EL PASO, Texas – No longer the desolate space it was a few years ago, downtown El Paso is ripe with new hotels, bars, restaurants — and bulldozers that herald the planned construction of a streetcar, a children's museum, a Mexican-American cultural center and new mixed-used buildings.
The far West Texas city is ready to shed its long-held reputation as a center of illegal immigration and show off its revitalized streets to the tens of thousands of tourists hoping to get a glimpse of Pope Francis, who will cap a five-day visit to Mexico on Feb. 17 in neighboring Ciudad Juárez with a Mass in a large field near the border that many will be able to see from downtown.
El Paso's renewed energy stems from many young people who left the economically challenged city in search of better opportunities but returned to make a difference. Mexicans who left Juárez at the height of its violence also contributed to the city's growth, opening businesses across the border and coming here to shop.
"Ten years ago, I remember friends telling me this was 'Hell Paso' and they wanted to move away," said Rep. Claudia Ordaz, who at 30 years old is the youngest member of the City Council and lived in Washington, D.C., and Austin before coming home and running for office.
Decades ago, El Paso was one of the busiest places for illegal immigration, second only to San Diego. Residents who lived along the border described regularly seeing migrants in or around their backyards. But the Border Patrol shifted its policies in the 1990s, and within months, the number of illegal crossings in El Paso dipped from 10,000 daily to 500.
And the notion that El Paso and its downtown in particular were unsafe grew as extreme violence in Juárez — at one point considered a homicide capital with multiple daily murders — took shape around 2006. But El Paso is continually ranked one of the safest of its size: The city of about 680,000 reported just 2,671 violent crimes in 2014, about half of that in smaller cities like Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Kansas City, Missouri.
El Paso still has its issues. The median household income is only about $40,000 a year and only 23 percent of residents over the age of 25 hold bachelor's degrees or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"Education is obviously our biggest challenge. We need to make sure we get these kids educated and get them into the workforce," Ordaz said, adding that another factor is a "brain drain" — the exodus of bright young people who move to bigger cities to seek better opportunities.
Voters in November 2012 approved more than $470 million in bonds to fund updates to downtown and new tourist attractions. Among those projects included San Jacinto Plaza, the historic city square in the heart of downtown. Residents have been critical of how long it has taken: Renovations began in 2013 and were supposed to be complete a year ago but continue.
City leaders tout Juárez and El Paso as one big, symbiotic metropolitan area, and El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser says he regularly works with the mayor ofJuárez.
"We travel together to talk about the message of El Paso and Juárez and to help create jobs for our community, and to take the fences down. There is no border as far as we're concerned. We are one city," Leeser said late last month at a news conference that touted El Paso's preparations for the pope's visit.
City officials are expecting to spend about $1 million on security measures, even though Pope Francis won't cross into El Paso. Several downtown neighborhoods, city government and a portion of the border highway will be closed for what the City Council called an "unparalleled high-profile event." For those who won't be in the large field in Juárez, the Catholic Diocese of El Paso is hosting a livestream event at the Sun Bowl, a stadium that holds more than 50,000 people.
The streetcar line eventually will run near that stadium, which is on the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso, as well as around downtown.
Peter Svarzbein, a 35-year-old who spent years away from El Paso in college and working in New York City as a photographer, was instrumental in reviving the city's long-gone streetcar. The $97 million project, funded by a state grant, is expected to be complete by 2018.
"It makes El Paso more competitive economically and culturally," Svarzbein said.
Joe Gudenrath, executive director of the El Paso Downtown Management District, credits the relatively new ballpark for downtown's growing popularity. The Chihuahuas, a Triple-A professional baseball team, began playing at the new Southwest University Park in 2014. The first game was a sellout and the ballpark saw nearly 550,000 visitors by the end of the first season.
"I think it's addressed a lot of perceptions and reconnected a lot of people with downtown," Gudenrath said.
Follow Astrid Galvan at https://twitter.com/astridgalvan . Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/astrid-galvan .