Here is my text published in the book Tijuana Dreaming by Josh Kun and Fiamma Montezemolo.
Illicit Acts of Urbanism
We have different legal systems, but the basic rules are the same
-Tijuana Mayor Jesus Gonzalez Reyes (2001- 2004) on the Mexican
-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, illegality has been the driving force behind Tijuana’s dystopian condition, a prevalence of conflicting processes that have become the modus operandi of urban transformation. An illegality separated from morality and sometimes put into practice according to need or necessity - a way of survival.
In Tijuana, illegality produced a legendary saga, forming and reshaping the numerous mythical narratives of the contemporary city. A city conceived by conflict (Mexican American war) and endorsed by a shady deal (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo), events that became the symbolic impetus for the future evolution of its urban space.
Illegality has been the crux of a city caught in a dialectical tension between desire and condemnation.
Following the Mexican-American war of 1846-48, Ricardo Orozco, a young engineer from Mexico City, was hired by the Argüello family to give order to the various ranches they had established in the Valley of Tijuana. The plan was part of an agreement to settle a land dispute between members of the Argüello and Olvera families, original settlers of the valley. Litigations ended in 1889, which became the adopted as the founding of the city. Orozco was trained at the famous Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City; an institution influenced by French concepts in urban design during an era described as belle époque, a style adopted in the late 19th century by emerging Latin American cities. Orozco laid out the plan along the U.S./Mexico border and adjacent to the Tijuana River Valley. The plan included a series of diagonal boulevards that connected parks and public spaces, as well as a diverse set of block types for residential and commercial functions. Positivism and a Haussmann sense of urban order were meant to replace the old colonial checker board grids, common in most Mexican cities, and negate the generic homogenous block plans of neighboring San Diego. As Antonio Padilla, Tijuana’s leading urban historian writes:
one of the prime relations between the map and the ideals of positivism influenced by Agusto Comte, was the rejection at the outset of a return to a historical tradition typified by the Hispano-Colonial model conformed by a grid with a center as the seat of religious and political power. The plan of Tijuana is part of a rational and philosophical order based on man’s liberty and not only subjected to rational logic.
As soon as the beaux-arts plan was laid out and implemented, it went through radical changes. Topography interrupted the philosophical order and form, and the desire for greater profits became the stimulus for illegality. Forceful confrontations arose in places where the street diagonals touched a parcel. Landowners began to transgress the axial paths by building into them in order to increase their parcels area. By 1921, the plan and its axial avenues had become a crippled desire of order and control, a failed plan to produce Cartesian logic. In contrast to the positivist ideals of Orozco, his new plan for Tijuana marked the beginning of the dystopic myth of the city.
Today, the only remnant piece of the plan’s diagonals is plaza Santa Cecilia, located on the verge of decency near the red light district of Zona Norte and the once “family” oriented Revolution Street. There would be one more attempt in the 1970’s to bring order to the urban chaos from years of informal planning with the imposed plan of a new downtown area known as Zona Rio, an area that left a distinct scar in the organic fabric of contemporary Tijuana.
Bargain Basement of Sin
In 1915, while San Diego was organizing the San Diego Panama-California Exposition and constructing the pseudo-colonial buildings of Balboa Park, Tijuana came up with its own Mexican festivities and featured around the clock entertainment such as, cock fights, alcohol, gambling and many other venues for the prohibited desires of Californians. Corroborating once again that while San Diego was nostalgically looking for a past, Tijuana was the happiest place on earth. The Tijuana race track began construction during this time, a project mostly financed by Californians, and opened its doors in 1916. James “Sunny Jim” Coffroth, son of a California Senator and a boxing promoter, headed south from San Francisco and its moral climate looking for a profitable business deal south of the border in Old Mexico. He became a major investor in the construction of the racetrack. The track became an unrivaled tourist attraction in the border region and many raced down to Tijuana once the bars were closed indefinitely in California. San Diego closed its border at nine o’clock trying to stop the Anglo diaspora, yet tourists still got away through the famous hole in the fence, a secret breech that was well known by visitors, racetrack employees and the “twenties version of contemporary coyotes in reverse who shuttled visitors back and forth from north to south across the border.” Tijuana during this time had a population of less than 2000 and there were probably more visitors to the track during the racing season than inhabitants of the city. In multiple occasions the track suffered damages by the torrent waters of the Tijuana River yet it was such a profitable business the track was rebuilt every time. This gambling venue alone sparked the economy and nightlife of downtown which for the next 50 years became the epitome of hedonistic gringo entertainment across the US/Mexico Border. David Jimenez Beltran, the track’s biographer said it best: “Without the racetrack Tijuana would have had a difficult time economically. The growth of the city can be traced to one word, hipodromo, or racetrack.” Since then it has been part of a violent and unlawful history. Though horse racing no longer takes place in at the track, to this day it continues to be in the spotlight of various controversies.
