A mile to two west of El Paso International Airport, things began to get interesting as the streets narrowed, downtown lay not far away and Montana Avenue started to cast its spell. Simply because we had the address for a micro-brewery said to exist there, we aimed for Mesa Street, which leads north and then west from downtown. Although we could not find the micro-brewery, by now we were in a lively area close to downtown with a few motels to chose from. After some discussion we opted for Mesa Inn, a massive motel dating from the 1950s with two-storey blocks arranged around a swimming pool and some well-maintained patches of grass. The corridors leading to the rooms were a bit rundown, but, with the room costing only $36, who could complain? Our car was parked below our second floor window; the electricity and the air conditioning worked; we had en suite facilities; and soap, shampoo and towels were in the bathroom. In the morning there was complimentary coffee no worse than that in far more expensive hotels and motels.
Mesa Inn has seen better days, of course, but I liked it because, in its design, in its layout and even in the presence of its small swimming pool, it so obviously evoked the 1950s when the United States was full of post-war optimism about the future. I suspect that Mesa Inn had been built to provide accommodation for American families who wanted to stay a night or two on their way to or from Mexico, such a safe, inexpensive and, by American standards, exotic place to visit in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Nowadays, however, Mexico is no longer so safe, so inexpensive or so exotic. In fact, people in El Paso advise you not to visit Mexico at all because the city you can see just across the border, Ciudad Juarez, is one of the most volatile and dangerous in the whole country, thanks to turf wars involving gangs employed by the drug barons.
Nowadays, Mesa Inn is dominated by two groups of people. Many rooms are let to individuals, couples or families who have fallen behind with rent or mortgage payments, and most other rooms are let to Mexicans who have crossed the Rio Grande to briefly escape the crime, the violence and the sometimes anarchic conditions that exist in so many settlements south of the border. With its large Hispanic population, and its extensive ethnically mixed blue collar areas, El Paso is not a rich city. However, statistics reveal that it experiences relatively little crime. In the old days, people left El Paso because of the crime. Nowadays, people visit because the city is safe.
While Hilary rested, I walked around the motel site. About seven or eight families were having a lively time in and around the swimming pool where adults drank beer or iced tea and the children ate ice cream.
I tried to locate the micro-brewery, but could not find it. I called at a large store selling office supplies and was advised to try the Hoppy Monk instead, which, as luck would have it, was only a block from Mesa Inn.
I returned to Mesa Inn and we got ready to go out. Because it was Saturday night we fancied somewhere with plenty of life. A restaurant attached to the motel provides a Mexican buffet for only $5-99 each, but it was almost 8.00pm and only two customers were taking advantage of the incredibly inexpensive offer. The Hoppy Monk it had to be! We sat at the bar where chats with staff and customers are always more easily conducted. Most customers were younger than us, but couples our age sat at two tables not far away. We worked our way through four different beers brewed in Texas and two excellent appetisers. With the tip for the very helpful staff included, the bill came to $43. It was an excellent conclusion to a sublime day.
In some ways, my biggest regret about the trip was that we did not spend longer in El Paso. By the time we left the city, El Paso had made a very positive impression. It has all the colour, the vitality and the subdued anarchy that Mexico is said to possess, but without any of the current considerable dangers. The city’s population is ethnically mixed, although Hispanic and white Americans considerably outnumber African Americans and Native Americans. Minorities from south of the Rio Grande are not averse to shedding aspects of individual or group identity to assist their integration into mainstream American society, but they nonetheless remain proudly and emphatically Hispanic. Moreover, most of El Paso’s white Americans seem to acknowledge positive qualities in their Hispanic neighbours. Such qualities include a strong work ethic, a commitment to family values and a commitment to mainstream religious beliefs and practices (needless to say, loyalty to Roman Catholicism remains strong among a majority of Hispanic Americans, despite the impact of secularism on the one hand and Protestant evangelism on the other). White Americans also acknowledge that most people who originate from south of the Rio Grande feel grateful toward the United States because the United States has provided them with opportunities they would not otherwise enjoy.
