Saturday, July 13, 2013

Plaza Saltillo: Place, Practice, and Growth by Emily Mixon

Since the 19th century, individuals such as Frederick Law Olmstead have imbued the American psyche with a mental attachment to environmental determinism, or the idea that the function of a place will follow the form. This philosophy, long attractive to upper and middle class citizens hopeful of “reforming”, “improving” and “controlling” races and classes perceived as blighted, has arguably fallen short time and again as public parks and carefully constructed neighborhoods across the nation have developed their own characters and cultural practices. In short, it is arguably far more common in the modern and post-modern American city to find cultural practices and performances taking place in spaces that architecturally reflect a different original intent.
            Austin, Texas, one of the nation’s fastest growing cities, is no exception to this dichotomous relationship between design and use. In the following paper I argue that the cultural practices and performances suggested by both the physical architecture and the transportation infrastructure at Saltillo Plaza in East Austin, do not match the realities of its use, and that furthermore, the real use of the space is a representative of a wider demographic and cultural shifts happening in East Austin as the city undergoes an upswing in development.   
            In the introduction to her piece ‘Whose Culture? Whose City?” Sharon Zukin writes, “Building a city depends on how people combine the traditional economic factors of land, labor, and capital. But it also depends on how they manipulate symbolic languages of exclusion and entitlement” and “the look and feel of cities reflect…uses of aesthetic power.” (Zukin, 7). Plaza Saltillo, located on East 5th street between Comal and Onion, reflects three collections of cultural intentions and practices: that of its namesake, Saltillo, those of the East Austin residents who facilitated its creation, and those of the new wave of residents following Austin’s growth and re-growth across I-35 from downtown.
            Saltillo Plaza was commissioned and opened by the City of Austin in 1998. The architecture of the plaza is based on influences from Spain and Mexico, and the ornate benches, as well as the bronze bust of Vito Alessio Robles, were given to the City by the City of Saltillo in Coahuila Mexico as part of the Sister Cities International program. The program, founded by President Eisenhower, serves to facilitate people to people interaction, as well as economic growth, between participating cities. An Austin 360 interview with former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia revealed that this project was a result of the political consciousness of East Austin that was shaped by the Economy Furniture Company Strike in 1968, and the following two decades of elected officials such as Richard Moya, as well as the work of council members like Betty Dunkerley. A radio interview with Kathy Vazquez, one of the East Austin members of Ole Mexico, a group of East Austin restaurateurs instrumental in the Plaza’s construction, spoke of the builders’ intent, saying that “if the city invested money to bring more people to the area and invest in safety, that tourists and people from west Austin would come and eat at the restaurants in the area.” With this background in mind, it seems natural to view the wrought iron work, the central bandstand, the vendors’ counters, the revolutionary bust, and the central fountain of the plaza as a symbol of East Austin cultural and political enfranchisement. However, the mind’s eye-view of a bustling central plaza is far from realized on an average weekday. Men do not play cards or dominoes in the shade as they do in Mexico. Children are not playing, and the counters are empty of goods. Fifth Street itself seems empty too except for cars parked in the side street angle parking—old warehouse structures dominate the landscape, and the bustle of the restaurants that Ole Mexico campaigned for, doesn’t seem to be visible.
            The census data for the tract containing Saltillo Plaza reveal that the population for the tract is 81% minority, with African Americans outnumbering Hispanics. The tract population’s median income for 2010 was $30,316, and 41% of its residents fall below the poverty line. Housing-wise, the median house age is 59 years, and about half of the residents rent their housing units. About a block northeast of the Plaza is Chalmers Court, one of Austin’s Housing Authority apartment blocks. The surrounding area is filled out with small houses, most with fenced in yards, including a few vacant lots with tall grass and a bit of scattered litter. Corrugated metal fences between the Plaza and Chalmers features graffiti that urban geographers like Zukin have referred to as “gritty.” On the north side of 5th street from the plaza there is a district in transition as old large structures (some industrial) are renovated into higher-end establishments like Progress Coffee shop on 5th and San Antonio. “Old Downtown” style parking here is still plentiful—garages haven’t sprung up as they have in the 2nd street district. The connection to the rest of the city seems to operate primarily through auto and bus traffic, as the MetroRail station stands mostly empty, and the train stops for short periods of time infrequently.
            These renovated structures are indicative of the true hustle and bustle of the plaza, and of the neighborhood at large—energy and cultural use comes not from the residents of Chalmers Court, or the surrounding houses, but from outsiders, flowing in each weekend for specially planned and choreographed cultural events; most notably the HOPE Farmer’s Market. HOPE is the longest operating market in East Austin and was voted “Best Farmer’s Market” by the Austin Chronicle in 2012. This, plus the demographic of mostly young, white individuals and families in the crowd on a given Sunday, and the fact that only 8 out of the nearly 50 vendors listed on their website actually sell produce, clearly illustrates that the market was non-local to the neighborhood, and gentrified in a lot of ways. That said, HOPE does appear to make a genuine effort at incorporating the community—they accept SNAP/EBT and WIC benefits, and the HOPE Farm Stand serves as a place for local gardeners to sell their small harvests.  Additionally, some vendors are cultural and racial leaders, such as Salud de Paloma Olive Oil; the only Latina owned olive oil enterprise in the state. The market and the rail station are both “succeeding” in some sense that they provide life to the otherwise empty plaza.  The intended purpose of economic and cultural growth and centrality that the Ole Mexico advocates had in mind is arguably now being fulfilled, but it is notably now out of the control of the community leaders who envisioned its construction.
            The farmer’s market, as well as seasonal events like the annual Dia de los Muertos parade, both arguably seek to re-create a neighborhood ideal that is slipping away as developers look East from the “revitalized” downtown area. However, with the events dominated in attendance and production by outsiders and non-minorities, I believe Zukin and others would agree with me that though positive in nature, the very liveliness of the Plaza exhibits a loss in and of itself. As Austin grows in symbolic cultural products from markets to music, and condos like the nearby 262 units development dubbed “Corazon” loom in the distance, the Plaza, and the city, are no longer so closely tied to neighborhood advocates, but to a larger image of economic growth. The culture that built Plaza Saltillo may not disappear from the city, but as it becomes increasingly shadowed beneath cultural representations of itself and with an influx of non-neighborhood consumers, practices will continue to occur separate from, if not in opposition to, the design and intent of the spaces where they take place.


1. Zukin, Sharon. “Whose Culture? Whose City” 1996. The Cultures of Cities. 1st ed. Blackwell Publishers.

2. Census tables (

Tract Population
Tract Minority Population
Tract Minority %
American Indian Population
Number of Families
Asian/Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Population
Number of Households
Black Population
Non-Hispanic White Population
Hispanic Population

Other/Two or More Races Population

Tract Income Level
Tract Median Family Income %
2010 MSA/MD/statewide non-MSA/MD Median Family Income
2010 Tract Median Family Income
2012 FFIEC Estimated MSA/MD/non-MSA/MD Median Family Income
2012 Estimated Tract Median Family Income
% below Poverty Line
2010 Tract Median Household Income

Total Housing Units
Owner-Occupied Units
1- to 4- Family Units
Renter Occupied Units
Median House Age (Years)
Vacant Units

Inside Principal City?
Owner Occupied 1- to 4- Family Units

3. Austin parks website

4. Corazon Housing Development Cypress Real Estate Advisors: (

5. Austin 360 History of Saltillo Plaza

6. Sister Cities International

7. Hope Farmer’s Market Website 

8. Austin Housing Authority Website

9. When in Austin Radio

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