By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
Ropa usada stores are ubiquitous in downtown Brownsville. They are the hole-in-the-wall places where shoppers rummage through bundles of second-hand clothes to the murmur of portable fans, items are often sold by the pound, and bargains can be negotiated.
But these run-down little shops might not mesh well with revitalization plans the city is considering for the area. The city’s planning consortium, United Brownsville, is looking to transform downtown into a tourist draw and a cultural and economic boon for the city. And that signals the need to attract more upscale businesses to the area.
In the works is a proposal to create an entertainment district centered on Adams Street/Market Square. City leaders aim to spur the development of entertainment along the street by cutting fees for coffeehouses, brewpubs, bars, dancehalls, nightclubs and restaurants among other approved establishments.
The city will not shutter ropa usada stores by mandate. But with the revitalization plan, rents are expected to increase to the point where many vendors will be forced to shut their doors. If a ropa usada shop closes, another will not be allowed to open in its place, as second-hand clothing stores are not on the list of approved entertainment establishments for the area.
Still, many ropa usada vendors along Adams Street said they welcome the proposal, even if they have to close their stores. As Nena Garza, manager of Nena Ropa Usada, said, “It may affect our businesses, but the district, if it ever is created, would be an overall good for the city.”
Others, however, lamented the demise of the used-clothing trade in Brownsville, which once thrived and sparked an entire culture, where small-time entrepreneurs with backyard businesses in Matamoros and Reynosa would come to buy clothes, rubbing shoulders with big-time traders with space at large flea markets in Mexico City who were on the same mission.
Maria Rangel, a cashier at RYB Ropa Usada, said she was skeptical the high-end businesses city leaders were hoping to attract would even survive the tough economic climate. Like other used-clothing retailers in downtown, most of her customers are Mexican nationals, many with large families and low incomes.
“They are looking for cheap stores where they can buy clothes for the whole family. If you bring in all these expensive stores, they are going to be empty,” Rangel said. “If we have to close these secondhand stores, it would be outrageous.”
The only large retail chain that has opened downtown in recent years has been Ross, whose catch-phrase epitomizes what this demographic is looking for: “Dress For Less.”
Virtually all the used-clothing vendors said business has been tough the last few years. Increasingly stringent immigration policies at international bridges and escalating violence in Matamoros have discouraged many families from making shopping trips to the United States.
Marta Hinajosa, co-manager of Hinajosa’s Ropa Usada, said she and her sister have already been planning to move their store out of downtown and deeper into the city because of the drop in sales.
“The (ropa usada) business in the city is just not what it used to be,” said Hinajosa.
Some vendors pointed to dismal sales as further evidence that downtown revitalization plans need to go forward. Maria Cordova opened Sueños Outlet just a few months ago and barely makes ends meet, she said. But if the rent goes up and she too closes her doors, she said she would be flexible enough to open an entertainment business.
“I think the district will inspire other people to open different kinds of businesses other than ropa usada stores,” she said.
Miguel Tavera, owner of Supertienda Miguelina II, said he too would be quick to adapt. Brownsville needs an entertainment district like 17th Street in McAllen or 6th Street in Austin, he said. It would give the city an economic lift and bring a new customer base to downtown, including many young people.
“We do not need to frighten ourselves — progress is good,” he said.
As published July 02, 2010