitewashed — like it often is in Arizona.
“There’s really not an embracing of the Mexican-American culture. It’s more the cowboy stuff, the Old West stuff,” Earl Wilcox said.
Wilcox owns El Portal, a Mexican restaurant just across from the tidy little park this neighborhood is named after. His family is well-connected politically, and he’s used that clout to complain that the wrong development will threaten small businesses like his.
Wilcox said competition from a big chain could wipe him out and spoil the atmosphere of the entire place.
“If they just come in, historically and traditionally the way they do things – build it and worry about all these things later – then there’s going to be a lot of problems,” he said.
But if the developer recognizes Grant Park’s Latino culture, Wilcox said “it could be something really beautiful.”