Downtown Brownsville is a happening place again. The once thriving central business district is undergoing a major transformation, and much of the credit is going to the city’s leadership and to the progressive vision of some of its residents.
Brownsville’s downtown used to be a place bustling with people shopping for a variety of merchandise, ranging from fashionable clothes to ropa usada to household goods to furniture to gadgets of all sorts. And while scores of older businesses still remain, the area started losing its touch after Amigoland Mall closed for good a couple of decades ago and was replaced by a proliferation of shops and restaurants around Sunrise Mall to the north.
But in the last five years, close to a dozen new businesses, ranging from bar and grills to coffeehouses to a pizzeria to a bicycle cafe to Mexican restaurants have opened. The latest such venture is a Spanish eatery that offers the typical tapas, a savory dish usually served with wine or other spirits.
Brownsville City Commissioner Ben Neece, who owns one of the newest downtown businesses, said the influx of business has changed the ambiance of downtown. “I can mention to you some of the new tenants,” he said, “and there are more to come.” Among those on Neece’s list are Half Moon, Double Trouble, Kraken Lounge, Mi Tierra, Library at La Rioja Bar, El Palenque, Los Reyes Café, Paris, Dodici, Spanish Moon and Las Ramblas.
Most of the new establishments have live music of many genres – a phenomenon that some say is slowing turning downtown Brownsville into the music capital of the Rio Grande Valley. A quick look around a 10-square-block area reveals a panorama like can be found in some major cities.
In some establishments, people sip coffee or wine, grab a beer from a cooler or enjoy a homemade pizza al fresco. At Dodici, for example, people mingle at the long bar, chat around tables or enjoying a more private setting outside in the courtyard.
At El Hueso de Fraile, scores of musicians play whatever tunes they feel comfortable with while patrons sit and relax over a vegan or other type of sandwich. “I have always thought about having a coffeehouse,” Adrian Foncerada, the family patriarch, said. “We opened El Hueso de Fraile in 2012.” He said the establishment has evolved into sort of an incubator for musicians, with some of them moving on to venues in places like Las Vegas to make a living.
At Dodici, an Italian place that specializes in pizza and wine, business has exceeded its three owners’ expectations. “We have been having a good response since day one,” said Trey Mendez, who bought the historic Fernandez Building at the corner of Adams and 12th streets to open the pizzeria. “Our pizzas are made to order and are baked in a brick oven imported from Naples.”
Graham Sevier, another owner (the third one is chef Dante Pensa), said people are now interested in going places they have seen before and that are owned by people they know. “There is also a new generation that wants to experience going downtown. Business has been doing a lot better than we expected.”
The increase in business and traffic has contributed to the opening of a downtown police substation. The station was unveiled in late August before a crowd of business, city and civic leaders.
Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez said having a police presence in the downtown area should make people feel safer. “Brownsville downtown is being revitalized and although we don’t have the personnel we have assigned four police officers to be here.” Rodriguez introduced a four-officer bike patrol during the recent opening of the substation.
“The nightlife in downtown Brownsville has increased tremendously,” the police chief said. “This substation and bike patrol will provide better police protection and better safety for the people who like to come here.”
Gerry Linan, a Brownsville lawyer, agreed. “There is a lot of activity in downtown today. As the old saying goes, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”
The Mr. Amigo Association and the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation in September introduced Noche de Garibaldi, a musical event patterned after musical events in Mexico City’s Garibaldi Plaza, considered a mecca for mariachi musicians and the home of the Mexico National Tequila Museum. “We received a lot of good response from the public,” Mr. Amigo Association President Arturo Trevino said. “We could turn this into an annual event.”