Some city symbols endure as Asarco debate to begin

By Milan Simonich — EL PASO TIMES

EL PASO — Even in a throwaway society, gritty symbols of the past can survive.

A mall in Pennsylvania occupies the site of the old Homestead Works, where one of the labor movement’s bloodiest battles occurred. The mill is a distant memory now, but developers kept its giant brick chimneys to give the shopping center a splash of color and character.

The former Sinclair meatpacking plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is being razed this spring, but preservationists are fighting to save its iconic smokestack.

Mall of America was built on land that once housed the stadium where the Minnesota Twins and Vikings played. The mall kept home plate as a reminder of what used to be, before the teams left their rickety stadium in suburban Bloomington for a dome in Minneapolis.

El Paso is about to begin its own debate on whether the symbol of a shuttered business has a place in today’s world.

At issue is whether Asarco’s smokestacks should be knocked down and hauled to the scrap heap. The smokestacks are the most visible reminder of the old copper smelter.

The question of what to do with the smokestacks will be debated as ideas are advanced on how to redevelop the 600-acre Asarco site.

A similar discussion began this spring in Cedar Rapids. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission voted in April to try to save the Sinclair smokestack.

Built in 1909, the 160-foot smokestack stands as a link to a plant that brought immigrants hungry for jobs to the Midwest.

“Feelings are mixed about whether to save it,” said Cedar Rapids city planner Sushil Nepal. “The community is divided, but there is some sentiment to keep it for its historical significance.”

Sushil said the meatpacking plant opened in 1871 and closed in 1990. If the smokestack is to survive, it must be stabilized. Restoring it could cost more than $600,000 by one estimate, a price that some say is too steep for an adornment that no longer has purpose. Still others have told the city government they do not care if the smokestack lives on, provided that no taxpayers’ money is spent on it.

In Homestead, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh, a shopping center called The Waterfront operates on the site of what used to be one of the busiest steel mills in the world. The Homestead Works once produced almost one-third of all the steel used in America.

The mill was equally well-known for the Battle of Homestead in 1892. Ten people died in gunfire between locked-out steelworkers and Pinkerton guards hired by the mill owner, corporate titan Andrew Carnegie.

U.S. Steel later took ownership of the Homestead Works and closed it in 1986. A cluttered, cratered site emerged as the mill’s buildings were torn down and sold for scrap.

During the last decade, the property was resurrected into a service industry through The Waterfront. Its stores and restaurants cover 260 acres along the Monongahela River.

The chimneys that grace the shopping complex are all that remain from the Homestead Works, linking memories of a manufacturing past with modern retail and entertainment businesses.

Not every symbol of blue-collar America is embraced for its historic significance. Even working mills and factories have lost their most visible structures.

For example, the steel mill in Pueblo, Colo., once employed 6,000 workers, making it the city’s great equalizer. Laborers made a good enough living to send all their children to college, so none of them would have to feel the heat of steelmaking furnaces and ovens.

The mill, while known as CF&I Steel Corp., closed its four blast furnaces in 1982, as the American steel industry sagged. The company tore down the blast furnaces in 1989, eliminating Pueblo’s most visible structures along Interstate 25. Modern steelmaking operations continue at the plant, now a mini-mill called Evraz Rocky Mountain Steel.

As for the Asarco smokestacks, they evoke memories of pollution and of well-paying jobs. They are part of El Paso’s history, but whether they have a future is open to a discussion that is about to begin.

Milan Simonich may be reached at; 546-6125.

Be heard

The city and its consultants have drawn up a charrette, or public input, process to help come up with a plan for the development of the Asarco site as well as three mass-transit corridors in the Downtown and on the West Side.

All charrette events are open to the public, and people are encouraged to attend and share their ideas. Here’s the schedule.

  • Kickoff event: 5:30-8 p.m. Thursday at the El Paso Main Library auditorium, 501 N. Oregon. Officials will give an introduction to the project and an overview of the planning principles.
  • Asarco hands-on design session: 9 a.m.-noon Saturday at Mesita Elementary, 3307 N. Stanton. This family-friendly work session will allow people to work alongside their neighbors to come up with a plan for the Asarco site.
  • Mass-transit design session: 5:30-8 p.m. June 23 at the Memorial Senior Citizen Center, 1800 Byron. This family-friendly work session will allow people to work alongside their neighbors to develop a plan for economic development along three major mass-transit corridors.
  • Open design studio: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. June 21-25 as well as June 28-29 at 2400 N. Oregon, behind the McDonald’s on Mesa. This storefront site will give people a chance to walk in without an appointment and provide input on the plans as they evolve.
  • Open house: 9 a.m.-noon at 2400 N. Oregon. The design team will present its work so far and give the public another chance for feedback.
  • Work-in-progress presentation: 5:30-8 p.m. June 30 at the Main Library, 501 N. Oregon. The work that has been completed will be presented.