Any city worth being a city has a historical patrimony, one its residents can see and touch. — Luis Tamés
More than 1000 miles separate the heartland of Mexico from its northern border with the United States. Like wave after wave of immigrants who followed the trail north, Mexico's architecture and strands of her urbanist landscape also journeyed north. But the formation of towns along Mexico's northern border did not evolve exclusively around the elements of traditional Mexican cities; it was strongly influenced by the colossal neighbor to the north, the United States.
If one follows the course of border-town growth in Mexico, particularly in the period following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which created the present-day international boundary, it is obvious that the United States exercised considerable influence on the formation of the regional landscape. Following the 1848 treaty that created the political boundary, most of Mexico's border towns remained isolated from the heartland and therefore open to building ties with the United States.
Early Anglo-American influences on the townscapes appeared in the form of wooden (as opposed to stone) building fades, commercial signage in English, and the utilization of American regional architectural styles, such as California Mission Revival. But, following the Mexican Revolution and consolidation of a new political system (1910-1930), a nationalist era began, and Mexico asserted control over her cities, even along the distant northern border.
After World War II, the Mexican government crafted formal policies to protect the cultural patrimony both nationally and regionally. Yet by the 1980s, those controls were slipping. The era of the North American Free Trade Agreement once again opened border-town landscapes to the influences of the United States. Like the migrant waves that ebbed and flowed north, the visual landscape in the border towns vacillated between complete permeability to the culture north of the border and nationalistic protectionism and isolation from all outside influences.
Danger and Exotica in Mexican Border Townscape
What is it that makes the cultural landscapes of Mexican border towns unique? Several observations can be made. First, these are, for Mexico, relatively young landscapes that were created largely in the last two centuries. Mexico is a nation with a history of city building that dates back some 3000 or more years. Obviously, the making of the northern-border landscape is a relatively recent phenomenon.
At the turn of the 20th Century, young Mexican border towns looked like the frontier cities of the American West: dusty, unpaved streets lined with wooden saloons and a few retail stores. Their existence was defined by the simple fact that, while lying geographically near the United States, they were officially outside its borders and could house recreational activities that would otherwise have been forbidden north of the border. The origins of the Mexican border iconography of gambling, prostitution, and alcohol consumption lie in the period 1910 to 1935 but have proved to be difficult to displace.
The forbidden landscape of the border finds its way into both literature and media portraits of the border. An example is found in a J970 nonfiction book Poso del Mundo. Pretending to describe life on the Mexican border, the author makes no secret about his point of view in the rather blatant book title, which means sinkhole of the world. The 1970s Mexican border is likened to one of the lowest moral places on the planet, "a sixteen-hundred-mile pleasure strip measurably oriented to gringos with low libidinal thresholds."
Mexican border-town architecture is equated with neglect, decay, and "squat buildings and narrow streets, with the requisite number of potholes." Commerce occurs in ''plastic-tropical" bars like the Marabu in Nuevo Laredo, "a barn-sized hall with an elevated dance floor bigger than a basketball court and completely encircled by tables. The decor is Mexican Futuristic, which has much in common with Las Vegas Moderne. This will not be the last time Mexican border towns bring to mind Las Vegas, another town that appears as a stage set for libidinal fantasies in the middle of a desert wasteland. One writer stated that "in Tijuana, as in Las Vegas, another city constructed on sand, and almost as old, history is a matter of matchbook covers and cocktail napkins.
Forbidden landscapes along the border often draw upon references to morality. Red-light districts, called boys' town or zonas de tolerancia, have frequently been used as iconographic representations of Mexican border cities. Abortion clinics, prisons, cantinas, and whore houses are mentioned. The desperate living environment for older prostitutes is described: "The alternative to retirement is to rent crib space in a zona — windowless, doorless, floorless hovels the length of racing stables, partitioned into areas barely large enough to accommodate a petate, or sleeping mat, a chair, a charcoal burner, and a small bureau. A votive candle bums before the icon of a favored saint, usually the Virgin of Guadalupe, except when a customer is being serviced."
For too long, books like this were the only documented social descriptions of this region. Even when describing the Mexican government's attempts to modernize the border towns, they painted a dreary view of the border: "This-on a minutely limited scale- has been precisely PRONAF's [a former Mexican government agency modernizing the border] contribution: Palm Springs-type motels and shopping centers for gringos, which do nothing more for the community than accent its squalor. While these descriptions offered one slice of Mexican border urban life, they did not give a complete picture of the emerging built environment of Mexican border towns in the late 20th Century. The border cannot be reduced to a metaphor for everything evil and corrupt about a society.
For many North Americans, the modern border landscape is, in a sense, an outgrowth of its Roaring Twenties origins. The term "border" seems to connote an edge, not of nations, but of social responsibility. Beyond the border, for some U.S. citizens, lies a world of escape, of fantasy, of retirement from the pressures of home. The border is the gateway to recreation, entrance into a giant resort zone filled with retirement communities, trailer parks, camps, dune buggies, and four-wheel-drive vehicles. The favored buildings are bars, like the well-known Hussong's Cantina, in Ensenada, 45 miles from the border, which has been romanticized as the Old West gone south of the border, "the Long Branch, the Crystal Palace and the Silver Dollar all rolled into one." The interior of a dimly lit bar is where "the ceilings are all of coffered tin; the large fireplace around which thousands of mariachis have played over the years still stands, and the famous long bar and rough-carpeted back bar are still intact."
Such imagined Mexican border landscapes have been slow to disappear. In the 19th Century, after all, this was a Wild West "frontier," and stories of outlaws, gunfights in border saloons, and other folklore came with the territory. In the first five decades of the 20th Century, the Mexican government concentrated its resources on modernizing the cities of the interior, with the result that the border towns lagged behind in their development. In the meantime, their proximity to the United States and the rapidly expanding railroad and industrial economy of the Southwest meant that American investment would eventually turn its attention south of the border. In the early decades of the 20th Century, Americans who arrived south of the border were interested in a "quick fix," in making money or in entertaining themselves. It should come as no great surprise that a "quick fix" architecture emerged and that border towns became the first Las Vegases of the Southwest.
It would prove to be a difficult legacy to overcome. Even after President Lazaro Cardenas dismantled the gambling economy of the border in the 1930s, interest groups turned their attention to other unsavory activities such as smuggling. Meanwhile, the border towns continued to serve as locales for prostitution and drinking, as American soldiers would discover during World War II. After the war, these activities would take a few more decades to dissipate, but their history was now embedded in the city's lore.
By the 1960s and 1970s, the border still carried its share of negative images, most notably in the area of drug smuggling, although fortunes had been earned earlier through less sanitized forms of contraband. During the period from 1960 through the 1990s, global net works of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana smuggling ran through the U.S.-Mexican border. In one of many published accounts, a smuggler converts a wealthy home in the hills of Tijuana into a fortress command center for his smuggling operations. More recently, it has become clear that some of Mexico's leading narcotics smugglers built a base of operations in the northern border cities. Smuggling, both of people and narcotics, has left its imprint on the border landscape.
Fences built of corrugated steel, former landing mats for U.S. military operations in world-conflict zones, were built on the San Diego-Baja Califomia border by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These fences announce to the viewer that the border remains a "con tested space," a test of wills between the enforcers of the U.S..Border Patrol and narcotics enforcement, and the Mexican smugglers. Along the fence, ladders have been placed and tunnels dug, suggesting that the smugglers have won the early battle to control border turf. Numerous well-worn foot trails and dirt paths on vacant land attest to the magnitude of daily movement of illegal border crossers. An infrastructure of services — food vendors, professional smugglers, clothing or equipment vendors — can be seen in neighborhoods lying adjacent to the border. Signage and graffiti found along the border wall record in words and images the thoughts of border crossers.