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 era of the Volstead Act of the 1920’s. It was then that many establishments—from La Ballena beer hall (considered to have the longest bar in the world) to a series of saloons, brothels and other illicit Edens-- began to cater to tourists who came as far from the Hollywood Hills and as close by as San Diego. Baja California’s wine industry also took off to meet 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 the disobedient actions of its neighbor and embraced the situation as a successful business enterprise.
In 1928, American entrepreneurs trying to strike a profit by making Tijuana the precursor to Las Vegas, founded the Agua Caliente Casino. The casino pampered Hollywood celebrities such as Buster Keaton, Bing Crosby, Rita Hayworth, along with mafia boss Al Capone. Wayne McAllister, a young 18 year old draftsman from San Diego, and his wife where given the task of designing Agua Caliente, a luxurious casino and resort second only to Monte Carlo. Designed with an eclectic palette of Spanish Mission architecture, art deco interiors and Moorish accents, Agua Caliente was a 10 million dollar investment that in today’s economy would sum a 2 billion dollar price tag. Caliente became very lucrative and had daily jackpots in the thousands of dollars and its fame aided in the proliferation of many bars and hotels across the river into downtown. McAllister would later design the first major casino in Las Vegas, El Rancho (also known as the “Caliente of Nevada”) and his work continues to adorn the famous strip with casinos such as the Freemont and The Sands. In his last interview published in Spanish, McAllister remembers that Agua Caliente was such a profitable venture that it created enough tax revenue for the total budget of the Northern Territory of Baja California. During the US depression, the casino expanded and the new commercial strip of downtown Tijuana flourished economically, yet all of this would come to an end in 1939 when by presidential decree, all gambling was prohibited in Mexico and Agua Caliente was converted into a school. Soon after, the money, glory and legend of sin city moved to its new home-- Las Vegas.
Fluvial Tabula Rasa
During 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. Immigration quadrupled the city’s’ population in a decade and originated the phenomena that still plagues it today: uncontrolled growth, informal development and illegal immigration. Even after the war, Americans felt obliged to hire illegal workforces in agriculture, construction and low paying service jobs. Many of these immigrants settled illegally in different parts of the city, but the most problematic settlement grew along the banks of the Tijuana River: cartolandia or carton-land. The relocation of people from this area became a 20-year endeavor for city officials that ended with a violent act in 1979, which would launch the city of Tijuana into modernity, a malevolent plan concocted by the federal government in Mexico City. During that year, heavy rains came down upon the city and the Rodriguez Dam located on the city’s east-side 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 City of Tijuana has always turned its back on the only river that transects the city’s urban fabric from east to west. Since its conception, Tijuana has always gazed north toward the border and struggled with the frantic development along the Tijuana River until major federal efforts proposed its channelization. The Tijuana River Canal proved to be a mono-logical solution to control yearly flooding and informal developments along its edge. The concrete canal violently divided the urban fabric in two areas and created a no man’s land in its interior that today even police don’t dare to enter. The accelerated developments of the periphery, brought about by the installation of manufacturing parks, produced communities lacking basic urban services such as sewer infrastructure and had no alternative but to use the Tijuana River Canal as an outlet for sewage discharge, mixing with the toxic fluids from adjacent manufacturing plants. The canal runs across the US/Mexico Border releasing this concoction of toxic waters into the Tijuana River Estuary Reserve in the U.S. and the Pacific Ocean. This crisis, of environmental and bi-national consequence of the shared ecology between San Diego and Tijuana, prompted authorities to plan a series of sewage treatment plants, of which only two have been built and are currently operational. Only until recently has the Tijuana City government been able to install sewer infrastructure in the many squatter communities adjacent to the river. This has prompted the urgent task of rethinking the relationship between the canal, the river and its urban development. City officials, however, seem to think that more channelization is the answer to the problems encountered by the rapid growth along the banks of the river. In the last two years there have been alternative plans to restore part of the river: removing concrete in parts of the canal, using the river as a public space during the dry season and installing trains for public transportation on the shoulder of the canal. Many of these plans have failed or have not been studied in detail, leaving the future relationship of Tijuana and its river unresolved.
