Past, Present & Future
The historic center of El Paso is gaining new luster as a hub for both business and residents
By Lisa Kay Tate
The three lives of Five Points — past, present and future — all have in common the neighborhood’s central role in El Paso.
Shortly after the first Five Points business association was organized, one of its members referred to the neighborhood “as near the center of El Paso as it is possible to locate a center,” surrounded by what he called the “most thriving residence section” in El Paso.
The heart of Five Points is regarded as the intersection of Pershing, Piedras and Elm Streets, just north of Montana.
Today Five Points is still the heart of what’s known as Central El Paso, with new businesses taking advantage of both its location and historic atmosphere. It’s home to a major hub of Sun Metro, and city planners point to Five Points as an upcoming center of sustainable residential business and residential development appealing to a variety of ages and incomes.
Life One: A neighborhood with a vision
Neighborhood business has always been an important part of Five Points. When the historic area’s first neighborhood association, Five Points Business Men’s Association chaired by Five Points baker George W. Weston, was formed in 1917, the El Paso Times called the group “a second El Paso Chamber of Commerce.”
“The Five Points Business Men’s association will boost El Paso at every opportunity and continue a campaign in the central portion of the city to let residents know what they have in a business line and the benefits of trading there,” The Times reported, and said any interested “citizen in the Five Points neighborhood” may join.
The name “Five Points” for the area was adopted because many of the businesses in the neighborhood were where several streets, Montana, Elm, Piedras, and East Boulevard met.
Property owner T.E. Head, an early association member, emphasized the central location as the key to its success.
“There is such a meeting of highways and intersection of street railway and jitney systems that it must necessarily follow that more people pass this location than any other spot in El Paso, with the exception of the busiest downtown district,” Head said, according to a newspaper article.
At this time, the neighborhood boasted “three drug stores, five groceries, two meat markets, a restaurant, tailor shop, one of the biggest dyeing and cleaning houses in the city, two garages, a dry goods store and two oil filling stations.”
Later, Five Points was also home to a significant first in the United States when the Masons purchased the Ralston Hospital there in 1922. It became the first hospital in the United States to be “established, maintained and operated by Masons and members of the Eastern Star.” The Five Points Masonic Hall on Piedras, stood directly across from it. One of its services was treating many patients who traveled to drier climates like El Paso during the spread of tuberculosis in the early 20th century. The hospital operated until 1946. The property was soon purchased by Sears Roebuck & Co, which tore down the existing building and put in a Sears store. The site is now home to the El Paso Police Department Headquarters on Raynor.
Today, the history of the Five Points area can still be seen in a mural created by Jesus “Cimi” Alvarado adorning the west wall of El Paso Police headquarters.
The mural, dedicated in 2000, chronicles the various legacies of the area’s community leaders who have impacted the Five Points area over time, including Federal Copper; El Paso’s first female architect, Mabel Welch; Otto Thurman, another one of El Paso’s early architectural leaders; the city’s best known artist, Tom Lea; and Price’s Creamery.
In March 1940, the Pershing Theatre movie house opened in the center of Five Points, and remained in business until the 1980s. Photographer Marty Snortum purchased the theater in 1989, and has made it his home and studio since 1990.
Life Two: Today’s People and Progress
Hipster-friendly eateries and shops and public transportation improvements are some of the standouts that help the Five Points of today draw the attention of people throughout the city.
One of the most visible ways the Five Points area acts as a center for the entire El Paso community is through the Sun Metro Robert E. McKee 5-Points Transfer Center.
The “city has committed to making transit-oriented development a priority along all Bus Rapid Transit corridors,” including the Five Points area, said City of El Paso Mass Transit Department’s Public Information Officer Oscar Arriaga. “The Five Points Transfer Center will be a hub for both the Alameda and Dyer Brio (express bus) service coming on line in late 2018, and in the future, Montana Brio in late 2020, as all three lines will meet at Five Points Transfer Station.”