The view of the border as a landscape of danger and intrigue pervades the work of contemporary essayists, journalists, and writers. Not atypical is a work that characterized the Mexico-U.S. boundary as an out-of-control world of wetbacks, drug smugglers, bird smugglers, boozers, wild radio disc jockeys, and macho Border Patrol officers, a border that is "sleazy and sleepy, dusty and desolate, places where the poor and the criminal mingle," but also "sexy and hypnotic, mysterious and magical, self-reliant and remarkably resilient It changes pesos into dollars, humans into illegals, innocence into hedonism. Stereotyping continues. Even social scientists have fallen prey to this. In one 1973 book, the author promised to look deeper into border culture and "demonstrate the inaccuracy of the tourist stereotype of the Mexican border city as a center of vice and poverty." Yet that same book ended up devoting two of its most important chapters to the subject of drug traffic and prison life, both topics that reinforced past thinking about border cities.
It is as if these themes are too enticing to ignore. Photographers, for example, remain fascinated by the old myths and current reinventions of border folklore. One of the best recent collections on the subject follows the journey of immigrants from Mexico's rural small towns to the border and into the United States Southwest. A metallic border of handcuffs, chain-link fences, and patrol vans is captured in black and white, alongside images of undocumented aliens running through underground tubes or over fences, imprisoned in the trunks of cars, in Border Patrol vans, lying on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs. or living miserable existences in cardboard shacks or East Los Angeles tenements.
If any medium has exploited these border themes of danger and exotica, it has been the film industry. Most of the border films produced in Mexico — and there have been more than 100 made — focus on negative themes like crime, immigration, drug trafficking, prostitution, and the border mafia. Some have been likened to Mexican versions of Rambo. These films reflect both the view of the border from Mexico City and stereotypes that were exaggerated for the purpose of making money. Films about the border made in the United States have repeated the same themes, albeit within the usual Hollywood formula for film making, with heroes seeking to accomplish a goal, romantic interludes, sex, and violence. Borderline and The Border, two films made in the 1980s with two of the leading actors on the American screen (Charles Bronson and Jack Nicholson ), both exploited the theme of illegal Mexican immigration and the problems of the Border Patrol. Another film, Losin' It, portrays American teenagers looking for sex south of the border, reconstructing the old stereotype of Tijuana as a" dirty, sleazy, criminal" town. A more recent film, El Mariachi, is set in a Texas border town and rein forces yet again the themes of violence and drug smuggling.
During the 1980s an emerging group of writers and observers began to sketch out a new vision of the border. Some saw it as a third country, neither the United States nor Mexico." It' s a third country with its own identity.... It obeys its own laws and has its own outlaws, its own police officers and its own policy makers. Its food, its language, its music are its own. Others were both fascinated and confused by the juxtaposition of two cultures at the border. In his search for baseball south of the border, one writer notes upon crossing the boundary that "no amount of posted officialese can smooth the abruptness of this most traversed demarcation between First and Third Worlds, soften the sharp distinction between two ways of being on the planet." He goes on to comment on his first view of Tijuana: " It sprawls down a narrow valley in huge boulevards that replicate the American West's grimy fast food, oil and lube strips-except that here the rotating neon needs translation.,, In the span of one recent magazine article, another writer likens Tijuana to Calcutta, Cairo, Marrakesh, and Shanghai, some of the more exotic cities on the planet. He writes, "People in Mexico City will tell you, if they have anything to say about Tijuana, that Tijuana is a city without history, a city without architecture, that it is, in fact, an American city."
The Example of Tijuana
It may be simplistic to dismiss Tijuana as just another Americanized city. Certainly, there has been a hemispheric attach men t to the idea of the quintessential "border" town-no-man's-land, with turn-of-the-century wooden saloons, gambling halls, taxi driver pimps, and Roaring Twenties Hollywood stars indulging libidos as big as block-long cantinas. The question is, Can Mexican border towns like Tijuana have a history? How much of a Mexican border townscape is simply an invention of U.S. interests that, like the traveling circus or carnival, closes down and moves on when the show is over? Where is Mexico in the landscape of Tijuana?
The irony of Tijuana is that it lies in a country so rich in urban design tradition that, at times, it seems as if the government has placed a higher priority on subsidizing architectural com missions for grand projects (museums, ministries, public monuments) than on solving social problems like housing shortages or unemployment Mexico cherishes its urban landscapes. Many of Mexico's large cities are built on or near pre-Columbian ruins. Mexico City, of course, is built over the ruins of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. There are subway stations named for building.sand districts that existed before the Spanish arrived. Other Mexican cities, from Merida to Oaxaca to Morelia, lie near ruins of an indigenous past. This not only makes the indigenous past present in modem Mexican urbanism, it has also moved many in high government posts to lobby for architecture that continues to pay homage to the rich pre-Columbian memory.The past calls for more than remembering the physical ruins; it speaks to the way Mexicans build their cities. It lies in the open plazas, the massive walls, the stone, the colors.
But geography left Tijuana outside these great 20th-century debates. From its post on the northwestern edge of Mexico, across the span of great deserts, over the Sea of Cortez, and up the miles of peninsular wilderness called Baja California, far from the great pre-Columbian sites or the baroque colonial towns, Tijuana has only come into the debate as the 20th Century comes to a close.
There are "ruins" in Tijuana, but they do not speak of an Aztec or Mayan past.
They speak of North America. The ruins are the last vestiges of the city's finest architectural moment in its brief hundred-year history: the great resort of Agua Caliente, built in the latter part of the decade of the 1920s. Once an eclectic Spanish-Moorish-styled complex of tiled patios, arched corridors. and red-tile-roofed Mediterranean splendor, there is little left today. A tall, thin tower, a Moorish-looking minaret with colorful mosaic tile, once served as the chimney for the ovens and driers in the complex. On the former grounds of the spa building, all that remains is the arched entranceway with faded mosaic tiles and an outdoor swimming pool that is empty and badly deteriorating. Only mud and brackish standing water lie at the bottom. Green mosaic tiles evoke memories of a lavish past, when Hollywood actresses Rita Hay worth or Jean Harlow came to lie in the sun near a sparkling pool. Today the tiles are covered with graffiti. Once, the finest Italian tile lined the patio around the pool. Created in southern Spanish-Moorish style, the design work was compared with the Alhambra of Spain. Most of it has been ripped out today for parking lots or basketball courts. Schoolchildren scamper on the remaing old tiled benches during their recreation hour. Nearby boys with T-shirts that say Chicago Bulls or Lakers run up and down the cement basketball courts in their dark pants and white shirt school uniforms.
The Agua Caliente resort was designed in 1926-27 by two San Diego architects, Wayne and Corinne McAlister. It may not be surprising that the resort was destined to be destroyed, no matter how successful its design. Its fate was sealed only a few years after construction had been completed. In 1935, Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas declared gambling illegal. His administration marked a dear shift in Mexican politics. Here a Mexican president was responsible for closing down the greatest casino complex in North America, whereas a previous president, Abelardo Rodriguez, in 1927, in conjunction with American partners, was the one who had bought the rights to the land and invested in the building of the complex in the first place. But with Cardenas's decree, casinos would quickly close down along the entire border. The Mexican government expropriated the casino and its ample grounds in 1937. The complex's acreage included the hotel, surrounding bungalows, the casino, and the spa. The whole site was turned over to the Ministry of Public Education, which made the complex into a public high school. The luxury hotel was trans formed into general dormitories for students, the giant casino into workshops on carpentry, mechanics, and electronics. The old dog-racing track became a sports field for children's recreation. In 1939, the lnstituto Tecnico de Agua Caljente was created, the first serious technical high school in the area. Top-notch teachers were recruited from as far away as Spain. Later the complex would expand into two high schools. Tijuana's casino days were over.
