Historically, a plaza is a place of gathering and community, where neighbors and family come together to catch up, play games and enjoy one another’s company.
The Guadalupe Plaza, as many people have said, is the heart of the West Side, and has become a point of disagreement for many in the community since a chain-link fence was erected in 2016 as a crime deterrent by the nonprofit that leases the space from the city.
After a backlash from some residents and community activists in recent months, the city has opened up the plaza again 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and has hosted movie nights. It also hosted a series of community meetings recently in search of ideas for a longterm solution.
The plan will be unveiled 6-8 p.m. tonight (Dec. 18) at El Progresso Hall, 1306 Guadalupe St. Free food will be provided by the city.
The plaza was built in 1984 and has been the stage for many events—some annual and some historic such as Pope John Paul II's visiting in 1987 and President Barack Obama's stop in 2008.
Over time, activity in the plaza had decreased and had allegedly led to unwanted activity at night: drug users, prostitution, and homeless people using it in ways the plaza was not designed for.
The Avenida Guadalupe Association, the nonprofit that holds the lease from the city through 2029, says the undesirable activity had become so bad, the only way to solve the problem was to surround the plaza with a fence.
It was that way for two years until community activists began speaking out over the summer.
"To allow this space that’s supposed to be public commons, to what it is now, is very sad," said Sarah Gould, director of the fledgling Museo del Westside, an initiative of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center.
Gould said the fence reinforces negative ideas that people already have of the West Side.
"It bothers me that people have fear over those who could easily be their relatives," Gould said.
Gould continued, saying that having a gate or fence around the plaza transforms it from a public space to a private one.
Rick Uriegas, vice president of Actions United for Entertainers and Diverse Artists (AUEDA), also serves on the Avenida Guadalupe Association (AGA) board, and said there was a lot of activity happening that wasn't good for the neighborhood.
“The plaza is the heart of the neighborhood,” said Uriegas. “This place is a diamond in the rough.”
Uriegas said since the fence has been up, the unfavorable activity has stopped.
The level of criminal or unwanted activity that happened before the fence is something neither side can agree on.
“At the public meetings Center City Development & Operations Department (CCDO) has held thus far, we heard broad agreement that security is needed in the plaza," District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales said in an email.
Many community members and people who live near the plaza have wondered why the fence is still up, and why it has taken so long to do something about it.
Gonzales said the "visioning process for Plaza Guadalupe has been an ongoing process that began in spring 2017."
"The community engagement process has taken time because we want to make sure that everyone's voices are heard during the visioning process," Gonzales wrote.
Gabriel Quintero Velasquez, AGA's executive director, described the plaza as "the birthplace of the Mexican-American community." He said AGA "went through years of consideration," drew up plans for a permanent fence and showcased the plans to anyone who asked to view them.
Avenida Guadalupe didn’t want to put up the fence, Velasquez said, but the drug problem wasn't going to stop without it; having a fence is "the only way it would be safe,” he said
Velasquez said the plaza is a place for the neighborhood have events that they imagine doing.
“It (the plaza) means many things,” Velasquez said. “It would be a symbol of progress.”
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center has been fighting the fence, and its members say the arrest numbers don’t add up to the AGA's claims about prostitution and drug users.
According to research Esperanza conducted using LexisNexis, between 2010 and 2018 there have been two incidents of drug crimes—one in 2011 and one in 2017—and only one sex trafficking incident in 2015.
But Avenida Guadalupe staff has been consistent with its anecdotal evidence.
Richard Pferrman, an Avenida Guadalupe Association employee, spoke at a Dec. 4 public meeting, and said people have told him the plaza is in much better condition after the fence was put up.
“They’re like … since the fence has been up, the plaza smells good,” Pferrman said. "It doesn’t smell like urine anymore. It doesn’t smell like feces. I don’t have to worry about my kid being poked by a needle."
“A lot of people just don’t see it. Yeah, we have to keep it open to the public. That’s understandable, but for certain hours, which is what we do now.”
Amelia Valdez, who works with Esperanza, said with the fence around the plaza, no one knows if it's open or closed.
Valdez continued to say that while walking around the public space, she's seen elderly people sitting outside the fence.
"Since the fence has been up, there have been fights and arguments for more policing," Valdez said.
Paul De La Torre, 51, who lives in the neighborhood said he wants vagrants and graffiti out of the plaza, and also wants it open for the everyone.
De La Torre said he wouldn’t mind a fence or gate if it was something nicer than the current fence.
Sylvia Martinez, 62, also lives in the neighborhood and said she thinks it’s safer to have a gate and that it will keep the plaza in good condition.
Martinez said she goes to the plaza for events and to be around people.
Both De La Torre and Martinez have lived in the neighborhood their whole lives and want the plaza to be safer.