Last night, Tracy Fuentes presented her research on La Esmelda (Smeltertown), a former ASARCO industrial site and neighborhood in El Paso, Texas along the US-Mexico border (more info can be found here). She began with a historical narrative of the site, including a powerful video interview with former resident Daniel Solis. In retrospect, the scope of the environmental degradation, however great, was overshadowed by the sheer negligence toward human life and welfare. In the wake of ASARCO’s bankruptcy, the site trustee is now in the process of brownfield remediation and seeking to redevelop the land using New Urbanist principles. Following a breakdown of these principles and their main criticisms, Tracy presented a series of renderings from the planners, including these:
As a group, we critiqued the images based on the general principles of New Urbanism. Tracy compared the images to houses on the market in the El Paso region, pointing to the obvious discrepancy between affordable housing types and the rendered ones. Tracy also noted several issues relating to justice and fairness, like the lack of documentation and information in Spanish and the lack of public records linking the design charrettes to their purported outcomes. She ended with the questions that drove her research: “What are they proposing for the site? For whom are they designing? How are they addressing the complexity of the site as it relates to ‘place’ (history, climate, culture, ecology, demographics, etc.)? And what are the inherent contradictions in their plans?”
The discussion portion of the event allowed us to get a bit deeper into the implications of this case study. Many of the questions and comments centered on the possible thought process of the designers and developers, public involvement, and the role being played by critics and activists groups. Others wanted to know if there was the possibility of future lawsuits, and how that might work, given that ASARCO has divested of most of its US holdings in bankruptcy. Larger issues also emerged, like the implications of the site’s proximity to Mexico and the history of land acquisition in the region–in particular, the effects that centuries of ‘evacuations’ have had on the indigenous and ethnic minority communities when it comes to stability, place attachment, and cultural identity. We also discussed the degree to which this project is typical or atypical: Is New Urbanism drawn particularly to urban brownfield and post-disaster sites? What is the history of New Urbanism development in Latino communities? What is the fate of the other 80 ASARCO sites around the country? Is this site fit for human habitation at all? If not, what political steps need to be taken to ‘develop’ it in other ways?
The night ended with Tracy’s admission about the personal, emotional role that the project played. Having grown up only miles from the ASARCO site, the recent plans left her outraged. So, in many ways, the process of tracing the site’s history and leveling a detailed critique of the design proposals, while admittedly conducted from a distance and far from thorough, was also a process of catharsis.
Thanks for everyone who was able to attend last night! Hopefully we’ll see you and anyone else interested in issues of Critical Design at our next event, February 20th: stay tuned for details…