This is the seventh in an occasional series exploring Texas locales near and far that offer uncommon sights and experiences.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on cities. Laredo was hit harder than most, with a nascent reawakening of its ailing downtown sector coming almost to a full stop.

But within the neighborhood just west of the San Agustín de Laredo Historic District stirs a budding revival, spearheaded by a few small business owners optimistic enough to brave a scarcity of customers and problematic city government processes.

In the St. Peter’s Historic District, Café Radical, the Repostería del Rincón Bakery, Kaithod Thai Kitchen, and Casa Lopez Tapas Bar have introduced specialty coffee culture and casual fine dining to the area, and Laredo Mansion and the 1802 Social House offer intrepid tourists luxury accommodations.

But their efforts haven’t been without difficulty.

Rosy lenses recommended

Laredo is an old city, established in 1755, with a slew of decently-preserved historic buildings lining its layout of narrow streets. 

Few cities have such unrealized potential, though rose-colored glasses might be required to see beyond the preponderance of empty and boarded-up businesses. In better circumstances, the quaint, tree-lined Tatangelo Parkway could be ideal for a stroll to elegant San Agustín Plaza in the heart of the district. 

Owing to its founders’ Spanish Catholic heritage, street signs read as an encyclopedia of saints: San Agustín, San Bernardo, Santa Cleotilde, San Dario, San Eduardo, San Enrique, Santa Isabel, San Jorge, Santa María, Santa Rita, Santa Ursula.

That heritage is also preserved in the city’s downtown centerpiece, the recently remodeled San Agustín Cathedral. Nearby sits the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum, a quaint one-story building nestled in the arms of an old hacienda now occupied by the La Posada Hotel.

Inside the museum, a sign indicates in all caps, “you are entering the original capitol building of the Republic of the Rio Grande,” attested to by worn brick floors and wooden beam architecture. Displays tell the brief story of the ill-fated republic — Texas has six flags, but Laredo has seven, adding the flag of the republic — its beheaded federalist leader Antonio Zapata having failed in his mission to separate from Mexico. 

A display reproduces an 1860s-era bedroom inside the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum, housed inside the onetime capitol building of the republic.
A display reproduces an 1860s-era bedroom inside the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum, housed inside the onetime capitol building of the republic. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

As the nascent republican capital, Laredo was at the center of many conflicts, an unfortunate position that has lived on through the town’s politics and continues in efforts to revitalize a once-thriving community.

Trying to do ‘cool things’

Perhaps it is Laredo’s destiny as a passageway city — a constant stream of road and foot traffic passing back and forth over its international portals to and from Mexico — to languish as a destination. 

One longtime business owner attributed Laredo’s downtown decline to the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, while another said the rise of Amazon and online shopping might have hollowed out the capacity of the downtown retail district to keep up. 

The city expanded northward, attracting local businesses to a thriving district of strip malls and chain stores bounded by the Bob Bullock Loop and Del Mar Boulevard.

That is where Rochelle Mota and Billy Hrncir, also known as Billy Bigote, opened Dosis Coffee in early 2021, after running a coffee truck for a year during the height of the pandemic.

Six months ago, the pair decided to help spur the downtown revival by opening Café Radical, a full-service specialty coffee shop inside a gorgeously restored mansion. 

The City of Laredo, however, has made that much more difficult than anticipated, Hrncir said, owing to outdated parking regulations and zoning restrictions that have delayed their efforts to obtain a permit to add beer and wine to the menu.

Officials told the pair that if they’d opened in the central business district they wouldn’t have invited permitting issues, but Hrncir said the costs of locating there would easily have tripled expenses because of the dilapidated state of so many abandoned buildings. 

The situation has created a “vicious cycle,” Hrncir said, with a “lack of support for the people trying to do cool things.”

The historic art deco Plaza Theater in downtown Laredo, now fenced off, is slated for renovation.
The historic art deco Plaza Theater in downtown Laredo, now fenced off, is slated for renovation. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

Los olvidados no more

At least one person in Laredo city government is trying to change things for the better. 

Alyssa Cigarroa left her hometown for a decade to study as a painter in Europe and Israel. She returned in 2019 to open the nonprofit Daphne Art Foundation and spur a new public art program. After initial success, Cigarroa encountered resistance on Laredo City Council that resulted in a dilution of the program’s citywide aims.

The 34-year-old ran in 2020 as a write-in candidate for Council and won a four-year term to represent District 8, encompassing downtown and what she calls “los olvidados,” neighborhoods forgotten among the city’s economic and civic initiatives.

She has been navigating a city structure that she said seems unwilling or unable to envision a truly thriving city center, actively supporting the efforts of entrepreneurs like Mota and Hrncir to create the businesses they envision.

“A lot of young people have left and seen what other cities are doing,” and come back wondering “why is it that we’re not advancing in ways that we should be,” Cigarroa said. “This young new generation has a lot of energy, has seen what is possible, and really, really wants more for Laredo.”

