Illicit acts of urbanism
Imagen: Melisa Arreola, de la serie "Viva Tijuana (Tercera Ficcion)"
“We have different legal systems, but the basic rules are the same,"
Tijuana Mayor Jesus Gonzalez Reyes (2001- 2004), on the Mexican laws that U.S. tourists break.
Tijuana is primarily a result of illegal or illicit acts.
Since its conception, the idea of illegality has been the driving force behind its dystopian condition. Within a framework of illegality, exist instances of violent processes, that until recently have become the modus operandi of urban transformation.
An illegality, separated from morality and sometimes a need or necessity - a way of life.
An Illegality which constructs heterogeneity, a perception of the city that uses chronological events not to reveal a history, on the contrary it liberates a Deluzian diagram that does not represent but produces a new reality.
The first plan of the city drafted in 1889, became the ideal form to unlawfully alter. The grid, that paradigm of urban space, was now the instigator on the brink of illegality. When the beaux-arts plan was laid out, diagonal boulevards transverse the orthogonal parcels and connected a series of plazas. In places where the diagonals touched a parcel, a confrontation existed of a vicious manner. Landowners began to transgress the axial paths by building into them to obtain a greater amount of land. By 1921, the public diagonal paths had become a crippled desire of order and control, a failed plan to produce Cartesian logic.
Today, the only remnant piece of the diagonals is plaza Santa Cecilia, located on the verge of decency near the prostitution area of the Zona Norte and the “family” oriented Revolution Street.
In 1915, while San Diego was organizing the San Diego Panama Exposition and constructing the architectur-esque buildings of Balboa Park, Tijuana came up with its own Mexican fair and featured cock fights, alcohol, gambling and many prohibited desires of Californians. Corroborating once again, while SD was nostalgically looking for a past, Tijuana is where all the fun is. The Tijuana race track came into being during this time, financed by Californians, and open its doors in 1916 and since then it is part of a violent and unlawful history that until today has become the spotlight of controversy.
During prohibition in the United States, Tijuana became an accomplice to bootlegging and drunkenness by becoming an oasis of bars and liquor stores that served Americans during the Volstead law of the 1920’s. The origins of Mexicali beer, “La Ballena” (considered to have the longest bar in the world), saloons, prostitution and other illicit acts, that accompany inebriated recreation. Baja California wine business was established to produce the intoxicating needs of the gringo. Today the wines of the Valley of Guadalupe are world renown all thanks to prohibition, yet again, Tijuana took advantage of unlawful acts of its neighbor and embraced it as successful business enterprise.
In 1928 American entrepreneurs, trying to make a profit by making Tijuana, the precursor to Las Vegas, founded the Agua Caliente Casino. The casino pampered Hollywood celebrities such as Buster Keaton and Rita Hayworth, had race horse jack pots in the thousands of dollars and proliferated the opening of bars and hotels. The casino was such a success that the US government in trying to stop its citizens from enjoying themselves closed the border at 9 pm every night. This only made the local hotels in Tijuana more prosperous due to the fact the Americans decided to stay overnight. During the US depression the casinos and the commercial strips of downtown Tijuana flourished economically, yet all of this would come to an end in 1939 when by presidential decree, the Casino was converted into a school and gambling was prohibited in Mexico.
During the beginning of the Second World War, the US sent its young laboring men into the military service leaving the fields of California without hands to work the land. The Bracero program of 1942 became another incentive to immigrate to Tijuana and work in California. In a decade, immigration quadrupled the population and originated the phenomenon that still plagues this city, uncontrolled growth, invasion of property and illegal immigration. Even after the war, Americans felt obliged to hire illegal workforce in agriculture, construction and low paying service jobs. Many of these immigrants settled illegally in different parts of the city, but one of the most problematic invasions was happening in the River Zone next to the border and referred to as cartolandia or carton-land. Displacement of people from this area became 20 year endeavor terminating with a violent act in1979 that was to launch the city of Tijuana into modernity an erroneous premise of bureaucrats in Mexico City. During this time, heavy rains came down upon the city and the Rodriguez Dam had a significant amount of reserve that according to state officials needed to be released and without previous notice, the water swept away the carton made shacks.
The Tijuana River Canal, a deep cut dividing the city in two, a voie troimphale of concrete and sewage, memorializes this event today.
The canal was part of a project that included boulevards similar to the one in Mexico City and other infrastructures that would intent to Mexicanize Tijuana by force. The Tijuana Cultural Center was one of the institutions that flourished from the illicit act of the River Zone. The first phase of the canal ran from the border all the way to the Lazaro Cárdenas Education Center that used to be the Agua Caliente Casino, a straight line connecting two major historical settings and accomplices of illicit actions. The canal violently disrupts the urban fabric of the city and it is a place for addicts to sell and consume drugs, an area that stinks due to the untreated water that spill into it. Today inside the inner walls of the canal, gigantic images from local artists are being displayed as a misconstrued symbol of individuality and acculturation, a project that denominates Tijuana as a third nation. Once again, The Tijuana River area has become a place of forceful intervention and imposed rhetoric of progress from outsiders.
Modernization and progress is supposedly what foreign industries where to offer Tijuana.
Maquiladoras are manufacturing plants that take advantage of cheap labor and relaxed regulations that the Mexican government allows on dumping of hazardous material. Acids, solvents and other poisons are liberated into the environment along the industrial parks of Tijuana. The Maquiladoras promoted jobs and security to an incoming population that settled in the eastern part of the city. Some of the communities began as invasions of property.
Today developers are building with the flag of social housing, homes that even the UN calls unfit for dignified living. Erecting homes in a serialized fashion covering extensive areas of land. In comparison to these communities, the invasion type development is greener and has improved in the past years. An act of illegality that became a positive outcome, where the fundamental precept of mens rea, does not apply, while the “legal” constructions of greedy developers are a product of a faulty government codes where loopholes become the main conduit of shady legality.
Today we revisit the origin of urban illegality, the Agua Caliente Racetrack, at the forefront of illegitimate construction, drug trafficking, and other typical endeavors of this city.
In the elections for mayor of August 2004, Tijuana voted for Hank Rhon, the son of a well known PRI politician. Hank took over the race track back in the 70’s, fired most of the laborers, did away with horse racing, and converted the building into his private zoo and polo club. Today Hank is mayor and celebrated his political triumph with a huge party at the racetrack. Hank also developed an area of the race track grounds illegally, because the land is property of the federal government. The up scale housing development known as Puerta de Hierro or Door of Iron, is know where the wealthiest Tijuanenses call home. The only problem is that the development is considered an invasion settlement as the ones in the hills of the city, since their properties are not registered as legal parcels with the municipality, a technicality that would probably be “legalized” when Mr. Rhon takes office.
Tijuana is a battle field where the processes of power and social life are always in check or as Henri Lefebvre points out “the city and the urban sphere are thus the setting of struggle; they are also however the stakes of that struggle”.
The city’s urban condition is always producing spatial bifurcations, its formlessness is a combination of Rem’s junkspace and Piranesi’s Campo Marzio where,” the unmasking of the contradiction, as an act that in itself might offer a ray of hope for a culture condemned to operate with degraded means…” (Tafuri).
Illegal or illicit urban manifestations are until now product of a ineffective system, and used for planning and development that are more about the bottom line than promoting social manifestations that could foster mediated urban processes, a mediated city, as Virilio points out “building mediated structures, conjointly circulatory and habitable…with stratification of uses according to the necessities of time and the masses”.