HARLINGEN — Fall seemed like mere rumor in a 90s-in-the-shade kind of morning at Gutierrez Park last week.
Everybody was under the ebony trees, the one spot the heavy fist of the South Texas sun couldn’t reach.
Almost a dozen people lazed around the well-kept park on Harrison Avenue, a garden spot of pretty flowers and trimmed shrubs, surrounded by citified concrete. Yet the bright yellows and reds of the empty children’s playground were merely colors, and there was quiet where one might expect a chorus of shouts.
“Here in the downtown area, some people do come over here and play in the park with kids, but you’ve got other people …. just, you know,” said a young man named Eli, who declined to reveal his last name, saying he lived in the neighborhood.
Define “just, you know,” he was asked.
“Shooting up, doing weed and some beer,” he said.
This story of a morning in Lt. George Gutierrez Jr. Park, an oasis in the historic La Placita district, will come as no surprise to most Harlingen residents, and certainly not to the city’s police force which recently conducted a prostitution sting there resulting in 15 arrests.
Some complain the park has been neglected by the city, slighted for decades because of its location in what was the epicenter of Hispanic-owned businesses and culture in Harlingen.
These days the park, which offers no restrooms, is used for the city’s annual Cinco de Mayo celebration, and more recently the charitable group Loaves and Fishes held an event there.
But city officials say the park must become more.
“We’re looking for somebody to kind of pick up the torch and take a new look the El Grande Theatre revitalization effort that was back in 2010 or 2011, but at the same time tied in with Gutierrez Park to see how we can tie both of them together and get some sort of plan so that we can start looking for funding and get that ball rolling,” Carlos Sanchez, assistant city manager for external services, told the Parks and Recreation Department’s board in a recent meeting.
City officials are hoping the parks and rec board will take the lead in devising a plan to revitalize the area, incorporating the long-closed El Grande Theatre across Harrison Avenue from the park.
Reaction at the meeting indicated there is work yet to be done.
One board member asked, “Has it gotten better there?”
“No! Did you see the paper yesterday?” responded Jeff Lyssy, parks superintendent. “They had a sting operation there and 15 guys were busted, so I don’t think it’s gotten any better.”
Those arrests for allegedly soliciting prostitutes are part of a long series of periodic police crackdowns at the park over the years.
City officials want the park to make news for something else.
“I just kind of want to get y’all thinking about seeing if the board would take the lead on this and start looking at tying Gutierrez Park together with the El Grande Theatre and see how we can make that mesh and have more functions out there,” said Javier Mendez, parks and rec director for the city.
“Some of these discussions of course are long-range, such as the gazebo in the middle,” Mendez added. “Is that functional or should it be off to the side, where it can be kind of an amphitheater-type concept?”
Concept is the loose operating word at this point. Mendez suggested contacting architecture students at Texas State Technical College and letting them take a stab at designing a new Gutierrez Park.
The architecture students at TSTC seem up for any challenge. Earlier this year, they drew up several strikingly artistic concepts for Lozano Park, a barren city block in the downtown district across the street from the Baxter Building.
“There’s interest in the community to revitalize that area, for it to be better utilized, and tied in with the surrounding downtown district,” Sanchez, the assistant city manager, said of the Gutierrez Park area after the meeting.
“Part of the component is obviously the park, but one item that’s been studied in the past is (how to) get that feel, that taste of Hispanic heritage,” he added.
“In Mexico they have those placitas, where people come and walk around the park, and have just some time to enjoy fellowship,” he said. “So that’s kind of like the approach we would take.”
Eli, who said he was taking a day off from his job as a mechanic, offered his take on a different sort of fellowship, the recent prostitution bust.
“That’s nothing, nothing. That’s just 10 percent of it, you know,” he said. “It’s all day long since early in the morning to late at night, all day, 24-7, seven days a week.”
He said police do patrol the area, but most prostitutes and their clients evade them.
“Because they’re not going to be walking on the streets, they have their places to be at,” he said. “They used to stand on the corners and stuff like that but they don’t do that anymore.
“Most of the girls already have their own clients, their own people they’ve been with for a while,” he said. “So they see their cars and they’ll walk to the store and then they’ll go get picked up at the store, or they’ll walk on down the street, but they won’t get picked up here.”
And the cops?
“When they pass by, they pass by,” Eli said with a shrug. “When they don’t, they just leave it alone.”
As the sun beat down around the trees, another park-goer, Tony, said he felt comfortable in Gutierrez Park whether police are present or not.
“I’ve been sitting here, and people are minding their own business,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
Streetwise he may be, but Eli also is something of an optimist. He said he figures more parents would bring kids to play in the park if the city cleaned it up.
Plus, he said, for years things were worse here.
“A lot worse,” he said.
When told about the city’s nascent plans to revitalize not just the park but the El Grande Theatre across the street, he voiced his support.
“That’ll be good, that’ll be good.”