Brownsville, Texas

A Roadmap

Lizzie MacWillie, Kelsey Menzel, Jesse Miller & Josué Ramirez

Hacemos la Ciudad by Las Imaginistas. Credit: Jesse Miller

According to analysis of 2011 American Communities Survey data, Brownsville is the 2nd poorest metropolitan area in the US (following nearby McAllen).1See source. The last decade ended with news stories heralding the arrival of the space industry and natural gas pipelines. These are part of a trend in which major infrastructure and development investments face up against the realities of persistent poverty, high rates of obesity and diabetes, and other ills. Development rewards outside interests and capital, while the local community is left in generational poverty and political marginalization. As long as most residents are unable to make a decent living, and as long as families continue to live in houses that threaten their physical health, changes that help only those who are already doing relatively well are not enough. Approaching equity in public space, work and economy, infrastructure, public health, and the environment begins with recognizing and accepting the unfiltered history of Brownsville and the legacies of racial and economic oppression.

With their own voices, residents and community leaders of Texas’s southernmost border city have shared their stories about the causes and outcomes of these inequalities, while envisioning opportunities for a more equitable future. For us, the editors of this report, the authors of these features inspire us and our work every day. So much wisdom is being shared, written, in the midst of a pandemic. As our society, and Brownsville, moves past the pandemic and begins to operate in more familiar ways, we hear the calls not for a return to “normal,” but for a push for equity. To amplify those calls, we offer these closing thoughts, a distillation of the guidance shared throughout this report and from our experience working in Brownsville:

  • The most knowledgeable experts of a place are the people who live there and are from there. All efforts to solve Brownsville’s challenges and build on its assets should center local knowledge and give the community control in decision making.
  • The momentum of historic Anglo dominance is hard to break. In contrast to the organic cultural identity of Brownsville, the identity shaped by policy continues to push an idea of “fitting in” with the rest of America. A city identity that more accurately reflects and responds to its residents can drive more civic engagement. This would look like: conducting City business in English and Spanish equally; memorializing, honoring, and telling the stories of people of color in public spaces; and creating economic policy that eliminates barriers for micro-entrepreneurs.
  • Community leaders need support to do the important work they’re doing; the City’s budget and economic development strategy should prioritize people and support grassroots work. Brownsville needs investment in services that will help its residents thrive. The 2020 fiscal year budget allocated 18 percent of the city’s spending toward police, almost 16 times what is spent on public health and 38 times what is spent on housing assistance. 
  • Brownsville is in need of open, accessible public space, and the banks of the Rio Grande are a significant and symbolic opportunity. The wandering nature of the river creates approximately 25 miles of riverbank along the city’s southern edge. Currently this space is filled with the wall, razor wire, surveillance technology, and border patrol agents: a continuation of colonization and manifest destiny. This space needs to be demilitarized and opened to the people.

Brownsville Undercurrents came about as a response to common narratives of Brownsville that we felt were simplistic and inaccurate. By listening to the unique voices highlighted throughout the report, we began to see a roadmap for a more equitable future. This roadmap is not yet fully drawn, but the residents of Brownsville are ready and equipped to take the lead.


Lizzie MacWillie

is director of urbanism at buildingcommunityWORKSHOP [bc], where she has worked on projects ranging from community engagement for the City of Dallas’ cultural plan to El Sonido del Agua, an arts and advocacy project in the Rio Grande Valley, and design guidelines for Main Street, Millinocket, Maine, as part of the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design. Prior to joining [bc], she worked at OMA/AMO in Rotterdam, Netherlands, as an editor of Elements of Architecture by Rem Koolhaas. She received master’s degrees in urban design and art, design, and the public domain from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Carnegie Mellon University. MacWillie is a member of the equity, diversity, and inclusion committee of the Texas Society of Architects and serves on the advisory board of Columns Magazine.

Kelsey Menzel

is the development manager at [bc]. She oversees the organization’s fundraising and development, cultivating valuable relationships with key stakeholders ranging from large organizations and communities to single individuals—all of whom have at least one thing in common: a commitment to building strong, sustainable, and equitable cities. She previously worked as a copywriter for a local nonprofit development agency before teaching English as a foreign language in Bogotá, Colombia. While completing her master’s degree in urban management, Menzel partnered with the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville to research affordable housing approaches in the colonias of Cameron County. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from The University of Texas at Austin and a master’s in urban management from the Technical University of Berlin, Germany.

Jesse Miller

(AIA) is an architect with Megamorphosis in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. He works “to create places and spaces where people can thrive by using a diverse set of skills and experience in award-winning architecture, community planning, and community education projects and initiatives.” Miller earned a master’s degree in architecture at Ball State University, located in his home state of Indiana. While in graduate school, he studied at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico, working on his thesis, “Between Tradition and Dissent: Learning From and Working With Ignored Communities.” Miller is an adjunct professor in the architecture program at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, working with students on service learning projects with local municipalities and nonprofits. He serves as vice chairperson for the Housing Authority of the City of Brownsville and treasurer of the AIA Lower Rio Grande Valley executive committee, and is a member of the Texas Architect Magazine publication committee.

Josué Ramirez

is the Mi Casita program coordinator at come dream. come build. in Brownsville, Texas, where he has served since 2019. Ramirez guides participating families in the colonias and rural communities of Cameron, Hidalgo, and Willacy counties through the homeownership process and the design and construction of their homes through sweat equity. He earned a bachelor’s degree of arts in Mexican American studies with a focus on public policy from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a multidisciplinary artist working through visual art, installation, crafts, and performance. His artwork has been exhibited in the MexicArte Museum, Art League Houston, the Brownsville Museum of Fine Arts, as well in publications like Remezcla and Pitchfork. Ramirez serves as the director of raw creativity for Trucha RGV, a media collective and online platform focused on the arts, culture, and social movements of the region. He is a founding member and is responsible for creative/cultural programming.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.