He said the Five Points Transfer Station and other developments in the area are “moving in-line with Plan El Paso’s Long Range vision of creating mixed-use, walkable, and livable communities.”
“We are focused on local economic development opportunities, neighborhood revitalization, maintaining the character of the neighborhood and of course, increasing access to mass transit,” he said.
Christina Muñoz is co-owner of Joe, Vinny & Bronson’s Bohemian Café at 824 N. Piedras and recently opened a yoga studio across from the urban-style coffeehouse. Five Points was a natural choice for her, she explained.
“We live in the (Five Points) area, so we’re part of this community,” she said. “There’s a good mix of everything here, and that’s what makes it so special.”
She said they knew they wanted to create a place in the area, before they had even chosen what type of business.
“We saw there was so much potential, and we wanted to do something awesome,” Muñoz said, but admitted they were taking a risk building in a spot they weren’t sure would be discovered. She took some inspiration from neighborhood businesses in other communities.
“You travel to bigger cities, and you see these districts that cater to the different neighborhoods,” she said.
The risk paid off, and the café has been in business nearly seven years.
Other business owners have also taken notice of Five Points. The 1/8 Pizza Pub and Dewey’s Corner Pub have joined Joe, Vinny & Bronson’s on the same block of Piedras. Just this past year, Salt + Honey Bakery Café opened at 801 N. Piedras. Salt + Honey owner Maggie Asfahani credits Muñoz for being among the first to give the area a change. The success of Joe, Vinny & Bronson’s did much to encourage others to take a second look at Five Points.
“I live on the West Side, but I knew I didn’t want to have a place that was just Westside or just Eastside,” she said. “Five Points really is central to it all, and it’s easy to get to from both sides.”
Asfahani said people in the area have really been great, and she is even planning on extending her hours to include dinnertime in the near future.
“I’m not currently open in the evening yet, but some of the other places are, and this area is a wonderful, friendly gathering place at night,” she said.
Muñoz noted while it is a good thing to see more people taking interest in the area, there always needs to be “a delicate balance” of the new coming in without disturbing the integrity of the neighborhood.
“You don’t want to take away from the past, just because you bring in something new,” she said.
She feels her café, also known by some customers as JVB, is a good example of this type of place, which does draw people from around the city, but is also a place for Five Points residents to enjoy as part of their neighborhood.
“We get people from all walks of life in here, and everyone is friendly with each other gets along,” she said.
Progress does not come with its share of controversy. In January of 2017, increased parking spots had to be created in the area in order to better handle the business from the increasing number of nightspots and eateries. They include popular spots such as 5 Points Bistro, Love Buzz, and Pershing Inn, the latter of which has been part of the area since 1946, and boasts in its online publicity this Five Points mainstay’s atmosphere is so friendly, there “hasn’t been a fight in this bar since it was originally opened.”
However, the popularity of some of these night spots has caused concern from some Five Points residents, and a tense relationship between some long-time residents and some businesses has been the subject of local news stories, over the growing presence of bars resulting in neighbors having to deal with loud noise and drunken behavior from the patrons.
Five Points has overcome other noise issues in the past, when the Five Points Quiet Zone project was established in 2016, a joint project by the Union Pacific Railroad and the City of El Paso which resulted in trains passing more quietly through the neighborhood.
To help address concerns, Five Points residents had formed the Five Points Neighborhood Association, which consists of more than 60 area residents. This association and others are among those working to make sure Five Points doesn’t lose itself amid the growth.
As a board member for the Five Points Development Association, Muñoz said she and other members want to make sure they work for the best interests of both the businesses and the surrounding residents. Change is inevitable in every community, but it is important to hold onto the soul of the past.
“It’s about successfully blending the charm of the old with the new,” she said. “You still want to hang onto what people have loved about the area for so many years.”
Muñoz wants to make sure the new and growing business community is not only there for their own success, but is a good community partner to the residents, many of whom have been a part of Five Points for years. She recently opened a yoga studio, Onawa, across from the café, and has been happy to see neighborhood residents of all ages taking advantage of the service.
