On a sunny day, two workers had a big job ahead of them — removing the 7-foot bars that for years covered the front windows of El Paso del Norte, a bakery and taqueria on Independence Avenue in northeast Kansas City.
Mike Iniguez and his brothers run the restaurant. He says the neighborhood was “kind of sad” when his father opened the business in 1998.
It was a working class area, and many of the homes and businesses there were rundown. But low home prices drew Latinos and other immigrants to the historic neighborhood.
“My dad had noticed because he worked for the railroad in KCK that a lot of Hispanic people were moving this way,” says Iniguez.
Iniguez says his dad seized the opportunity and bought the once-condemned building that still houses the restaurant.
“We started out with one little bakery case, one little shelf with some room temperature drinks, a cash register, and a couple hundred pieces of bread,” he says.
The bakery has expanded to fill the rest of the first floor and they’ve even added on. The menu has also grown to include tacos, tamales and menudo.
Nearby, dozens of other eateries and stores have popped up. Many of them are run by and cater to immigrants that live nearby. It’s not just people with Latin American roots that are living and working in Kansas City's Historic Northeast. People from across the world — Asia, Africa and the Middle East — call the area home.
In 2013, the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce led the effort to establish a community improvement district (CID). This allows businesses to tax themselves to pay for security, beautification projects, and other community improvements.
Iniguez says he’s seen the neighborhood grow over the past 17 years, and working with the CID, he made a big change to how the business looks — taking the iron bars off the windows.
“Part of the condition was, to take the down the bars, so it doesn’t look so much like a jail or dangerous.”
Taking down the bars is a first step, but it can be a tough sell convincing longtime Kansas Citians that Independence Avenue is a safe place to grab dinner.
“Northeast was always kind of ‘a don’t-go-there neighborhood,'” says Iniguez. “It’s blue collar, but that’s not a bad thing.”
Iniguez says he plans to give El Paso del Norte a facelift by moving seating so his customers can take in the new view while they eat.