In the 1960s and 1970s fervent nationalists advocated complete demolition of the entire Agua Caliente complex, as a way of erasing what they termed Tijuana's historia negra (black history). Administrators of the schools thought it might be best to replace the old buildings with modern ones. According to one native Tijuana architect, "In those days, the thermal baths were still intact; the salons were intact, with their original decor — rugs, curtains, everything. But the complex was lapsing into a state of chaos. Some of the old casino buildings had been converted into classrooms. This was before the fire that destroyed most of the buildings. The director of our school was convinced that the Agua Caliente casino was shameful and that all the casino buildings should be demolished and replaced with something modem.
"The school was in the hands of nationalists who held the attitude left over from the Cardenas period, the idea that the casino should be destroyed, that it was a reminder of an unpleasant piece of Tijuana's history. What we didn't understand in that era.was that the buildings weren't at fault for what had taken place in Tijuana's past; they were simply works of art. In an architectural sense, the Casino Agua Caliente had great value. The buildings were designed with conscience, with great attention to detail; they weren't imitations or caricatures. They had artistic and historic merit — they were part of Tijuana's essence — and to have destroyed them was to commit a grave sin against Tijuana architecture."
The ruins are not with out their folklore, even as they fall into greater disrepair. Among the celebrities who stayed at the private bungalow colony was a young dancer who became known as La Faraona. She was allegedly murdered by an ex lover, and there are those in Tijuana who claim her ghost can be seen wandering through the bungalows at night today. "In those days, stories and rumors circulated among the students. The salons, with their original tapestries, curtains, and furniture, were protected by security guards. But some times, students would play hooky; they would go and hide. There were tunnels underneath the resort complex that supposedly went all the way to the border. Some of us went into the tunnels or the salons. There was talk among us about a dancer, a beautiful woman who had been killed back in the days of the casino but who would reappear as a ghost. Sometimes, when we skipped school, to prove that we were brave, we had to sneak into the main salon where it was very dark, and suddenly, we'd go running out screaming, 'the ballerina, the ballerina.' We never saw her."
Today, a gymnasium sits on the site of the former Salon de Oro, which was mostly destroyed in a fire in the 1970s. In the corner of the building, there is what looks like a vault: foot-thick masonry walls and the remains of a solid but worn steel door. Outside, on a patio, are crumbling walls with rounded columns. Most of the ruins are nearly gone, and even though they were designed and built by U.S. interests. some Tijuana historians bemoan the disappearance of this complex.
"We have a tendency to try to save our past in photographs," says a Tijuana historian. "We save our memories in photographs in books, instead of actually taking care of the buildings!" When he visited the grounds of the Agua Caliente resort, the historian was upset that some old bungalows were being rented to taco vendors or that a major road was built through the complex grounds. "It's a disgrace," he noted. "Part of the sanctum sanctorum of the place, a price less period in the history of this city turned into taco stands. And hundreds of plants began to die once the road was put in, because of the smog and contamination spewed daily by thou sands of vehicles passing through. The thick vegetation of the place was destroyed. Thousands of birds used to gather there, but now you hardly see any.
Agua Caliente, as its name implies, was a natural thermal water bathing site used as early as the 1880s, when a simple two-story wooden hotel was built on the site of the hot springs. Before the 1880s, when a settlement actually appeared in the area of what we today call Tijuana, this was just another small ranching village in the large valley cut by the river that swept from the mountains to the east toward the sea. Americans once called that river the Tia Juana River, and the variation in spelling hints at the identity crisis that has long been suffered by a city with only a wisp of history. Even the origins of the name Tijuana remain unclear. It may have come from several places: from an Indian tribe occupying the region and naming the place ticuan, after a nearby mountain that they thought looked like a giant tortoise; from another Indian word teguana, or "place without food" (because the landscape was so barren); or for a woman from Sonora who lived in the area at the tum of the century and ran a popular nightclub-restaurant, a woman whom every one called Tia (Aunt) Juana.
Whatever the origins of the town's nomenclature, the various explanations convey the early images of this region: fiat grazing lands, upon which even the smallest mountain might have made an impact on the daily landscapes of indigenous peoples; or a woman of the turn-of-the century wild frontier, who ran a saloon-restaurant in the tradition of the period of cattle ranchers whose small adobe or reed-mat dwellings, surrounded by corrals of cows, dotted the arid landscape of the early 1900s.
The Emergence of a Townscape
Tijuana's appearance at the edge of Mexico's northwestern provinces coincided with Mexican president Porfirio Diaz's wishes to open his country to foreign investors and foreign trade. During the last two decades of the 19th Century, American investors were encouraged to pump their dollars into areas south of the border. The first buildings thrown up in the town were those of a frontier ranching settlement coping with the new responsibility of being a gate way to one of the booming states of the American West — California.
In 1886, while Tijuana was still a ranching village, the first serious building appeared on the landscape, the Customs House (aduana). It was a simple adobe one-story structure, with a front porch. The fade consisted mostly of a wall and few windows, leaving the impression that it was more of a fort than anything. It evoked the presence of the Mexican government and communicated the new control function of the boundary crossing. Its simple adobe construction looked much like the adobe Spanish-style structures in the original Mexican settlement in San Diego, 12 miles to the north, later called Old Town. Its lonely, isolated appearance would very quickly be over shadowed by events soon to come.
With the exception of the customs building, the landscape of Tijuana in the last two decades of the 19th Century was somewhat unexceptional. A reporter from the Nation arriving in town in the 1890s found some irony in coming across a restaurant called Delmonico's (at the time a swank steak house in New York City) adjacent to a cigar store named the Last Chance. His observations of the town suggested that "there are more cantinas in Tijuana than buildings, and the only Mexicans her are with ponchos and serapes. I told myself, 'My God, this is a desolate place."
As Tijuana's population gradually expanded toward the tum of the century, the town that took shape was very much a carbon copy of dozens of other young western towns in the United States during that period, as well as mining and farming communities in northern Mexico. Buildings were constructed entirely of wood frame, a material not normally associated with Mexican architecture, which tended to favor adobe or stone. Wood-frame construction technology of the period involved building walls with slats of wood and then raising the sides, front, and back of a building in a one swoop action. Some of Tijuana's wooden structures were actually built in San Diego, then shipped in pieces across the border. In the 1880s and 1890s, Mexican store owners tried to "Mexicanize" their wooden buildings by hanging colorful sarapes (blankets) over the fades or by rebuilding the roofs Mexican style.
By the early 1890s, Tijuana was a small town with a customs house, post office, a market (the Mexican Bazaar), and a few other buildings housing small restaurants or stores. Photos from the period reveal a dusty, wide main street with a few wooden buildings with simple front-porch over hangs that typified western United States settlements of the period. Most of the store names appeared in English. There were very few signature Mexican landscape elements, save the sarapes hanging from the odd storefront. With the arrival of the new century, little changed. One observer described Tijuana in the early 1900s as "a score of squalid, poverty-stricken native farmers." Indeed, the town was still dominated more by its ranching past than by any sense of an urban future.
The population of Tijuana at the turn of the century was less than 300, and the town still consisted of a few cantinas, a school, church, small military outpost, one block of stores (Second Street), and scattered cattle ranches on the outskirts of town. This was a time when the western frontier of North America was expanding, and small towns could easily be victimized by adventurers and thieves. If Tijuana was to bring more population into the region and safeguard its well-being, apparently it would be necessary to build tourist-oriented enterprises: bars, cantinas, and the like. In the first and second decades of the new century, while Mexico as a nation was in the throes of a social revolution, the town experienced the first phase of its tourism expansion. As mall hotel had been built near the Agua Caliente hot springs. Cantinas, bars, and restaurants began to be concentrated in the area of Avenue A, or what is Avenida Revolucion today. This popular tourist corridor was lined with wooden one- and two-story buildings with striped awnings over the front porches and signs in large English letters, such as the Big Curio Store.
