By Amit K. Ghosh
El Paso’s Downtown is going through a major urban renewal. Much attention is being paid to historic buildings – many of them over 100 years old – built by the famed architect Henry Trost and his brothers.
If El Paso’s downtown has to be celebrated, then Trost has to be publicly remembered for his contribution and all El Pasoans owe him a debt of gratitude. We have to also consider how a city with legacy buildings impacts its citizenry. Does it speak about our past and does it lead us into the future?
My own relationship to the city is tied to the Popular Discount Store building. I’ve been here in the Sun City for almost two decades now. I’m a Calcuttan by birth and an El Pasoan by choice, having accidentally discovered it by way of a chance assignment for Cellular One, one of the earliest cell phone companies. Five years later, in 1997, I had moved to the border from Boston to pursue a MFA degree in Creative Writing at the UTEP.
Having moved here for graduate studies, I was caught up in the ivory tower of academics and barely knew the city beyond the University boundaries. That changed when I saw a sign on a notice board announcing a book launch of Dr. Abraham Verghese, an Indian-American physician who was based in El Paso. Coincidentally, I had bought and read his book in Boston, My Own Country, a doctor’s experience in rural hospitals of the US during the early days of the AIDS crisis.
I skipped an evening class and headed downtown to San Antonio Street, to the Bridge Center for the Arts. It was dark when I reached the center located on the street level of what looked like a large building and across from the JC Penney building. I attended the reading from his new book, The Tennis Partner, about his experience of the Sun City. Although I was not really able to talk to the author, a bronze-skinned man with a dazzling smile, I met some other folks that day – David Romo, Bobby Byrd, Jose Rodriguez, and Fred Dalbin – who were all associated with the center as Board Members.
I was invited to come back to the gallery, and when I went there again one afternoon, I noticed the impressive white building, multistoried, easily a city block wide, between Mesa and Stanton streets. I remember stepping back and looking at the many glass windows of this imposing structure. Back then, there was a men’s clothing store that faced Mesa. I also learnt that it housed the first departmental store in El Paso, The Popular Dry Goods, back in the 1960s.
I slowly began to frequent the arts center, joined the Board, made new friends, and hung out at the Tap – the local watering hole -- for some nachos and beer. It was my foray into the city from the ivory tower of the University. I continued at UTEP and that Fall, when I co-founded BorderSenses with two class mates and decided to publish a magazine, our first event was held at the Bridge Center. I recall it was on Dec 1, 2000, an unusually cold night when it snowed. In spite of that we had over 80 people but expected only about 40. BorderSenses was well on its way to serving the literary arts community of the area.
After graduation, I worked as a full-time faculty position in the College of Business Administration, and that allowed me to remain back in El Paso. I remained affiliatied with the art center until its closing in 2003, and kept working on BorderSenses. My El Paso roots had its beginnings at this center in this building. The people I met and the association I formed wouldn’t have happened without having stepped into the Popular / Falles Paredes building.