“I want it to be a resource for the community,” she said. “I want people to be able to have a place where they can go and feel welcome in their own neighborhood.”
For Muñoz, it is the residents who really make Five Points special.
“Everybody here is very laid back, very real,” she said. “No matter the walk of life, no one holds any pretenses. We’re all part of the Five Points community, and that by far and wide is what makes us special.”
Life Three: An example for the future
Private development is helping to drive the progress in Five Points, but city planners also hope to do their part in the area’s future.
Rafa Arellano, a Senior Economic Development Specialist with the City of El Paso, said businesses like the Salt + Honey Bakery Café, located in the nearly century-old Stevens Building on Piedras, have helped to bring a new life to the area for several people. The café is located on the first floor of building, with residential apartment lofts above it.
Asfahani said she had always loved the building, but it had been in poor shape in the past. When it was brought back to life as a multi-use building, she was very happy to take advantage of the chance to be part of its new life.
“I knew I wanted to be in place like this with character, and not be set up in just some strip mall,” she said.
Arellano said these types of mixed-use buildings can be beneficial to everyone in a neighborhood.
“We’re hoping this type of growth is not only helpful to the retail businesses involved, but also with the residents of the neighborhood,” he said.
He said they are looking into more mixed-use buildings that incorporate businesses, including small, locally owned businesses, with residential spaces and safe, walkable areas.
He said the transfer center helps to spur this type of growth, by giving area residents easy access to Sun Metro’s buses. This is referred to as Transit-Oriented Development (TOD); a development plan that combines housing with office, retail, and walkable neighborhood area located a short distance from public transportation.
Arellano said the City Council adopted this policy last month, with the idea of offering larger incentives for developments that follow this pattern.
Similar TOD development is being seen in other areas, including Downtown and on the West Side (such as the development at Montecillo). Five Points, he explained, is similar to these.
He said he expects to see more “high density” buildings that make room for mixed use, and encourage people to take advantage of the offerings in their own neighborhood communities.
“We want to create in these areas little ‘downtowns,’ where people can feel safe walking to and from their homes, to nearby work, shopping and other everyday needs,” he explained.
He said people can expect to see more developments like these this year alone. By sustainably bringing more residents into a neighborhood, he explained this gives small businesses more reason to open their businesses in the neighborhood, which leads to more people shopping, living and working in the area, and more money and improvements going back into that neighborhood. It is an ideal situation for everyone.
While people often talk about the “gentrification” of an area that sometimes describes the arrival of more affluent individuals into an urban community, Arellano said the effort by residents, businesses and city planners regarding Five Points are hoping to not turn the area into a place that lacks the history and character of the historic neighborhood, but that benefits new businesses and longtime residents at the same time.
He did say one of the goals is not to bring exclusively high-end apartments into the area, but also smaller, more affordable loft and apartment spaces. Smaller spaces he said, for example could prove desirable not only for young, single adults and students who want to better budget their disposable income, but also for older people, including “empty nesters” who want a nice living area with less space.
“This is something important to us,” he said. “We’ve encouraged some developers to not include $2,000 (a month) lofts in their buildings, but create small, more affordable spaces, where people with lower incomes, such as students, will not be discouraged about finding a place to live in the area.”
He said the combination of affordable housing with a variety of businesses, and services could have a multigenerational appeal, something that helps make historic neighborhoods like Five Points distinct.
Five Points is also one of various “Heritage Corridor” arches throughout El Paso to receive ornate entrance signs as part of the city’s Sun City Lights initiative. This includes arches that mark the entrance of some of El Paso’s distinct areas, such as Kern Place, Dyer Street and Scenic Drive. The signage for the Five Points area should be near Wyoming and Piedras.
“These signs will help to ‘brand’ these areas and let people known when they are in one of the city’s unique places,” he said.
Arellano said he hopes neighborhood communities like Five Points can serve as an example of how residents and business can support each other, while encouraging people from all over the city to discover the uniqueness of its neighborhoods. This is especially true when encouraging them to use other types of transportation than just their individual vehicles.
