Bringing Nueva Vida to Aging Strip Malls

The Flea Market Discount Plaza in Manassas is a gathering place for the area's Latino immigrant community, a place to be seen and find work.
The Flea Market Discount Plaza in Manassas is a gathering place for the area's Latino immigrant community, a place to be seen and find work. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

In many Latin American cities and towns, tiny villages and little pueblos, there is a central plaza, a square anchored by a church, government buildings, the statue of a hero. It is the design imprint of Spanish colonial rule, a place where prayer, politics and street commerce all converge.

Manassas has no such place. But it does have the Flea Market Discount Plaza, a tumbledown strip mall three blocks from the city's quaint Old Town neighborhood with two taco trucks and an indoor bazaar selling everything from cowboy boots to velvet jaguar paintings. It also has Eva Muñoz, a round, ruddy-faced sidewalk vendor who hawks hot chocolate, steaming corn on the cob and other cold-weather delights from a cart outside the Antojitos Mary restaurant and pool hall.

On a recent blustery Saturday afternoon, taxi driver Manuel Bustamante pulled into the Discount Plaza for a $3 plate of Muñoz's chicharron con cueritos -- pickled pork rinds heaped on a crispy strip of fried dough with lettuce, tomatoes, hot sauce and cream. Years ago, Bustamante had his own contracting business, he explained between bites, but hurt his back and had to sell his house to buy a taxicab. When business is slow, he heads for lunch or a snack at Discount Plaza.

"This is Old Town for Hispanics," he said. "For us, this is the center of Manassas."

Strip malls have been the defining landscape feature of suburban America for decades. Their shopping convenience is undisputed, yet to many architects and urban planners, they are a blight, a sprawl-spreading, vacuous wasteland of asphalt, cars and anti-social consumerism.

But in some suburban areas where construction jobs and the latest housing boom have lured many Hispanics, the opposite is true. Like Manassas's Discount Plaza, certain strip malls have come to function as de facto town squares for the Hispanic community, places to meet and be seen, to shop and find work, and to escape, however briefly, from the vicissitudes of starting anew in a fast-moving country where one's very presence is often unwelcome, if not illegal.

"People feel like they're right at home here, like they're as free as they would be in Mexico," said Muñoz, who said she's known in the plaza as "La Señora de los Elotes" -- the Corn Lady. She stirred a simmering, milky pot of arroz con leche. "And this food tastes better when you eat it outside," she added, just as in Mexico.

Although blue-collar immigrant enclaves of the Chinatown and Little Italy variety have long been a staple of the U.S. city, recent waves of immigrants have increasingly settled in the suburbs, where strip malls and their parking lots might offer the only public space.

"The suburbs where most immigrants go today are scattered, and the shopping center is where most social interaction occurs," said University of Southern Maine geographer Joseph S. Wood, who has studied Northern Virginia's Asian immigrant communities. "It's the automobile-era version of Delancey Street on the Lower East Side. In the age of suburbs, you have to cluster someplace, and that strip mall is the place to do it."

Wood said older shopping plazas that have drifted into decline are especially accessible to immigrant entrepreneurs, who then inject nueva vida, or new life, into the aging strips. "The spaces are cheap," he said. "They become opportunities for family-owned businesses that cater to certain communities rather than the larger public."

Wood has studied the transformation of Falls Church's Eden Center shopping plaza from an aging strip mall to the center of the region's Vietnamese community, featuring about 120 shops and restaurants and a lively street culture of its own. The same thing is underway on a different scale in Manassas and other suburban areas where Hispanics have moved, he said.

It was a strip mall in Woodbridge where hundreds of high school students marched last spring to protest congressional proposals to crack down on illegal immigration. Freedom High School students marched along Route 1 to Prince William Plaza, where Todos Supermarket, a popular Hispanic grocery store, is located. They met there in the parking lot with school officials to discuss the walkout, then segued into an impromptu festival, dancing on the pavement as reggaeton music rippled from their car stereos.


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