Meanwhile, to the west of the commercial zone, hid den behind the emerging tourism street, was a small, more serious and formal Mexican community that had been quietly evolving during this period. Here was an architecture that attempted to re-create the temperate, religious ways of the Mexican workers who lived off the activities of U.S. consumers. The landscape of the Mexican residential side of town consisted of a modest church, small primary school, the customs house, and a few wooden cottages painted white. A small residential enclave was beginning to evolve alongside the entertainment and commercial district. One historian describes the emerging townscape of Tijuana in 1915: "This quiet border town now offered a show that was animated by multicolored curiosity stores, inns, and other businesses that were frequented by tourists who now visited with regularity. It's thought that in these times, the number of inhabitants had reached 900."
The neat separation between well-manicured Mexican residential town and wild, chaotic foreign tourism enclave was interrupted in 1915 when the first big casino in Tijuana was built on the comer of Second Street and Constituci6n, in the midst of where the Mexicans of Tijuana lived. The Casino Tijuana Fair was the first good example of Tijuana posing for America, Tijuana as a world's fair — landscape for recreation, celebration, and advertising, an architecture of the carnival. The Tijuana Fair was epitomized by its entrance, a grandiose archway between two white towers, a gesture of invitation to pass into the interior. On top of each tower was a giant flag, Mexican on one side, American on the other. The fair coincided with the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego in 1915; the celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal meant that San Diego's port would become more important; more people and more money would travel through the region, and there would be more attention paid to lands south of the border. The investors in the Tijuana Fair (supported by Colonel Esteban Cantu, the new governor of the Northern District of Baja California) received permission to allow gambling at the fair. It was believed that the fair could attract many of the Americans who came to San Diego to attend the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park. The fair offered boxing, gambling, cockfights, bull fights, and free barbecues. Besides the gambling casino, there was a nightclub featuring female models brought in from San Francisco.
The Casino Tijuana Fair closed down after only a few years. But Tijuana had got ten a taste of what might be done to attract U.S. dollars from north of the border. Tijuana discovered that its role might be to lure the American consumer to an exotic and foreign country only a short distance away. Ironically the site of the Tijuana Fair would later be converted into the Municipal Palace of the city of Tijuana, a formal, solemn, neocolonial building. But meanwhile, much of the city was to be converted into America's after-dark playground.
Sodom on the U.S. Frontier?
The experiment with the Tijuana Fair and its success in 1915 overlapped with changing social conditions in the United States in the second decade of the 20th Century. The United States was entering a period of moral reform, and the popular consensus was that society had to be cleansed. Boxing, horse racing, gambling, and alcohol consumption would soon be declared illegal. In 1919, the Volstead Act was approved by the U.S. Congress, and the sale of alcoholic beverages became illegal. Prohibition's impact spilled across the United States, southern borders, and nowhere was this felt more quickly than in Tijuana.
Just prior to its transformation, we can picture Tijuana as it was described in 1915: "a number of wooden stores, restaurants, and saloons, mostly one story, with a scattering of wooden bungalows, some neat and whitewashed on the side streets. All streets are dusty and often rutty and, in wet weather, very muddy but wide." This image would shortly be shattered, when in1915, a new governor, Esteban Cantu, arrived in Baja California's northern territory. Cantu was determined to lay the groW1dwork for the arrival of moneymaking businesses that were being prohibited north of the border: horse racing, gambling. drinking, prostitution, and drugs. It is easy in retrospect to adopt a moralist voice and criticize Cantu for allowing these vices into this ex-cattle ranching town. But Mexico was in the midst of a revolution that had thrown the nation into chaos. Towns and ranches in northern Mexico had been destroyed in battles between various factions of the revolution. An atmosphere of uncertainty pervaded the landscape. An anarchist movement headed by the Mexican Ricardo Flores Magon was brewing in Los Angeles. It was believed that an invasion of Baja California might provide a platform from which to launch a social revolution in Mexico. In 1911, Flores Magon's Mexican liberal Party seized Mexicali and Tecate, and a group from the Wobblies (nickname for the Industrial Workers of the World [IWW] captured Tijuana Unfortunately, news paper coverage made the Flo res Mag6n incident appear ridiculous. The siege of Tijuana lasted only a few days. Its leader fled, and others looted the town, including its numerous liquor stores, leaving a river of whiskey to flood the main street.
Mexicans had a name for the adventurers or mercenaries of the early 20th Century. They called them filibusteros, or filibusterers. In the aftermath of the attack of the filibusteros, and the success of the Tijuana Fair, Tijuana could hardly resist the business gains offered by conversion to an early-20th century Las Vegas or Marrakesh. Tijuana's fate was decided from the national capital, Mexico City. In the second decade of the 20th Century, Mexican leaders in the national capital recognized gambling as a useful source of income along the northern border. The Mexican government wanted to minimize the evils linked to gambling — mainly prostitution and crime — but from their distant offices in the national capital, they did not experience border life firsthand.
One therefore has to take care in pinning the label of "immorality" upon Tijuana. After all, it's not as if Tijuana is the only city whose growth stemmed from the lure of underworld activities — New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Hollywood, and Las Vegas all at one time built up their economies as a result of illegal activities. Even San Diego, considered a relatively conservative town throughout much of its history, had a downtown district called the Stingaree, where crime and vice were probably worse than any thing in Tijuana in the early 20th Century.
Between 1909and 1911, an American businessman, John Spreckels, financed a railroad line connection from Yuma to San Diego, by way of Tecate and Tijuana. The Panama-California Exposition of 1915 then turned the attention of Californians toward their vast neighbor south of the border. One of the first to jump on the band wagon was James Coffroth, a boxing promoter from San Francisco, who in 1916 financed the building of Tijuana's first racetrack (Hipodromo ), just south of the border crossing at San Ysidro, and east of the river. On the same day that the Panama-California Exposition drew 20,000 visitors to Balboa Park, 10,000 spectators, including Charlie Chaplin and other Los Angeles celebrities, attended the opening festivities at the Tijuana racetrack. The racetrack quickly became a catalyst for the construction by a number of other North American investors of a separate, high profile district east of the main town, a place where Hollywood stars, politicians, or sports figures could mingle with millionaires in a new tourist complex that included the racetrack, a huge, lavish, 24-hour cabaret called the Monte Carlo, which one observer called "a great barn of a place," and the restaurant-bar Sunset Inn. The three structures were connected by a railroad station and a covered wooden run way.So striking was this new consortium of the U.S.-style racetrack, gambling emporium, bar-restaurant, and wooden railway station that people began referring to the original part of Tijuana as "old town.''
For about a decade and a half, from 1916 until the early 1930s, Tijuana's landscape of dusty streets and whitewashed wooden bungalows would be eclipsed by the arrival of everything prohibited north of the border. In a very short time, a 1920s gambling and drinking mecca arose on the banks of the Tijuana River. Cabaret owners fleeing California's sudden moral renovation landed south of the border. Ex-boxing and -racetrack promoters soon joined them and formed the core of an American business group that choreographed the design of a gambling mecca. One consortium of former Bakersfield saloon and brothel owners relocated to Tijuana, calling their new common business venture the ABW Corporation (named for the last names of Marvin Allen, Frank Beyer, and Carl Withington). Around the big investments, smaller operations — bars with prostitutes, opium dens, distilleries, wine and beer factories — would quickly appear. Some of these activities became so successful, they generated export activity. For example, the Bodegas de San Valentin winery, established in 1912, began with a capacity to produce 10,000 liters, but by the l920s, it was producing 650,000 liters of muscatel, white wine, port, and vermouth. The biggest boost came in 1919, after the U.S. Congress had approved the Volstead Act, prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in the United States. On July 4, 1920, some 65,000 Americans in more than 1300 vehicles crossed the border to celebrate Independence Day in Tijuana. Tijuana quickly ran out of gasoline, and many tourists spent the night; an estimated $1 million was earned by businesses in Tijuana that day. This marked the beginning of a decade-long period of American tourist presence.
