Searching for ways to create city's 'Spanish Town'


Upper Fells Point is moving to a Latin beat.

Caribbean Sazon offers carryout dishes such as chuletas and arroz habichuela. Caribbean Market has aisles of Latino food products by Goya, Iberia and Vitarroz. And Acapulco Music and Video has more than 20 shelves of videos, including "El Rey del Talon," "El Nino Jesus" and Willie Gonzalez in concert, as well as newspapers from Colombia and Guatemala.

Now, Hispanic business owners have organized to search for loans and government funds in the first moves toward creating Spanish Town, a district much like the city's Little Italy.

"The idea is not just businesses but refurbishing housing," said Beltran Navarro, chairman of the city's Commission for Hispanic Affairs. "I see a way for my people to own houses, own businesses and to develop a community in Spanish Town."

The district is proposed for the area between the Johns Hopkins Hospital complex and Fells Point, part of an empowerment zone designated by the federal government for grants, tax breaks and other revitalization programs.

More than 30 Hispanic businesses are in the area, with the strongest concentration in the 200 block of S. Broadway and the 1700 block of Eastern Ave.

The concept of Spanish Town has been considered by Latino residents near Fells Point for years. But it has gathered momentum recently with the creation of the Hispanic Business Association. Last month, about 40 Latino business owners and representatives from Johns Hopkins Hospital met to review a proposal for the district.

"Everything seems to be falling into place. I suspect within five or seven years it will all be in place," said Manuel Alban, acting president of the Hispanic Business Association. He also is executive director of the newspaper El Heraldo of Maryland, which has a circulation of more than 5,000.

Mr. Alban and others also said the Spanish Town designation would help attract tourists.

Miguel Rivera, a native of El Salvador, owns San Luis, a restaurant he has operated for four months in the 200 block of S. Broadway.

"A lot of Spanish people are around here and this is why I came to Broadway," he said.

"A friend of mine also told me Broadway would be developing very soon."

Heber Portillo, owner of the El Salvador restaurant in the same block, chose the area for his business because of its resemblance to the "barrio" -- the neighborhood where he grew up in El Salvador.

"I wanted to have a business that was open for everybody," he said. "But I really wanted it to serve the Spanish. This was a place where the Spanish live and there were commercial properties."

Reed Fulton, a senior project designer at Johns Hopkins, is assigned to monitor the development of Broadway all the way to the harbor. Hopkins hopes the area near the hospital will be developed so hospital visitors and their families will have a safe environment in which to shop, eat, relax or stroll.

"We can't lend money to the business owners, but we can lend them our numbers," Mr. Fulton said.

"Over 13,000 people come through Hopkins a day to visit patients or for outpatient surgery. Business can use Hopkins' numbers as a good resource for getting funding."

For some, such as Jose Luaces, the renewed interest in Spanish Town is long overdue.

"I've been fighting to keep the Spanish heritage here," said Mr. Luaces, who owns The Fishery restaurant in the 1700 block of Eastern Ave.

"Many years ago, I told them to open their eyes and look at us. And now, after 30 years, they're finally realizing we are here."

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