After drinking coffee in the lobby of Mesa Inn, we drove east and then south to visit three of the famous churches along the Mission Trail. We visited Ysleta Mission, Socorro Mission and San Elizario Chapel. Although Ysleta Mission was closed, its delightful exterior is still worth seeing. Ysleta Mission is best known for being the oldest continuously operating parish in Texas. Because Socorro Mission was open, we examined its remarkable interior. The wooden ceiling is one of its highlights, but so are the adobe walls covered with stucco painted white. The finely painted and decorated beams are from the original 18th century mission and were re-used when the present church was constructed in 1843. San Elizario Chapel has what resembles a Dutch gable crowning its facade, but, in common with the two missions, it remains overwhelmingly Mexican in character (which therefore means that there are also Spanish features to enjoy).
All the churches stand at the heart of thriving little communities, which, in appearance, are not unlike villages or small towns that exist across the border in Mexico. The buildings around Ysleta Mission look more obviously American than those around the two other churches, although external walls are painted in a far more dramatic manner than would normally be the case. The buildings around San Elizario Chapel are the most Mexican in character. Here, extensive use is made of adobe and stucco.
Shops, cafes, restaurants and mobile food stalls were very popular, as were two or three Mexican-style bakeries where cakes and pastries were more in demand than bread. It was also nice to see so many people walking around. As a consequence, the streets assumed a character more European than North American.
We drove toward the city centre and parked the car a block from St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, the massive brick and marble church that looms over a rundown area a short distance from downtown. As its name implies, the cathedral was originally designed to meet the spiritual needs of the local Irish community, but, today, Hispanics make up a majority of the congregation and white Americans constitute the second largest ethnic group. The church, which opened in 1917, has been built in a neo-Byzantine style. Roman columns, elaborate frescoes portraying biblical scenes, bas-relief stations of the cross and an impressive marble altar 75 feet tall dominate the interior.
I walked to nearby Montana Historic District, one of a number of historic districts that exist in El Paso. Most of the buildings along Montana Avenue itself are grand old detached houses built by wealthy members of El Paso’s professional classes. Every house stands on its own plot of land and every building has been conceived in a slightly different style, which means that the views are constantly changing. Today, sadly, most of the houses are offices belonging to lawyers, accountants or financial advisers. At least the houses survive and all of them are in excellent condition.
I some respects, the most interesting parts of the historic district lie a block or two north and south of Montana Avenue. Here, housing of a more modest but quirky nature exists, as do some shops, office blocks and small industrial and commercial buildings. The oldest surviving buildings (a few blocks exist where all structures have been demolished) date from about the 1900s. Consequently, many building styles are represented, art deco included. Some spectacular murals cover the walls. Although a few local people have drug, alcohol or mental health problems, I was made to feel welcome and came away with some good photos of brightly coloured landmark structures in perfect early morning visibility. A few of the area’s oldest residents sat on chairs in the sunshine near a building run by a religious organisation associated with the Roman Catholic Church.
We drove the short distance to downtown, where parking the car was not a problem. Although it was Sunday, quite a lot of shops were open and the streets were fairly busy with traffic, especially in the Golden Horseshoe District. Because so many people were in the Golden Horseshoe District and the large square dominated by City Hall and the Convention Center, downtown El Paso was the most lively downtown so far encountered on the trip. The many landmark structures conceived in a rich variety of styles, art deco and Spanish colonial included; the old shop signs reminding people of long-gone businesses; and the bold employment of colour made for an exciting urban experience.
El Paso is a remarkable city and one we would like to visit again. The city spreads north-west and east of downtown for many miles and, in places, is not a pretty sight. Away from downtown the city seems to comprise of lots of well-defined suburbs, perhaps at one time distinct settlements that have now been absorbed into greater El Paso by intervening industrial, commercial and retail development of a very untidy nature. In the uglier but sometimes intriguing intervening areas, car dealerships and vehicle salvage and scrap firms occupy many of the blocks. The well-defined suburbs themselves, some of which are of historical note in common with the Montana District, have a lot of character, colour and appeal. And who must we thank for this? Above all, the Hispanic citizens of El Paso. They have created in the city pockets of Mexico and other Central American countries, and done so with commendable conviction, verve and attention to detail.
Before we said farewell to El Paso, we drove along Texas Avenue because, about two miles from downtown, you arrive in one of the lively, colourful and overwhelmingly Hispanic suburbs where many businesses survive, albeit meeting the needs of people with limited financial means. Lots of attractive buildings line Texas Avenue and some of the nearby side streets.