Building the Bridge: Preservation and changing U.S. demographics

Session managers Norma Ramirez de Miess with the Trust; Margarita Araiza, director of the Webb County Heritage Foundation; Ernesto Ortega, director, New Mexico Park Service and Luis Rico-Gutierrez, Dean, College of Design, Iowa State University did a wonderful job of enlightening conference attendees to the Hispanic experience and how it relates to preservation.  Ignoring we are a diverse community is dishonest.  Time and time again, Oak Cliff residents say that our diversity is one of the top attractions in living here.  As we converge, this session spoke to the very real issues such a convergence can sometimes manifest.  A 2-story building similar in age and style to Eno’s was just torn down at Jefferson and Marsalis; I’m told to make way for a bus barn.  Bridges need to be built now more than ever.

Demographics and history:

American demographics are changing.  The third largest state in terms of Hispanic population after Texas and California is not Arizona or New Mexico but Illinois.  The Rio Grande was its own Republic independent of Texas in 1840.  The King of Spain allowed women to inherit property and many married Europeans creating deep bonds between the two cultures.  No conversation about the Hispanic experience is complete without understanding a popular sensitivity in the Hispanic culture; “I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me.”  Many Hispanics in South Texas are 8th generation Americans and are still asked where they are from.  In Laredo, only 6 mayors in the town’s history have had non-Hispanic surnames.


Hispanic owned businesses are tremendous contributors to the economy.  About 62% of them are retail.  An ideal formula not solely dependent on expensive restaurants.  2.3 billion businesses were owned by Hispanics in 2007 and they generated 345 billion dollars.  This economic diversity and success is more evident on Jefferson Blvd. than anywhere else in Dallas.

Under siege:

In Los Angeles, historic buildings are under siege, particularly those located in gentrifying Hispanic neighborhoods.  The former Ambassador hotel was recently torn down by the Los Angeles school district in part because the Hispanic community had no connection to the building and no outreach was made to help the community understand the building’s story.  There are so many parallels to Oak Cliff Christian Church that it is erie.

LA is currently undertaking a huge endeavor.  Funded by a grant from the Getty trust and taking 5 years to complete, they are surveying 800,000 parcels of property.  Each piece of property is being surveyed in terms of architectural relevance as well as its connection to individuals and events of merit.  This will help make the case for the places that matter going forward and educate and enhance discussions with city planners and developers over what stays and what goes.

Shared Goals:

As density becomes in demand in urban areas, this story threatens to play out more and more.  In LA, an entire garden style apartment public housing project was recently placed on the register successfully when residents were able to identify personally with the property and also realized that economic displacement would occur if the multi-storied development originally planned for the property went forward.  This was an instance where different cultures were able to come together over a place that mattered to them both.  I am sure it’s hard for some to understand why a public housing project matters but as they become less and less in existence it will become more and more necessary for them to exist to tell their story.  Little Mexico and St. Ann’s come to mind.

Ramirez de Miess spoke a little on coming together with Hispanics on places that matter.

  • Explain a place’s story, people may be more willing to help you than you think
  • Preservationists often come across as telling someone what they can and cannot do to a property and this doesn’t work.  Try to find common goals and solutions.  A perfect example would be Iglesia de la Luz, the former Vogue on Jefferson.  A new façade could easily have been built in front of the old one making the structure as the congregants wanted but also preserving the past should anyone one day want to restore it.
  • Assumptions and pre-conceived beliefs that Hispanics are somehow new are false, they are deeply rooted and they are not monolithic.
  • Hispanics value a personal approach rather than impersonal electronic ones.
  • They value time like we all do and do not wish to attend meetings for meeting’s sake; they want to learn something if they go to a meeting.
  • Build relationships of trust personally and do not ask for help unless you have contributed to that relationship.

People like to complain about paint colors on Jefferson but it doesn’t matter what color a building is as long as it is still a building.  From a preservation perspective, it is better an old structure be a bright un-historic color than a developer’s pile of dust.  The one thing about painting buildings – whatever color – is that if you remove the paint, you remove the brick glaze and that hurts the building long term but we can all cross that bridge when we come to it.  There is no bridge to build when it has been demolished.

The Trust is seeking to designate more Hispanic and African-American Landmarks this year on the National Register.  While Dallas may not have the collection of Spanish landmarks from the 1800’s like South Texas and New Mexico do, we have structures of merit that have different meanings to different cultures.  OOCCL is talking with the Mexican American Historical Society about the landmarking of the Eagle Ford School out on Chalk Hill Rd.  The elementary school of Bonnie Parker was also the elementary school for thousands of Mexican-American children through the 1960’s.  It is in recognizing these bonds and learning the stories about these places that matter – from both points of view – that we add even deeper meaning to those places and our shared experiences there.

This is one in a series of posts from guest blogger Michael Amonett, who is attending the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference Oct. 27-30, and writing about what he learns and how it affects our neighborhood. Email him at