“When people walk they get more invested in their surroundings,” Arellano said. “When you drive through an area, you don’t see all the details. We want people to get out of their vehicles and walk. It is not only healthier, but helps give you a better sense of the community.”
Asfahani expects that more and more people will soon discover the area, and she encourages people who haven’t been to Five Points in a while to see some of the wonderful places created by local business owners.
She said Five Points is a symbol of how many innovative El Pasoans are changing the way the city is perceived. The pre-conceived notion that other cities have better offerings is beginning to fade away.
“One comment I get a lot is people say “it isn’t even like being in El Paso,’” she said. “Well, things are changing here. This is El Paso now.”
My five ‘firsts’ in Five Points
I grew up in Kern Place in the 1970s and 1980s, but Five Points was a frequent destination of ours for both entertainment and shopping. At least five of my own “first time” memories happened in Five Points.
Five Points was the first place I ever saw a movie. Before I ever remember going to a mall multiplex, the place to see a film, was the Pershing, with its dark carpets, cozy rectangular lights and overwhelming smell of buttered popcorn. The movie I saw was Disney’s “Song of the South,” and I remember the “Buena Vista Film Distribution Co.” logo flickering on the red curtains before they opened up to start the movie. We would always go when it was light, and get out when it was dark. We’d pass this old rock church, with blue glowing neon cross, and I would doze off until we got home.
It was the first place I had spumoni ice cream. My friends had picked me up to see the original “Pete’s Dragon” at the Pershing, and they took us to the Italian Kitchen beforehand, just two doors down. I remember saying, We need to get the spumoni … it is all different colors!” When you’re a kid, multi-colored food is the coolest thing out, so this was something incredible. Thanks to the convenience of the Italian Kitchen West, I’ve never taken my own kids to the original location. I need to see if they still offer spumoni.
It was the place I ever purchased a “real” costume. In the early 1970s, most store-bought costumes were still plastic facemasks and glorified pajamas in a box. My mom, a fantastic seamstress, made most of my costumes as a kid, but one day I wanted a special satin cape for some weird idea I concocted. My grandmother knew the area pretty well, (my late grandfather had once operated El Paso’s first drive-in restaurant, the Old Town Pump, near Five Points), so she took me to People’s Emporium. I remember costumes and wigs hanging all over the place, and the musty smell of stage make up.
I went by there often, when I had to purchase that nasty oily stage makeup we used in high school theater. Today, People’s Emporium is the home of a business called “Metro Signs,” which has one of coolest doors in the area, covered with urban art.
It was the first place I picked up a Sears & Roebuck catalog. I was probably about six, and we went to pick up an order at the Sears in December. I remember my dad handing me a catalog thicker than the phone book. On the drive home, I flipped through the pages and pages of horrifying ’70s fashions until I reached the toy section. There were slot cars and Barbie townhouses, G.I. Joes and every game in the world … and there was livestock! I remember asking my dad if I can “get a goat in the mail” or perhaps “just a chicken.” I settled for the slot cars and a Barbie that Christmas, not the goat.
As a teenager just learning to drive at El Paso High, I would meet my friend who went to Austin and we all went to our first R-rated movie sans the adults. By then, the Pershing had become a dollar theatre, and we watched Steven King’s “Creepshow 2.” It was so terrible; everyone called it “crap show” on the way home.
While working on this story, I visited Five Points with my own family to see what it has to offer today, including Italian sodas at Joe, Vinny & Bronson’s, and seeing a Sun Metro bus painted up like a streetcar at the transfer station. They got to see some musicians practicing outside Memory Hall, and loved the tiki art on the side of the Marty Snortum Studio (the old Pershing). My kids get used to being dragged around for photo ops, but they always find something new to discover when they do.
I hope this first Five Points experience will hold plenty of fond memories for them as well.
— Lisa Kay Tate
Copyright 2018 by Cristo Rey Communications