Tijuana had everything you would expect of a bawdy Roaring Twenties town: elegant casinos; La Ballena (the whale), promoted as the world's longest bar; wineries; distilleries; and houses of prostitution. Tijuana had its Moulin Rouge, named after the famed Paris establishment. It sported a miniature red mill on its front roof, a lavish interior, and women of all races.The Moulin Rouge was typical of most of Tijuana's landscape of the 1920s: the glittery, lavish, red-light-district look. It was financed, owned, operated, and patronized principally by Americans. They constructed their playground on the edges of Southern California, just beyond the reach of America's legal hold morality of the era. If the architecture was temporary, it left long-lasting scars on Tijuana. It created an image of "sin city" that was resurrected by investors in the 1940s (when U.S. soldiers fighting in the Second World War came south of the border for rest and relaxation) and continued to plague Tijuana through the 1960s and 1970s. Tijuana did, of course, have a vibrant nightlife in the 1920s, with prostitutes, bars, and gambling casinos. But the force of this period has often been exaggerated by the U.S. media, leaving Mexicans to lament their city's "black history." We must not forget that Tijuana's expanding economic base and its role as an evening entertainment center were created north of the border. Much of its bad reputation was also created north of the border and exacerbated for years to come by the California press, particularly the Hearst, Spreckels, Otis-Chandler, and Copley newspapers. These papers fostered the notion that Tijuana was one big center of vice and sex and that "all Mexican women are whores." In fact, 90 percent of all the prostitutes in Tijuana during the 1920s were non-Mexican.
Still, the stereotypes would prove amazingiy resilient Even as late as 1968, for example, a tourist guidebook for Americans included a section entitled "For Men Only" that grabbed the reader's attention with racy descriptions of "B-girl bars" in Tijuana's old red-light district, the Zona Norte: "The tables are crowded around a central stage. A ballring trio provides music for a steady stream of shapely dancers, who cha-cha around the stage in various stages of undress, and frequently permit the show to be enlivened with what we will euphemistically call audience participation games."
1920's Tijuana was filled with false references to famed exotic resorts from other parts of the world. The Moulin Rouge mentioned above, was supposed to bring visions of Paris to the dusty landscape of the Mexican border. There was also a Hotel de Paris Cantina bars called Tivoli or the Savoy. The United States was as much a part of the landscape as Mexico. The signs for the Blue Fox Cafe or the Black Cat were in Large English letters with smaller Spanish letters beneath. Images of the Wild West abound ed in the signage, too, with names like Klondike Saloon or Last Chance Bar, while Mexico was represented by the Sonora or Bazaar Mexicano.
By the late 1920s, Tijuana had become a Hollywood set, front and center on the stage of the northern border at the height of its tourism boom. Relegated to a back lot was the Mexican town, with its church, its school, its military headquarters, government palace, prim and proper park, two sedate movie theaters, and woo den cottages surrounding a typical Mexican plaza. Across the river to the east was the lavish gambling casino of Monte Carlo and its racetrack complex. Appended to the l920s stage set were a number of scenographic-like building. The most important hotel of the era was the Hotel Comercial, a formal, neocolonial-looking structure, while nearby was Hotel Caesar's with its pseudocolonial facade where famous bullfighters were said to stay. Tijuana had begun to craft itself as a caricature, made up for visitors.
The most monumental building in the old downtown was the Moorish-style Jai Alai Palace (corner of Avenida Revolucion and Eighth Street), "palatial concrete rising majestically above the business center of Tijuana." The Jai Alai Palace became the anchor on the south end of Revolucion. Designed by San Diego architect Eugene Hoffman, the festive, Moorish-detailed structure was begun in 1926 but not actually completed and opened until 1945 (the Depression of the 1930s had a way of slowing things down). Its massive concrete walls owe less to the architect than to the fact that, at the time of construction, the owner of the building cut a deal with the government on a massive amount of cement left over from the construction of the Rodriguez Dam on the southeastern outskirts of Tijuana. The extra concrete was purchased at a bargain and used to build the Jai Alai structure.
Anchoring the northern end of Avenida Revolucion was-a 1929 building, Banco Internacional (at the comer of Second and Rev oluci6n), originally the turn of-the-century site of one of the town's first commercial establishments, the Big Curio Store. It would become one of the few early Tijuana neostructures to be refurbished in the 1980s, with a handsome black marble base, pilasters and arch windows, finished exterior stone and plaster relief, including decorative cornices, spiral scrolling, and floral design around a large dock.
Several blocks east of Avenida Revolucion a small slice of traditional Mexico was created in the 1920s — the Parque Teniente Guerrero (Lieutenant Guerrero Park), a well-manicured neighborhood park with a central kiosk, street vendors selling hot dogs and corn, and the quintessential wooden Mexican shoeshine stands. The park's creators wanted to honor one of Tijuana's army officers who had helped defend the city from the "filibuster" invaders of 1911.
Just east of downtown, on a hill, the city's first important school was built — the Escuela Alvaro Obregon, named after the Mexican president who was assassinated on the same day in 1930 that the building was inaugurated. The school featured a classical Greco-Roman — or Beaux Arts-inspired formal design, with a series of columns forming the building's fade the kind often used in libraries, schools, and public buildings north of the border in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, the design of the original building in Tijuana was a copy of a school in Yuma, Arizona, with the exception that the Yuma school was of yellow brick and the Tijuana one of red brick.
But, of course, the Agua Caliente complex really dominated the city after 1927. It was the vision of Baron Long, a horse-racing promoter from Los Angeles who also owned the elegant U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego. Long was among the many investors and builders who in 1920 fell in love with the myth of old Spain and old Mexico and wanted to"revive" their memories in the architecture of the 1920s on both sides of the border. Long told the architects he interviewed for the Agua Caliente project that he wanted it to look like an old mission. He ordered his workers to tear down the old wooden hotel, which had been built on the site of a natural hot springs, called the Tijuana Hot Springs Hotel, where Americans suffering from tuberculosis at the end of the 19th Century had come to seek the curative powers of the earth's mineral-filled waters. When they were through yanking out the original buildings, all that was left were two sycamore trees standing at the main entrance. Now would come the palatial casino with its Arabian-like baths and swimming pool, a touch of paradise just south of the border. One of the impressive thin about Agua Caliente was the natural landscaping, the rows of palm trees and other exotic tropical plants and the bright green lawns, all the work of a Mexican landscape expert, originally from Scotland, who had previously worked on one of the great urban parks in the West: Balboa Park, across the border in San Diego.
This was truly a bicultural architectural achievement. The funding of Agua Caliente was both American and Mexican, although it was presided over by the so-called border barons, Long and another shady businessman named Wirt Bowman. The land itself was owned by a Mexican, the governor of Baja California, Abelardo Rodriguez. The architects were American; the workers came from both sides of the border. The lumber came from a San Diego building supply company, custom tiles and appliances from Northern California, and elegant decorative materials (carpets, tapestries, chandeliers, furniture) from Europe.