Drag and Drop Urbanism
Modernization and progress are supposedly what foreign industries were to offer Tijuana. Maquiladoras are manufacturing plants that take advantage of cheap labor and relaxed environmental regulations that find the dumping of hazardous materials overlooked by the Mexican authorities. Acids, solvents and other poisons spill into the canyons along the industrial parks of Tijuana and into nearby informal housing developments. The Maquiladoras promoted jobs and security to an incoming population that settled rapidly in the eastern part of the city, an informal process that began through property invasion.
A reactionary antidote to the expedient squatter settlements was a government subsidized program for the acquirement of homes built by private developers. Today private developers are building, under the banner of social housing, serialized housing developments that even the UN has deemed unfit for dignified living. In comparison to these communities, the informal developments tend to improve with limited infrastructure as years pass and some have morphed into consolidated communities. In a 2000 study published by COLEF, Mexico’s border think tank, 50% of all housing stock in the city was found to have begun as an illegal settlement. At the same time, the “legal” constructions of greedy developers are a product of faulty government zoning codes where loopholes become the main conduit of shady legality.
The informal settlements have woven themselves into multiple spaces, each with its distinct form of identity, which as of today has produced the most heterogeneous places within the city. Yet the conflict arises when these informal and rhizomatic systems of development are confronted with “planned” alternatives of serialized housing for hundreds of thousands of people, using methods of mass manufacturing that produce mono-logical containers, a homogenous archipelago, where the pursuit of diversity is an illicit endeavor. These communities were part of a drag and drop urbanism that after twenty years only some have been successful in breaking away from the mold of top down urban planning and inflexible land use policy. The spatial differences between both informal and formal developments vary in that one is capable of absorbing and constructing out individual perceptions of what constitutes a partial yet autonomous right to the city. Subsidized developments tend to produce a condition of entropy within serialized communities and as a result individual needs and wants have to be attained through forms of resistance against capsular sub-urbanization. Size, boundaries and the concept of ownership are part of the discrepancies found between both formal and informal models. A typical serialized development is made up numerous enclaves; for example, the oldest developments of this kind are composed of approximately eight sections, sometimes defined by walls and access control gates in the manner of upper middle class gated communities. Their limits are defined, yet the concept of ownership is redefined by a new system of credit while failing to promote opportunities in community building. Meanwhile, in the informal communities, the city bureaucracy has not been able to completely “legalize” them because of their constant flux, leaving boundaries to be negotiated between each member of the community. Ownership is achieved through a system of channels of communication. Therefore, the boundaries within informal developments change due to the constant reorganization of the area. Most of these communities share a desire for a better future and organize strong political groups that can guarantee votes for city council seats.
These days, land is scarce and the waves of arriving settlers have fewer options in settling in especially if they don’t participate in the low-income housing market. As the city extends toward the east and topography limits access to buildable land, new informal communities tend to decrease. Yet, there is an increase in the second hand rental market in informal areas where small rooms and back houses are rented to incoming migrants. New extensive areas of informal settlements have decreased but existing ones have begun a process of densification.
