Downtown Laredo thrives with people who love and care for it
By Valerie Godines, DVINO Editor
Downtown is not dead. Just ask the artists, architects, poets, bar owners and historians who project that the city’s center will continue to undergo the cultural renaissance it is experiencing. They touted bar crawls, the restoration of St. Augustin Cathedral, historic buildings such as La Posada Hotel and the Rialto Hotel, art exhibits, murals, pretty walkways, film nights, an open-air mall and poetry slams where artists battle wits. They emphasized using political will to make change happen (planning codes must change sometimes) and they connect with each other – often – to protect the place they love. If you just strolled through downtown, you might notice empty streets and shuttered businesses. It would be naïve to say that downtown has not been dramatically impacted by the pandemic, and much news has been reported on that important business topic. Many stores have closed and Mexican shoppers unable to cross the bridge are absent.
Merchants are frustrated and rightfully so. But there is something else to consider and Margarita Araiza, executive director of the Webb County Heritage Foundation, puts it best.
“It is the actual historic heart of the city. This is where the city was begun and founded. This is the beating heart of our history – where the story of Laredo begins,” she said. “When you are downtown, you are literally walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. You can imagine it looked very different but the city hasn’t changed. The grid and basic layout go back to the 18th century. It is very moving to think that I could be walking in the footsteps of the founding families.”
In this month’s DVINO, we decided to refocus a bit and talk to the experts who know and love downtown well. This is going to be part of an ongoing series on downtown – a place in the magazine where we can feature art exhibits, architecture, historical exhibits and, most importantly, the people who keep downtown alive.
“It’s unusual to see so much of an original downtown intact … sure in disrepair and needing love and investments …. But still there,” said Mario A. Pena, a partner at Able City and lead architect for the recent Cathedral restoration. “Economic Development Corporations all over the county wish they had the historic built-in environment we have to work with.”
Araiza agreed. “Other cities would kill to have as much historic fabric as we have intact,” she said. Ricky Castillon, who painted a mural at Convent and Matamoros streets that tells the history of Laredo, said that downtown is evolving. “Even five years ago, it is not the same as it is today,” Castillon, an artist who graduated from Texas A&M International University. “COVID set us back a little bit but there is a lot of animo I see in the community and wanting to see it blossom.”
The city is seeking a cultural arts district designation from the state that would allow it to apply for grants and other funding to expand the possibilities of the city’s center even more. The application package includes a fast-paced video that features the highlights of downtown – its past, present and future. Viviana Frank, architect, co-founder partner of Able City, stressed that the city has been very supportive of redevelopment projects. Architects who have poured much work into downtown envision a vibrant center that connects people who are seeking the exchange of ideas and culture. Entrepreneurs who want to establish tech and retail businesses. Employees and employers who will want to live downtown so they can walk to work.
“It doesn’t happen by magic. It takes work and people who are putting civic strategies together,” said Frank who is in the midst of other downtown projects.
Pena said, “Overall parking requirements need to be reduced and put in backs of buildings instead of the front.”He added that as reinvestment comes in, downtown should not be suburbanized.
The heart of downtown is the St. Agustin Cathedral. A beautiful white structure that is the cultural and religious center of downtown, St. Agustin Cathedral soars into the Laredo skyline, glowing at night as a beacon of hope. It was designated an endangered historical state landmark in 2019 and underwent an $8 million two-year restoration project. It reopened in early June to devout Catholics who were relieved to hear the church bells ring again. The reopening came at the best time – during a disastrous part in not only Laredo’s history but the world over. Laredo at one time ranked number one in the country for the highest rates of COVID-19. It suffered great losses and we prayed and prayed hard. The Cathedral has always been a refuge where people can reflect and seek comfort. “It is the most important cultural event that has happened in the entire city,” Frank said. “It is the seat of religious life in the city and it started at San Agustin Square … it was the seat of political life and it all started there. With the Cathedral reopening, it just is the beginning of a new era. A new beginning for the historical significance for downtown Laredo and not only for the city but the entire state of Texas.”
Pena added that the effort to preserve and protect the Cathedral focused on “giving it life and injecting the spirit of community today. It has the function of a Cathedral.” The current church building dates to 1872 but the site has a longer history. The first church was begun in 1760 after settlers sought a priest who could serve their spiritual needs.Frank mentioned several projects that will continue to bring life to downtown – especially beloved Plaza Theater.“In the essence of downtown, a lot of people look at downtown as a diminishing asset and especially with COVID, and really the reality is that is it not … when it comes to its cultural resources, it has flourished and there is much going on,” Frank said.
The Center for the Cultural Arts has been it its current building more than 25 years and its lease is up in a few months. It is seeking another lease of at least 25 years, said Rosie Santos, executive director of the center. It is located in the Mercado Building.They just started a pilot artist-in-residency program.
“We want to create an environment they can call home and nurture that activity,” she said.Jorge Javier Lopez was chosen by the artistic review committee and working on site at the center. The center also plans to open a gift shop that will include a lot of artwork.“We hope to create more educational programming for the whole family to enjoy. We still want to renovate. It’s an older building that needs a lot of TLC,” she said.