The complex was built in phases. The first phase, including the hotel, spa, and casino, cost $3 million. The second phase saw the building of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, golf courses, a greyhound track, an Islamic minaret, gardens with tropical birds, clinics, work areas, and an airstrip. The second phase also cost around $3 million. Later, a new racetrack with a $4 million pricetag would be added to the complex. At its peak the hotel had 500 rooms, while the 20 Spanish bungalows offered 4 apartments each.
Gambling was the main source of income at Agua Caliente. There were the main casinos, and then there was the Gold Room (Salon de Oro). Only high-stakes gamblers-aristocrats, tycoons, Hollywood stars, and gangsters — made it to the Gold Room. The room was designed to create a mood of gaudy, Old World, dark European opulence: rose-brocaded drapes, long mirrors, tapestries, marble floors, a vaulted, heavily decorated cei1ing, stained glass, five large chandeliers, and Louis XV furniture. Images of Paris and Versailles were injected onto the Mexican frontier landscape. American gold pieces were used to bet, and the betting for the period was astronomical: $10,000 bets on one hand of cards, daily wins and losses of $100,000, and in one case, one person lost $6 million in three years.
Outside, on the edge of the sprawling grounds, was Agua Caliente's great symbolic landmark; a tall bell tower that served as a reference point for automobiles. You could see the white-plaster, several-story-high tower from a distance. The ringing bells were supposed to re-create the sounds of the old missions.The past and the future were brought together here. The bells were there to recapture sounds of the past, but the tower was visually placed to serve the automobile. Tijuana was ushering in the era of the automobile city.
While Tijuana had grown beyond the frontier town of the pre-1920 period, by the middle of the Roaring Twenties, it had not entirely overcome its image as a kind of Mexican version of a Wild West hick town. American writer Ring Lardnees description of Tijuana in1926 was acerbic and to the point: "For the benefit of those that has not been there, I will state that Tijuana is a city of about 50 buildings of which 3 ain't saloons." Syndicated columnist O.O. Mclntyre visited Paris, Havana, and Tijuana in the late 1920s and, of the latter, wrote; 'This town, so extravagantly head lined for wickedness, is a mixture of a street carnival in Circleville, Ohio, and a movie close-up of a western cowtown.... The town sits in a bowl of sagebrush- and cactus-dotted hills. It has one big mainstreet lined on either side with open-fronted saloons and gambling halls."
Tijuana's casino-architecture era was spectacular, it put the Mexican border on the world map. But it was also short-lived. Ironically, just as the Agua Caliente phenomenon was surging, world events brought it to a stunning halt In 1929, the stock market crashed. The beginning of the Depression in the United States meant that fewer dollars were available for leisurely spending. The wealthy Hollywood set would, first, continue to come to Tijuana, and business remained strong at Agua Caliente and other casinos in the early years of the Depression. In fact, Tijuana's original racetrack dosed down and was replaced by a new one at Agua Caliente (where the racetrack is still located today).
But Tijuana began feeling the effects of the Depression in ways that would for ever reshape its built landscape. By the early 1930s, employees at the large casinos had begun to build a new residential area in the hills east of the Tijuana River. They were part of a workers' movement that wanted to guarantee access for Mexicans in Tijuana to jobs that sometimes were being given to foreigners. They also wanted to establish territorial control over their rights as Mexicans to jobs, housing, and a place to live in Tijuana. The expression of their political will could be found in the new neighborhood they formed east of the river. They called it Colonia Libertad, Freedom Neighborhood. It marks an important moment in the history of Tijuana's urban landscape. Up until then, Tijuana had gone along with its destiny as a city built in the image of Americans: entertainment center, city of the evening. Tijuana allowed itself to be molded in the image of a giant carnival; the small village near downtown where the workers lived was just that- a village, outside the main path of urban life.
Now the citizens were taking back their city. They were lobbying for territorial control, for guaranteed jobs, for their rights as Mexicans. The first families that started the Colonia Libertad neighborhood began by taking over a cluster of unoccupied stables from the original Agua Caliente racetrack, which had been abandoned and rebuilt on higher ground to the south.They were ordered out by the government but held their ground, saying that their years of hard labor for the racetrack merited that they be given these lands. They were supported by other groups in Tijuana, and eventually the government backed off. On the site of the original racetrack of Tijuana, the first independent community, the new generation of border Mexicans, was formed.
When massive numbers of Mexicans working in the United States were deported back to Mexico, many sought refuge in Colonia Libertad, hoping to live close to the border to get back across as soon as the crisis passed. Colonia Libertad became the first significant migrant community in the city, and it spread quickly through the hills hugging the international border. It has remained a migrant passageway into the United States and a some what transient neighborhood while, at the same time, increasingly becoming a stable community of middle and working-class Tijuana residents. Its one- and two-story, simple wooden or stucco houses of red, pale blue, and other pastel shades sit on haphazardly shaped lots pointing in all directions, looking out over the valley of Tijuana today, testimony to the chaotic and spontaneous way in which millions of migrants have reshaped life in the Tijuana metropolis.
The legacy of the 1920s — an entire city built by U.S. dollars on Mexican soil in the interests of American consumers — can also be found in many of the older neighborhoods around the original downtown business district. Just east of Avenida Revolucion is an old duster of buildings surrounding the only downtown park — Parque Teniente Guerrero. Man of the homes built here are "California style" — one floor houses built of wood and stucco, with sloped, red Spanish tile roofs, front porches, gardens, small back yards, and garages. They are identical to their counter parts in older Mission Revival, Spanish Colonial Revival, or bungalow-dominated neighborhoods north of the border in Southern California.
Yet another legacy of the 1920s and 1930s lies in the street grid that emerged in that era in the downtown area. Whereas the original plan of Tijuana had been a rectangular grid, crossed by major diagonal boulevards, the diagonals had all but disappeared by the 1930s. Because the main downtown commercial zone had become very crowded during the 1920s, with commercial uses occupying the main streets and residences on the back lots, a series of alleyways (callejones) evolved as a way for residents to reach their homes. The alleyways ran parallel to the major street grid and created a second world in the interstices o the major grid. The alley ways offered a kind of lively, intimate residential space within an expanding commercial city, as Tijuana would continue to grow in the next decades.
There were other incipient changes in the fabric of the cityscape. Although Tijuana was physically distant from the national capital and heartland of the nation in Mexico City, the coming of railroads and highways would usher in a new era of closer contact with the national government. The completion, in 1930, of another serious public structure — the Delegacion de Gobierno (government delegation) building-symbolized Tijuana's emerging integration into Mexico. Soon, nationalistic President Lazaro Cardenas's hand would be felt in Tijuana. The repeal of prohibition in the United States in 1933 led to the closing down of bars, distilleries, and wineries. Of 100 bars, it was said that some 60 were closed by the repeal When President Cardenas declared gambling to be illegal in 1935, this effectively brought the operations of the remaining casinos to an end, including the Foreign Club and Agua Caliente (the latter, as mentioned, would become two schools). Speaking of this era, one resident who had lived in Tijuana at the time said, "When the gambling ended, Tijuana became as lonely as a cemetery."
But at the same time, the decline of 1935 offered a glimpse into the future. Only one week after the ban on gambling began, the Tijuana Chamber of Commerce reported that tourism on Avenida Revoluci6n had returned to normal, even without the casinos. Boosters of the town saw that American tourists might be lured by the image of Tijuana as a place of gamblers, rebels, bandits, and lost treasures. In short, one could argue that in 1935 the "border town" legend began.
While the casino culture of Tijuana was winding down, a hint of the future emerged. By the early 1930s more retail and tourist commodities were being sold than ever before. Calle Segunda (Second Street) became a booming commercial street during this period, mainly due to the Mexican government's decision to create a legal mechanism to attract capital to the Tijuana region. In 1933, Mexico created the zonas y perlmetros libres, or free zones and perimeters, program, which allowed imports along the border duty-free. So while the manner in which money was earned changed, it was still mostly money from north of the border, and the cityscape reflected that.