The new sectors of the city made up of a combination of informal (shanty towns) and formal (developer housing) developments have reached a critical mass. This eastern zone of the city was described a few years ago as La Nueva Tijuana, the New Tijuana. It is where half of the population now resides, approximately one million people. It became a zone of immigrants from diverse socio economic levels and distinct regions of the country, with each bringing their own customs and traditions into a mix of tastes and fantasies in the city epitomized by the famous Porfirio Diaz quote “so far from god and so close to the United States”. The first serialized housing developments created 20 years ago are no longer discernable. The need to transform both informal and formal developments has created an ambiguous urban space of improvised informal markets, multi family zones (once single family residences), internet cafes and countless incompatible programmatic assemblies based solely on consumer trends and needs. “New Tijuana” became the poster child of informality, where academics, artists and social scientist catalogued, documented and photographed the creative methods of construction, resiliency and survival. New Tijuana is made up of different delegaciones (boroughs) and its urban fabric moves across jurisdictional boundaries that fight for revenue against other more affluent areas of the city.
Public safety is compromised for this reason and these zones have become some of the most crime-ridden areas of the city. Recently they have been host to drug cartel groups that take advantage of the large rental housing stock used for operation centers, hostage detainment and armories—an estimated 40 thousand abandoned low income homes have been taken over by organized crime in the northern states of Mexico. The infamous Arellano Felix cartel ex lieutenant who was operating with his own commandos, Teodoro Garica Pimentel “El Teo”, was said to have complete control of the east side of the city before his capture by federal police in early 2010. An area of the city once known for its self-styled architectural creativity (the recycling of garage doors, tires and many other surplus items from the US for incredible vernacular constructions) is now the government’s target against a large black market arms trade coming from bordering states in the US. The New Tijuana has been transformed from the laboratory of postmodernism to one of the nation’s most important battlegrounds of the war on drugs-- nearly an independent state with its own culture, law and development strategy.
Recently, the rest of the city has suspended its fascination for the east side as a space of inspiration. New Tijuana has ceased to be “The Mother of Invention”. The struggle of the working class from incomplete programs of urbanization and other top down planning policies is no longer looked upon as a rightful method to achieve an urban society. Even the categorization of the east side as a product of bottom up urbanism is no longer championed as the struggle of a disadvantaged class against neo capitalist and free market urbanism (manufacturing, free trade zones, private development).
From a cultural perspective, the New Tijuana begins to become irrelevant as a celebratory image of hybridity due to the impulsive autonomy that extended the appropriation of the city to all social groups including organized crime. The urban imaginary of the city has changed since it was baptized in the 1990s as a laboratory of postmodernity by the celebrated sociologist Nestor Garcia Canclini, which helped encourage the creation of academic and artistic events and symposia that brought together world renowned artist and thinkers. One of the most successful art programs to build on the idea of Tijuana and the border region as hybrid and postmodern is InSITE, a bi-national in-situ art installation event and symposium where international artists and theorists came together every 3 years to research and discuss art practices in the public domain between the San Diego / Tijuana border region. Tijuana artist Marcos Ramirez ERRE illustrated the fractured essence of Tijuana urban and social space with his reconstruction of an informal house for InSITE 1994. He recreated a dwelling typical to the ones built in the informal settlements of the city on the esplanade of the Tijuana Cultural Center (Cecut). Designed in the late 70’s by the renown Mexican architects Pedro Ramirez Vazquez and Manuel Rosen Morrison, Cecut represents the institutional modernism of the PRI, the political party that ruled Mexico for more than 70 years. Century 21 intended to de-contextualize both structures by making apparent and visible the formal and tempo-spatial tension inherent in the large context of the contemporary city. During InSITE 2000 and within the same context of the Cecut, the polish born artist Krzystof Wodiczko projected images of women maquiladora workers on the exterior of the large spherical structure of the center’s Imax theater. The work exposes the employment abuses of these women who work long hours in the maquiladoras and live in the precarious company towns near the industrial parks. Wodiczko’s project, as with the Ramirez intervention, emphasizes the fractures between the global and local, and between nation state politics and the political realities of the border.
In 2002 Newsweek magazine named Tijuana—alongside Cape Town and Kabul-- as one of the top emerging cultural centers in the developing world, a so-called “World Cultural Mecca.” By 2006, Tijuana’s cultural boom would begin to fade as its reputation shifted toward being one of the most dangerous urban areas in northern Mexico. Homicides, cartel shoot-outs and kidnappings became daily ordeals across the city from east to west; Tijuana had been subjugated to the reign of the AK-47. That same year the US Department of State warned its citizens of the violence and made an effort to restrain them from traveling to the city. The warning was extended to many of the same academic institutions that had only recently established Tijuana as their Latin America petri dish.
