Newcomers can be forgiven for wondering where exactly they have stumbled.

At the intersection of East Fifth and Comal streets, one encounters a series of handsome, well-proportioned portals leading to a landscaped courtyard, surrounded by tiled and shaded arcades as well as native grasses and shrubs. Newly added to the northern boundary is a modern, working MetroRail stop, which matches the style of the nearby lofts and live-work spaces that have risen from the neglected industrial ruins along the old tracks.

Missing: People. Often, during the day or night, the place is deserted.

Longtimers know Plaza Saltillo well, however, despite its sometimes lonely and forlorn ambience.

Built in 1997 by the City of Austin after much public discussion and with selected contributions — benches, a fountain, a statue, labor — from Austin's sister city of Saltillo, Coahuila, it's not a historical site in the traditional sense. Yet it reverberates with local narratives, as confirmed by former Austin Mayor Gus García, who toured the plaza (on foot) and the adjacent neighborhood (by car) with me on a hot morning in June.

Our tête-à-tête grew from Out & About columns about my neighborhood walks in the East Cesar Chavez and Guadalupe districts, which border the plaza. (Anyone interested in additional material about the East Cesar Chavez area should consult Lori C-Renteria's helpful pamphlet, "The Tejano Walking Trail." Contact her at loriaustin@live.com.)

The sometimes-controversial square needs some explanation, even for those who follow Austin cultural politics closely. The seeds of social awareness that led to Plaza Saltillo, García says, go back to the Economy Furniture Co. strike (1968-1971), the appointment or election of some of the area's first Latino officials, such as Roy Guerrero, Gonzalo Barrientos, John Treviño and RichardMoya,and the protests against Aqua Fest boat races in the 1970s. All these events helped shape a political consciousness for East Austin and pumped energy into improvement projects such as the plaza.

Using dry humor, quick wit and slightly salty language, García recalls the twists and turns of the story, stirring in names richly redolent of modern Austin history, such as former Mexico Tipico restaurant owner Diana Vasquez-Valera,former state Rep. Glen Maxey,La Prensa publisher Kathy Vasquez,Nuevo Leon restaurant owner Rachel Dávila, former Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church pastor Bill Elliotand former City Council member Betty Dunkerley(who identified City of Austin dollars to match federal funds for the project).

"They were the main forces behind the effort to build the plaza," García says.

Olé Mexico, a promotional zone whose centerpiece was Plaza Saltillo, was conceived to support the neighborhood's web of Mexican eateries. The city had loaned money to one branch of the Limon family to open Don Limon's on East Seventh Street, at the present location of Any Baby Can.

"Everybody came," said García. "It was making money like you couldn't believe."

Don Limon's was indeed big news when it opened in 1992. But the owners of nearby existing restaurants resented the exclusive taxpayer support of Don Limon's. (Just as with the later Second Street and Domain districts, competing local businesspeople rarely respond positively when the City of Austin dangles a carrot in front of new businesses.) So the restaurateurs lobbied to create a special destination district called Olé Mexico.

Olé Mexico needed a focal point. That's where Plaza Saltillo came in. It was designed to operate as a neighborhood gathering spot, a farmers market and as a stop for a proposed light rail system.

Opened with blasting fanfare, the plaza was the subject of political maneuvering even from Mexico. The mayor of Saltillo, a stronghold of a conservative political party, had approved additions to the plaza (benches, etc.) to make it look more like a traditional Spanish town center. His successor, elected from a rival party, arrived one hot-then-cold day to inspect the place, and insisted the city of Saltillo give more culturally specific adornments, including the bust of a Mexican revolutionary figure who spent time in Central Texas.

Yet as with so many urban plans, Olé Mexico faded. After its initial success, Don Limon's also faltered and closed, owing the city money. The light rail system was not built, and the farmers market evaporated, perhaps because such efforts were not marketed accurately for the neighborhood as it stood five or 10 years ago.

"It would never have thrived as do the other city farmers markets," says Danny Camacho, a volunteer with the Austin History Center. "But as the Olé Mexico area has changed, including the loft across the street from the plaza, maybe it's time to revisit the idea."

For a while, before the arrival of commuter rail, the plaza became a makeshift homeless camp. Capital Metro and the City of Austin disputed which entity was responsible for maintaining the site.

No longer a subject of serious contention, the plaza is still a point of social activism, as groups such as Keep Austin Beautiful, Capital Metro, City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department and the Austin-Saltillo Sister Cities Association work with designer Ilse Frank of Studio Balcones to continue improvements, including renovations and sustainable landscaping. The plaza beautification campaign even merits its own Facebook page.

Does all this activity qualify as unwanted intrusion into East Austin? Not if you consider the deep roots of Plaza Saltillo in the surrounding community and its cultural history.

"It's a natural evolution," García says of East Austin's growing connection to downtown and the rest of Austin. "Once we as a city decided that we wanted a vibrant downtown (and the Council voted on this issue several times in the 1990s), many of us knew that development was going to move east of downtown. It was — and still is — the most logical option."

Nowadays, the plaza serves multiple purposes, besides rail stop. The annual Día de los Muertos parade starts here; community gatherings such as pet adoption fairs and voter registration campaigns are often booked for the plaza.

"Time brings change, some eras more accelerated than others," Camacho says. "Yes, there were the homeless, and weeds grew as the city and Cap Metro squabbled over who was responsible for maintenance. But this is the present, and there is a future. What will that bring?"

mbarnes@statesman.com