Mota, an eye doctor, had also planned to open Punto Focal Optique, a full-service optical shop, downtown in 2023. But the onerousness of the process has had its effect. Mota will instead open her shop on the North Side, with the hope of one day opening a second shop downtown. 

“We are hoping that there are some changes coming this way so that others are not as afraid to invest and [downtown] can finally grow into something again,” Mota said.

The last straw

Lorenzo Rentería has run the Silver Dollar Bar downtown with his wife Gloria for a dozen years. The clean, cinema-themed spot was quiet on a recent Friday evening. Rentería’s parents owned the property, which has housed a bar since 1934 when Prohibition was lifted, alongside their El Aguila Bakery next door.

Despite suffering a 70% loss in business since the onset of the pandemic, he said they are determined to stay open.

“Downtown has been dying,” he said. “We’d just hate to close up. So we’re here just trying to keep a little bit of downtown alive.”

Decades ago, you couldn’t walk on the sidewalks because they were so jammed with downtown shoppers, Rentería said. People would come from Monterrey, Guadalajara, Mexico City, and even New York, he said, seeking bargains. 

The tree-lined Tatangelo Parkway offers both the potential and the stasis of downtown Laredo.
The tree-lined Tatangelo Parkway offers both the potential and the stasis of downtown Laredo. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

A few vestiges of those days remain in long-lived stores such as the Liverpool Enterprises electronics store and the Casa Raul western apparel store. But Renteria closed his own retail store after NAFTA took effect, having lost much business. Then when H-E-B moved to the North Side of town, he said, “that was the last straw” for downtown.

At 70, Rentería doubts he’ll live to see a full-fledged downtown revival, but he said he’s recognized Café Radical and Casa Lopez as potential keys to the city’s future.

‘The energy is here’

My first exposure to Laredo’s art scene was in 2019, when stellar cellist Yo-Yo Ma visited to perform dual free outdoor concerts in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo on a world tour of border locales.

The Laredo Center for the Arts played host for a portion of his visit, its arched windows and soaring wooden cathedral roof creating a grand backdrop. 

The art center was again in full flower during a more recent visit, with a gregarious display of Mesoamerican-themed paintings by San Antonio artist Andy Villareal on view. A corner wall honored artists from Laredo including Cesar Martinez and San Antonian Ethel Shipton.

Upstairs, an opening reception for Life. After., a show of recent photography by Laredo artist Jorge A. Garcia filled the hall with gallerygoers and well-wishers. Wall text explained that Garcia had recently undergone treatment for Stage 4 cancer and that the photographs represent not only his struggles but his desire to “evoke fulfillment and peace.”

Photographer Jorge A. Garcia (far right) receives well wishes during the opening reception of his Life. After. exhibition at the Laredo Center for the Arts. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

If Laredo is enduring similar struggles, at least a few determined entrepreneurs and city officials hope to heal what ails the city and see it realize its potential.

“You can’t recreate what we have downtown,” Cigarroa said. “There’s history, there’s culture, there’s architecture you just don’t see anymore.”

With new initiatives including a vacant building ordinance, the public art program, a new binational public park project that would cement bonds between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo across the river, a renovation project in the works for the shuttered Art Deco-era Plaza Theatre, and a new mayor and incoming city council members with the vision and drive to move the city forward, Cigarroa is hopeful.

“The energy is here,” she said. “The will is here.”

If You Go

How to Get There

I wouldn’t have diverted from my planned route of Interstate 35 South without Google Maps, which due to construction and an accident told me Interstate 37 would be quicker. Not much to see along this meandering route, beyond glimpses of Texas industry, and the town of Freer is the last chance to gas up before the hour drive to Laredo. I-35 North was a smooth trip home, except for the mandatory Customs and Border Patrol stop.

Where to Stay

A few Airbnbs are located in or near downtown, surrounded by an abundance of hotels and motels. The historic La Posada Hotel is located right on San Agustín Plaza in the heart of the historic district. The Laredo Mansion offers luxurious accommodations in the St. Peter’s Historic District.

Where to Drink & Dine

Rolling into town from the north, Dosis Coffee provides a morning spark with Latin American-origin coffees. The nearby Scratch Sandwich Company nearby offers handmade deli goods, and the Laredo Brewing Company pours a selection of craft beer styles — and will even make a custom beer for you!

Downtown, Café Radical is a splendid setting for morning coffee, and the Repostería del Rincón Bakery just around the corner sells fresh salads and sandwiches. 

For lunch and dinner, the Kaithod Thai Kitchen menu features adventurous takes on Thai cuisine, and Casa Lopez Tapas Bar is open Thursday-Saturday. The Silver Dollar Bar has bottled water and tea in addition to its traditional canned and bottled beers, while the Cultura Beer Garden offers craft brews and a changing array of food trucks.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...