El Paso























I first went to El Paso in 2010. I rode into town in a hitched eighteen-wheeler moving icecream tubs from North to South, dropped off under the awning of the downtown Gateway Hotel. In the lobby, faded cowboys haunted a mirrored deco corridor. The desk clerk sat facing a breakfast cantina, formica tabletops and plastic seating, taking monthly rates from guests. Upstairs, long carpeted corridors joined rooms painted in pale mint green, and rusted fire escapes snaked around the back alley. The Gateway is one of the oldest hotels left in El Paso. It is one of many brick buildings constructed here in the decades of prosperity from the 1900s to 1920s. Yet these same historic streets are now lined with Mexican bakeries, lingerie and bridal stores, grocery outlets, rock’n’roll bars, dinettes and various other small business that continue trading daily and contribute substantially to the city’s income. More specifically, they provide a forum for its Hispanic communities, many of whom were born here and have been part of the United States all their lives.

These stores still occupy the elaborately constructed buildings of the past; on the facades, hand painted signage is coupled with ornate cornices and mouldings. Visible just a few blocks south, the Stanton Street Bridge curves over the Rio Grande into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The pace, lifestyle and look of El Paso make it quite unlike anywhere else in the USA – even the dusty palette of the buildings recalls an era of the past. Yet despite this seemingly bygone mood, it is a place that exists firmly in the drift of present time, alive with movement back and forth across the border, with arrival and with departure.

From its beginnings as a settlement of mud and adobe huts by the Rio Grande, El Paso was totally transformed by the arrival of the railroads in 1881. The city was built up alongside with the much larger Ciudad Juarez, the two forming the greater area of Paso Del Norte. El Paso’s position on the crossroads of the USA and Mexico, and also on the edge of three states – Texas, Chihuahua, and New Mexico, ensured it had been coloured by many accidents of history even before it became one of the great boomtowns of the Southwest. From the time of Spanish conquest, the colonials struggled through flooding and Apache raids. Some settlers had arrived by stagecoach and across the river, yet the population was only around 200 before the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe rails brought in new workers, residents and commerce.

Suddenly, the population began to shoot up: in 1881, there were 1500 inhabitants; in 1882, 3,000; by 1883, the total had reached 5,000. Electricity lit up the streets at night, telephone wires threaded together the stores, theatres, offices, hotels, and barrooms. The Pony, Gem, and Chief Saloons played the stage to gunslingers and outlaws. In the downtown San Jacinto Plaza, three alligators rested in a pond. Grass was laid down, large cacti and Chinese umbrellas lined the park. By day women milled around a gazebo and at night hobos and drunkards bathed in the stone fountain. 

In this period, when Las Vegas was nothing more than a few huts in the Nevada Desert, El Paso was the original ‘Sin City’, the West’s ‘Six Shooter Capital’, a wild whorehouse and gambling town. Yet a campaign against vice around World War I enabled the city’s industry to flourish. In these years of development, washed out homes and tenement blocks were seen alongside the tall and robust brick buildings, El Paso long being a city of many sides. The city’s now-vanished Chinatown was the largest in Texas, with Chinese immigrants running laundries, grocery stores, rooming houses, and also a number of opium dens. As well as being known as ‘The Chinese Mecca of the Southwest’,  El Paso has historically been a place of importance for communities of African Americans, Syrians and Lebanese, to name a few, but the heart of the city has always been its crossover between Mexico and the USA. 

With refugees fleeing the carnage of the Mexican Revolution, the first wave of immigration began in 1910. The Battle of Juarez was visible from El Paso; stray gunshots broke windows and killed two residents in the downtown neighbourhood of El Segundo Barrio. From all over Mexico, thousands crossed the Rio Grande to find sanctuary. Opportunities for factory and farm labour drew in Mexican workers due to conscription in the Second World War, an influx which continued into the 1960s, and by 1965, the majority population of El Paso had shifted from Texan-American to Hispanic. In the downtown district, blue jeans factories employed around 40,000, the garment industry flourishing alongside the more time-honed production of leather and metals. The trend in immigration further accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s, when many inhabitants of Ciudad Juarez crossed the border to escape the gang violence that had engulfed their city.

Despite these conflicts, the city today is an encouraging example of how migration can organically generate, and continue to enrich, a thriving urban centre. Yet this prosperous overlap of American and Mexican culture is acutely vulnerable to change and closure, a threat that is becoming increasingly apparent today. The looming clampdown on immigration, international trade and the proposed USA-Mexico wall threatens the individuals and communities relying on the porous nature of the border – with many workers and students even crossing daily. They are facing expulsion or, at the very least, a total shaking up of their day-to-day lives.

El Paso’s downtown increasingly reveals a tendency towards strip mall culture, as the gradual encroachment of homogenised American corporations creeps in, prioritising the needs of temporary student residents and financial sector workers over the wider local community. The people and places that make this city unique are at risk of becoming a thing of the past. Time is running out, and I believe that a concise photographic catalogue of these streets, and their buildings and interiors, is an important and urgent proposition.

Over some years, I have started to make an extensive survey of the city’s surfaces, showing details of a place marked strongly by its people, their multifaceted lives and varied experiences over time. To do so, I have been travelling on foot through the city. From the historic downtown districts of Chihuahuita and the Segundo Barrio (some of the most historically vulnerable neighbourhoods in the United States) out Eastwards along the Mexican border, I have begun to document diverse Hispanic neighbourhoods of adobe and brick houses ornamented and painted by their long term owners – customised homes existing as personal, singular entities that come together to form the backdrop to a multi-coloured, multi-textured and highly diverse communal whole, accompanying convenience stores, diners, neighbourhood bars and other work and meeting-places. I have been following these neighbourhoods, interspaced by streets of warehouses, low-rise factory buildings and dusty alleyways, out along the old railway lines to the city’s outskirts surrounded by mountains and desert vistas.

As a photographer, I cannot attempt to singlehandedly preserve this way of life. However I believe it to be vital to create a visual document of this unique town as it stands today. I have returned periodically to El Paso since 2010, and witnessed its changing neighbourhoods and community first-hand over the years. In 2017, over a two week period, I begun the project of photographing the many details of the city at a more thorough level, making the book Texas Blue. Over this time, I realised that I would need to move here for some months to carry out a comprehensive photographic survey. I will return to El Paso to further the project, the images of which will be made into a larger book.

It would be a great loss if the distinctive way of life, in these border neighbourhoods of El Paso, was eroded without ever being properly recorded. The diversity of the city and its inhabitants may be disappearing, but I am determined to ensure that they are not forgotten.

Lorena Lohr, 2017 – 18