Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Exploring the Historic ‘Streets of Laredo’ Along Highway 83

San Augustin church. Photos by Stew Magnuson

It’s the first Friday night of the month in Laredo and the CaminArte (art walk) is underway.
Families, young couples and folks on their own like myself — with a special map in hand — are making their way around the town center’s streets to check out the local galleries. About nine sites are opening their doors to sell paintings or crafts, and the town’s famous San Augustin Square is surrounded by vendors for an artisan’s bazaar.
One of my first stops is Gallery 201, a contemporary art gallery, where a handful of local artists have set up tables.
Erika Lamar Buentello happens to be selling prints of local iconic neon signs. Two of them, the Evelyn Motor Inn and Pan American Courts Café (and Hotel) are out on Business 83. Those signs have been there since before there was an expressway, and hark back to the Golden Age of road travel in the 1940s and 1950s.
“Sold,” I say. It’s as if she knew I were coming. She knocks five bucks off, $35 for the pair, and I get to take some great Highway 83 memorabilia back home with me.
Find Buentello’s art on this Etsy page.
Another highlight on the walk is the Laredo Center for the Arts, which has an ongoing exhibition and local artists there to do some painting as visitors watch.
Prints by Erika Lamar Buentello
Casa Ortiz, just off the square, is open to visitors. The building has been here since about 1830 and features a beautiful courtyard. Five generations of the Ortiz family lived there before it was sold, but someone has been there since then, making it the longest continually occupied home in Texas. Nowadays, Texas A&M University owns the building, and lets students stay there. Enrique Botello is one of the students and shows me around. He’s originally from the town of San Ygnacio on Highway 83, a community south of Laredo on the banks of the Rio Grande, which was established before the American Revolution. From Casa Ortiz, visitors can see the river. This was a good spot with a wide view and made it harder for Apaches on Comanches to sneak up on the residents, Botello explains.
San Augustin Plaza is where the vendors are set up.
I’m amazed at the low prices. I’ve been to plenty of artisan bazaars in my day, and I would have never found a beautiful lapis-lazuli necklace for my wife for a mere $22 at any of the others. Another vendor is offering hand-stitched, homemade postcards, each one unique and nice enough to frame. She doesn’t charge more than $12 for any of them.
San Augustin Cathedral next to the square has been here since 1778. The Gothic Revival church is open and features a beautiful collection of stained glass.
La Posada Hotel takes up the entire south side of the plaza. The building the lobby is in was once a high school and bits of the structure dating back to 1916 remains. The hotel was built around three other historic buildings. As a hotel, it only dates back to the early 1960s, but with two courtyards, swimming pools and palm trees, it seems like you’re stepping back in time. The four-diamond hotel is one of the best bets for casual or more upscale dining on the plaza.
A vendor on the art walk selling hand-stitched postcards.
Also on the south side is the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum. The building headquartered a short-lived movement to carve out a new nation here in 1840, when locals chaffed under Mexican rule. During the republic’s short 10 months, it created a flag, which is why the flags of seven nations, rather than six for the rest of Texas, have flown over Laredo.
Another item visitors might notice are the “City of Generals and Saints” banners hung on streetlight poles. The names of Laredo’s streets in the historic district alternate between famous generals and Catholic saints, hence the nickname.
Just two blocks away, is a reminder that Laredo is a border town. A steady stream of border crossers walk across the Bridge of Americas where a line of shops on Convent Street cater to them. Laredo is only surpassed by New York and Los Angeles in terms of trade. Some $280 billion of goods passed through its ports of entry in 2014, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics.
San Augustin Plaza taken from La Posada Hotel.
For decades, the U.S Canada Highway 83 Association advertised the road as a great route to “Old Mexico.” It held its annual convention here in 1963. The city once worked hand in hand with its sister city across the bridge Nuevo Laredo to attract tourists under its “Two Nations. One Destination” slogan, but sadly violence fueled by the drug trade in Mexico forced Laredo to shut that campaign down and separate itself from its neighbor, explained Blasita Lopez, director of the Laredo Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
They are indeed different worlds apart in that respect. As the numbers of local families and young couples exploring downtown during the art walk showed, downtown Laredo is as safe as any city of its size in the United States. It would be wrong to say the city is crime free — no place can make that claim — but it is also wrong to lump it in with what’s happening across the border.
Visiting historic downtown Laredo is a highlight on any trip along Highway 83, and shouldn’t be missed.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com