Modern Border Architecture, 1940-1980
By the 1940s, Tijuana had settled into being a small border town of some 20,000 or 30,000 inhabitants. The days of grand casinos were past. Cattle grazed on what had been the Agua Caliente golf course. Avenida Revolucion more often than not looked like a ghost town, with no bandannas flying and little if any beer flowing in the bars. Most of Tijuana's residents chose not to live along the avenue.
But history would not let the memory of the Roaring Twenties rest in peace. Although a small manufacturing economy was beginning to emerge here, World War II resurrected Tijuana's wild side, bringing waves of U.S. military service personnel through San Diego on their way to the Pacific theater. The soldiers were lured by the legendary glitz of the 1920s and early 1930s as they crossed the border into Tijuana searching for excitement. Tijuana's entrepreneurs, seizing the obvious market opportunity staring them in the face as the great parade of American military personnel headed west via San Diego-Tijuana, quickly adapted to the new market. The city began to reinvent itself for the American Gls. So Tijuana's rein carnation of its 1920s "golden years of tourism" occurred at the height of the century's second great war, being fought on other continents, far away. Tijuana would put itself on the map again; it would be a place that many thousands of American military personnel would remember for the rest of their lives: the place in exotic Mexico they visited on their way to the war.
One place that symbolized Tijuana's 1940s incarnation was what became called the Zona Norte, the modern-day red-light district Zona Norte would form in the 1950s, as clubs were gradually pushed to the northern end of Avenida Revolucion, to clear the way for more family-oriented tourist establishments. What the American Gls or aircraft workers probably remember were the dark speakeasies with familiar names like the Chicago Club or Brooklyn Club. The bars they attended sat mainly in squat two-story building in the zone wedged between downtown and the border, where the streets were alive with pedestrians, vendors standing by their carts and drug dealers. It was not unlike New York's 42nd Street. In fact, so alarmed were San Diego citizens about the Zona Norte that, in the 1950s, a campaign arose to restrict the entry of U.S. minors to Tijuana, where San Diegans were convinced more than 3000 prostitutes operated, alongside marijuana peddlers, pornography shows, abortionists, and bars that sold alcohol to minors.
While American Gis were busy in the Zona Norte, Tijuana was also beginning to feel the impact of national expansion and modernization. A rail service now connected Baja California to the state of Sonora to the east and thus to the national rail network. The Mexican government had signed a treaty with the U.S. government in 1942 creating the bracero program, which legally permitted Mexican agricultural workers to fill jobs north of the border. As hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers traveled north to California and other western states, they passed through Tijuana. Some would eventually return to settle here.
Over the next several decades, Tijuana's population would begin to grow at astonishingly high rates — from 4 to 8 percent per year, according to most reliable estimates — making it one of the fastest-growing cities in the Western-Hemisphere. From 1950 to I990, its population would increase from 65,000 to nearly 2 million.
The postwar expansion of Tijuana in the 1950s was typified by some of the new communities forming on the southern edges of town. One salient example was a neighborhood called Cacho, where Mexicans proudly began to build a permanent neighborhood, typically Mexican but also influenced by the United States. Even today, the neighborhood has retained its pedestrian 1950s feel: the corner stores, the patios and porches that once faced the street (but increasingly lie behind fences and walls), the sidewalks. Later development would unfortunately drive homeowners up into the hills, leaving their older homes in various states of decline. Still, many of the fine homes were preserved and offer a sample of 1950s Mexican functionalist modem architecture. The Casa Walicias, a large, white, dignified structure, was built in 1952 on Agua Caliente Boulevard; the rotund-shaped house belonged to a wealthy Tijuana family of the era and reflected a blend of international design trends of the era: Frank Lloyd Wright's horizontalism, German Expressionism, Le Corbusier. It has tremendous presence, the kind of building you imagine housing an embassy.
The Cacho neighborhood has elegant street corners (las esquinas de Cacho), where the biggest and most interesting homes were built on the larger lots at street intersections. These houses share a number of attributes: inclined, angular roofs, balconies, porticos, and columns. Some have large bay windows and stone walls. There are Spanish Colonial Revival-style houses, whose designs were copied from prevailing examples in Los Angeles and San Diego. Nearby is the original Plaza de Toros (bullring) of Tijuana, a great steel engineering feat of the late 1940s, painted fire engine red. Also nearby is a fine church, the Iglesia del Carmen, whose elliptical roof brings to mind the parabolic designs of contemporary Mexico City architect Felix Candela.
In addition to growing toward the hills to the south, the city also extended its settled boundaries to the east in the 1950s to middle-class homes along Agua Caliente Boulevard in a new community called La Mesa. But, as more and more poor Mex icans from the interior arrived in Tijuana, many were also forced to squat on undesirable land outside the city proper. One important settlement occurred in the bed of the Tijuana River as it passed alongside the down town. The area is called Cartonlandia because many of the shacks were originally built of nothing more than cardboard Mixed with small family cottages and small manufacturers or artisans was an underworld of smugglers, thieves, drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes — again, a post-World War II recreation of the1920s legacy of Tijuana but re-created within the social realities of contemporary urban Mexico: large cities with growing populations of poor migrants from farms who squat on unwanted land in flood-prone riverbeds, or steep sloping hillsides, or on flatlands miles from down town. They would call them favelas on the hills of Rio de Janeiro or pueblos jovenes (young towns) in the dusty fields outside of Lima, Peru; in Tijuana, it was Cartonlandia — Cardboard Land.
Tijuana's landscape in the modem era has become much more complex. As Mexico expanded its role in the world economy in the 1960s, distant cities like Tijuana begin to become more integrated into Mexican culture — in such areas as art and architecture. As a nation, Mexico was experimenting with rich and varied architectural forms; its cities began to reflect that. Neighborhoods were filled with buildings that emphasized simple functional styles in the form· of schools, hospitals, and office buildings. There were also more grandiose designs from inter national. architecture in the form of elegant high-rise towers and skyscrapers, or lavish private residences with modern, horizontal forms and generous amounts of masonry and stone. Tijuana once a town of only wooden buildings, was notable in the post-1960 period for its transition toward the more Mex ican style of building with natural stone or industrialized cement Observers began to notice that Tijuana was more than a dusty border town and that its landscape was distinctly different from that of San Diego. In Tijuana, one found bold color, bold form, exterior murals, and, frequently, aesthetic surprise.
Said one writer, "The stone walls of Tijuana are without a doubt the finest to be seen in town." As the 1960s unfolded, more and more new designs began to appear on the Tijuana cityscape: buildings with strange geometries: steep angles, circular and elliptical shapes. The trend continued over the next three decades.
The arrival of modern Mexican architecture on Tijuana's public landscape came in 1965, with the com mission of a new public building — the border-crossing facility, or Puerta de Mexico ("door," or port of Mexico), designed by Antonio Bermudez. It has been described as a "capricious border funnel intriguing as a nautilus chamber." As the modern period unfolded, the city's landscape seemed polarized between two extremes: On the one hand there was no denying. the presence of U.S. culture — in everything from the 1930s and 1940s wooden California-style bungalows and small cottages imported into the area west of downtown to shopping mall architecture, strip commercial development, the urban signage (typically in English), or the increasing orientation of the city toward the automobile. On the other hand , there were many emerging Mexican elements woven into the physical and visual experience of Tijuana: from the streets designed on a vastly more pedestrian scale to the existence of the glorietas (traffic circles), the public monuments, the bullrings, open plazas, and increasing use of murals on the facades of buildings.