By 2008, Tijuana was considered the third most violent city in the country. The entire city was now dealing with the extreme rise of violence, and numerous cultural projects and curatorial efforts began to publicly question the validity of art and culture as a means of social activism. In 2008, curators Lucia Sanroman and Ruth Estevez organized Proyecto Civico / Civic Project, which constructed an argument based on the theory of states of exception to critically present the need for society to become active participants, via cultural production, in the reformulation of the political and the city. According to the curators, “Tijuana has been historically established as a series of exclusions from the legal constitution of the country that have created conditions that closely parallel the concept of a state of exception as defined by Giorgio Agamben, a suspension of law that nevertheless ratifies the rule of law and the hierarchy of the sovereign”. Our continued tolerance of the illicit as a way of survival has crippled our participation in the construction of a democratic and integrated society. We are now, as a society, participants in the decay of our system of illicit acts.
This attitude was clearly evidenced in one of the works exhibited in Proyecto Civico / Civic Project by the artist Marcos Ramirez ERRE. Ramirez, the same artist known for his Century 21 project in the plaza of the Tijuana Cultural Center for InSite94, prepared a short video performance of an organized crime murder for hire. In the work titled Todos somos el mismo, (El bueno, el malo y el feo) / We Are All the Same One (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly), Ramirez impersonates a mafia hit man, known in the drug cartel world as a sicario, and in a second scene reappears as the murdered mystery man in a black Suburban and at the end of the performance plays the federal officer investigating the murder scene. In this short video performance Ramirez suggests that we as society are incriminating ourselves as participants in the dissolution of society’s values and construction of a destructive public consciousness. The enemy is among us. We have succumbed to a debilitating psychosis of our own hyper dystopia.
We are now experiencing the city not as a laboratory of postmodernism, but more as a state of exception. Our socio-cultural strategies are now geared toward healing the social fabric and if possible the reconstruction of our institutions as more democratic and heterogeneous points of interaction. Based on the success in the mid 90’s of Bogota’s model of community building implemented by controversial mayor Antanas Mockus and later the restructuring of public space and institutions by his successor Enrique Peñalosa, a group of artists from Tijuana made public their desire for civic change in a proposal titled Plan de Cultura de Tijuana / Tijuana’s Plan for Culture 2010. The group was formed by writers, painters, video artists, architects and representatives of various non-profit organizations, and the premise of the plan was to entice a new way of making cultural policy through various social groups with vested interests in the local community. This policy was then shared with political candidates from all parties running for the Tijuana mayor’s office in 2010.
The plan has five central core objectives. The first makes a strong effort to encourage the dispersing of cultural programs and institutions throughout the city, thereby decentralizing stare-run programs. The second objective argues for a “cultural healing of community and public space” which involves combating visual and auditory contamination and a cleansing of the city of discriminatory violent propaganda. Ironically, some of these same intolerant acts of urban life were celebrated by the advocates of the postmodern Tijuana less than a decade ago and left their influence on some aspects of cultural projects such as the Nortec Collective (who, for example, often incorporated images of Tijuana criminality in their live performance visuals). The plan is a draft that needs more concrete trajectories for its deployment, yet it is important to recognize that it considers the politics of exclusion as one of the conditions that has allowed organized crime to appropriate the social imaginary.
This new attitude toward Tijuana’s social fabric and public space has been a guiding factor in the evolution of a new urban imaginary with a decidedly self-critical point of view. After decades of external signifiers that have some way or another shaped the perception of the city, various social groups are interested in forging a new type of citizen with a critical and self-referential point of view. These include organizations that foster new social ties between policies and community, reclaim public space, and promote environmental practices that take care of our shared natural ecology. The potential of the city lies in its innate state of expediency and resiliency that’s been honed over the 100 years of its history of surviving illicit acts of urbanism. Its future is rooted in its ability to re-imagine itself from within, to believe that new cultural and social paradigms can be part of a new era of change.
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