Most of what was or is built in Tijuana comes either from the United States or from deep in Mexico's interior. There is unquestionably something unique about the flavor of border towns like Tijuana. The very fact of being a border town has created a unique culture and history, and these are reflected in the built environment. It is also true that the cityscape is still in the process of forming. As one designer told me, "Architecturally speaking, Tijuana is pregnant. We still don't know what the urban landscape is going to look like in the near future." The passing of recent decades has seen the 1920s tourism street scene recast in a new mold: serious, modernist, and international concrete highways, shopping malls, and industrial parks arrived. The old Tijuana is nearly extinct, the sex shows in dark Latin speakeasies relegated to a back lot — the Zona Norte — of the downtown.
To find the essence of Tijuana's modem landscape, you must find the Zona del Rio, the River Zone. Once this was where poor squatters built cardboard shacks, under the old Puente Mexico, the Mexican bridge that had allowed Americans to cross the river to get to the racetrack and gambling casinos in the Roaring Twenties. But in the 1970s the Mexican government decided to reclaim this land by building a concrete channel that would control the floodwaters of the Tijuana River and free up adjacent lands for the development of a new high density downtown. Today the River Zone is the shining triumph of modern technocrats and planners. It is a linear corridor broken only by the glorietas. The glorietas fling traffic around the streets lined with shopping centers, office-building complexes, hotels,and restaurants.The River Zone is high tech. It has international-style glass box office buildings in the four-to-eight-story mode. It is the quintessential zone of Corbusier's "machine age" metropolis, oriented to the car. The decor is for viewing from the car — for example, the tall monuments that anchor each glorieta in succession: the high-tech abstract M sculpture (nvo arms, one white, one brown, cross at the base to symbolize Mexico's "mestizo heritage"), the giant bronze 6½-ton statue of Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc, the statue of Abraham Lincoln. Pedestrians find it difficult to circulate within the River Zone. At the Lincoln glorieta, one slice of the new Tijuana comes into focus. Three buildings surround the glorieta. On the south east corner is a sheer wall with a slit for an opening, shaded in blue. It is the facade of a failed discotheque called Heaven and Hell. Across the street on the northeast corner is another discotheque called Baby Rock, which offers the observer a series of large rocks mounted to form walls, giving the feeling of entering some great mountain cave, or some walled citadel, the citadel of Tijuana's new evening life of discos. West across the street on the third important comer lies a restaurant and nightclub called Guadalajara Grill, a pink, pseudocolonial building, created mainly to give foreigners some sense of authenticity, even though the architecture is at the same time patently inauthentic, leading one Mexican architect to call it "Mexican post modern." Here is the Tijuana of high tech, the Tijuana of disco-tec. At the nearby Cultural Center a sign announces that the Rolling Stones are playing in a film.
Most of the contemporary architecture of the 1980s lies in the River Zone. The most striking addition to the cityscape is the Centro Cultural Tijuana complex, notable for a sandstone-colored spherical element that stands out against an L-shaped companion building. The Centro Cultural, like some extraterrestrial orb set gently on the river plain against the chaotic backdrop of overdeveloped hills, was completed in 1982. Townspeople affectionately call it "la bola" (the ball). It sits in a great outdoor plaza, and one has the feeling of the earth (the sphere) gently resting in two hands.
Nearby are modern glass office buildings of varied shape and form, some ugly, some ordinary, a few outstanding. The hulking, somewhat dull black crystal box in the center of the River Zone is the ASEMEX (Aseguradora Mexicana, an insurance company ) building. Nearby is Bancomer, a miniaturized copy of a Mexico City-based bank (several buildings here are copies of larger Mexico City ones). The Banco Internacional has a three-story-hlgh triangular shaped glass facade.The architect, Luis Liceaga, who designed the gray Torremol high-rise office structure adjacent to the Centro Cultural says he tried to design a modern skyscraper using the elements of a traditional colonial church: base, tower, and windows. A great cathedral window in the tower part of the building "turns'' to face the street corner it lies on. The tallest modem skyscraper in the River Zone is the Twin Tower of Agua Caliente complex, which houses offices and a hotel.
The River Zone is note worthy also for its array of new shopping centers. Most well known is the Plaza Rio Tijuana, an unpretentious and somewhat conventional U.S.-style outdoor regional shopping mall. Nearby are two shopping centers designed to look like colonial Mexican towns: Plaza Fiesta and Pueblo Amigo, with their lanterns hanging above old wooden doors, second-floor balconies with iron railings, and courtyards with public fountains. Their stucco comes brightly painted in lime greens and pink pastels.
The newest section of Tijuana is the beach community of Playas de Tijuana, which from a distance could be mistaken for an Italian coastal resort, with white stucco and red-tile-roofed houses cascading down the hills toward the azure Pacific Ocean. He,e lies Tijuana's famed bullring-by-the-sea, Plaza Monumental de Playas deTijuana, a massive structure of exposed concrete built in 1962. Strangely, the designers did not think to pry open the bulling so that the ocean, which lies across the street, could be seen from inside, not to mention the light at sunset. Where Southern California cities tend to be oriented toward the coastline, curiously, Tijuana did not develop its beach area until the 1970s and 1980s. The city's history has been tied to its proximity to the border crossing, Only as the city expanded and needed more flatland for growth did the beach zone capture the attention of developers and the government as an area for urban expansion.
Avenida Revolucion was modernized and widened in the early 1980s, paving the way for a wild mix of stores both along the street and and in its numerous arcades and interior shopping spaces. At the north end of Revolucion, Zona Norte remains the once legendary red-light district, with seedy nightclubs and the flophouses that poor Mexican immigrants some times stay in for a night or two before heading across the border to find work. Just north of the Zona Norte is the international boundary, replete with a new metallic wall, completed recently by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It's built of recycled landing mats acquired from the U.S. armed forces from various former combat areas around the world. The wall is a sobering reminder of the relations between Mexico and the United States — a dull gray barrier to the north. Residents of Tijuana are gradually covering its miles of length with murals and graffiti, including one that questions the wall's presence in Tijuana; "Si el de Berlin cayo, el de Tijuana, porque no?" (If the Berlin one came down, why not the on ein Tijuana?).
In the early 1990s, while Southern California was mired in a recession, Tijuana and other Mexican border cities enjoyed a continued growth surge. In the wealthier sections of Tijuana-like the River Zone — a glitzy city of nightlife emerged. Dozens of new discotheques were built, many boasting high-tech glass facades, waterfalls, and lush vegetation. One disco looked like the entrance to a Roman temple. The idea was to appeal to wealthy Mexican teenagers and to young Americans. Both groups may have similar disco fantasies, since they watch the same television programs and listen to the same radio stations. Beyond the discos were the new high rise glass towers, chic boutiques, and international restaurants, postmodern shopping centers, and elegant condominiums with balconies high above the Tijuana River. The old city was sliding to the side, the B-girl bars and the exotic clubs that used to show French movies had been erased in a building frenzy of factories, condos,and shop ping malls draped Corbuian-like around well-land scaped four- lane highways with neatly spaced traffic cir cles and stately public art.
What all of this implies for the future of Tijuana can be summarized by one Mexican's comments: "Right now, cities like Tijuana have to be more concerned about what to do with their vacant land than about becoming beautiful. In Mexico we are growing so fast that over the next ten years, we will have to build, in square meters, the equivalent of what we built the last five hundred years since the Conquest."
This essay is extracted from a chapter in Herzog's new book, From Aztec to High Tech: Architecture and Land scapes acoss the Mexico-United States Border (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).
Lawrence Herzog, Ph.D., specializes in urban design and planning in Latin America, Mexico, and the.U.S. Mexico border. He is currently a professor at the School of Public Administration and Urban Studies, San Diego State University, California. Herzog is also the author of Where North Meets South (University of Texas Press, 1990).